Search This Blog

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

RIAC Remembers the 50th Year of JFK's Assassination

This November 22 will mark the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination.  Surely that month will provide an abundance of Kennedy history, pictures, videos, and conspiracies.  It will undoubtedly also re-open the debate on his policies and effectiveness as a president.  Are people more apt to remember The Bay of Pigs or the Cuban Missile Crisis?  Marilyn Monroe or the Space Race?  Of course, no president is perfect and the conversations that arise will hopefully be an excellent chance to study American history and learn from administrations past.

In this year of remembrance, Rock Island Auction Company has come across two very important pieces that will be sold at the December 6th, 7th, & 8th Premiere Firearms Auction.  One of which is from this extremely popular Democrat, and other is from one of the most revered Republican presidents - Ronald Reagan.

John "Jack" Fitzgerald Kennedy
Kennedy sitting aboard PT-109.
This history of President Kennedy is well-known and will not be reviewed in this article.  Instead, we will cover his history as related to the item being offered at auction: a rocking chair owned and used by President John F. Kennedy that is documented and authenticated by the Kennedy Family.

President Kennedy had severe health issues his entire time in public office.  One of the earliest of his chronic ailments was his bad back, which began to cause him troubles as early as 1936.  Jack had followed his elder brother Joe to Harvard and also like his big brother, began to play football there.  It was during his participation in this rough-and-tumble sport that young Jack ruptured a disk in his spine.  The injury would never be fully recovered from and would continue to plague Kennedy the rest of his life.  It kept him out of the Army in 1941, so Kennedy joined the Navy.  His bad back would be exacerbated even further in 1943 when  Lt. Kennedy's Motor Torpedo Boat, PT-109, was rammed by the Japanese Destroyer Amagiri, splitting it in two and instantly killing two of Kennedy's men.  In the accident Lt. Kennedy was thrown hard into the cockpit further injuring him.  Survivors were led by Kennedy to a small island several miles away and Kennedy even towed badly burned crew mate Patrick McMahon to the island by clenching a strap of McMahon's life jacket between his teeth.  He would later be treated for this injury, released from active duty in 1944, and receiving a honorable discharge in early 1945.

Kennedy after a spinal surgery in December 1954
After defeating the Republican incumbent for the U.S. Senate seat in 1952 and marrying Jacqueline in 1953, Kennedy would have several spinal operations over a course of two years.  The surgeries plus other medical issues were severe enough to warrant Kennedy being read his last rites on more than one occasion.  It was during his recovery from these surgeries that he wrote his Pulitzer prize-winning Profiles in Courage.

In the 1950s Kennedy consulted with New York doctor Janet Trevell regarding his lower back pain.  Suffering some similar maladies herself, Dr. Trevell recommended a style of rocking chair that had a tall, stiff back.  She called it the "Carolina Rocker" and the future president found it to be an effective remedy.  It is estimated that JFK owned between 12-14 of these chairs, each at different place he would frequent.  The chair for sale by Rock Island Auction Company is believed to have come from the Kennedy Palm Beach estate that served as the family's winter home.  These chairs have come to be known as "Kennedy Rockers" and are an iconic image associated with the young president.  This particular chair, used by Kennedy himself, was given to long time family cook Nellie McGrail (1911-1995).

For roughly 20 years McGrail was the family cook at the Palm Beach home and was Rose Kennedy's personal cook until 1984 when the matriarch would suffer a stroke.  McGrail was a beloved member of the Kennedy staff.  She was flown to Hyannis Port every year to celebrate Rose's birthday and on any other occasion that required her culinary delights.  She also had close ties with the family of Senator Edward "Teddy" Kennedy.  The chair was presented to McGrail upon her retirement in 1994 with a brass plaque attached to its left arm stating that the chair was indeed owned by the late President Kennedy and the reason for its presentation.  As if the brass plaque were not enough, the chair also comes with the following documentation and Kennedy family items:

Lot 1202: Documented President John F. Kennedy's Rocking Chair as Authenticated by the Kennedy Family
A letter from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to Nellie McGrail
A letter from Sargent Shriver to Nellie McGrail
  • A letter from Senator Edward Kennedy on his U.S. Senate stationary confirming that the rocker was owned by his late brother and was presented to McGrail as a retirement gift
  • McGrail's invitation to Caroline Kennedy's wedding to Edwin Schlossberg
  • A personal 1983 dated letter from Sargant Shriver to McGrail thanking her for taking care of Rose Kennedy, his mother-in-law
  • A 1973 dated letter to McGrail from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis expressing her regret that she would be unable to enjoy McGrail's cooking since she was traveling throughout Europe with Mr. Onassis for the year
  • A handwritten thank you note to McGrail from Ethel Kennedy
  • A 1974 handwritten letter from Joan Kennedy hoping that McGrail has "an enjoyable day and evening at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts" and inviting McGrail to join her and the Senator for dinner after the performance.
  • A 1974 thank you note from Eunice Kennedy Shriver praising McGrail's cooking
  • A 1960s era color photograph of McGrail with Rose Kennedy's birthday cake, likely one of the many that McGrail baked for Rose over the years
  • A 1970s era color photograph of McGrail with Edward and Rose Kennedy
  • A 1987 handwritten thank you note from Senator John Kerry praising McGrail's cooking while he visited the Kennedy home in Palm Beach
  • An 11x14 black and white photgraph of Joan Kennedy, Nellie McGrail, and Edward Kennedy, Jr. with his birthday cake and signed by Edward, Jr., "To Nellie, Thanks a lot!  Teddy K."
  • The Palm Beach Post obituarty of Nellie McGrail which details her relationship to the Kennedy Family.

The chair itself will be enough to attract the attention of Camelot enthusiasts across the nation, but when combined with the assortment of hand written letters, signatures, and photographs from well-known members of the Kennedy family, the lot will become a highly valued prize for one lucky collector.

Ronald Wilson Reagan
Reagan circa 1939
Ronald Reagan's presidency is also one that, despite its highs and lows, is remembered quite positively by many.  Like the Kennedy rocking chair, the item in this auction that was presented to the sitting 40th president has its origins in the president's younger years.  Nearly everybody is aware that before Ronald Reagan was a politician he was an actor.  Raised in Dixon, IL, just over an hour's drive from Rock Island Auction Company's current facilities, Reagan began working as a radio broadcaster in Iowa before moving to Los Angeles in 1937 to start a career as a film and television actor.  He signed a contract with Warner Brothers that same year after a successful screen test.  Reagan would star in many films, including over a half dozen westerns, but would eventually move toward television as his film roles slowed - a slowing that perhaps took place thanks to the call of WWII which would halt the young star's rise.

This brief role in western film would be time for the future governor and president to meet one Mr. Arvo Ojala.  Ojala also worked in Hollywood as a firearms technical adviser and as a "gun play artist."  Known as a quick draw master, Ojala would often be called in for close up camera shots involving a quick draw, gun spinning, or other fancy gun handling.  He had the privilege of working on westerns during the apex of Hollywood's western movie obsession.  He began his work in the 1950s, but unlike Reagan, continued even into the 1990s participating in such films as "The Three Amigos" and "Back to the Future III."  His coaching of movie stars and his manufacturing of holsters provided a priceless resource for the many, many directors that had the pleasure of working with the man who could draw, fire, and hit a target in one sixth of a second.  Arvo is likely most known as the "unnamed man" who is shot by Marshal Matt Dillon in the opening sequences of the TV drama Gunsmoke.

Clearly the two men became friends during their shared time in Hollywood.  Good enough friends that Ojala would make a rather extravagant gift to the sitting president.  Reagan would glowingly receive a cased set of consecutively serialized Colt Third Generation Single Action Army revolvers.  Not only would the  the revolvers come with their backstraps inscribed, "President Ronald Reagan / Presented by Arvo Ojala," but they would also come with one of Ojala's holster rigs featuring meticulously tooled leather and a solid gold and silver presentation belt buckle.

Lot 1201:  Historic and Superb Fully Documented Cased Consecutively Serialized Pair of ColtSingle Action Army Revolvers Presented to Sitting 40th U.S. President Ronald Reaganwith Exquisite Tooled Presentation Holster Rig and Important Gold and Silver Presentation Presidential Belt Buckle

Words alone cannot describe this offering enough and the Gipper showed he clearly felt the same way in a thank you letter to Ojala that reads, "There are no words to properly express my appreciation for the magnificent gift of the belt, holsters, and pistols so beautifully displayed in that case.  I know you described what you were planning, but I had no idea it would be so spectacular and so handsome."  That signed letter, from Reagan to Ojala, is included in this lot in addition to the holster rig, two pistols, and another letter from then Colt Vice President D.W. Davis to Ojala stating how honored he was that President Reagan has accepted the gifted Colt revolvers.

History remembers these presidents fondly, despite conflicts that arose during their administrations.  One representing the romance of Camelot and the other that of the Old West, each man was wildly popular in his time and has set forth for themselves a lasting legacy in the history of this nation.  Their glamour, notable sound bites, ideals, and respective roles in the Cold War have enshrined them in U.S. culture more solidly than their statues and other honors ever could.  This auction is a fantastic chance to own some of the personal items of these two monumental U.S. presidents.  Each one is a glimpse at that man's past, and iconic of the men they became.

In addition to these two historical offerings, other presidential items are also available in our December 2013 Premiere Auction.  We present for your approval:

A carved bust of a youthful John F. Kennedy
Standing 51 inches tall, this wooden sculpture and pedestal makes a striking and academic addition to any Kennedy or presidential collection.  It is the perfect companion piece to President John F. Kennedy’s rocking chair in Lot #1202.  The sculptor R.S. Saldibar is noted on the front as is the 1972 date of the sculpture's completion.

A large, impressive leatherbound book of official White House presidential portraits
The black leather cover is  16 ¼ inches wide by 20 inches tall and features a large, metal Great Seal of The Unites States mounted on it.  Only upon opening the large cover does one discover the title, The White House Gallery of Official Portraits of the Presidents.  The book was a limited edition release and is individually numbered, likely thanks to the extremely thick pages and high-quality printing of the portraits that must have been created at great expense to the publisher.  The book’s number is #4144 and was presented on October 5, 1907 to a Mr. H.C. Gill.  The portraits of every president are present up through William McKinley, whose administration stretched from 1897 – 1901, the final year of which is also the book’s copyright date.



  1. John . F. Kennedy’s assassination happened 50 years ago and a majority of Americans do not believe The Warren Commission Report. After 50 years of denials, free the files.

    “Sunny Day in Dallas” – Gerry Segal

  2. Very historic and beautiful items,the buckle and pistols are outstanding,AH !! To be a millionaire.

  3. The rockers were made by P & P Chair Company of Asheboro, North Carolina. Asheboro is my hometown and I have a couple of their rockers. Unfortunately, the factory is no longer open.