Last week dozens of handwritten letters by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis sold at auction in Palm Beach, Florida, for a total of $28,400. The letters were personal correspondence and thank you notes by the former First Lady to her interior designer, Richard Keith Langham, and to Bill Hamilton, then the design director at Carolina Herrera.
The auction comprised 20 lots of personal letters as well as photographs. One item in particular fetched the highest bid, $4,575—a book about Kennedy’s restoration of the White House, which she signed for Langham. “What fun it would have been to work with you then,” she wrote in an accompanying note on her signature blue stationery.
One man who was fortunate to work with Mrs. Kennedy on the White House restoration was Winterthur founder Henry Francis du Pont. In 1961, Kennedy invited du Pont to chair the Fine Arts Committee, a group of twelve influential design leaders brought together to inform and lend expertise to her efforts to refurbish the White House’s state rooms in the authentic furnishings and character of its founders. The First Lady felt that du Pont, as a well-connected collector of Americana, could help acquire antiques from donors and add more sophistication to the project. Once word of the project spread throughout the country, letters poured into du Pont with offers to donate or sell prized possessions to the White House.
On May 8, 1961, Kennedy visited Winterthur for the first time for lunch and a tour. Accompanied by a small party, she toured the estate and grounds with du Pont and then–museum curator John Sweeney, who was appointed by du Pont to the Advisory Committee formed to help counsel the Fine Arts Committee. Part of du Pont’s drive to bring Kennedy to Winterthur was to have her experience first hand his affection for American decorative arts and furniture.
“I have a feeling that her real interest is in French things,” Sweeney recalled du Pont saying. “She doesn’t believe that you can have a really swell house with American furniture, and I want her to see that you can.”
The next day, Mr. and Mrs. du Pont received a handwritten note from Mrs. Kennedy on her blue stationery, in which she shared her thoughts on her visit:
“…how could anyone ever express the impression it [the museum and gardens] leaves—All I can say is I will never recover from it—or forget one tiny detail—I just can’t believe that it was possible for anyone to ever do such a thing—Mr. du Pont you now have me in such a state of awe and reverence I may never be able to write you a letter again!”
That was a bit of an understatement on the part of the First Lady. Over the course of the next two and a half years, du Pont and Kennedy exchanged hundreds of letters, which are now housed in the Winterthur Archives.
Du Pont was flattered and charmed to be working with Mrs. Kennedy, a sentiment she shared. “It is marvelous that this country can produce someone like the astronaut but I think it is much more awesome to have someone like you,” she wrote in the same letter following her first visit to Winterthur.
Ruth Lord, du Pont’s youngest daughter, wrote in her book Henry F. du Pont and Winterthur: A Daughter’s Portrait, “My father’s relationship with the First Lady remained harmonious until its abrupt ending with the assassination. They were a good team and had much in common: good taste, standards of excellence, a respect for privacy and confidentiality, and a dislike of publicity.”
Du Pont’s involvement in the restoration project initiated a long-standing relationship between Winterthur and the White House. Both du Pont and Sweeney continued to work with the White House during the Johnson years, and Winterthur staff and graduates from the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture have served on the White House Fine Arts Committee, the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, and the White House curatorial staff.
For more information on the Palm Beach Modern Auction, http://news.yahoo.com/notes-photos-jacqueline-onassis-auctioned-28-400-223541915.html
Ruth Lord, Henry F. du Pont and Winterthur: A Daughter’s Portrait. Forward by R. W. B. Lewis. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.