Reporting from College Park, Md. — In the nation's collective memory, the assassination of John F. Kennedy is a clash of images and mysteries that may never be sorted out to the satisfaction of everyone.
But if there is a lasting emblem that sums up Nov. 22, 1963, the day America tumbled from youthful idealism to hollow despair, it is Jacqueline Kennedy's rose-pink suit and pillbox hat.
An expanded collection of Kennedy treasures and trivia was unveiled this month on exhibit and online to coincide with the 50th anniversary of JFK's inauguration; it includes the fabric of his top hat (beaver fur) down to his shoe size (10C).
But missing and hardly mentioned are what could be the two most famous remnants of Kennedy's last day. The pink suit, blood-stained and perfectly preserved in a vault in Maryland, is banned from public display for 100 years. The pillbox hat — removed at Parkland Hospital while Mrs. Kennedy waited for doctors to confirm what she already knew — is lost, last known to be in the hands of her personal secretary, who won't discuss its whereabouts.
Does it matter? Should it? It's said that history takes a generation to decant, and great chapters are defined by the trappings of everyday life: a stovepipe hat, a pair of polio braces. Mrs. Kennedy could not have imagined the outfit she put on that morning would come to epitomize the essence of Camelot and the death of it.
"The single symbol of that event and of her as a persona is that pink suit," said Carl Sferrazza Anthony, a first ladies historian. "It's all anyone need see and, in an instant, people know what it is in reference to."
This is the story of how an otherwise ordinary pink suit and hat came to be treasured by a nation, only to slip from its reach.
Few public figures understood the power of fashion the way Jacqueline Kennedy did, and when she packed for Dallas, she chose nothing she hadn't worn before. The goal was not to upstage the president as she had to his delight on a recent trip to Paris, but to exquisitely accentuate him as the 1964 election season kicked off. She took along two suits, one of them the pink Chanel knockoff created by a New York dress shop so she could indulge her French tastes and still buy American.
The pink was unforgettable — the color of roses, azaleas, watermelon. Kennedy himself asked her to wear it. It was trimmed in navy blue, with a blue blouse, blue pumps and handbag, and the trademark pillbox hat, secured with a pin.
Looking back now at the grainy footage of the first couple as the dark limousine, top down, rounded the turn from Houston to Elm, it's hard not to hope for a different outcome. As long as she is wearing that hat, the world is still intact. Then, inevitably, comes the lurch of his body, the unforgettable flash of pink scrambling in panic across the trunk. All that day, her clothing bore witness to history.
Lady Bird Johnson, wife of Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, who was riding in the motorcade's third car, recalled for investigators her memory of Secret Service agents frantic to get the president inside Parkland Hospital while his wife bent over him, refusing to let go: "I cast one last look over my shoulder and saw, in the president's car, a bundle of pink, just like a drift of blossoms, lying on the back seat."
Clint Hill, the Secret Service agent assigned to protect the first lady, remembered resting his hands on the suit's trembling shoulders, the left side of the skirt wet with blood where she was cradling her husband's head.
Somewhere inside the hospital, the hat came off. "While standing there I was handed Jackie's pillbox hat and couldn't help noticing the strands of her hair beneath the hat pin. I could almost visualize her yanking it from her head," Mary Gallagher, the first lady's personal secretary who accompanied her to Dallas, later wrote in her memoir.
Despite urgings from staff and handlers to "clean up her appearance," Mrs. Kennedy refused to get out of her bloodied clothes, according to biographer William Manchester's detailed account of the assassination, "The Death of a President."
"Why not change?" one aide prompted.
"Another dress?" the president's personal physician suggested.
Mrs. Kennedy shook her head hard. "No, let them see what they've done."
The suit was never cleaned and never will be. It sits today, unfolded and shielded from light, in an acid-free container in a windowless room somewhere inside the National Archives and Records Administration's complex in Maryland; the precise location is kept secret. The temperature hovers between 65 and 68 degrees, the humidity is 40%, the air is changed six times an hour.
"It looks like it's brand-new, except for the blood," said senior archivist Steven Tilley, one of a handful of people to lay eyes on the suit since that day in Dallas.