THIS WAS THE LAST TIME they would see blue sky together. What a lovely day it had turned out to be. When they awoke that morning in Fort Worth, the sky was seeping rain. Not pouring, mind you. It wasn’t a hard rain that fell in Fort Worth, only a drear November rain that now seems an omen of tears to come. Everything always looks different in retrospect, and never more so than with the Kennedy assassination.
Had the rain continued, for example, the president’s Secret Service agents would have shielded the passenger compartment of the presidential limousine with a protective glass covering that was used to keep rain off the ﬁrst couple. It wouldn’t have stopped an assassin’s bullet, but it might have obscured his view. Even if the rain had not subsided, the president would most likely have waved off the bubbletop, had he been on his own. He thrived on direct contact with the crowds that turned out to see him and would not have minded a drenching if it granted him more eye-to-eye engagement.
It would not do, however, for the ﬁrst lady to get soaked. Spectators who turned out for the presidential motorcade, as eager to gape at her as at her husband, would have been disappointed if she were partially hidden from sight by the rain-deﬂecting bubbletop. But Jackie’s hair, her makeup, her elegant clothing — in a word, her image — were not meant for inclement weather. Or so, apparently, the president thought, and thus, had the rain continued, he probably would have agreed to the use of the bubbletop.
By the time they got to Dallas, the sky had dried its eyes. The day smiled upon them.
LIFE‘S FULL-PAGE COLOUR PHOTO depicting the presidential couple arrive at Love Field opens the magazine’s coverage of the assassination. The rest of the pictures in the report are in black and white, as if the very colours of human life, not to mention happiness, had bled out of them. Blurry enlargements from the 8-millimetre Zapruder film, they look like smudges on the page.
In contrast, the Love Field arrival shot, taken by the Veteran Life photographer Arthur Rickerby, seems larger than life — vividly coloured, crisply focused, it fills the page. The Kennedys look tall and vibrant. They come so close to the photographic picture plane that they seem within our reach, giants among us. Life‘s editors clearly intended Rickerby’s photo as a resplendent, magical, wonderful before to the drab, dismal, and violent after in what turned out to be the best-selling issue of the magazine in its ﬁfty-some-year history.
It is impossible to look at this image with a historically innocent eye. It comes to us today, as it did to viewers in 1963, replete with the poignancy of the conditional. The principals in the photograph, frozen in history, are forever poised on the precipice, about to suffer — he to die, she to scream — and Lyndon Johnson, that minor bumbling character who can be seen bending over behind Jackie, about to become the most powerful man in the world.
The photograph has the formal density of a carefully constructed painting. It is ﬁlled with intriguing visual symmetries and repetitions. Consider, for example, how the notched lapel of the ﬁrst lady’s suit echoes that of her husband’s, but more loosely and expansively, or how the stripes of his shirt connect to the broad blue stripe on the jet and the stripes of the ﬂag, as well as to the piping on her suit and the subtle striped pattern in its warp and weft. Note, too, how the geometric pattern of his necktie, with its neat rows of rounded rectangles, harmonizes with the bouclé fabric of her wool jacket as well as with the row of porthole windows on the jet and the three zeroes of the plane’s call number lined up beneath the ﬂag. The president’s pocket handkerchief, the vice president’s white carnation, and the ﬁrst lady’s white glove form an inverted triangle, compactly framing her. Particularly delicate is the way husband and wife ﬂeetingly touch arms, his hand going one way, hers the other. Regardless of its original journalistic purpose and subsequent historical signiﬁcance, the Rickerby photograph stands on its own as a richly complex visual artifact.
The accompanying text from Life commences, “Now in the sunny freshness of a Texas morning, with roses in her arms and luminous smile on her lips, Jacqueline Kennedy still had one hour to share the buoyant surge of life with the man at her side.” Here is that sense of the conditional I mentioned that is the staple of legends about heroes, saints, and martyrs. Life‘s designers laid out the opening two pages of the re- port so that Jack, on the far left, seems almost to look past Jackie to the facing page, on which an uncaptioned black-and-white photo shows a bouquet of white roses aban- doned on the back seat of the vice president’s car. The direction of his gaze, as in Re- naissance paintings, establishes a before-and-after narrative: triumphal entry of the hero on one side and on the other, as if he alone foresees it, a melancholy emblem of his imminent martyrdom.
Mrs. Kennedy carries a bouquet of red roses. Apparently all the local ﬂorists were sold out of yellow roses because of the many Democratic festivities planned. (The yellow rose is popularly associated with Texas, though the state ﬂower is the bluebonnet.) Red was the next-best colour available for welcoming the ﬁrst lady. Lady Bird Johnson, the vice president’s wife, and Nellie Connally, the governor’s wife, according to William Manchester, received white roses. Life shows one of those bouquets left behind in the vice president’s car; the other (whose roses look yellow, not white, despite Manchester’s account) can be seen in the Zapruder ﬁlm ﬂying out of Mrs. Connally’s arms when the president’s head shatters.
Red roses have a long-standing tradition. Since the Middle Ages they have signiﬁed the spilling of holy blood, the martyrdom of a saint. Although it was pure happenstance that Mrs. Kennedy received red roses instead of yellow, and though no one at Love Field, including the photographer, had any idea what was to take place a mere eight miles away, in retrospect — the only way in which anyone has ever viewed this photo — it prophesies death to come. It is a modern-day equivalent to a late Gothic or early Renaissance painting such as Stefan Lochner’s Madonna in the Rose Garden (1450) or Martin Schongauer’s Madonna and Child in a Rose Arbor (1473), both of which count on the viewer to invest the lovely red ﬂowers on display with a sense of the mortal tragedy to unfold. Although the roses in the photograph in no way predicted the assassination, they have given that photo a sense of ineluctable tragedy, conferring on John Kennedy, whose political ratings were slipping, a beatiﬁc aura he did not possess at the time of his death.
Indeed, under normal circumstances an alternative cultural signiﬁcation would have emerged from the photo. From ancient Rome to the Tournament of Roses parade in Pasadena each New Year’s Day, roses have also been a sign of victory, pride, and triumph. That meaning is still visible in the Love Field photograph but inevitably tinged with a sad or bitter irony.
Republished with permission from “Shooting Kennedy: JFK And The Culture Of Images” by Professor David M. Lubin of Wake Forest University.
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