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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
November 22, 1963: Dressing in the Hotel Texas
An excerpt from Adam Braver’s novel, November 22, 1963
When she moved into the White House, Jackie was a size 12. When she left she was a size 8.
Coco Chanel used wool jersey for her suits, a fabric that previously had been reserved for men’s underwear. She said it was the perfect material for creating both comfort and understatement.
Jackie demanded that her outfits have clean and compact lines. The material should be firm in body, always holding its shape.
Jackie also popularized the bouffant hairdo, the pillbox hat, and large buttons that resembled gold coins.
Historically, the pillbox hat was a military headdress. In 1962 Halston designed the pillbox hat for Jackie. Halston became a household name; he no longer was Roy Frowick from Des Moines.
The New York Times once asked Jackie if she really spent $30,000 in couture shops on a single trip to Paris. “I couldn’t spend that much,” she answered, “unless I wore sable underwear.” Always the partisan, Pat Nixon responded by saying she preferred American designers, that they are the best in the world. Nixon added, “I buy most of my clothes off the racks in different stores around Washington.”
Traditionally, white is a symbol of purity, while red connotes passion. When they’re combined into pink, the color indicates gentleness. It also tends to symbolize new birth.
The Suite in the Hotel Texas.
Wanting to make Jack and Jackie’s stay as memorable as possible, a group of Fort Worth patrons arranged to have a mini art exhibit hung in the presidential suite at the Hotel Texas. Van Gogh. Monet. Picasso. The patrons even went so far as to create an exhibit catalog. Because they didn’t arrive until nearly midnight, neither Jack nor Jackie even noticed it. It didn’t get their full attention until morning.
Readying for Dallas.
The staff told her it would be cool that day, but a Texan’s presumption of cold is still hot by any other standard. From the window of the suite at the Hotel Texas, the weather over Fort Worth seemed unassuming, with just a little bit of rain. Still, it was November, and the area was prone to tornados and other meteorological oddities. It occurred to her that maybe she should have packed something lighter. A fabric that breathes. Already hers looked too heavy for the climate. Dallas might be colder, which would make the outfit seem a little more practical. Glancing out at the shifting Texas sky, she found it hard to imagine that the weather could be predicted with such confidence. Yet there was no choice but to take them at their word. She had only the wool suit.
She had kept a low profile over the past few months, since Patrick’s death. The grief had overwhelmed her in a way that she had never known before, consuming her to the point where the insides of her bones ached, and her thoughts, usually sharp and aware, were deadened, as though each neuron had been stepped on and flattened.
Nobody had pressured her to take this trip, but the Party people were thrilled—tickets and donations for the Texas events skyrocketed when word leaked that the first lady would be coming out West too. The thought of returning to a normal life sounded good. She would work hard on the reelection. Focus her energies on the campaign. And she would travel lightly. Simply. Try to reduce the attention on her. No new clothes. Maybe one dress for cocktail parties, and a day dress and a coat. No maids. Only her secretary, Mary Gallagher, to help with the packing after each stop. And Jackie would even do her own hair.
It was all meant to be simple. A gradual reentry into the living.
They’d been in Houston for a dinner before taking off later that evening for Fort Worth. It was an appreciation event for Congressman Albert Thomas, a showcase in front of more than three thousand attendees at the Sam Houston Coliseum, all ponying up money to encourage Thomas to seek another term. But Jack’s people had discovered a free hour in the schedule, and, out of the more than one thousand solicitations, the president accepted an invitation from Paul Andow of the League of United Latin American Citizens.
At the event, Jack decided to take the backseat. He introduced Jackie to the crowd, where she delivered a speech in near-perfect Spanish, charming the audience with her quietly composed voice.
She felt confident on the podium. For a moment completely forgetting the loss. Finding her comfort in the anonymity of another language.
In the Bedroom of the Hotel Texas: Part One.
On the morning of November 22 at the Hotel Texas, Jackie decided to skip the scheduled 8:45 speech in the hotel parking lot, instead opting to meet up with Jack at the chamber of commerce breakfast in the ballroom. She was tired, and a feeling of uncertainty had come over her again. She just wanted some extra time. To gather herself, remind herself that everything would be okay.
She stood in front of the mirror, stroking her hip bone. She was not as delicate as people made her out to be. Her body was a structure made to withstand disaster. She was no pane of glass. Even at twenty-seven, when their first child, Arabella, died at birth, Jackie had relied on poise to see her through, standing firm at the funeral in Newport while others fell apart for her. But Patrick’s death had shown her the vulnerability of the world. And since his passing, even in the strongest of moments, she’d been aware of the fragility of the ground where she walked. These days, for the most part, she could expect the feeling to pass. But every once in a while, she found that she needed to sit down. Put her feet up. She was afraid that a single step might shatter everything, splinter the world into millions of tiny fractures.
She glanced over at the matching pink skirt and jacket on a hanger before turning back to her reflection. Her body looked both young and tired. Ruined but with potential. Carefully, she laid the clothes across the dressing chair so they wouldn’t wrinkle, smoothing the skirt with her hand. Stripped down to just her slip and bra, Jackie sat on the edge of the bed, still watching herself, like a paper doll undressed.
There was a moment when the bubbletop was considered. In a brief conversation with Jackie’s press secretary, Pam Turnure, Jack had asked whether she thought they should put the transparent roof on the limousine. There was some discussion about Jackie’s strength for the upcoming trip, and about her keeping her mettle, but the real question came down to Jackie’s hair, and whether the wind might damage her hairdo. After some consideration, Pam looked up at him and said, “Maybe we should use the bubbletop,” and, as though there had been no consideration, he shot back immediately, “That’s semi-
satisfactory. If you’re going out to see the people, then they should be able to see you.”
In the Bedroom of the Hotel Texas: Part Two.
From behind the bedroom door, Secret Service Agent Clint Hill knocked to inform Jackie that they would need to leave the suite in five minutes. The president was already in the ballroom and had sent up for her.
Jackie looked once at the pink suit, still wondering if it was too heavy for a Texas day. Either way, she figured, she’d be out of it by dinner. The suit was a strangely enchanting shade of pink, without the usual candylike artifice. It looked alive to her in a botanical way, as though vines and stems should be connected to it. She buttoned her blouse and stepped into her skirt. The jacket fit freely and comfortably. From the closet she took out a hatbox with Halston’s latest, a perfectly matching pillbox. She placed it on her head with ceremonial delicacy.
The Eyes of Texas.
In the kitchen, she stood alongside agents Howard and Hill. She couldn’t count how many hotel kitchens she had passed through during these political years. Aromas lingering, gas flames burning, tubs and tins and ramekins filled with spices and sauces, yet the room eerily void of all the people who, for security reasons, had temporarily been ushered out. Always a sense of aftermath.
The pots hanging from the wall shone. Knowing the president would be walking through, the hotel management always ensured that all kitchen items were polished. Each way she looked, Jackie saw her reflection staring back at her. Sometimes flattened and distorted. Other times so real she had to feel for her face. But with the final glance she saw herself as she looked in pictures. Poised. Dignified. A pure form of sophistication. Someone who controlled fortune.
Agent Hill gave the signal, at which Howard gently touched Jackie on the elbow, saying, We need to go, and walked beside her through the kitchen, past the cluster of kitchen staff huddled in an office space (the Mexican dishwashers pushed farthest against the back wall), and to the swinging door. Just before it opened, Jackie peered through the porthole at the tables full of people all craning their necks to see what was going on behind them. And among them was Jack. He looked boyish. For one brilliant moment, unpresidential. He glanced to the bandstand in anticipation, and then back to the doors as the orchestra struck up the first note of “The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You.” Hill swung open the doors with the first downbeat and Ray Buck’s booming introduction, and Jackie walked in, floating, almost ghostly.
The audience rose to its feet as she walked to the head table. A lone pink flower among stiffly swaying grasses. Jack also stood, looking at her. Watching her. And even more than the love in his eyes, she saw the pride. At the table he took her hands and brought her in for a kiss on the cheek. “My pink rose,” he whispered.
At the podium, Ray Buck presented Jack with a genuine Texas cowboy hat, followed by a pair of cowboy boots. Although Jack admired and considered the gifts, he didn’t put on the hat.
After a few brief thank-yous, Jack looked out over the room and then down to Jackie. “Two years ago,” he began, “I introduced myself in Paris by saying that I was the man who had accompanied Mrs. Kennedy to Paris. I am getting somewhat the same sensation as I travel around Texas. Nobody wonders what Lyndon and I wear.”
Although she hadn’t wanted to stand out on this trip—keep it simple—Jack’s comment was comforting, bringing her back to a familiar place, where she understood the order and the rules.
She didn’t pay attention to the rest of his remarks. Texas being Texas, he focused the speech on defense, and spoke specifically about Fort Worth’s air-defense industry. He was his usual captivating self. Glancing around the room, Jackie saw each member of the audience looking up at Jack, locked in, as though he were speaking only to them.
After finishing his speech, he stepped down and took her hand, lifted her from her seat, and together they walked down the aisle, smiling while shaking hands, all the way into the kitchen, where the hotel staff were again corralled hurriedly out of the way and into the office.
Laughing It Off.
The Dallas Morning News had run an ad on page two by a zealot named Bernard Weissman. It was a full page, with the bolting headline WELCOME MR. KENNEDY TO DALLAS, followed by a series of pointed questions, each bulleted by the word WHY. Every sentence alluded to the president having Communist interests at stake, with the final point being, “WHY have you scrapped the Monroe Doctrine in favor of the ‘Spirit of Moscow’?” and closing with “MR. KENNEDY, as citizens of these United States of America, we DEMAND answers to these questions, and want them NOW.” Mr. Weissman, on behalf of the “American Fact-Finding Committee,” signed the ad.
Standing by the sitting room window in the suite, Jack said, “It doesn’t quite make you want to rush off to Dallas, does it now?” Although his back was to the room, Jack’s comment was directed to Kenny O’Donnell. Special assistant. Closest advisor. Protector. It seemed all Jack’s remarks went to him.
“Well, at least it isn’t the National Indignation Committee,” Kenny replied. “They’re the ones who started the Adlai Stevenson incident, if you remember. Also called Lyndon the Smiling Judas.”
“I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Lyndon smile,” Jack said.
Kenny laughed, along with some other aides. “Well, you watch out for that National Indignation Committee, Mr. President. They’ll rock you harder than they did Stevenson.”
“Well, we’ll find out shortly, won’t we? Then it’s over and out of the way. Leave them to Lyndon.”
“Speaking of Lyndon,” Kenny said. He reminded Jack that they needed to go over to the Johnson suite, as Lyndon’s sister and brother-in-law had arranged to stop by, hoping to meet the president.
“Maybe,” Jack said, “Lyndon ought to be reintroducing himself to Senator Yarborough instead, so in the future we don’t have to bother with these thrill rides.”
Jackie sat in a plush, mustard-colored chair, looking out the window, trying not to listen to the conversation, as some of the others joined in with the Dallas jokes. In half the window she could see herself reflected. In the other half she saw the clouds. They looked as though they were thinning. The day seemed to be getting a little brighter. It turned her suit pinker, and it made the material feel heavier.
She knew everybody was riding high from last night in Houston and from this morning’s breakfast, but she didn’t like hearing them joke about the threats. The fact was that Dallas was unwelcoming to northern Democrats. The men in the room could make all the cracks they wanted about Jack getting the Stevenson treatment, but Stevenson hadn’t found it so funny when he was in Dallas to speak at the U.N. Day Program, getting smacked over the head while a mob attacked his car, chanting slogans about tearing down the U.N. “I don’t want to send them to jail,” Stevenson had said. “I want to send them to school.”
She thought to protest their casualness, tell Jack and Kenny, and everybody else who was laughing along, that this ought to be taken seriously. Acknowledge the tension. But she knew they would only attribute it to her nerves and her recovery. Treat her as though she were infirm, with kind and gentle touches on the elbows and overextended offers of water or juice, apologizing for being so insensitive while swallowing down their laughter, afraid of her fragility.
She really wanted to say something. But was it best to stay quiet? Maybe she was imposing her anxieties upon them.
If they just would see.
Take this seriously. That was all. It’s too easy to laugh yourself into tragedy.
On to Dallas.
Jack had been on the phone for some time. One call after the other. Donors. Local politicians. Luminaries. Patrons of the arts. Thanking them for their support. Agreeing with their causes. Saying that Mrs. Kennedy was doing much better now, and that he certainly would pass on their prayers and their words. He had finished up a call, the receiver still cradled against his neck, two fingers holding down the hook switch, when he whispered up at Kenny, “When do we need to be in Lyndon’s room?”
“Five minutes ago.”
“Time for one more call?”
Kenny shook his head. “Maybe from Dallas later.”
“If we make it.”
“Don’t worry,” Kenny said. “This whole trip will be over before we know it.” He then announced that the motorcade would leave upon the president’s return from the suite. Finally, they’d be relieved of the Hotel Texas and press on toward Dallas.
“And then home, I hope,” Jack said. He walked over to Jackie. She was pacing. Looking at the art on the walls. They may hang cow skulls from every spare nail in this state, but when it comes to taste, even the Texas socialites turned to the Europeans. “I’ll be back shortly,” he told her. “Momentarily. You know how these things are.” He said he wanted her to rest up. Save her energy for Dallas. There was a long day ahead.
Jackie reached out, taking his hand. She started to speak, but stopped. It was just all the joking about Dallas. Even though it was just talk, it was making her nervous, and she wondered if he were nervous too. You never could tell with him. And she wondered if he remembered what she said to him the night the baby died, only two days old. Feeling decimated, stripped bare of all control and everything she knew, she had looked up at Jack and told him that the one thing she couldn’t bear would be to lose him. And he had held her, told her he had no plans to go anywhere. She hadn’t repeated herself, instead squeezed him tighter.
“Is everything okay?” he asked.
She drew in a deep breath. Adjusted the hair falling from under her hat. She’d even managed to keep her eyes clear and dry. “This suit just feels so heavy right now. You know that feeling, Jack? That feeling like you’ve been carrying something forever. That’s how this feels. Eleven o’clock and I feel as though I’ve been wearing it all day, and will wear it forever. That’s all.”
“You look stunning.”
“The weather outside. It’s so . . . Maybe I should change.”
With one foot stepping toward the door, he held on to her hand. He turned to her, locking her in with the same mesmeric charm that had entranced every member of the earlier audience. “No,” he said, “I want people to remember how beautiful you are today. I hope they always will remember you in this dress. A pink rose.”
One More Fact.
More than forty years later, the pink dress remains boxed up at the National Archives in “courtesy storage” for the Kennedy family.
Adam Braver is the author of five novels, most recently Misfit. His books have been selected for the Barnes and Noble Discover New Writers program, Borders’ Original Voices series, the IndieNext list, and twice for the Book Sense list, as well as having been translated into Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, and French. He is on faculty and writer-in-residence at Roger Williams University in Bristol, RI. In addition to having taught for the University of New Orleans’ Low Residency MFA program, he’s also been a regular writer-in-residence at the New York State Summer Writers Institute.