Many people fantasize about a valuable piece of history emerging unexpectedly out of a trunk. For Gil Wells, something like that happened in the summer of 2015.
His 79-year-oldgodmother, who had dementia, had been bringing photographs and papers out of her room to puzzle over since she moved into his home outside Richmond, Virginia, several months earlier. One day, she emerged with a plastic sleeve holding two small sheets of White House notepaper.
Wells pulled them out, turned one sheet over and stopped cold.
“I saw ‘Nov. 22’ and ‘pink and navy Chanel suit,’” he recalled. “I just got the sickest feeling in my stomach.”
The handwriting was Jacqueline Kennedy’s, and the notes were a list she had drawn up before the fateful trip to Dallas in November 1963. Prepared for her personal assistant, Providencia Paredes, the document detailed Kennedy’s hour-by-hour schedule alongside the clothes and accessories to be packed, including the now-iconic pink ensemble she was wearing when her husband was assassinated as well as carefully planned outfits for parts of the trip that never happened.
Wells formally deeded the notes to the U.S. government in March 2016. Since then, they have been housed at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston: unnoticed, unpublicized — and perhaps off-limits.
After the donation, an archivist twice told Wells that Kennedy’s notes could not be made public since her daughter, Caroline Kennedy, had not given permission. It was a condition that went unmentioned in his donor agreement, and one that didn’t sit well with him.
“I feel like I was bamboozled,” he said in January, after sending a scan of the packing list to The New York Times.
But after an inquiry from The Times, library officials said that the archivist had been mistaken, and that Kennedy’s list was “slated to be opened ASAP.”
The confusion around the document reflects complicated questions of ownership and archival ethics, not to mention the tangled politics of presidential libraries, government-run institutions where the mission of preserving and presenting impartial history can collide with the legacy-burnishing agendas of family members, political loyalists and the private foundations that help pay the bills.
Those politics are especially complicated at the Kennedy library, which has been without a permanent director since 2015, when its leader, a federal employee, resigned after clashes with the chief executive of the library’s foundation. Even before that, researchers have long contended with a notoriously complex and often opaque thicket of access restrictions.
“More than any other presidential library, the Kennedy library has been known for decades to be restrictive and selective when it comes to who gets to see what,” said Anthony Clark, author of “The Last Campaign: How Presidents Rewrite History, Run for Posterity and Enshrine Their Legacies.”
The Kennedy library, which is owned and operated by the National Archives and Records Administration, opened in 1979 in a soaring, I.M. Pei-designed structure overlooking Boston Harbor. Downstairs, in the museum galleries, visitors wind their way through relic-filled exhibits telling the story of the president’s life from childhood to the assassination — an event commemorated in a small, almost chapel-like gallery containing only a single line of text: the date “November 22, 1963.”
Upstairs, the research library houses some 400 collections totaling about 25 million pages of documents, including the papers of President Kennedy and various members of the Kennedy family.
Jacqueline Kennedy’s personal papers, donated to the library by her and her heirs between 1979 and 2010, have been among the most closely protected, in keeping with her famous desire for privacy, of which Caroline Kennedy is known to be a fierce guardian. In 2014, an auction of Jacqueline Kennedy’s deeply personal letters to an Irish priest was halted, and the letters were returned to the family after lawyers for her daughter objected.
In 2012, the library began opening papers relating to Jacqueline Kennedy’s official duties as first lady, but her personal letters remain closed, under the terms of a 2009 deed that gives Caroline Kennedy broad discretion in determining what is released. (Kennedy declined to comment for this story.)
Meanwhile, the tapes of Jacqueline Kennedy’s interviews for William Manchester’s book “The Death of the President,” the publication of which she sued to halt, are sealed until 2067. And the blood-spattered pink suit itself, kept in a vault near Washington, D.C., is to be kept from view at least until 2103.
“We know that Jackie didn’t want anything to be seen,” said Barbara Leaming, who has written biographies of both President Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy. “But with the assassination, you’re dealing with just about the most highly charged material in the library.”
That’s a stark contrast to the auction market, where buyers snap up anything relating to the former first lady, from her letters to her underwear.
John Reznikoff, a Connecticut-based dealer who has sold many Kennedy-related items, including the white Lincoln in which the Kennedys rode in Fort Worth before flying to Dallas, estimated that the notes Wells donated might have fetched as much as $75,000.
“It’s a really sexy document,” he said. “It has everything: her poise, her planning, her status as a fashion icon and, of course, the dark side.”
Wells, 54, who died unexpectedly in May following a medical procedure, was no stranger to Jacqueline Kennedy’s mystique or its market value. When this reporter visited him at home, he pointed out a plate with an American eagle motif hanging on the wall — one of two he claimed to have bought at the blockbuster estate sale Kennedy’s children held at Sotheby’s after her death in 1994.
Wells, who worked as a caterer, and his sister sat at a table with their godmother, Shirley Ann Conover, and a housemate, mixing their own family stories with knowing gossip about various Kennedys. After the document surfaced, they recalled, they had tucked it inside a book about the former first lady for safekeeping.
“I’ve always been fascinated by her,” Wells said.
Just how Conover, a former employee of the Department of Veterans Affairs, came to have the notes is unclear. During the visit, she offered fragmented memories of her childhood in an orphanage in Washington and of her old apartment near the Russian Embassy, where she lived until moving in with Wells.
Wells said that Conover might have known Paredes, who died in 2015, possibly through a cousin.Conover said she wasn’t sure. But asked if she agreed with the decision to donate the document to the Kennedy library, rather than try to sell it, she was emphatic.
She didn’t want money, she said. “It’s not ours,” she added. “It’s theirs.”
But even after the donation, Wells continued to stew about the notes, which he said he had wanted the library to put on display.
Earlier this year, after he inquired for a second time about their status, Stephen Plotkin, a longtime archivist at the library, reiterated that the document could not be made available, even to researchers, without permission from Caroline Kennedy, who controls her mother’s copyrights.
“Although we have sought this permission conscientiously, we have received no reply from her,” Plotkin said. “We will continue to ask that the notes be open to research, but beyond that there is not anything more we can do.”
Officials at several other archives said they found the invocation of copyright odd. “Intellectual property rights restrict how items can be used, not whether scholars can look at them,” said Bob Clark, the former acting director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York.
But Kennedy library officials now say Plotkin misspoke. When The Times emailed him about the document, a response came instead from Rachel Day Flor, deputy director of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, the private nonprofit organization that raises money for the library. The document had never been closed, she said, but was simply part of a large backlog of miscellaneous donations that is currently being cataloged.
The library’s director of archives, Karen Abramson, speaking in a conference call joined by Flor, reiterated that the notes would be opened. Caroline Kennedy had been informed about the notes before they were donated, Abramson added by email, “but has never expressed any concerns” about opening them for research.
To add to the tangle, Abramson also suggested that the document might have been improperly removed from the White House by Paredes, and therefore could be seen as having remained the property of Kennedy, rather than being Wells’ to give.
“This item was given to us by someone who happened to have it in their possession,” she said. “There could be some debate about whether the family owned this,” she said, referring to Kennedy’s family, “or we did.”
Whatever the provenance of the document, it will be kept in perpetuity at the library. Leaming, whose recent biography of the former first lady argued that she developed post-traumatic stress disorder after the assassination, said she understood any protectiveness around such an artifact — innocuous, yet charged with grim significance.
“You have to be a human being and have sympathy,” she said. “The assassination is something she wanted to forget. But libraries are about memory.”
Susan Beachy contributed research.