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Era Of 'Kennedy Mystique' On Exhibit At Springfield Museums

Fifty-eight years ago, on Jan. 2, 1960, John F. Kennedy announced his intention to run for president of the United States. His campaign, victory and presidency ushered in an era when Kennedys were revered to the point of hagiography. It also inspired hundreds of merchandisers to glom onto the “Kennedy mystique” to sell products that ranged from worshipful to cheesy — and sometimes were both.

Two exhibits at Springfield Museums in Massachusetts pay homage to that era. In the art museum, a collection of black-and-white portraits by Richard Avedon captures how the great photographer helped the media-savvy Kennedys craft an image. In the historical museum, an array of collectibles is testament to the giddy cult of personality that sprang up around the unusually young and good-looking first couple.

Richard Avedon

In January 1961 Avedon was commissioned by Harper’s Bazaar to shoot portraits of the president-elect and his family. The photo session also resulted in pictures published in LOOK magazine. The exhibit consists of photos from that session, alongside enlarged contact sheets of shots rejected by Avedon. The show is interesting primarily as a peek into the life of a working photographer, his processes, his editing.

“Many images were practice images. These photos were not meant to be displayed. But they bring the family to life. They’re gesturing, they’re moving, they’re looking at the camera or away from the camera,” says Heather Haskell, the vice president and director of the art museums in the Springfield complex. “You get to see them interacting with each other.”

JFK sometimes hesitated to smile for cameras. He believed those who pointed to his youth as proof of his unsuitability for office would be put off by a lighthearted approach. This tension is clear in some contact prints of him and Jackie, in which her expression changes more frequently than his. She laughs, squints, looks at him, then away, grabs his arm, lets go, as he maintains the same expression.

His facial features are softer in the contact sheets with Caroline. Avedon chose an image of her in his lap crossing her arms on her chest, her fists near her throat. In other images, she stands in front of him, he picks lint off of her dress, she drapes herself over his neck, she sucks her fingers, as he looks on lovingly.

A session with Caroline and infant John-John shows her unsure of how to hold him, with the newborn squirming, crying, picking his nose, turning his face away from his big sister, as she kisses him, laughs at his yawns, whispers to him, and is helped by a pair of adult hands, presumably Jackie’s.

The exhibit is complemented by a selfie-friendly gallery re-creating JFK’s Oval Office, with a replica of the Resolute Desk, a Carolina rocker and props from the 2010 miniseries “The Kennedys,” starring Greg Kinnear and Katie Holmes. Several Jackie replica dresses worn by Holmes are on display.

‘Collecting Camelot’

Little girls in the ’60s loved paper dolls. When a little girl moved into the White House, manufacturers quickly made the connection, creating paper dolls of and books about Caroline and Jackie. Those playthings are some of the sweetest items in “Collecting Camelot,” an often-hilarious show about the 1960s public’s obsession with anything connected to JFK, Jackie, Caroline and John-John.

The family rarely had input into how their images were used. If they had, would they have approved a board game whose box cover shows the family, Bobby and Ted carved into Mount Rushmore? The game’s money, tellingly, has the face of patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy. The game uses “turn of events” cards to show how each Kennedy gains or loses prestige, clout or important supporters:

“Caroline brings report of CIA to show & tell – LOSES POWER-GROUP BACKING.”

“John-John’s first word is ‘Cuba’ – LOSES INFLUENTIAL FRIENDS.”

Most artifacts are from the Kennedys’ own era, like a toy PT-109. Some date from post-assassination, such as postage stamps from around the world and a copy of the magazine article in which Jackie dubbed the era Camelot. Others are from decades after, including JFK GI Joe and bobble-head dolls.

A switchblade, made during his campaign, has a carved face that bears little resemblance to JFK. Other images are just as artistically scattershot, on two Italian tapestries, a cigar band, a ceramic spoon rest. A JFK Halloween mask looks like many other male heroes depicted in mass-produced masks. The manufacturer destroyed all its JFK masks after the assassination, making the collectible even rarer.

A copy of Vaughn Meader’s legendary parody LP “The First Family” is prominently displayed. So are four panels of a collection of cartoons of JFK and his allies – Eleanor Roosevelt, LBJ, Frank Sinatra — and enemies, including Nikita Khrushchev, who is shown with Fidel Castro peeking out of his pocket.

JACK & JACKIE: THE KENNEDYS IN THE WHITE HOUSE and COLLECTING CAMELOT: THE KENNEDY ERA AND ITS COLLECTIBLES are at Springfield Museums, 21 Edwards St. in Springfield, until March 25. springfieldmuseums.org.

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