A Brief Shining Moment

October 23, 2001|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

The young couple strolls arm in arm toward the park, he with high-topped sneakers, she in capri pants. Teasingly, she straightens his tie before leaving for the dance. Together they pore over wedding photos they haven't had time to sort, much less frame. Leaning over the balcony of their first home, a rented Georgetown townhouse, they appear eager and confident.

The photographs speak of a time, a way of life, that seems achingly remote. It was the spring of 1954: The Korean War was over, America was at peace, and John and Jacqueline Kennedy had been married seven months.

He was 36 but looked younger because he was so thin. She was 24, her smooth round face showing the vulnerability that later disappeared behind the armature of bouffant hair-dos and pill box hats.

FOR THE RECORD - A feature article in Tuesday's edition of The Sun on a new book of photographs of John and Jacqueline Kennedy incorrectly described Max Lowenherz, who donated the pictures to the Peabody Institute. He is ill and living in New York.The Sun regrets the error.

The Kennedys were settling into their first home. Jackie was excited about the requirements and pace of being a senator's wife. It was a good time to allow Orlando Suero, a young photojournalist on assignment for McCall's, to document five days of their life together.

As a junior senator with higher ambitions, Jack Kennedy figured the project would be good for his career.

And Jackie wanted whatever was good for Jack.

Suero followed the Kennedys from breakfast through dinner. He photographed them playing touch football with Bobby and Ethel Kennedy, working together in Jack's Senate office, relaxing in their back yard. He accompanied Jackie to her political history class at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. He captured the enthusiasm with which she lit the candles at their first formal dinner party.

Altogether Suero produced about 1,000 negatives of an underexposed time in the Kennedys' marriage. Now Johns Hopkins University Press has published 90 of these black and white photographs, with text by Anne Garside, in the book Camelot at Dawn: Jacqueline and John Kennedy in Georgetown, May 1954. Most of the photographs in this book have never been published. All royalties from the book, which sells for $24.95, will benefit the Peabody Institute. In addition, an exhibition of the photographs will run at Evergreen House next spring.

At the time Suero took the McCall's assignment, he was working for the late Max Lowenherz, owner of the Three Lions Picture Agency in New York. The Kennedy photos belonged to Lowenherz and remained in his Greenwich Village apartment until 1989, when he donated them to the Archives of the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. He made the gift partly to honor the memory of his friend, Peabody dean and music critic Irving Lowens, and partly because he believed the institute would appreciate the value of the collection, says Garside. (Primarily known for its music conservatory, the institute also maintains collections of historic and cultural artifacts.)

Garside, who is director of public information at Peabody Institute, has extensively studied the significance and texture of the five days Suero captured. Her research colors the "idyllic" photographs with insight into the troubles the couple was already encountering in the first months of marriage.

"They're young, they're gorgeous looking, they're prominent socially, he's on the rise politically - but the reality was so different," she says. "Jack was a war hero, handsome, attractive. He seemed to have this great political future. Jackie thinks she's marrying this macho guy - because the Kennedys always projected that image.

"And over the next six months she discovers she has, in many ways, married an illusion. That he's deathly sick, that unless he has this spinal fusion, he'll end up in a wheelchair. And he says he'd rather risk death than be on crutches for the rest of his life."

The photo of Jack tossing the football, Garside points out, reveals the vague outline of the back brace beneath his cashmere sweater. The young senator was so skilled at masking his pain that even the photographer never noticed the brace in his photos until years later.

As a collection, the images provide an historic time capsule and provoke a bittersweet awareness of what was later lost - a feeling that continues to tug at Garside. Although the musical that inspired the nickname for the Kennedy era did not open until 1960, the year Jack became president, she thought the charismatic notion of Camelot also fitted the earliest moments of the Kennedys' public life.

"This young couple looks like they're on the threshold of a wonderful life. But I also think you load on to these photographs the knowledge of what is going to happen nine years later."

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