Details of JFK's life on view in Florida


Exhibit: After decades of accumulating Kennedy's odds and ends, a collector delights that the items are on display.

November 13, 1999|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- It's a long way from Catonsville. Twenty-one hours, actually, which is how long it took Robert L. White to drive his JFK collection to its new home here, a task he no more would have entrusted to someone else than allow a stranger take his kid to camp.

Yesterday, that precious cargo, which White has spent the bulk of his life collecting and stashing in his mother's ever-more-crowded basement, went on display at Florida International Museum here. "John F. Kennedy: The Exhibition" is the stuff of the late president's life, from the christening ring he received as a newborn to the scrawled doodles he made en route to Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.

"It's a dream come true," White, 51, says as he gazes at the collection that he began as a teen-ager, now displayed in a museum setting.

That White, a cleaning-supplies salesman who quit his job when his passion for collecting became all-consuming, has finally achieved his dream is testimony to either a grand vision or plain orneriness. He accumulated his items -- Kennedy's passport, his wife Jacqueline's shopping bills, the uniform of the Dallas police officer who arrested Lee Harvey Oswald -- even after previous plans for a museum exhibition fell by the wayside and an auction last year of part of his collection drew the ire of JFK's children.

But somehow, White has come out of the controversy like the proverbial rose. He has leased his collection to Florida International Museum for 30 years in a deal that will pay him at least $125,000 a year. In addition, the museum has the option of buying the collection from him at any point during that time for $5 million.

To display the collection, the museum has built theatrical-quality sets to serve as backdrops: an ersatz Oval Office surrounded by a faux Rose Garden for items from the White House years, a re-created PT-109 boat to display mementos of Kennedy's World War II heroics. Other areas of the 27,000-square-foot exhibition are devoted to JFK's political campaigns, his family life, the assassination and funeral, and his legacy.

What the museum also gives White's collection, and White himself, is a certain legitimacy. No longer is White the oddball collector obsessively grabbing up the ephemera of JFK's life. He is suddenly, as his voice mail at the museum announces, a "collection historian." Rather than boxes and crowded shelves in a dark basement in suburban Maryland, here is a real museum with a fresh coat of paint, a fee for admission ($14), an audio guide and a lavish gift shop.

Friendship based on JFK

White's collection had been controversial because much of it came from a friendship he cultivated with Evelyn Lincoln, President Kennedy's secretary from the early 1950s on.

White wrote her in 1970 and they bonded over their mutual devotion to JFK and their shared pack-rat tendencies. Lincoln, who died in 1995, had always believed Kennedy was destined for greatness and squirreled away countless items from his life and career -- menus from state dinners, an old wallet, notes to or from his wife, even crayon scribbles by his daughter, Caroline.

But it was Caroline and her brother, John F. Kennedy Jr., who publicly denounced Lincoln and White in March of last year just as he was getting ready to auction part of the collection. They were incensed that Lincoln, and then White, had somehow come to possess a number of intensely personal items such as a love letter their mother had once written to their father.

Several items had to be pulled from the auction at the last minute and a pall was cast over the event. White made about $1.5 million from the auction, far below the haul of other recent "celebrity" sales.

Controversy behind him

With his exhibit opening, White proclaims the controversy far behind him.

"I'm as controversial as Bambi," he says. "This is a happy day."

This is Kennedy as White views him -- heroic and charismatic, rather than flawed and revised. You won't see anything about girlfriends or mob ties or conspiracy theories in this exhibit.

"It's overwhelming," a visibly moved Cecil Stoughton says as he winds his way through depictions of Kennedy's life and, thus, his own. Stoughton was the official White House photographer during the Kennedy administration. He shot about a third of the photos in the exhibit, including the often reprinted ones that show Kennedy playing with his children in the Oval Office.

Many of the displays have a haunting quality, especially in light of John F. Kennedy Jr.'s death this summer and the realization that so many of the people depicted -- and the times they represented -- are gone.

The exhibit, while dealing with world events, is largely personal. It is history told through people more than events, and through the common, everyday doodads that they owned rather than the public face that they presented to the world.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.