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Robert White, 54; Amassed Huge Collection of JFK Memorabilia

Obituaries

October 15, 2003|Frederick N. Rasmussen | Baltimore Sun

Robert L. White, whose assemblage of John F. Kennedy memorabilia grew to be regarded as one of the largest and most significant private collections of the late president's effects, has died. He was 54.

White, a resident of Woodbine, Md., died of a heart attack Saturday at a hospital near his home.

White was a teenager in the 1960s when he began collecting items related to the 35th president. He continued collecting after the 1963 assassination, and eventually was helped by some Kennedy relatives and former Cabinet members.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday October 18, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Evelyn Lincoln's executor -- An obituary in Wednesday's California section of Robert L. White, a leading collector of John F. Kennedy memorabilia, mistakenly said that he was executor of the estate of Evelyn Lincoln, the president's personal secretary. In fact, Stephen Blakeslee Jr. of Berryville, Va., was the executor.

The biggest boost came from Evelyn Lincoln, Kennedy's personal secretary, whom White had 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, Lincoln had filled her Chevy Chase, Md., apartment with filing cabinets and steamer trunks into which she deposited the flotsam and jetsam of the Kennedy-era presidency.

White's collection was estimated to number about 100,000 items and be worth $5 million. It included such rarities as the two flags from the bumper of the presidential Lincoln Continental in which Kennedy was riding when he was assassinated in Dallas.

The collection also included 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 the day he was killed.

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

A Kennedy rocker -- willed to Lincoln by her boss -- showed scratch marks made by JFK's back brace. White also had the first and last documents JFK 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, Kennedy's christening ring, passport, international driving permit and his checkbook from First National City Bank of New York. White obtained JFK's horn-rimmed reading glasses with chewed temples, a fountain pen he had used to sign the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and the Cartier wristwatch that was removed as surgeons desperately tried to save his life at Parkland Hospital in Dallas.

For years, until 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, Md., home. The items in the exhibit, which recently closed, have been returned to Baltimore.

The collection has engendered controversy, especially from the late president's children. 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," Ettinger said.

White was born and raised in Catonsville 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.

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

An unusual aspect of White's character as collector was his insistence that visitors hold and feel the items. He actively encouraged the somewhat reluctant to don the crushed brown fedora of Alban W. Barkley, vice president under Harry S. Truman, or sit for a spell in JFK's rocker.

"He was a tactile historian. Bob wanted things that people in history had touched. He didn't think twice about handing over Kennedy's wallet. He believed that once it was in your hands it was vibrant and alive," said Allan E. Burt, a longtime friend and business associate.

White is survived by his wife of 29 years, Jacquelyn; a son; a granddaughter; a stepson; a brother; and three sisters.

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