UPDATE: The signatures of Jackie and John Kennedy to Greta Garbo have been authenticated by Bonham’s appraiser extraordinaire Catherine Williamson!
Today is the 50th anniversary of the murder of our president John F. Kennedy. It’s a hard day for most of us Americans who were alive and conscious that day and perplexingly it never becomes easier to process. If anything, it has become more difficult the more we know, the less we still know. And the records have now been sealed again for another 50 years so, by that time I will be long gone and you will all be living on the moon.
I knew I wanted to say something about Kennedy today, but so many people have said so much so eloquently (please see the Errol Morris short film posted online NY TIMES) and ineloquently (all bogus TV news coverage) that I didn’t know what more I could add. So, in my lifelong grief, I turned my thoughts away from the assassination and toward an event 9 days before that terrible crime happened and changed us all forever.
It was November 13, 1963. Miss G uncharacteristically accepted a dinner invitation. Not just any dinner invite but from First Lady Jackie Kennedy. Garbo had turned down invitations to the White House before, but this time Mrs. Kennedy had assured our favorite recluse that this would be an intimate affair. Miss G was a fan, a big fan, of our President, and so the opportunity at this moment seemed right.
This is where I need to jump in and refer back to the auction where I won Greta’s records. Listed in the same auction last December with Julien’s Auctions was this beautiful periwinkle silk outfit she wore to the Kennedy dinner.
But what was not listed was the 45rpm picture sleeve of “P.T.109” by country music singer and TV host Jimmy Dean, a song detailing JFK’s war heroism. The 45 was stuck inside the box of LPS in the lot of records I won. When I first looked at the 45, I was touched that Garbo should have bought this record – like a schoolgirl – crushed out on our President. Then in flipping the picture sleeve over, I saw the label for the record store: LEARMONT RECORDS AND BOOKS in Georgetown, Washington D.C.
WOW, wait a minute – so on her trip to DC to dine at the White House, she also did a little record shopping and went home with this? Now THAT IS a schoolgirl crush!
Well, this morning, when I took the record out of the sleeve and slapped it on the little Crosley turntable to play it so I could write about it, photograph it, and share it with you, I was completely unprepared for what I saw on the spinning label. Writing. There was writing on the record label. I snapped my pix, stopped the turntable and took the record off to have a look. I got giddy just to see the inscription “To Greta Garbo” but blown away by what I found NEXT. “with love from – “ and a messy signature, but a distinct J as the first letter, and a Y slanted down at an angle at the end. And then arcing the Columbia logo, “And love: from Jackie”. With a large capital K in the middle of her name.
I was almost weak, I think I went pale, and I almost fainted. Today of all days, I should find such a treasure in my box of GG treasures? Maybe I was mistaken. I was excited enough to see that someone wrote “To Greta Garbo” on the label. But to see “And love from Jackie”…it was insane. I called out to my fella who looked at it with me, and we immediately went to the internet to look at their signatures. The angled Y at the end of the messy name was characteristic of JFK’s later signature, and the large K in Jackie’s name looks identical to hers when she signed her name “Jackie” instead of “Jacqueline”. In fact in looking at examples of their handwriting, we surmised that Jackie wrote the inscription on all of it cause the T on “To” is like Jackie’s writing, but that JFK signed his name to the inscription.
Okay — So wait — what happened? After dessert, or on her way out of the White House, or after lying down in the Lincoln bedroom after drinking too much, did Garbo ask them to autograph this 45 she picked up at Learmont’s? Or did they pull it out of their stack of records and whip out a ballpoint and slip it to her along with the walrus tooth Jack gifted her? Is this genuinely from President Kennedy and First Lady Jackie Kennedy to Greta Garbo? Of course it needs to be authenticated, but WOW. Like – HOLY SHIT WOW.
Well, while you all ponder this, I’ll tell you what I know about the evening Miss G had with The President and the First Lady.
“First Friend” Lem Billings was the unofficial party planner of the Kennedy White House. Lem and Jack had gone to prep school together and had been close friends since. Lem was gay, although at that time he was not out, if ever. But everyone who knew him, knew his orientation. Joe Kennedy had all but adopted Lem as a son, and in fact young Edward Kennedy assumed Lem was one of his older brothers. He remained a Kennedy friend for life.
Lem had been filling his BFF Jack Kennedy with tales of meeting and becoming fast friends with Miss G the previous summer on the Italian Riviera cruising on Sam Spiegel’s yacht. Lem had gone on and on about his hot new friendship with the movie siren so much that when Garbo accepted the invitation, our president decided to have a little fun with this. Greta was asked to show up early so that Jack could rope her into his prank on his buddy. The only other guests attending were Florence Mahoney, a DC socialite, and Jackie’s glamorous younger sister Lee Radziwill, who GG would later refer to as “a princess or somebody.”
And Lem, of course and the First Couple. Dinner for six. When Lem arrived, he was surprised to see Greta already there, walking into the dining room with Jackie. When Lem opened up, “Greta!” so happy to welcome her, Miss G looked at him blankly and turned to the president, “I have never seen this man before.”
Poor Lem was completely dismayed and unable to eat his meal as he tried to jog Miss G’s memory. But Greta was stone faced, “I have never met you”. She continued the prank well into the second course, all to the delight of the president. In fact, Kennedy egged it on, playing the part very seriously to Lem, wondering aloud why Lem thought he’d met her before, maybe he had her confused with someone else. Finally Greta and Kennedy let up on poor Lem and everyone had a big laugh. There is no question it was one of the most exhilerating evenings of Miss G’s life, one she often recalled as “magical”, and only came to an end when she announced, “I must go. I’m getting intoxicated.” Later when Jackie repeated the story, tickled, she added, “I think she was.”
In spite of climbing upon the Lincoln bed and kicking off her shoes, Miss G declined their sleepover invite and spent the night in a hotel. Though one thinks she regretted missing out on a possible visit in the still of the night from the Man Of The House, “ The President visited a lot of ladies at night”, she said. Wink Wink. She bragged to friends that the president had told her how he usually excused himself from dinners early, but he stayed all through this one, gladly.
She left with one gift which has been documented: from the president a cherished piece of scrimshaw, a whale’s tooth from his collection in the Oval Office. Jackie in polite mock jealousy told GG, ”He never gave ME a whale’s tooth.” But maybe Miss G was also given another gift… this 45 of “P.T. 109”. It certainly came home with her from that trip, I can’t imagine how else to explain the signatures except that they are to Greta Garbo from J and Jackie Kennedy.
The record itself is a novelty like all of Jimmy Dean’s songs. It was actually a huge hit when it came out no doubt because of Kennedy’s huge popularity. The fun part of the song is at the end when Dean refers to Kennedy as “Big Bad John” which was the title of Dean’s first big hit.
That this record was kicking around the White House doesn’t surprise me. Like Garbo, Jackie loved the twist, and brought pop records and dancing to Pennsylvania Ave. But it is just as likely that Garbo bought the record in DC in anticipation of their dinner and asked for the autograph. One thing that is endearing about Garbo is she was an unabashed fan. She even produced a clipping on Kennedy from her purse at dinner to discuss it with him.
Still high from her evening, Greta returned to NYC and quickly shot off a thank you note to the First Lady. A little over a week after her amazing dinner, our President and his wife left for Texas. Like the rest of us Miss G was devastated, but her devastation was surely deeper than my own. That intimate dinner was the very last time Lem Billings saw Kennedy, his lifelong pal. It was the very last dinner party at the Kennedy White House. Within weeks, Miss G would pen another letter to Mrs. Kennedy, of condolences, which must have been as hard to write as it was to read.
I like to think of GG, the night of her dinner with our President, tipsy, and giggling in her hotel bed, intoxicated indeed, like the scene from Ninotchka, dizzied by her very fun date. Tapping into passion. Fantasy. I like to think that for days after, she imagined a kiss in the Lincoln bedroom from a late night visit. I like to think in her fantasy – she kept herself in check, cause she did like Jackie so much. “But a kiss is alright, isn’t it” she would permit herself. ”Cause Mr. President, you intoxicated me.”
But after November 22, that dream was gone, for her, for the rest of us.
Still, this has made me smile today through my continued grief. It made me happy to know that our president played a trick on his best bud Lem Billings, with the great Greta Garbo. And that 9 days before his terrible death, our beloved president had a fun night of shenanigans, and gave a goddess the time of her life.