Kennedy artifacts subject of legal fight Collectors sue over secretary's estate

December 12, 1996|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

For decades, inside locked file cabinets and steamer trunks at her Chevy Chase apartment, President John F. Kennedy's personal secretary kept a priceless collection of heirlooms ranging from JFK's campaign buttons to Jackie Kennedy's engraved perfume bottles.

Now, in legal battles as stormy as the Cuban missile crisis symbolized in her mementos, the late Evelyn Lincoln's private collection of JFK memorabilia is causing not just envy but enmity.

Her estate -- modest but for a fortune in treasures from the Kennedy era -- has prompted fights over who is entitled to the collector's items in her husband's will.

Doing most of the fighting are noted JFK collector Robert L. White, who has more than 100,000 pieces of Kennedy memorabilia in the basement of a Catonsville home, and a Florida couple, Clifford and Maria Ray of Cocoa Beach.

White and the Rays are named in Harold Lincoln's will as "friends" of Evelyn and Harold, who had no children.

In a lawsuit filed last week in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, White alleges that the Rays went to the Lincolns' apartment last month and took what is likely to be a fortune in items that he claims the will bequeathed to him.

Among the items were a silver presentation box given to Evelyn Lincoln by Kennedy's staff, an autographed Kennedy appreciation medal, a typewriter used by Mrs. Lincoln in the White House, a box of 300 gold PT-109 pins from Kennedy, and a framed portrait of the president that had hung in the White House, the lawsuit said.

The Rays, meanwhile, claim in court papers filed in Montgomery County Circuit Court that Maria Ray "is the sole beneficiary of the residuary estate," which would include several pieces of Kennedy memorabilia that they say are mysteriously excluded from an inventory list.

Those items include Evelyn Lincoln's White House desk nameplate, letters from Robert Kennedy, and a "silver-plated, wooden calendar, encased by blue felt, displaying the month of the president's October Cuban Missile Crisis with both Evelyn and JFK engraved on it," court papers said.

The Rays, who according to Florida business records run a construction firm, didn't return phone calls.

White refused to comment and his attorney didn't return calls.

Stephen C. Blakeslee, a family friend of the Lincolns who acted as the executor of the will, also refused to comment.

George P. Morse, a Silver Spring attorney who knew the Lincolns for 34 years, said yesterday that Evelyn Lincoln, who died at age 85 in May 1995, and her husband, who died a month later, were "very private" people who went into seclusion after JFK's assassination in 1963. Evelyn Lincoln once wrote a book, "My 12 Years With JFK" -- now out of print -- about her years in the White House, but she did not travel much in social circles, he said.

"For a year and a half or so, they moved to Sierra Leone [in West Africa], in part to get away from everything" after the assassination, Morse said.

They lived modestly -- most of their furniture and possessions were worth little and were donated to Goodwill Industries after their deaths. But the couple was aware of the worth of Evelyn Lincoln's relics from her past as Kennedy's personal White House secretary.

Mrs. Lincoln was almost obsessive about collecting presidential items, Morse said.

"I don't think anyone realized how much she had collected and squirreled away. It was an amazing amount," he said. "These items of memorabilia wouldn't even exist today if it weren't for the personality of this fine lady."

As the years went on, "they became more and more concerned" about their will, Morse said. He wrote several wills for the couple, all of which have been superseded by the current document filed in Montgomery County.

The haggling over the items, Morse said, "is really too bad. These are items that really should belong to the American people."

It's unclear how much the Lincolns' mementos are worth. White, the Catonsville collector who is suing to recover some of the items, had done an appraisal for Evelyn Lincoln that concluded that the "appointment books, presidential memorabilia and correspondence, photos, cards, political speeches and family pictures" were worth $100,000.

But pricing at auctions can be unpredictable. Kennedy memorabilia often fetches gigantic sums -- in May, for instance, pieces of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' estate sold at a Sotheby's auction for $34.4 million.

In past interviews, White, a salesman of industrial cleaning supplies, has pointed out that the artifacts kept in his private basement collection are not for sale. Many of the items, he said, came from a "close friend" from Kennedy's inner circle whom he refused to name, although many speculated that it was Evelyn Lincoln.

The Lincoln will states that White should receive the items in "a file cabinet labeled ES" and a brief case, signing table, rocker and stereo. White claims the items taken by the Rays were lawfully his.

Among the other pieces being disputed are a toy rocket ship model that had been presented to JFK, a sombrero-style hat used in the White House by Evelyn Lincoln, JFK's tape recorder, and a small wooden desk ornament from the White House with XTC the inscribed words "O God Thy Sea is So Great and My Boat is So Small."

Pub Date: 12/12/96

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