An exhibition in Texas reassembles the art that decorated the Kennedys' hotel suite on the night before the president was assassinated
Who knew? Just before John F. Kennedy’s fateful trip to Dallas in 1963, a group of Fort Worth collectors decided to honor the president’s over-night stop in their city on November 21 by customizing his suite at the Hotel Texas with original masterworks.
Five days before the First Couple arrived, descriptions of Suite 850 were made public. The “oriental modern” accommodations and view of a Trailways bus station and parking lot seemed less than presidential to Owen Day, a part-time art critic for the Fort Worth Press. Day came up with the idea of temporarily installing great works of art in the room. He proposed this to Samuel Benton Canty III, leader of the Fort Worth Art Association. Canty called Ruth Carter Johnson (later Stevenson), daughter of Amon G. Carter and board president of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. And with the help of local collectors, Democrats and Republicans alike, it somewhat miraculously happened. There was even a hastily prepared catalogue meant for an audience of two.
“They did it all in less than two days,” says Olivier Meslay, associate director of the Dallas Museum of Art, who decided to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination by reuniting the now widely scattered art. “Hotel Texas: An Art Exhibition for the President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy, A Reunion of Masterworks Exhibited in the Hotel Suite of the Presidential Couple” opens at the Dallas Museum on May 26 and heads to the Amon Carter Museum in October.
There were 16 borrowed works in the suite, including Monet’s Portrait of the Artist’s Granddaughter, Picasso’s Angry Owl, Lyonel Feininger’s Manhattan II, Morris Graves’s Spirit Bird, and a small bronze by Henry Moore. The master bedroom, which Jackie Kennedy was expected to occupy, had van Gogh’s Road with Peasant Shouldering a Spade and Maurice Prendergast’s Summer Day in the Park, because she liked Impressionism. Thomas Eakins’s famous The Swimming Hole, and other American works were in the second bedroom, where J.F.K. would supposedly sleep.
Says Meslay, “It’s a perfect slice of taste in the 1960s. It’s going back in a time capsule to that moment.” Andrew J. Walker, director of the Amon Carter Museum, comments, “The hospitality of the city transcended any sense of political difference. This enthusiasm for modernity at that moment spoke to the aspirations of the region and the country.”
“We do not know everything,“ Meslay says. Why, for instance, were Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson given the more luxurious Will Rogers Suite, which, according to Walker, also had a small temporary display of Western art? “Hotel Texas” will attempt to reveal the story of the installation, with photographs, videos, and other archival material—including Day’s photos of the artworks in situ just after the First Couple had left. He surmised from shaving cream and a few drops of makeup that J.F.K. and Jackie had switched bedrooms.
It seems ironic that on the eve of his assassination, this popular president, who had a major impact on the arts, arrived shortly before midnight and reportedly didn’t realize that the works were originals until the next morning. Then, before heading to Dallas, he and the First Lady phoned Ruth Carter Johnson (who died this past January) to thank her for the extraordinary exhibition. It was the last call Kennedy ever made. The exhibition was being dismantled at the very moment he was shot.