THEY WILL CALL IT THE AMYX Collection someday. That is what Raleigh DeGeer Amyx -- collector, salesman and seeker of a niche in history -- hopes, anyway. They will pass quietly from showcase to showcase, pausing at John F. Kennedy's glasses, their stems slightly chewed at the tips. They will step to the framed display of John John's monogrammed silk baby shorts. They will strain to see the golf shoe cleat marks in the piece of tile from Ike's Oval Office. They will shake their heads at President Warren G. Harding's Prohibition shot glass, and stare at FDR's Navy cape. They will smile at the gray fedora Eleanor asked a valet to remove from Franklin's bedroom.
They'll see FDR's Fala dog miniatures, Harry S Truman's poker chips and a flag that flew half-staff over the White House after Kennedy's assassination. When enough time has passed, they will even find a piece of bloodstained leather from the limousine in Dallas.
Perhaps some of the 401 items in Amyx's collection of presidential memorabilia are trivial -- an itinerary from the 1939 visit of Great Britain's King George VI to the White House, a cigarette case that FDR held in his hand for only an instant. But the stories Amyx has collected from the 25 maids and butlers, secretaries and Secret Service men who contributed to what he calls his "backstairs museum" imbue the ordinary with an intimate majesty. John John's monogrammed shorts are an American relic, and the Amyx Collection is to politics what a splinter from the true cross is to faith.
RALEIGH AMYX DISCOVERED THAT he had throat cancer in 1979. The odds were only one in three that the 40-year-old Northern Virginian would live -- and if he did it was almost certain his speech would be impaired or that he would lose his voice en- tirely. In one year his weight fell from 195 to 153 -- but he lived and he kept his voice.
"There has to be more to life," he decided. "My job was just so dull."
Amyx always had been a bit eccentric -- a boy who read The Book of Knowledge (starting at Z and working forward to A) for fun. He had kept his own museum as a child, displaying a dead bat, a piece of wood supposedly from Lincoln's Kentucky home, a Nazi helmet with bullet hole. Admission was 2 cents. Amyx grew up to be a salesman of self-improvement courses and life insurance, a weekend antique hunter, a self-
taught handwriting expert and
an amateur student of American
history. When he learned he had
throat cancer, for instance,
Amyx immediately recalled that
Babe Ruth and President Ulysses S. Grant had died of throat
After Amyx beat the disease,
he quit his association director's
job with the vague idea of once
again creating a museum, filled
with baseball or astronaut or
presidential memorabilia. When
Amyx saw the TV miniseries
"Backstairs at the White House,"
based on Lillian Rogers Parks'
book about her 30 years as a
White House housekeeper, it
struck him that legions of backstairs White House workers must live in Washington.
"It gave me the idea that these were the people to know," says Amyx, who quickly settled on presidents as his passion. "Forget the Kissingers, the Haldemans, the Jody Powells. They aren't going to help." Amyx made a deal with his wife, a congressional aide -- her income would support the family and his trade in presidential signatures would support the collection.
He began with classified ads: "Presidential Items Wanted."
Soon, a man driving a long car and wearing gold chains arrived with what he claimed was an FDR cane and a small wooden box inscribed with Roosevelt's
name. Amyx paid $450 on intui- tion -- and a plan. He framed and mounted the cane of velvet, and made an appointment with Lillian Rogers Parks, ostensibly to see if she recognized the items, but also as his first introduction to the backstairs world.also as his first introduction to the backstairs world.
Parks believed the items genuine, and discovered from friends that the cane and box came from one of FDR's closest White House servants. The servant had given them to a woman friend, who had kept them for decades. After she died, a family member asked the man with the gold chains to answer Amyx's ad.
From there, it was like pulling a thread. Parks and Amyx became close friends. She contributed FDR's Fala dog miniatures and Herbert Hoover's cigar humidor. She also introduced Amyx to other retired White House workers. From the widow of a White House electrician for 40 years came about 25 items, including golf balls chipped on the White House lawn by Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Nixon. From the widow of Roosevelt's valet, Arthur Prettyman, came FDR's ivory-handled cane from World War II and 14 miniature animals sewn to a satin ribbon that hung from FDR's White House bed. From the widow of Isaac Esperancilla, a Roosevelt valet and later chief of the Truman presidential yacht, the USS Williamsburg, came FDR's gray fedora. From a retired White House maid came John John's shorts.
It went on and on. Though Amyx has paid as much as $400 for a single item, most were donated or given in return for small church or charity contributions. In four years, Amyx's suburban home became a museum -- with a state-of-the-art security system, glass display cases, and ultraviolet lights.
"You don't know who to leave all this stuff to . . . ," says a retired Secret Service man who worked for every president from Roosevelt to Nixon and who contributed to Amyx's collection. "You'd be out on a walk with (the president) and he'd say, 'Here's a little something for you' . . . We took it for granted in those days. It was just work. Now it's history."
FLOYD ,BORING had been one of two Secret Service men who carried a travel "kit" for JFK -- cash, four or five cigars, Kennedy's reading glasses. The men took turns traveling with the president and Boring was in Washington when Kennedy was killed in Dallas. He tucked JFK's glasses in his desk drawer at home, and that is where they stayed for 20 years -- until Raleigh Amyx came by.
"He went bananas over these glasses," Boring recalls. "It was a shock to me."
Amyx's excitement isn't rare, however. After Abraham Lincoln died in a house across the street from Ford's Theatre, memorabilia hunters stripped pieces of wall paper from the walls. After Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at the courthouse in Appomattox, Union officers bought the tables and chairs. People once dipped their robes in the blood of martyrs.
When Amyx touched John Kennedy's glasses, he could envision Floyd Boring handing them to the president, Kennedy's hands reaching for them. He could see Kennedy sitting over a book, his flat- topped reading glasses resting on the bridge of his nose, Kennedy sliding them up occasionally, glancing over them when he looked away. And because the stems were chewed, Amyx could see John Kennedy, as he pondered an idea, remove the amber horn- rims, and bite absently on their tips.
"He had beautiful teeth," Amyx says.
Crucial to any relic, of course, is its lineage. As Evelyn Waugh once wrote, "It used to be believed by the vulgar that there were enough pieces of this 'true cross' to build a battleship." Tucked in Amyx's safe, he says, are signed letters from his contributors authenticating his items.
"When Lillian Rogers Parks says it's from Roosevelt's desk," Amyx says, "it's from Roosevelt's desk." A half-a-dozen contributors -- including two retired White House Secret Service men -- confirmed that the items they gave Amyx are genuine.
"I want this collection to be so clean," says Amyx, "that 100 years from now they will say, 'That guy was ready! He did a good job.' Amyx hopes his collection will end up in a presidential museum in, say, Alexandria or Washington. "Someday it will just happen," he says.
Amyx's collection includes an original surveying map and document tinted and written by the hand of 17- year-old George Washington and manuscripts signed by all 39 presidents. But it is the trivial items -- and the stories behind them -- that thrill Amyx most.
Roosevelt had hundreds of walking canes, for example. But when Amyx found a rare photo of FDR with an ivory- handled cane, he noticed it had a rubber tip. Amyx went to his own ivory-handled FDR cane: When he saw the cane's discolored end, where its rubber tip once had been, Amyx cried. FDR also had a closet full of hats. But Amyx's FDR fedora is one that Eleanor Roosevelt personally asked valet Arthur Prettyman to remove from the president's room. The president looked ridiculous in it, she told Prettyman, who took the hat home.
From these stories, Raleigh Amyx gets a certain feeling. When he got home alone with JFK's glasses, for instance, Amyx held them and cried. Then, while listening for anyone who might walk into the room unexpectedly, he put them on his head and wondered what John Kennedy would think of that. In his dreams, Amyx talks with presidents.
"I would like to have been a great man, and I'm not and I never will be," he says. "I spent much of my life selling people things they didn't need or want. I wanted to leave some legacy behind so I could be proud of myself. The main thing was for me to like me. And I did. And I do more now."