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In Mrs. Kennedy's pink suit, an indelible memory of public grief

A giant U.S. flag hangs inside the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Friday evening. Today marks the 40th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy.
A giant U.S. flag hangs inside the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Friday evening. Today marks the 40th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy.
AP photo/Charles Krupa

WASHINGTON — Not long after that terrible day in Dallas — no one knows exactly when — a brown paper box arrived at the National Archives.

The return address was on O Street, the Georgetown home of Jacqueline Kennedy's mother. Packed inside was the pink Chanel suit first glimpsed Nov. 22, 1963, when the first lady joined JFK at a Fort Worth breakfast, and which, covered in his blood, she still wore the next morning to escort the slain president's casket into the White House.

There in the Archives, the suit remains. Stored in a custom-designed corrugated board box, it rests on a gray steel shelf in a secured area of a suburban warehouse. It has never been cleaned. The wool skirt and jacket lie flat, with a suggestion of human form created by acid-free tissue paper folded inside the sleeves.

Only recently was a deed of gift obtained from the Kennedys' sole surviving child, Caroline. But one hundred years will have to pass before the suit can again come before the American public. This condition is consistent with Mrs. Kennedy's determination to balance her obligations to history with her family's privacy. Archivists' interests, moreover, are not only the past and present, but the future.

"Once it can be displayed it will really bring the '60s to the present — whatever that present is," said Steven Tilley, who oversees the Archives' JFK Assassination Records Collection.

The Archives also has JFK's jacket, shirt and tie — exhibits in the Warren Commission investigation of the shooting. But aside from the Brooks Brothers overcoat Abraham Lincoln wore to Ford's Theater on April 14, 1865 — the lining embroidered with an American eagle and the words "One Country/One Destiny" — perhaps no clothing in American history carries the iconic power of that pink suit.

Even out of sight, it is an indelible image in public memory. The first lady made sure of that. She purposefully bore the horror and brutality of the president's murder for a shattered nation to see. Had she changed or shielded her appearance, Americans' experience of the assassination would have been fundamentally altered.

"Everybody remembers the pink suit," Tilley said.

Mrs. Kennedy brought nothing new to Texas, her press secretary, Pamela Turnure, recalled in Carl Sferrazza Anthony's book, "As We Remember Her." She took two suits, a cocktail dress, and a day dress already in her wardrobe. Her clothes stole the show on foreign trips; on a domestic political trip, Turnure said, she didn't want to deflect attention from the president.

The morning of Nov. 22, a crowd gathered at the president's Fort Worth hotel.

"Where's Jackie?" admirers shouted when JFK appeared.

"Mrs. Kennedy is organizing herself," the president replied. "It takes longer. But of course she looks better than we do after she does it."

Two thousand Texans roared their approval when a vision in pink — JFK had picked the suit — finally walked into the Chamber of Commerce breakfast. Then it was on to Dallas.

At 12:30 p.m., shots were fired at the motorcade, which then sped to Parkland Hospital. The Secret Service hurried Lady Bird Johnson out of her limousine, but not before she glanced over her shoulder. She described the scene to the Warren Commission:

"I ... saw, in the president's car, a bundle of pink, just like a drift of blossoms, lying on the back seat. I think it was Mrs. Kennedy lying over the President's body."

In her autobiography, Lady Bird recalled the scene aboard Air Force One while accompanying the casket to Washington: "Mrs. Kennedy's dress was stained with blood. One leg was almost entirely covered with it and her right glove was caked, it was caked with blood — her husband's blood. Somehow that was one of the most poignant sights — that immaculate woman exquisitely dressed, and caked in blood."

Mrs. Kennedy repeatedly rebuffed suggestions, beginning in the chaos outside Parkland's trauma room, that she change clothes. In "The Death of a President," William Manchester chronicled how tensions on Air Force One grew with "the feeling that something must be done about her appearance." Mrs. Johnson tried; so, later, did Mrs. Kennedy's own mother, Janet Auchincloss. But she didn't waver.

Ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith had admired the first lady's "excellent sense of theater" during a 1962 triumphant visit to India. What the fashion industry dubbed "the Jackie look," the first lady saw as her "'state wardrobe." Through elegantly simple lines and a dazzling rainbow of strong solid colors — ice blue, leaf green, lemon yellow — she conveyed the youth, grace and style of President Kennedy's New Frontier. Pink ran throughout, from a shell pink sequined chiffon evening gown to what Galbraith called a "radioactive pink" rajah-style coat.

With the president dead, that sense of theater turned to a new and determined purpose.

"Keeping that clothing on was completely consistent with her realization that clothing is a medium of expression, and she wanted to say something to the world," said Wake Forest University art professor David Lubin, author of "Shooting Kennedy: JFK and the Culture of Images."

Mrs. Johnson never forgot the essence of that message, or the fierceness in the 34-year-old widow's voice as she refused all entreaties to change her clothes.

"I want them to see what they have done to Jack," she said.

In that suit she stood at Lyndon B. Johnson's side as he took the Oath of Office on Air Force One, "a silhouette from another world," as Manchester put it. At Andrews Air Force Base, a proposal was made to exit the plane on the starboard side to avoid news photographers. She rejected it. One of the last pictures of her in the suit is in the East Room. Her shoulders hang heavily. Smeared blood covers a leg, and her gaze is fixed on the casket being lowered onto the catafalque.

At every sight of her, the nation's grief deepened.

In the private quarters of the White House, sometime around dawn on Nov. 23, she finally shed her bloodied clothing.

It's hard to imagine, with her acute appreciation of history, that Mrs. Kennedy made no provision for the pink suit. Her maid later told Manchester that, while Mrs. Kennedy bathed, she "packed the clothes and hid the bag." But there is no known record in the Archives explaining who later sent the box or why. There is only the return address, and in it, one small clue: an old postal zone used before zip codes, which began that July. So archivists speculate that it came to them not long after Nov. 22, 1963.

With the suit is the dark blue under-blouse that complimented the jacket's dark-blue collar and piping, a blue pocketbook, blue shoes and stockings. Tilley does not know what became of the wrist-length white gloves or the matching pillbox hat.

The contents of the box were in their original packaging until the early 1990s. An acid-free container was then custom built, large enough to minimize folding and designed to keep out damaging light. It's kept in a windowless room of the Archives' cavernous College Park, Md., storage facility. The air is changed six times an hour, the temperature kept between 65 and 68 degrees, the humidity at 40 percent.

Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler, chief of the Document Conservation Laboratory, believes that under these conditions the suit will last indefinitely.

There is something of the aura of a relic surrounding it — because it bears the blood of a martyred president, because it is concealed and access so carefully controlled.

"It remains," Lubin says, "this snapshot of this terrible moment in history."

© 2003 Newhouse News Service. Delia M. Rios can be contacted at