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John F. Kennedy: The Exhibition

Evelyn Lincoln devoted her life to Camelot


© St. Petersburg Times, published November 11, 1999

"This morning we arrived, as usual, slightly before eight o’clock and I was at my desk a few minutes later. But this time it was in a different office in a different building. The old familiar objects were there -- the President’s padded rocking chair, his leather desk chair, the Presidential flag, the books and pictures -- but they were shoved against the wall or stuffed into cartons. I couldn’t stand seeing the things he loved so much in a state of confusion, and I started searching through boxes looking for pictures of Caroline sitting solemnly in his Harvard chair. It had been taken on one of her evening visits to his office and was one of his favorite pictures. I wanted to bring it out to hide the ugly bareness of the room. I guess I wanted to reassure myself that nothing had changed."

My Twelve Years With John F. Kennedy

President Kennedy's personal secretary kept virtually everything the president touched, constantly reliving what she described as the best time of her life.

Long after President John F. Kennedy had died, Evelyn Lincoln, his White House secretary, made a ritual of going to her safety deposit box to re-read the secret diary she had kept.

Mrs. Lincoln was Kennedy's secretary from the day he entered the Senate in 1953 to the day he was assassinated in November 1963.

Along with the diary, Mrs. Lincoln had other items, including the flags that that once hung in the Oval Office. She kept them in a warehouse near her home in Bethesda, Md., and visited them from time to time. She did this, she said, "to turn back the clock to Camelot."

Evelyn Lincoln
[Photo: AP]
Mrs. Lincoln dedicated her life to John F. Kennedy until her dying day at age 85 on May 11, 1995. Through the years, she created a sort of secret shrine to him. Until her death, no one had any idea of what she had hidden away, especially the Kennedy children, who thought she had given most of the items to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston.

Instead, Evelyn Lincoln left them to her husband and upon Mr. Lincoln's death, they were left to a family friend and collector, Robert L. White.

These are the items, hundreds of them, that are on display in "John F. Kennedy: The Exhibition" at the Florida International Museum in St. Petersburg.

Mrs. Lincoln was a slight, soft-spoken person who appeared in public wearing a filigree-encrusted Kennedy half-dollar around her neck.

For years after Kennedy's death, she stayed in Washington and basked in the celebrity of being a member of the elite corps of presidential personal secretaries, a position she claimed as the highest achievement of her life. She answered hundreds of letters each year from Kennedy admirers, curiosity seekers and history buffs. She used White House stationery and signed her correspondance, "Evelyn Lincoln, secretary to the late President John F. Kennedy." She also included an autographed picture of herself.

Each year on Nov. 22, the anniversary of Kennedy's assassination, she would visit Arlington National Cemetery and place three long-stemmed red roses on Kennedy's grave.

Mrs. Lincoln refused to let go of her days in Camelot. "Why should I try to be something else?" she said in an interview 20 years after the Kennedy's death.

Evelyn Norton Lincoln was born on a Nebraska farm in 1910. She moved to Washington in the 1920s when her father John N. Norton was elected to Congress. She received a bachelor's degree from George Washington University in 1930. While attending law school there, she met her future husband Harold "Abe" Lincoln (no relation to the presidential Lincoln family).

The Lincolns lived in New York for a couple of years when he taught at New York University. They moved back to Washington when he was offered a government job. Mrs. Lincoln got a job on the Hill working for U.S. Rep. B.L. Forrester, D-Ga. In 1952, she recalled telling her husband that her next job would be for the next president of the United States,

"Eisenhower?" he asked.

"No, John F. Kennedy," she replied.

Mrs. Lincoln had never met the young politician from Massachusetts, but after reading a few of his press releases, she volunteered to work on his campaign for the U.S. Senate. In 1953, Kennedy asked her to join his staff. She started keeping a diary, which she worked on until Kennedy's death.

Kennedy depended on her not only to schedule his appointments but also for countless other tasks, including ordering his reading glasses and bringing them to Newport, R.I., on his wedding day to finding his tux shirt and studs when his brother Ted was getting married. She traveled with the Kennedy delegation for his historic trips to Ireland, Germany and England. She was in the Kennedy entourage when he visited Tampa on Nov. 18, 1963. She also traveled to Dallas.

It was to Mrs. Lincoln that Parkland Hospital staff handed the late President's personal effects, including his Cartier watch. It was also Mrs. Lincoln who, ordered by President Lyndon B. Johnson, cleaned out the Oval Office of all Kennedy's possessions. Mrs. Lincoln moved to the Executive Office Building next door to the White House. The files and Kennedy's personal possessions were moved to the National Archives Building in August 1964, where she continued to maintain custody of the material until it was transferred to the National Archives and Records Service in late 1965.

Mrs. Lincoln was charged, as one of the original incorporators, with preparing the Kennedy possessions and files for their ultimate destination: the presidential library in Boston. But by the time the library became reality in 1979, Mrs. Lincoln, it seems, was no longer a key player.

For many years, the papers that Mrs. Lincoln gave to the library were known as the "Evelyn Lincoln Files." Today the "Evelyn Lincoln Collection" is made up of Kennedy's papers maintained by Mrs. Lincoln, manuscripts of her two published books and two unpublished books (given to the library in 1993) and items received after her death, as bequeathed by her will and her late husband's will.

Why and when she decided to keep many of Kennedy's possessions for herself is not known. Among the items: Kennedy's doodles from a meeting on the Cuban missile crisis; telegrams from senators; his diaries, cuff links, a black comb; notes to her from Jackie; and drawings by Caroline and John Jr.

Mrs. Lincoln also somehow accumulated some of Jackie's dresses, earrings and coats, a collection of pens Kennedy used to sign historic bills, a Bible, clocks, golf balls, bookcases, cigars, even credit cards.

After working on the presidential papers for a few years, Mrs. Lincoln became a secretary on the Hill. She retired in 1972, but the presidential library, historians and collectors continued to use her as a resource.

"She was able to read her former boss' illegible handwriting and to verify his signature," says Megan Floyd Denoyers, acting chief archivist at the JFK Library.

Denoyers recalls seeing Mrs. Lincoln only once, almost 30 years ago.

"She came and talked to the staff. She was very knowledegable," she said.

Denoyers said Lincoln expressed her passion for collecting in a letter to Robert White dated April 5, 1989.

"Many of these personal items have been saved from extinction by me . . . many items were given to me by John F. Kennedy. Others were discarded items."

Mrs. Lincoln's friends say she saved the items for the sake of history. Francis G. McGuire, to whom Mrs. Lincoln left the literary rights to her writings and personal correspondence, believed her reason for not passing everything on to the Kennedy library was "she wanted to house her memorabilia in a museum closer to Washington because the JFK library outside Boston was too far away from the nation's political center."

But her collecting resulted in her receiving a posthumous denouncement from the Kennedy children in March 1998. It occurred when Robert White offered up for auction at Guernsey's in New York hundreds of the items that Mrs. Lincoln had given to him or willed to him. The late John F. Kennedy Jr. and Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg broke their silence and criticized Mrs. Lincoln's actions.

"It is now clear that Mrs. Lincoln took advantage of her position as our father's secretary, and later as the custodian of objects intended for the library, by taking home with her countless documents and objects that belonged to our father and the United States government," they said.

Paul G. Kirk, chairman of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, described Mrs. Lincoln as "a compulsive collector" whose "obsession with President Kennedy's possessions and writings led her to the delusion that even the most personal effects, letters and most significant historical writings were hers to keep or give away."

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