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National Archives have Jacqueline Kennedy's pink suit, but hat is missing

On Nov. 22, 1963, President and Jacqueline Kennedy were greeted by a crowd after they landed in Texas.
On Nov. 22, 1963, President and Jacqueline Kennedy were greeted by a crowd after they landed in Texas. (Art Rickerby/time & Life Pictures/getty Images)

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, wrote in her memoir.

Despite urgings from staff and handlers to "clean up her appearance," Jacqueline 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.

She shook her head hard. "No, let them see what they've done."

Indelible stamp

The suit was never cleaned and never will be. It sits, 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 percent and 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.

Half a dozen members of the Assassination Records Review Board, created by Congress in 1992 to preserve all available records for public scrutiny, were admitted to the vault for a rare glimpse, but they did not consider it relevant to the crime. No other requests to see it have been granted.

Yet the suit's stamp on history is indelible for a nation that anguished at every sight of its disheveled first lady: climbing the stairs onto Air Force One to accompany her husband's coffin back to Washington, standing beside Johnson as he took the oath of office - an iconic photo of an unexpected transfer of power accompanied by a stricken expression and a stained sleeve.

"Somehow, that was one of the most poignant sights," Lady Bird Johnson wrote in her diaries, "that immaculate woman exquisitely dressed, and caked in blood."

Despite the chaos, aides managed to secure virtually all of the Kennedys' belongings at the White House by nightfall. The pink hat seemed to hopscotch from Dallas to Washington, according to Manchester's account. There it was in a heavy paper sack, cradled in the arms of one of the president's baggage handlers aboard Air Force One. While Jacqueline Kennedy accompanied the coffin to Bethesda Naval Hospital for the autopsy, the hat made its way to the executive mansion.

A White House police officer was instructed to give it to Hill but handed it by mistake to Robert Foster, the Secret Service agent assigned to protect the Kennedy children. Foster, who died in 2008, told Manchester that he took the bag to the Map Room and opened it, and he immediately recognized the contents.

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