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Hotel Texas

November 21, 2013

About fifteen years ago my dear friend Amy Weingartner introduced me to a particularly interesting term she coined. The descriptive phrase, as I remembered, was simply “Kennedy’s Children.” After a quick phone call, I was corrected. Her alliterative turn of phrase was “Camelot Kids.” Regardless, both descriptive monikers refer to those of us who were born during John F. Kennedy’s brief presidential administration. It places us squarely at the tail end of the Baby Boom generation, which is mostly defined as the post war surge in births from 1946 to 1964. I am a Camelot Kid.

President Kennedy speaks to the crowd outside the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth, Texas, November 22, 1963. William Allen, photographer/Dallas Times Herald Collection Courtesy of The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza

President Kennedy speaks to the crowd outside the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth, Texas, November 22, 1963. William Allen, photographer/Dallas Times Herald Collection Courtesy of The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza

It’s November and I just turned 51, one year shy of a full deck I’m fond of saying. I was one year and one week old when President Kennedy was assassinated. And I’ve been thinking a great deal about those fateful 34 months of his presidency. The intersection of personal and American history has always been of some intense interest to me. The intersection of art and political history is even more eclectic.

Jasper Johns. Diver. 1962-63. Charcoal, pastel, and watercolor on paper mounted on canvas, two panels, 7' 2 1/2" x 71 3/4" (219.7 x 182.2 cm). Partial gift of Kate Ganz and Tony Ganz in memory of their parents, Victor and Sally Ganz, and in memory of Kirk Varnedoe

Jasper Johns. Diver. 1962-63. Charcoal, pastel, and watercolor on paper mounted on canvas, two panels, 7′ 2 1/2″ x 71 3/4″ (219.7 x 182.2 cm). Partial gift of Kate Ganz and Tony Ganz in memory of their parents, Victor and Sally Ganz, and in memory of Kirk Varnedoe

Take 1962 alone. Jasper Johns executed Diver, one of my favorite drawings ever. Andy Warhol had his first one-man exhibition here in Los Angeles in July of that year. Yves Klein died of a heart attack five weeks earlier at the inconceivably young age of 34. Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Ian Fleming’s The Spy Who Loved Me were both published in 1962. Lawrence of Arabia was the top grossing film that year but Lolita, Days of Wine and Roses and The Manchurian Candidate were also in the top twenty. On October 13th Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf opened on Broadway. Nine days later my father whisked my mother, then eight months pregnant, off on a four-hour drive away from Manhattan, to upstate New York, Bolton Landing to be precise. The reason: the Cuban Missile Crisis.

To dip one’s toe in this simultaneity makes for a richer understanding of an era. Art history is almost always taught without popular or political context. Conversely, history is too often taught without the richly accompanied texture of (high and pop)culture’s offerings.

On Friday, November 22nd we mark the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. What few people know however is that President Kennedy travelled to Texas a full 30 hours before his ride in the open-air limousine at Dealey plaza. He and Jackie didn’t overnight in Dallas but rather 34 miles to the west at Hotel Texas in downtown Fort Worth. The reason for his trip was political. The upcoming year’s reelection campaign was already starting and his goal was to mend rifts between the liberal and conservative factions of the Texas Democratic Party.

Living Area, Suite 850, Hotel Texas  Living Area, Suite 850, Hotel Texas, Fort Worth, Thursday, November 21, 1963 Pictured: Lyonel Feininger, "Manhattan II," Franz Kline, "Study for Accent Grave," Morris Graves, "Spirit Bird"

Living Area, Suite 850, Hotel Texas
Living Area, Suite 850, Hotel Texas, Fort Worth, Thursday, November 21, 1963 Pictured: Lyonel Feininger, “Manhattan II,” Franz Kline, “Study for Accent Grave,” Morris Graves, “Spirit Bird”

Less than a week before his arrival, descriptions of Suite 850 at Hotel Texas were released to the public. Fort Worth Press art critic Owen Day thought the accommodations lacking and came up with the idea of decorating the three primary rooms with significant art that would properly convey to the President and First Lady the cultural sophistication of Fort Worth. He recruited prominent collectors and civic leaders, including Samuel Benton Cantey III, Ruth Carter Stevenson, Ted Weiner and Amon Carter Museum Director Mitchell Wilder. This ad hoc curatorial bravado included paintings by Claude Monet and Lyonel Feininger, an oil on paper study by Franz Klein and bronze sculptures by Henry Moore and Pablo Picasso. And this was just the parlor. Jacqueline Kennedy’s bedroom had a distinctly impressionist feel with works by Pendergast, Van Gogh, Marin and Dufy. And the President’s bedroom carried a more manly sartorial flair including Thomas Eakins, Marsden Hartley and Charles M. Russell.

Ruth Carter Johnson and Lucile Weiner with "Angry Owl" by Pablo Picasso, 1963  Courtesy of the University of Texas at Arlington Library, Arlington, Texas, Fort Worth Star-Telegram Collection, Special Collections

Ruth Carter Johnson and Lucile Weiner with “Angry Owl” by Pablo Picasso, 1963
Courtesy of the University of Texas at Arlington Library, Arlington, Texas, Fort Worth Star-Telegram Collection, Special Collections

This story has moved me tremendously ever since I heard it about a year ago. It speaks to me as a heroic act of generosity on the part of the inspired and ambitious civic leaders who pulled it together. It moves me as a grace note to the events of the following day and the tremendous scar that it left on a nation. It also, with great significance, is a reflection of the leadership role that the President and the First Lady played in championing the arts. It can be argued that no President before or after paid the respect to arts that John F. Kennedy did in his lifetime. The proof of this might be best witnessed in the linguistic fireworks of his speeches. Kennedy wielded metaphor and images at the service of inspiration, hope and aspiration. This attitudinal shift from the bully pulpit of the White House happened right at a time when the capital of the fine art world had immigrated from Paris to New York; from the old school of European tradition to the wild west of American Avant Garde.

Franz Kline (1910–1962)  Study for Accent Grave, 1954  Oil wash on paper © 2012 The Franz Kline Estate/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Franz Kline (1910–1962)
Study for Accent Grave, 1954
Oil wash on paper
© 2012 The Franz Kline Estate/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

I have, over the last several months, gone through what some might call a crisis of confidence. No feeling artist is immune to these occasional bouts of ennui. Some of this existentialism was based on the transposition of the financial inequities of the American economy versus the role that Fine Art plays in society in general. In a nut shell: if there is a 99%-1% split in the American economic landscape then perhaps, just perhaps, there is a 99.9%-.1% split in the American Societal landscape for those who consider that Fine Art is essential. Crunch the numbers and this comes out to around 313,000 people for whom Fine Art might matter. Glass Half Full? Or Half Empty?

But the lessons of Hotel Texas hold firm. Fine Art, and culture in general for purposes of this argument, is not only cause, it is effect. It is not only the light which illuminates our soul but also the mirror with which to judge the human condition. It is also both symptom and disease. In the end it is a catalytic converter of empathy. Most people may be intimidated by art, but the transformative potential never wavers.

For me, Art matters.

The Beatles in 1963.

The Beatles in 1963.

By mid December 1963 a Washington D.C. DJ named Carroll James started playing the Beatles on WWDC Radio. In today’s lingua franca, it went viral. On December 26th, a few days more than a month after those shots rang out in Dealey Plaza, the Beatle’s first album I Wanna Hold Your Hand was released in America, administrating, many could say, a most fortuitous pop culture salve of optimism, hope and tuneful distraction.

Art Matters! Culture Matters! Pop Culture Matters! Pop Art Matters!

Art, Music, Film, Dance, Books, Poetry are not luxuries, they are essential to the fiber of human spirit. They create the weave of experience. They afford us insight that allows us to move forward.

-Mario M. Muller, November 2013, Los Angeles

Postscript #1:
The Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth currently has an exhibition reuniting all the works that were displayed in the Presidential Suite #850. The Exhibition, Hotel Texas: An Art Exhibition for the President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy continues through January 12th, 2014

Postscipt #2
Click here to hear a three minute interview with actor Bill Paxton as he remembers hearing John F. Kennedy on the morning of November 22nd, 1963 in front of Hotel Texas.

Postscript #3

One significant catalyst for my near obsession with the interdependance of art and political history is a fantastic book called The Judgement of Paris. In it Ross King traces the trajectory of Manet’s career in Paris from 1850’s through 1890’s. But far from a standard monograph, he weaves societal, economic, political and art history in a way that makes one wonder how any area of expertise can be appreciated without this wide angle lens. NY Times Review and Amazon page.

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8 Comments
  1. BossMoss permalink

    This was a perfect beginning for my of teaching. I jettisoned my powerpoint in favor of discussing Nov. 22, 1963 when I was their age and in high school and what it means to us.
    Tremendous piece of writing; truly moving. Bravo.

  2. Marymoss permalink

    Fabulous bit of insight!

  3. Bob White permalink

    Yes, Ft. Worth is very aware of art and the importance of its influence on people. After all for a community its size it hosts not only the Amon Carter, but the Ft. Worth Modern, and the amazing Kimball, and its outstanding collection as well as Kahn building itself, and now with with the new addition of the Piano Pavilion. They are no strangers to the impact the arts have on a community.

    The Texas Hotel exhibition is poignant as it was documented so thoroughly and was more than just an after thought. On looking at the photos of the room one has to wonder why they didn’t pay as much attention to the beds, as they appear to be old and lumpy. I am positive that JFK’s last night on Earth was probably spent on the floor as with his chronicle back problems it must have been shear hell to even think about sleeping on those beds.

    Plus it was late at night when they finally arrived and in a mere six hours he was up again out front of the hotel making a speech. Curiously without Jackie, who he makes excuses for. She was probably inspecting the Thomas Eakins painting a little more carefully. Who could blame her after all she went through with husband John?

    Yes, you might be a Camelot Kid, and those times were nothing but an illusion of what was perfect. Just as much as Ft. Worth was nothing more than a cow town, albeit a town with a hell of a lot of money, chutzpah and class.

    Go for it.

    • Bob, thanks for being so invested. Anecdotal history actually has JFK sleeping in the impressionist room because the bed was better there/ So Jackie slept surrounded by the naked boys bathing in the Eakins and the horsemen in the snow by Russell.
      As for illusion, well, illusions count and inspire. Art in many ways is nothing but illusion as well but art and metaphor and poetry can matter in significant ways, to more than just the art appreciative few. I love Ft. Worth precisely for the understanding how art can and does transform, both on a micro and macro level. both on a personal and societal level.
      Cheers,
      Mario

  4. Mario, thank goodness you exist! your writing is the most insightful and soulful there is. my hat off to you, my dear friend Mario.

    • I’m so delighted that you like it. You know, I send these out into the ether. it warms my heart tp know it hits the mark. M

  5. Bob White permalink

    Mr. Truffle:

    Well actually if you look carefully at the photos, you might notice that both beds were lumpy. In fact there is footage in the exhibition of a housekeeper trying her best to smooth them out. I am afraid Jack’s only refuge was the floor and yet another shot by Dr. Feelgood.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Max_Jacobson

    But the real questions remains: Why didn’t they all just stay in Houston at the Rice Hotel were the accommodations were superior?

    http://news92fm.com/397324/the-rice-hotel-president-kennedy-didnt-sleep-here/

    Was it because JFK used the word “hemisphere” three times in a 2 minute speech he gave?

    http://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Newly-rediscovered-tape-of-JFK-s-Houston-speech-4565921.php

    Was he foreshadowing the Hemisphere Fair in San Anotonio to be held in 1968? They just came to Houston from San Antonio. After all John Connally was the official Commissioner General and the site of this World’s Fair was just approved earlier in the year.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HemisFair_'68

    Or was it because Jackie, after thrilling the audience with her fluent spanish, pissed off Dominique DeMenil because she thought she was suppose to be addressing the audience in french? God only knows what happens when you empower people south of our border, and the fingers of the Schlumberger empire are deep and know about unrest (ie: Pemindex and Fidel Castro).

    http://www.abovetopsecret.com/forum/thread777807/pg

    Like so many illusions, once the bark is stripped and the facts are laid bare can we only seek refuge in Camelot, or for that matter Fort Worth.

    Like Dominique was to later say- “Artists are the great benefactors of the world…[who] constantly open new horizons and challenge our way of looking at things. They bring us back to the essential.”

    If they only knew.

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