Selling-off JFK items puts price on Camelot HTC

March 17, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Robert White lives in Catonsville but keeps his financial prospects, and maybe his heart, in Camelot. Many of us moved out of the neighborhood years ago, but White believes there are things that keep tugging us back: a vision of our youth, a remembrance of half-vanished ideals, or a shot at a really good deal on an ashtray in which John F. Kennedy once dumped an acrid cigar.

White has spent the past 35 years collecting mementos of the martyred Kennedy, who had the good sense to be president before the age of Monica Lewinsky, Paula Corbin Jones or Kathleen Willey.

In New York tomorrow and Thursday, some of the fruits of White's labors will be auctioned to bidders who are eternally spellbound by the Kennedy magic, or desire the merest brush with history, tattered or not, or think they're getting their money's worth on such items as a JFK briefcase that, we're told, is likely to sell for about $750,000.

For all of this, Robert White gives thanks not to John Kennedy, but to Evelyn Lincoln, JFK's longtime secretary and keeper not only of the flame but of various knick-knacks, cast-offs, and scribblings that carry the solemn weight of history and the possibilities of really juicy profit.

For years, as he cultivated his friendship with Lincoln, who gave him most of the items, White gathered this material in his Catonsville home and talked of one day establishing a splendid museum to honor Kennedy's memory.

Then, two years ago, came the Sotheby's auction of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' belongings, in which bidders with far too much spending cash paid $34.5 million for about 5,000 of her leftovers.

Museum? Did somebody say museum? Robert White hopes to auction about 300 of John Kennedy's goods - it's a small part of White's collection - and reap, if not $34.5 million, at least more money than anybody's made off Camelot this side of Robert Goulet.

But, as this is written, a few unforeseen problems remain. For one, Kennedy family members are asking, What's this guy doing with all this stuff that should belong to us? And the federal government is asking, What's this guy doing with all this stuff that should belong to history?

The government might have a better case than the Kennedys. After all, the president tossed aside all those jottings and doodlings Lincoln thoughtfully held onto, and Jackie Kennedy gave her countless more items in the days after Dallas. Over the years, Lincoln bequeathed them to White, who approached her with such puppy dog enthusiasm, and such an outpouring of reverence for Kennedy, that she found White the perfect legatee of all those items that seemed to carry final wisps of the Camelot legend.

Where the government draws distinctions is a little different from Kennedy family contentions. The government says some of this stuff ain't exactly knickknacks. It's one thing to auction off a PT-109 tie pin, or a sweater Kennedy wore at Harvard, or a golf ball he once three-putted, but they're not the important matters.

Among the artifacts are notes Kennedy scribbled: during the Cuban missile crisis, during the Berlin crisis and on that last journey to Dallas. The government says this might be classified material. The very phrase hints at secrecy, at high-level business not meant for the eyes of mere civilians. Nearly four decades after the fact, it frankly sounds like Washington double-talk, but it gets us closer to the issue.

Such material is meant for everyone's eyes. We lived through it; it's a part of our family history, the grieving over life's lost possibilities, the mourning over the slaying of a handsome son, the end of a national naivete.

For all that we've learned of John Kennedy in the years since Dallas - the sexual dalliances that make Bill Clinton look like Calvin Coolidge, the strange flirtations with mobsters, the talk of assassinating Fidel Castro, the foot-dragging on civil rights - we also remember him for what we thought we knew at the time: He was handsome as a prince, and he made us dream noble dreams, and when his life was taken from him, it took a piece of our own.

It feels a little unseemly to put a price tag on such memories, but that's what they're about to do at a New York auction house. The question is: Which memories? Robert White says it's his property, and he can do what he wants with it, whether it's a bag of old golf clubs or Kennedy's private notes when missiles in Cuba threatened the world.

One way or another, White managed to hustle Evelyn Lincoln out of it. But those of us who once imagined Camelot, even if we later moved out of the neighborhood, feel a little hustled, too. We thought there were some things on which you weren't supposed to put a price tag. But maybe that's our last expression of national naivete.

Pub Date: 3/17/98

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