Contrary to legend, the Dallas of 1963 wasn’t a backwater of ignorance and hate. It was already a forward-looking and sophisticated metropolis.
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On the last morning of his life, John F. Kennedy awoke beneath Vincent Van Gogh’s Road With Peasant Shouldering a Spade, an atypically placid landscape by an artist known for his agitated imagery. Along with an assortment of fifteen other paintings and small sculptures by big names such as Monet, Picasso, and Henry Moore, the Van Gogh had been installed in the Kennedys’ suite just hours before their arrival at Fort Worth’s Hotel Texas. The exhausted first couple got in around midnight and thought the artworks were merely hotel-quality reproductions until the next morning, when Jackie, as she walked around the suite, discovered a catalog of the impromptu little exhibition, which had been assembled in less than a week from local, mostly private collections. “Isn’t this sweet, Jack?” the first lady remarked.
“Hotel Texas: An Art Exhibition for the President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy,” organized by the Dallas Museum of Art and now showing at Fort Worth’s Amon Carter Museum of American Art, hauntingly reunites all save one of the original works installed in that hotel suite. It’s certainly one of the quirkiest commemorations of the fiftieth anniversary of the JFK assassination, yet perhaps also the most revelatory. After half a century of media overkill and rococo conspiracy theories and government investigations, this exhibit invites us to dramatically reframe a lot of what we think we know about the culture of Dallas, and Texas, on one of the most tragic days in American history.
Sophisticated enough to surprise the Kennedys, the Hotel Texas art display was intended as a rebuttal to popular caricatures of the uncouth Texas rich such as those found in Edna Ferber’s 1952 novel Giant and New Yorker writer John Bainbridge’s 1961 nonfiction book The Super-Americans. Contrary to its reputation in the national press, Texas in 1963 was a place undergoing profound cultural change, where the aging wheeler-dealers who collected Remingtons and Russells had been elbowed aside by scions who favored Abstract Expressionism and where Frank Lloyd Wright’s Dallas Theater Center had opened just two months after his Guggenheim Museum in New York City, and to less local outrage.
Change was also embodied by the Dallas elite who waited for JFK on November 22 at the ultramodern Trade Mart, itself a symbol of a business community that had diversified from oil and real estate into defense technology, consumer electronics, fashion, and the nascent data-processing industry. To the ire of local Democrats, the Trade Mart crowd was predominantly Republican. But in those days the Texas GOP had an educated urban base and was often more culturally moderate than the state’s conservative Democrats, many of whom remained knuckle-dragging racists and red-baiters. These Dallas Republicans were the same civic leaders who had put out the word that their city would desegregate its schools without unsightly (i.e., bad for business) rancor and obstruction—and had been lauded for their tolerance by JFK himself.
Yet it was a vocal minority of knuckle-draggers on the far right who had dominated the local and national news in the run-up to that fateful day. Just weeks before, anti–United Nations protesters whipped up by the John Birch Society’s darling, retired Army general Edwin A. Walker (who had finished dead last in the 1962 Texas Democratic gubernatorial primary), spat on UN ambassador Adlai Stevenson and struck him with a sign. Little mentioned in accounts then and since was the Dallas Council on World Affairs, the influential moderate-to-liberal group that had invited Stevenson to speak on United Nations Day in the first place. And Stevenson himself assured the president’s aides that JFK would receive an “enthusiastic” reception in Dallas.
So when JFK flew from Washington, D.C., to San Antonio on November 21, he was prepared not only to answer the angry right but to welcome Texas to the future. His speeches showcased a state that represented the front lines of a cold war that had moved into outer space: in San Antonio, he dedicated a space medicine complex; in Houston, where NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center had just opened, he saluted the city as a global leader in sea, air, and space travel. Standing outside the Hotel Texas, he extolled Fort Worth for building the world’s fastest nuclear bomber. And in the speech that he would have delivered at the Trade Mart, he had intended to praise Dallas’s fledgling Graduate Research Center of the Southwest (a precursor to the University of Texas at Dallas)—before reminding his right-wing critics that during his three years in office America had doubled its strategic nuclear stockpile.
Mindful of the Stevenson incident, the oligarchs waiting at the Trade Mart had insisted that their city deliver a courteous reception for the president. They got more than that, as the dense, rapturous crowds along the route from Love Field confirmed Stevenson’s forecast. But the far right had again bucked the pragmatic Dallas establishment, and that morning JFK was also greeted with a full-page ad in the deeply conservative Dallas Morning News assailing him as “soft on Communists.” The ad had been placed by a red-scare activist from New York but paid for by several local civic outliers, such as Nelson Bunker Hunt—son of the richest man in Texas—and, worse, green-lighted by a publisher whose father’s name had been given to the very Dealey Plaza where the president was later gunned down.
Quickly labeled a city of hate, Dallas didn’t catch much slack, even though the assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, a defector who had recently repatriated from the Soviet Union, considered himself a Marxist. Dallas’s climate of generic extremism had allegedly egged on Oswald, who only months before had tested his politically scattershot marksmanship by firing at none other than the idol of the JFK-hating radical right, General Walker.
The marginally employable Oswald, however, hadn’t survived in Dallas because he thrived in a city driven by hate. Instead, Oswald and his Russian bride, Marina, repeatedly received charity from an international cast of characters that reflected an increasingly variegated, accepting culture (already one in four Texans wasn’t a native). Members of the local “Russian colony” provided money and medical care for Marina and the couple’s infant daughter; Ruth Paine, a New York–born Quaker whose husband belonged to the ACLU and worked at Bell Helicopter, took in the Oswalds—and unknowingly, Oswald’s infamous Mannlicher-Carcano rifle, which had been stored in her garage.
The real story is that both John F. Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald awoke on the morning of November 22 in a Texas whose cosmopolitanism and complexity went unremarked in the days—and then decades—following the assassination. For years, Dallas struggled with self-image issues so deeply rooted in that dreadful day that the superficial, reflective-glass city satirized in the TV series of the same name was viewed as a deliverance, if only because the rest of the world started asking “Who shot J.R.?” instead of “Why did you kill JFK?”
Yet today’s Dallas, like the other Texas cities that JFK blitzed on his final journey, has moved from the front lines of the Cold War to the forefront of the “Metropolitan Revolution.” Assassination pilgrims will discover a Dallas unlike anything suggested by the traditional November 22 narratives: it is a demographically diverse and architecturally accomplished city, a place where wealthy conservative Republicans, following in the footsteps of the Hotel Texas exhibition donors, have sponsored much of the city’s cutting-edge culture and progressive city planning, while a multicultural, staunchly Democratic majority attempts to implement Obamacare, defying a state leadership so far to the right that it would please General Walker. Fifty years ago JFK came to Texas determined to prophesy our future rather than pander to our fabled past. Today his vision has been realized on the same streets where for so long it was thought to have been lost.