Lot 20
  • 20

Two Kennedy Administration Cabinet Room Chairs, accompanied by an autograph letter of presentation signed by Jacqueline Kennedy

150,000 - 250,000 USD
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  • leather, mahogany
2 Chippendale-style black leather upholstered mahogany open armchairs, silvered nailhead trim, one with the label of the W. H. Gunlocke Chair Co., Wayland, New York, 40 1/2 in. high, each with a brass plaque affixed to the back. — Together with an autograph letter signed by Mrs. Kennedy (“Jackie”), 2 pages on a leaf of White House stationery (7 1/2 x 5 1/4 in.; 190 x 130 mm), [Washington,] 30 November 1963, to Robert S. McNamara (“Dear Bob”), accompanied by the original autograph envelope directed to “The Secretary of Defense” and docketed by McNamara “chair.”

Catalogue Note

Just eight days after her husband’s assassination, former First Lady Jackie Kennedy—still living at the White House through the courtesy of President Lyndon B. Johnson—searched for an appropriate memento of her martyred husband for the man she considered President Kennedy’s greatest ally. As her presentation letter reveals, Mrs. Kennedy settled on a gift of a Cabinet Room chair. However, the text of Mrs. Kennedy’s letter has elements of ambiguity and indefiniteness—understandable given the circumstances under which it was written—that make it uncertain if she was writing about President Kennedy’s Cabinet Room chair or Secretary McNamara’s own chair:

“Dear Bob—I wanted so much to give you something special of Jack’s—that will mean something to you and that he would have wanted you to have.

"But I have been going through his things—they are all such little personal things—so few of any value and I don’t think anyone but me could possibly decipher what they were—

“So I decided that this chair was what he would want you to have.

“You are the only member of his Cabinet who will have the chair he sat in during Jack’s administration.

“When you go to the White House Monday morning—you will have a new chair.

“With all my love and all the deepest thanks of my heart for all you did to help Jack’s name shine so brightly.”

The question of what specific chair Mrs. Kennedy was referring to is further confused by the fact that Secretary McNamara owned two Cabinet Room chairs, both of which bear plaques indicating that they were his chairs. One of the chairs has a standard Cabinet member’s designation reading “Secretary | of Defense| Jan. 21, 1961,” which was the date of McNamara’s official appointment and swearing in. The other chair bears a commemorative plaque identifying it as belonging to “The Secretary of Defense | Robert S. McNamara | Who from this Chair Served So Well | The President of the United States | John Fitzgerald Kennedy | Jan. 21, 1961­-Nov. 22, 1963.” (One of the brass tacks is missing from a corner of this plaque, which allows it to be drawn away from the chair back, where the impression of an original cabinet nameplate can be seen.)

If Mrs. Kennedy’s letter was referring to JFK’s chair—that is, if the “new chair” that Mrs. Kennedy told McNamara would be awaiting him at the White House was the President’s chair—then the Secretary of Defense would of course have to have affixed his own nameplate to that chair in replacement of the one reading “The President,” and he would have used this chair during his service in President Johnson’s administration. He also would have no longer had any use at the White House for his original Cabinet Room chair, which eventually found its way to McNamara’s home, perhaps by way of his Department of Defense office, acquiring along the way its commemorative plaque.

 If, on the other hand, Mrs. Kennedy’s letter was referring to McNamara’s own original chair, then the reference to a “new chair” simply meant a replacement supplied by the White House operations department—to which McNamara would still have needed to affix his Secretary of Defense nameplate—and this would become his chair while in Lyndon Johnson’s cabinet.

While Mrs. Kennedy’s letter is undoubtedly ambiguous, Secretary McNamara’s widow, Diana McNamara, remembers that her husband always described the one chair as “President Kennedy’s own Cabinet Room chair.”

In an effort to alleviate his chronic back pain, President Kennedy tried a number of different chairs in the Cabinet Room. Photographic evidence suggests that he may have had as many as three different styles of Cabinet Room chairs during his tenure in the White House: one uniform with the chairs used by members of his cabinet (that is, the Chippendale-style office chair like the two McNamara chairs); a Chippendale-style office chair similar to the standard Cabinet Room chairs but with a slightly higher back; and a chair fitted with a special headrest. The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston has an example of the second style: a black leather Chippendale-style armchair fitted with a nameplate reading “The President | Jan. 20, 1961” nearly identical to the McNamara chairs but 3 1/2 inches taller at the peak of the backrest.