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Guest of Honor

The place setting JFK would have used on that fateful day in Dallas.

By November 2015Comments

Photograph by Chris Plavidal

Ordinary objects can sometimes be transformed into significant artifacts simply by being in a particular place at a particular time. The place setting that occupies a case in the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, in Dallas, includes standard restaurant china: four plates, a cup, and a saucer in the Royal Leaf pattern, which was made in Japan. The setting also features three forks, two spoons, a knife, a tumbler, a stemmed goblet, a napkin, and a pair of salt and pepper shakers. But its importance is undeniable. It’s the dishes, glassware, and silver that would have been used by President John F. Kennedy at the Dallas Trade Mart luncheon to be held in his honor on November 22, 1963.

The schedule for the trip to Texas began to take shape early that fall. At a meeting at the White House on October 4, Kennedy and Texas governor John Connally, who would serve as the official host, agreed that the president and first lady would fly on November 21 from Washington, D.C., to San Antonio, where Kennedy would dedicate a new aerospace medical facility at Brooks Air Force Base. The Kennedys would then head to Houston, where they would attend a testimonial dinner for Congressman Albert Thomas, before flying to Fort Worth to spend the night at the Texas Hotel. The next morning, after a rally and a chamber of commerce breakfast, they would fly to Dallas, where there would be a nonpartisan luncheon with the Dallas business community. From Dallas they would fly to Austin for a fund-raising dinner and return to Washington the next day, after having spent the night with Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson at the LBJ Ranch.

The White House designated an advance man named Jerry Bruno to coordinate the Texas trip. There was a split in the Texas Democratic Party between the liberal minority, led by U.S. senator Ralph Yarborough, and Connally’s conservative majority. Connally wanted to make sure that he controlled the itinerary for the presidential visit. When Bruno came to Texas, on October 29, he met with both factions. The sharpest dissension was over the location of the Dallas luncheon. The Yarborough camp suggested that it be held in the Women’s Building, a massive exhibition hall on the state fairgrounds. Connally insisted that it take place in the Grand Courtyard of the Dallas Trade Mart, a smaller venue, and that it be by invitation only. Bruno was taken aback by Connally’s intransigence about the location. The governor told Bruno that Kennedy could not come to Dallas unless the event was held at the trade mart.

In the end Connally prevailed, and the luncheon was scheduled for noon on November 22, under the sponsorship of the powerful Dallas Citizens Council, a group of business leaders, and two other organizations affiliated with it, the Dallas Assembly and the Science Research Center. Invitations were sent to 2,600 guests. Luther Holcomb, the executive secretary of the Dallas Council of Churches, was to give the invocation, and J. Erik Jonsson, the president of the Citizens Council, was to introduce the president. In addition to the Kennedys, the head table would include the Johnsons, the Connallys, Yarborough, Mayor Earle Cabell, and the presidents of the Dallas Assembly and the Science Research Center. Kennedy would be provided with a leather armchair and a cushion for his back, and because it was Friday, the Roman Catholics at the luncheon, including the president and his wife, had been given a special dispensation so that they could eat the steak on the menu, which was to be accompanied by potatoes, green beans, rolls, and iced tea.

Guests began gathering in the Grand Courtyard at eleven o’clock, seeking out their assigned tables on the main floor and the surrounding mezzanines. The president was due to arrive at 12:30. When the shots were fired at Dealey Plaza, some members of the audience who had been monitoring the motorcade on transistor radios knew that something had gone wrong, but no one knew exactly what. At 1:01 Jonsson walked to the podium and said into the microphone, “Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention, please. There has been a delay in the arrival of the motorcade. There has been a mishap. We believe from our report that we have just received that it is not serious.” He added, “As soon as we have something to tell you, believe me, we’ll do it.” Twelve minutes later Jonsson came to the podium again. With his voice breaking, he delivered the terrible news. “I’m not sure that I can say what I have to say. I feel a little bit like the fellow on Pearl Harbor Day. It is true that our president and Governor Connally in the motorcade have been shot.” He then asked Holcomb to say a prayer.

Jerrie Smith, the daughter of Neiman Marcus founder Stanley Marcus, was in attendance that day. Fifty years later she recalled the effect of Jonsson’s announcement in an interview with the Dallas Morning News: “The press ran out. . . . Food was flying, and trays were being jostled around.” After the initial shock, the crowd started moving toward the exits, many of the guests weeping. Holcomb later said that he had attended countless funerals but had never seen a group of people so stricken with grief. “They forgot about copies of the program,” he explained. “I mean, they forgot about the steak dinner in front of them. You just saw them quietly moving, some of them looking for other members of their families.”

Trammell Crow, the Dallas real estate developer and an avid art collector, surveyed the departing guests and the vacant head table. He instructed a waiter to pick up the president’s place setting and put it in a paper sack, and he took it home with him. Today it is on loan at the Sixth Floor Museum from Crow’s son Harlan, where it remains a powerful reminder of that terrible day—and a destiny unfulfilled.

Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, 411 Elm, Dallas (214-747-6660). Open Mon noon–6, Tue–Sun 10–6.

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