It’s not the kind of art you usually find on hotel room walls. The artworks that surrounded John and Jacqueline Kennedy on the last night of his life were not just of museum quality but were actual museum pieces, assembled by art lovers from local institutions and private collections to turn a mundane hotel suite into an impromptu art installation of the highest calibre.
In the days before President John Kennedy’s trip to Texas, the hotel accommodations arranged for the President and First Lady in Fort Worth were the subject of some discussion in local papers. Their schedule had been released to the public. The President and First Lady would spend the night of Thursday, November 21st in Suite 850 of the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth, which would also be the venue of a fundraising $100-a-plate breakfast the next morning sponsored by the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce. After the breakfast, they would take a short flight to Love Field and drive right through downtown Dallas in a motorcade before heading to a luncheon.
Descriptions of Suite 850 made the local press, and even the national wire services got in the action when they found out the Will Rogers Suite at the Hotel Texas where the Vice President and Mrs. Johnson would be staying cost $100 a night while the Kennedy’s unnamed suite ran $75 dollars a night. Next to the Will Rogers Suite’s western-themed decor, Suite 850’s “Chinese modern,” whatever that means, must have seemed downright drab. The hotel said the suite had been selected because it “has brighter colors and would be more to the liking of the Kennedys.”
It was not, however, to the liking of James Owen Day, part-time art critic for the Fort Worth Press. Day worked in the public relations office of rotorcraft manufacturer Bell Helicopter but had a passion for art which he fulfilled by painting, taking photographs and covering art stories for the Press. He came by it honestly. His great-grandfather Thomas Patton Day had settled in Fort Worth in 1876, opening a tintype studio. He also dug the first artesian well in town and as a result had the first bathtub with running water.
Owen Day wanted the aesthetic taste of Fort Worth to be represented in grander style than the “Chinese modern” of Hotel Texas could provide. He contacted Samuel Benton Cantey III, an art collector and president of the Fort Worth Art Association, who in turn contacted his friend Ruth Carter Johnson, daughter of Amon G. Carter, founder of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram who had died in 1955 and willed that a public museum be built from his extensive art collection. The Amon Carter Museum of American Art opened in 1961, and Ruth Carter Johnson was president of the board. Together they came up with a hugely ambitious solution to the Suite 850 dilemma. They would turn the three-room suite into a three-part art exhibition specifically tailored to the tastes of the President and First Lady, featuring works by the finest American and European artists.
The Parlor featured the work of impressionist painter Claude Monet, alongside works of modern sculpture and painting, including a bronze sculpture, Angry Owl, by Picasso, 1951–53; an oil painting of Manhattan by American expressionist Lyonel Feininger, 1940; an oil on paper study by Franz Kline, 1954; and a bronze sculpture by Henry Moore, 1939–40.
The Master Bedroom, which was designated as Jacqueline Kennedy’s bedroom, was adorned with impressionist masterworks, per her well-known affinity for the genre. The room included Summer Day in the Park, 1918–23, by Maurice Brazil Prendergast; van Gogh’s Road with Peasant Shouldering a Spade, 1887; John Marin’s watercolor Sea and Rocks, 1919; and Bassin de Deauville, an oil on canvas by Raoul Dufy.
The Second Bedroom, the president’s room, featured late 19th-century and early 20th-century American art, including Thomas Eakins’ Swimming, 1884–85; Marsden Hartley’s Sombrero with Gloves, 1936; and Charles Marion Russell’s Lost in a Snowstorm, 1888; among others.
Delivered to the hotel by couriers and station wagons, the art collection was set up in the suite on the day of the Kennedys’ arrival. The President and First Lady arrived so late, however, that they went to sleep without realizing that their Chinese modern suite was actually a miniature MoMA. It wasn’t until they awoke the next morning that they noticed the marvels around them. Before they left the hotel to meet their sad fate in Dallas, Mrs. Kennedy called Ruth Carter Johnson to thank her.
The tragic events of that day would of course overshadow the remarkable story of the world-class museum assembled in a $75-a-night hotel suite. In the decades since, most of the art works have been sold and dispersed to other cities. The only ones still in Fort Worth are Thomas Eakins’ Swimming Hole and Charles Marion Russell’s Lost in a Snowstorm which are part of the Carter’s permanent collection.
Hotel Texas: An Art Exhibition for the President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy will bring the Suite 850 collection together again for the first time since November 22nd, 1963. In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy, the exhibit will open next year at the Dallas Museum of Art on May 26th and will run through September 15th. It will then move to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art where it will be on display from October 12th through January 12th, 2014. That means it will be at the Carter on the 50th anniversary of its installation in the Hotel Texas, an appropriate setting given Ruth’s personal involvement.