If the Kennedys were once the closest thing America has had to royalty, then the walled beachfront estate in Palm Beach that famously served as the family’s vacation playground for 62 years was their royal winter palace.
Christened the Winter White House during John F. Kennedy’s shortened presidency, and at other times, usually in the tabloids, in more sinister tones as the Kennedy compound, the big house has been long linked in the collective mind of Americans of a certain age to some of the clan’s well-publicized personal and political romps, triumphs and travails.
Now you can own a piece of it. Not the house itself, which sold last year for $31 million to its second post-Kennedy owners, but the really quite nice furnishings the Kennedys sold along with the house in 1995 after matriarch Rose Kennedy’s death.
Like the grand dining room banquet table and chairs. Or the narrow Venetian-style twin bed JFK slept in. Or, if your tastes run a bit more to the outre, the walnut-framed massage table on which he sought relief for his near-crippling back ailments. Or Rose Kennedy’s dressing table and ordinary old steamer trunk, still tagged with the family’s handwritten Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, address. Even the pair of concrete planters that flanked the home’s front gate on Ocean Boulevard and were background detail in many a JFK news photo.
On Saturday, 153 lots consisting of lamps, rugs and carpets, stools, tables, chairs and assorted other furnishings once owned and used by the Kennedys will be publicly auctioned off in West Palm Beach, a mass unloading of genuine Americana the likes of which won’t be repeated in these parts anytime soon.
Few of the items are, divorced from the Kennedy association, anything especially lavish or valuable. Like the house itself, many if not most of the furnishings are not antique but were made to tastefully look it by Addison Mizner, the famed architect who in the 1920s established fanciful Mediterranean pastiche as the Palm Beach style and stocked his clients’ mansions with fitting furniture from his workshop.
“It was a family house, a beach house,” said Hindman managing director Donna Tribby. “It was not a house full of precious things. It had to be kid-friendly.”
And yet… there is an almost discernible aura, perhaps an imagined last sparkle of the faded Kennedy magic, about the baroque trestle tables, the Jacobean-style stools, the faux-Louis XV side tables and the upholstered armchairs in which JFK, as president-elect, screened candidates for his cabinet.
“A bit of American glory — past,” pronounced Alice Stockhamer on a recent afternoon as she curiously perused the furnishings, on exhibit at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers in West Palm Beach, with her husband, Sam. “We lived through all this — the golden years, the assassination, all of it.”
Interest in the sale has been high. Registrations for Saturday’s auction, which will take place simultaneously in the showroom and online, are heavy, Tribby said. About 100 people a day have come through the Hindman showroom on South Dixie Highway since the Kennedy batch went on display a week ago, and by Thursday things were getting a bit “crazy,” Tribby said.
Though estimates published in the Hindman catalogue may seem eminently reasonable — as little as $100 to $200 for some rugs, lamps and chairs, for instance —Tribby says that’s because they’re based on prices the pieces might fetch if owned by Joe Anonymous, not Joe Kennedy. But there’s no way to estimate how much of a premium the Kennedy factor might add to the base value, she said. Some items are likely to fetch many times the estimate, she said.
That’s pleasing news to John Castle, who with his wife, Marianne, bought the house and furnishings from the Kennedy family for $5 million in toto. Any true keepsakes the Kennedys took, including most of Rose’s furniture, he said. The remaining furnishings, hundred of items, were valued separately at $80,000, a figure that he said was likely a low estimate, even in 1995.
The Castles renovated and expanded the house, adding air conditioning and heating for the first time, then had the furniture carefully refurbished and restored. To be as historically true as possible, they kept most of the principal pieces in the rooms where the Kennedys had placed them.
He’s a Republican, Castle said, but also a JFK admirer, and he and his wife considered themselves custodians of the family’s Palm Beach legacy.
“I think this is very special furniture,” Castle said. “We felt it was a piece of American history, and so we preserved it as best we could. This is where Jack Kennedy, I believe, formulated lots of the important things of his presidency. He went to war from there as a young man and returned after the war to recover. He wrote his inaugural address and worked on Profiles in Courage there. He interviewed candidates for his cabinet.”
The couple, who used the house as their primary residence, are downsizing. They’re keeping “a handful” of things from the house, and have dozens more in storage, but the items up for auction are the best and most closely associated with the family.
But don’t look for Castle at the auction Saturday.
“I won’t attend,” he said. “I think it would be too wrenching to be physically there.”
The Kennedy patriarch, Joseph P. Kennedy, bought the house and furniture in 1933 from Rodman Wanamaker II, a scion of the Philadelphia department store family, for whom it was built in 1923. The house, though large and occupying nearly an acre directly on the beach, was modest by Palm Beach standards, a “minor Mizner,” as one historical account puts it.
Another Palm Beach architect, Maurice Fatio, designed an addition for Kennedy to accommodate his large, boisterous clan — besides JFK, it included older brother Joe, who died in World War II, and future U.S. attorney general and Senator Bobby and U.S. Senator Ted, as well as sisters Rosemary, Eunice, Patricia and Jean.
The elder Kennedy spent months at a time at the house over winter and spring, running his business and political affairs — he was an adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt — by phone, and often, while wife Rose was traveling elsewhere, entertaining friends and, reportedly, a string of mistresses. The children would come down from home base in Massachusetts and school for Christmas, Easter and spring break. The kids, and later their children, learned to swim in the pool and played football on the lawn that sloped down to the beach when they were not racing sailboats offshore.
JFK, who suffered starting in childhood from a number of mysterious ailments later attributed to Addison’s disease, frequently convalesced in Palm Beach. As president, he vacationed there, too, and held staff meetings and numerous press conferences at the house.
But the house’s sunny associations began to dim in the years subsequent to the assassinations of JFK and brother Bobby, as the clan’s darker side — the tales of affairs, drinking and dissolution and one infamous alleged rape — came to public knowledge.
Soon all that will be left of the Kennedys’ Palm Beach presence will be memories, photographs and the property’s distinctive gate on Ocean Boulevard — the only part of the house visible from the street and the only piece protected by the town as a historic landmark.
The Kennedys fought efforts to extend historic designation beyond the gate, and subsequent expansions — the house is once again under reconstruction by its new owners — have rendered it all but unrecognizable to anyone who might have once called the place home.
Notable things that happened at the home
▪ Family patriarch Joseph Kennedy reportedly seduced silent film star Gloria Swanson, with whom he would carry on a long affair, while his wife, Rose, read in another room.
▪ Joseph Kennedy built a walled “bull pen” by the swimming pool where he used to run his business empire by phone while wearing nothing but a wide-brimmed hat. His son, John F. Kennedy, reportedly also availed himself of the bull pen to sunbathe in the buff.
▪ John F. Kennedy researched and drafted his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage — now believed to have been at least partly authored by speechwriter Ted Sorensen — during a recovery from back surgery in 1954.
▪ After he was elected president in December 1960, JFK repaired to Palm Beach to relax, write his inaugural address and vet candidates for his cabinet.
▪ A retired 73-year-old postal worker named Richard Pavlick meant to assassinate JFK that December. He loaded his Buick with dynamite and waited for the president-elect to emerge from the front door for Mass, but desisted when wife Jackie Kennedy and their two children, Caroline and newborn John, came out with him. Pavlick was later arrested and committed to a mental hospital.
▪ In 1961, Joseph Kennedy, 74, suffered a massive stroke after returning from golfing. Though he lived until 1969, and would return to Palm Beach regularly, he was never again able to speak or walk.
▪ JFK spent his last weekend before his Nov. 22, 1963, assassination in Dallas preparing for his Texas trip.
▪ In 1982, Sen. Ted Kennedy went for a nude mid-day walk on the beach behind the house. The strange incident, which was photographed by a beachgoer, was never explained.
▪ In 1991, Sen. Ted Kennedy returned to the house after a night of carousing in Palm Beach with his son Patrick, nephew William Kennedy Smith, and a woman they met at a bar. The woman alleged that Smith raped her on the beach behind the house. Smith, who alleged the sex was consensual, was later acquitted.
Notable things for sale from the home
The family’s dining table and chairs: The Louis XV Provincial-style mahogany banquet table seats 12. Bids open at around $2,000 for the table, and at $1,500 for 14 Spanish baroque-stye dining chairs, 12 of them original to the house.
Rose Kennedy’s steamer trunk: A well-worn black steamer trunk with a handwritten label reading “Mrs. Rose Kennedy” and the family’s Hyannis Port, Mass., address. Bids open at around $500.
John F. Kennedy’s bed: Two Venetian-style walnut twin beds, supplied by Palm Beach architect Addison Mizner, were used by JFK and his older brother, Joe Kennedy, when they shared a bedroom. The beds were later used by JFK and Jackie Kennedy. Bids open at around $1,500.
JFK’s massage table: The president sought relief from crippling back pain on a walnut-framed massage table. Bids open at around $1,000.
Planters: The two white concrete planters once flanked the street entrance and are often seen in photos of JFK arriving at or leaving the house. Bids open at around $500.
Coromandel eight-panel floor screen: The piece, dating to the late 19th Century, was once owned by Sir Winston Churchill’s daughter Lady Mary Soames. Rose Kennedy traded Soames a fur coat for the screen while visiting her freezing castle with husband Joseph, who was Franklin Roosevelt’s ambassador to England. Bidding opens at around $1,000.
If you go
The Kennedy furnishings are on display through Friday at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers, 1608 S. Dixie Hwy., West Palm Beach, where the auction will take place on Saturday.
Bidders must register and may participate in person, on the phone or on one of two online bidding platforms.
For details, including hours and an online catalogue, go to http://www.lesliehindman.com/sale/winterwhitehouse/