In the nation's collective memory, the assassination of John F. Kennedy is a
clash of images and mysteries that may never be sorted out to the satisfaction
But if there is a lasting emblem that sums up Nov. 22, 1963,
the day America tumbled from youthful idealism to hollow despair, it is
Jacqueline Kennedy's rose-pink suit and pillbox hat.
collection of Kennedy treasures and trivia was unveiled this month on exhibit
and online to coincide with the 50th anniversary of JFK's inauguration; it
includes the fabric of his top hat (beaver fur) down to his shoe size
But missing and hardly mentioned are what could be the two most
famous remnants of Kennedy's last day. The pink suit, blood-stained and
perfectly preserved in a vault in Maryland, is banned from public display for
100 years. The pillbox hat — removed at Parkland Hospital while Mrs. Kennedy
waited for doctors to confirm what she already knew — is lost, last known to be
in the hands of her personal secretary, who won't discuss its
Does it matter? Should it? It's said that history takes a
generation to decant, and great chapters are defined by the trappings of
everyday life: a stovepipe hat, a pair of polio braces. Mrs. Kennedy could not
have imagined the outfit she put on that morning would come to epitomize the
essence of Camelot and the death of it.
"The single symbol of that event
and of her as a persona is that pink suit," said Carl Sferrazza Anthony, a first
ladies historian. "It's all anyone need see and, in an instant, people know what
it is in reference to."
This is the story of how an otherwise ordinary
pink suit and hat came to be treasured by a nation, only to slip from its
Few public figures understood the power of fashion the way
Jacqueline Kennedy did, and when she packed for Dallas, she chose nothing she
hadn't worn before. The goal was not to upstage the president as she had to his
delight on a recent trip to Paris, but to exquisitely accentuate him as the 1964
election season kicked off. She took along two suits, one of them the pink
Chanel knockoff created by a New York dress shop so she could indulge her French
tastes and still buy American.
The pink was unforgettable — the color of
roses, azaleas, watermelon. Kennedy himself asked her to wear it. It was trimmed
in navy blue, with a blue blouse, blue pumps and handbag, and the trademark
pillbox hat, secured with a pin.
Looking back now at the grainy footage
of the first couple as the dark limousine, top down, rounded the turn from
Houston to Elm, it's hard not to hope for a different outcome. As long as she is
wearing that hat, the world is still intact. Then, inevitably, comes the lurch
of his body, the unforgettable flash of pink scrambling in panic across the
trunk. All that day, her clothing bore witness to history.
Johnson, wife of Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, who was riding in the
motorcade's third car, recalled for investigators her memory of Secret Service
agents frantic to get the president inside Parkland Hospital while his wife bent
over him, refusing to let go: "I cast one last look over my shoulder and saw, in
the president's car, a bundle of pink, just like a drift of blossoms, lying on
the back seat."
Clint Hill, the Secret Service agent assigned to protect
the first lady, remembered resting his hands on the suit's trembling shoulders,
the left side of the skirt wet with blood where she was cradling her husband's
Somewhere inside the hospital, the hat came off. "While standing
there I was handed Jackie's pillbox hat and couldn't help noticing the strands
of her hair beneath the hat pin. I could almost visualize her yanking it from
her head," Mary Gallagher, the first lady's personal secretary who accompanied
her to Dallas, later wrote in her memoir.
Despite urgings from staff and
handlers to "clean up her appearance," Mrs. Kennedy refused to get out of her
bloodied clothes, according to biographer William Manchester's detailed account
of the assassination, "The Death of a President."
"Why not change?" one
"Another dress?" the president's personal physician
Mrs. Kennedy shook her head hard. "No, let them see what
The suit was never cleaned and never will be. It sits
today, unfolded and shielded from light, in an acid-free container in a
windowless room somewhere inside the National Archives and Records
Administration's complex in Maryland; the precise location is kept secret. The
temperature hovers between 65 and 68 degrees, the humidity is 40%, the air is
changed six times an hour.
"It looks like it's brand-new, except for the
blood," said senior archivist Steven Tilley, one of a handful of people to lay
eyes on the suit since that day in Dallas.
Half a dozen members of the
Assassination Records Review Board, created by Congress in 1992 to preserve all
available records for public scrutiny, were admitted to the vault for a rare
glimpse, but did not consider it relevant to the crime. No other requests to see
it have been granted.
Yet the suit's stamp on history is indelible for a
nation that anguished at every sight of its disheveled first lady: climbing the
stairs onto Air Force One to accompany her husband's coffin back to Washington,
standing beside Lyndon Johnson as he took the oath of office — an iconic photo
of an unexpected transfer of power fully explained by a stricken expression and
a stained sleeve.
"Somehow, that was one of the most poignant sights,"
Mrs. Johnson later wrote in her diaries, "that immaculate woman exquisitely
dressed, and caked in blood."
Despite the chaos, aides managed to secure
virtually all of the Kennedys' belongings back at the White House by
nightfall. The pink hat seemed to hopscotch from Dallas to Washington,
according to Manchester's account. There it was in a heavy paper sack, cradled
in the arms of one of the president's baggage handlers aboard Air Force One.
While Mrs. Kennedy accompanied the coffin to Bethesda Naval Hospital for the
autopsy, the hat made its way to the executive mansion.
A White House
policeman was instructed to give it to Agent Hill, but handed it by mistake to
Robert Foster, the agent assigned to protect the Kennedy children. Foster, who
died in 2008, told Manchester he took the bag to the Map Room and opened it,
immediately recognizing the contents.
Mrs. Kennedy returned to her
private quarters of the White House in the early morning hours of Nov. 23. She
took off the suit and bathed. Her maid, Providencia Paredes, told Manchester
that she put the clothing in a bag and hid it.
What became of it after
that speaks to the confusion and numbness of the time. A president had not been
assassinated in 62 years; no one knew what to do. The Kennedy children had to be
brought from their grandmother's Georgetown home to the White House and told. It
wasn't even clear who should prosecute the murder — shooting the president was
not then a federal crime. The first lady's attire was not exactly top priority
as President Johnson figured out how to take the helm of a grieving
But sometime in the next six months, a box arrived at the
National Archives' downtown headquarters, where such treasures as the
Constitution and Bill of Rights are kept. In it was the suit, blouse, handbag
and shoes, even her stockings, along with an unsigned note on the letterhead
stationery of Janet Auchincloss, Mrs. Kennedy's mother: "Jackie's suit and bag
worn Nov. 22, 1963." No hat.
PINKPILLBOX NOTE: There is also a story that the suit was given to Jackie's mom and stored in her attic for several years prior to being given to the Archives, NOT six months. Need to research this further.
The box was the one originally sent
by the dressmaker, addressed to "Mrs. John F. Kennedy, The White House," but
wrapped now in brown paper. Archivists put all of it in a
climate-controlled vault in stack area 6W3, where it remained for more than 30
"It was sort of a secret that we had it," Tilley said. Sticklers
for protocol, archives officials knew it still legally belonged to Mrs. Kennedy.
So it was more than a little awkward when Parade Magazine called in 1996 with a
question from a reader asking what became of the pink suit.
head of the JFK collection, tried to reconstruct how it fell into archivists'
hands. Mrs. Kennedy had been dead for two years, her mother for seven. He called
everyone he could find in a position to know. No one could recall the box
arriving. The single-digit postal code on the address was the only clue that it
had been mailed sometime before July 1964, when the nation switched to
five-digit ZIP Codes.
"It's one of the mysteries," Tilley said. "And
there is nobody around anymore who can ever fill that in."
Mrs. Kennedy's mother sent it. The first lady herself exchanged letters with the
head archivist in the weeks after the assassination, but there was never any
mention of her suit.
"She kept it on that day, but once that moment
passed, then perhaps she didn't want anything to do with it after that," Tilley
In the mid-1990s, the suit was moved to a new, second archives
building here. In 2003, a deed of gift was secured from Caroline Kennedy, by
then the sole surviving heir. She stipulated the suit not be displayed for the
life of the deed —100 years. When it runs out in 2103, the right to display it
can be renegotiated by the family, Tilley said.
And the hat? Agent Hill,
79, who famously lunged onto the back of the limousine that day to protect the
first lady, had the answer.
Mary Gallagher, Jackie's Personal Secretary
Provi Paredes, Jackie's Personal Maid
Jackie and Clint Hill, Secret Service Agent
"I know what happened to the hat," he said in
a phone interview. "I gave it to Mary Gallagher."
Gallagher, 83, and
Paredes, the maid who boxed up the clothes, together have posted for Internet
auction a long list of items that once belonged to Mrs. Kennedy — a pink
nightgown: $300-$400; a used tube of "Arden Pink" lipstick and some pale blue
stationery: $200-$300; an unopened pack of Greek cigarettes and
matchbook: $100-$200. (Mrs. Kennedy was a closet smoker.)
phone, Gallagher refused to discuss the hat.
"I don't accept these kinds
of calls. Over the years they've just been enough so that I've had to draw the
line.... I'm sorry. I can't help you any further," she said, hanging
No one at the National Archives has ever searched for the hat
because it legally belongs to Caroline Kennedy. Attempts to reach her
Many of the National Archives records are open for
public research, and the Kennedy assassination remains one of the three most
asked-about subjects, up there with the Watergate scandal and the alien invasion
of Roswell, N.M.
The archives' vast collection includes the president's
shirt as it was cut off by the medical team, the tie nicked by a bullet, his
white lace-up back brace. Even the contents of Parkland Hospital's Trauma Room
One, where he was pronounced dead at 1 p.m. Texas time, are in a cave somewhere
But the whereabouts of the hat is a little-known mystery no
one is working to solve; Kennedy historians contacted for this story were
surprised to learn it's missing. They suspect it was sold to a private
collector, or stuck away in somebody's attic, lost to the nation, a hole in