Robert L. White, 54, collector of JFK items

October 14, 2003|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Robert L. White, whose assemblage of John F. Kennedy memorabilia grew to become one of the largest and most significant private collections of the late president's effects in the world, died of a heart attack Saturday at Howard County General Hospital. The Woodbine resident was 54.

Mr. White was a teen-ager when he began collecting items related to the 35th president during the 1960s - writing to him to request an autograph. He continued collecting after the 1963 assassination, and eventually was helped by some Kennedy relatives and former Cabinet members.

FOR THE RECORD - Robert L. White: An obituary for Robert L. White in Wednesday's editions incorrectly stated that he was executor of the estate of Evelyn Lincoln, President John F. Kennedy's personal secretary. Stephen Blakeslee Jr. of Berryville, Va., was the executor. The Sun regrets the error.

But the biggest boost came from Evelyn Lincoln, Kennedy's personal secretary whom Mr. White befriended. He became executor of her estate, and was willed a significant number of rare items from her collection after her death in 1995.

A presidential pack rat, Mrs. Lincoln had filled her Chevy Chase apartment with filing cabinets and steamer trunks into which she deposited the flotsam and jetsam of the Kennedy-era presidency.

Mr. White's collection was estimated to be worth $5 million and numbered about 100,000 items. It included such rarities as the two flags from the bumper of the presidential Lincoln Continental in which Kennedy was riding when he was shot in Dallas, and an assortment of artifacts from that horrible day.

There was, for example, the St. Christopher money clip that Jacqueline Kennedy gave her husband on their first wedding anniversary, and the black wallet to which it was attached. Both were in the president's pocket Nov. 22, 1963.

In a dark-stained box, Mr. White kept a piece of blood-spattered upholstery removed from the limousine after Lyndon B. Johnson ordered the car returned to Washington and rebuilt.

A Kennedy rocker - willed to Mrs. Lincoln by her boss - showed scratch marks made by JFK's back brace. Mr. White also had the first and last documents JFK had signed as president. The last note in his hand as Air Force One traveled to Texas reads: "Govt. reform - we are going forward."

There are presidential doodles, his christening ring, passport, international driving permit, and checkbook from First National City Bank of New York. He had JFK's horned-rimmed reading glasses with chewed frames, a fountain pen he had used to sign the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and the Cartier wristwatch removed as surgeons desperately tried to save his life at Parkland Hospital.

For years, until Mr. White mounted an exhibit in 1998 at the Florida International Museum in St. Petersburg, his collection was housed in two basement rooms of his mother's Catonsville home. The exhibition, which recently closed, has been returned to Baltimore.

The collection has engendered controversy, especially from the late president's children. Mr. White agreed to return several journals and a clock that had graced the Oval Office, and what Caroline Kennedy and John F. Kennedy Jr. had termed "intensely personal" items.

Arlan Ettinger, founder of Guernsey's House in New York City, whose firm conducted an auction of 350 lots of Kennedy items from the White collection in 1998, was overwhelmed by the quality and quantity of the items.

"Bob's was ranked one of the most significant and substantial collections. If you mentioned the name of JFK, the next name you heard was Robert White. He had a great love for the Kennedy family," Mr. Ettinger said.

"When we were preparing for the auction, a member of the Kennedy family was unhappy about several items which she demanded from Bob," Mr. Ettinger said. "He said if that person had `asked rather than attack me with an aggressive attorney, I would have given the requested items up in a heartbeat.'"

The one auction item he said Mr. White had a hard time parting with was JFK's black alligator Hermes briefcase, which traveled with him everywhere.

Mr. White was born and raised in Catonsville, graduated in 1968 from Mount St. Joseph High School in Irvington, and attended Catonsville Community College. While serving in the Army in the late 1960s, he worked in military museums.

He retired in 1994 as a salesman for Porters Supply Inc., a cleaning-supply company founded by his father, and devoted his remaining years to collecting.

Mr. White's presidential material included framed locks of hair from every chief executive, canceled paychecks from Warren Harding to Franklin Roosevelt, and William McKinley's top hat. He had Abraham Lincoln's wallet and a piece of the blood-stained towel that had been wrapped around his head after he was shot by John Wilkes Booth in April 1865.

His Hollywood items included costumes from The Wizard of Oz and the 1951 best-picture Oscar for An American in Paris. He had a Babe Ruth bat and the golfing clothes that Standard Oil Co. founder John D. Rockefeller was wearing when he died in 1937 - on the links.

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