With her impeccable eye for design and effortless ability to set global fashion trends, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was the 20th century’s most influential style icon. While the entire world was able to admire her wardrobe choices via the media, very few were invited behind the scenes where she collaborated one-on-one with her favorite designers. That very private aspect of the late first lady’s life is the focus of a January 17 Modern Design, Art & Fashion Accessories auction to be held at Palm Beach Modern Auction’s exhibition center in West Palm Beach, Florida.
The auction’s centerpiece is an archive of personal notes from Jacqueline Onassis to Bill Hamilton, longtime design director for Carolina Herrera. “Bill dressed Jackie Onassis almost exclusively from the mid 1980s until her passing in 1994. The notes in his archive show that their relationship wasn’t just about business; he and Mrs. Onassis were friends, as well,” said PBMA auctioneer and co-owner Rico Baca. “Some of the notes reveal how involved she was in the design process, but others are very warm notes expressing appreciation for things Bill had done for her.”
Onassis’ impeccable finishing-school manners followed her throughout her life. “She always hand-wrote thank-you notes and had a flair for making the recipient feel special,” said Baca.
Onassis had very definite ideas about detail and fit, and she conveyed them skillfully, Baca said. Auction Lot 51, consisting of a handwritten letter and two notes on blue personal cards imprinted “1040 Fifth Avenue,” includes such comments as: “The zebra costume looks great – but it could use a new pair of trousers in the same cut if the material still exists. If you take the padding out of the cap sleeves that should help a lot.” She goes on to say, “I am most excited about my brown velvet suit – very narrow pants please!” and in a postscript asks, “Could you send a brown satin sample to Manolo Blahnik. I’ll call about shoes.”
Three signed notes from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to Bill Hamilton
In a second note, Onassis asks that Hamilton send “…love to Mrs. Herrera and congratulate her for the business section piece where she has beat out all the competition & all others have fallen by the wayside,” adding: “Maurice, Ed and Caroline told me about it as usually I don’t grab the business section” – a presumed reference to her longtime companion Maurice Tempelsman, son-in-law Edwin Schlossberg and daughter Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg. This group lot, one of seven such lots from the Bill Hamilton archive, is estimated at $800-$1,200.
Another six lots are from interior designer Richard Keith Langham, who worked for Keith Irvine (1928-2011), an Onassis favorite known for his English country-house style. Langham’s eclectic archive includes thoughtfully composed thank-you notes and (Lot 60a) an illustrated book titled The White House, inscribed: “For Richard – Perhaps this great house will know your touch one day – your friend Jacqueline Kennedy” (dated March 4, 1987). Her opinions were plainly but politely expressed in notes such as the one that says, “I wasn’t mad about the black chairs. Too heavy I’m afraid – so do keep looking. Thank you. J Onassis.” Each of the Langham lots is estimated at $800-$1,200.
Jacqueline Onassis with Jayne (Mrs. Charles) Wrightsman at West Palm Beach Airport
Interspersed among the Hamilton and Langham lots are six group lots of silver gelatin prints from the estate of society photographer Robert Davidoff. “For 40 years Bob Davidoff was the Kennedy family’s official photographer when they were in residence in Palm Beach,” said Baca. “They felt very comfortable with him, so he had privileged access to them during informal moments.” Photos to be auctioned include Lot 49, Jacqueline Onassis with Jayne (Mrs. Charles) Wrightsman at West Palm Beach Airport; Lot 62, Jacqueline with President Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy; and Lot 57, Jacqueline with a young John Jr. en route to church. In the latter photo, the first lady wears a lace mantilla, a choice that sparked an instant trend among female churchgoers. Each lot is estimated at $800-$1,200, and copyright will convey with each of the images.
Jacqueline with President Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy
Robert Davidoff silver gelatin print of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis – a trendsetter in her mantilla – arriving at church in Palm Beach with her young son, John F. Kennedy Jr. From a group of two photos (second below) that will convey with copyright. Est. $800-$1,200. Palm Beach Modern Auctions image