OBITUARY:Evelyn Lincoln

Twice a year for the last 32 years an elegant woman, her clothes and 1960s glasses hardly changing over the years as she herself aged, left three red roses at John Fitzgerald Kennedy's grave in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington DC, looking out over the broad Potomac river and wooded Roosevelt Island to the stuccoed portico of the White House where she once played an intriguing role as his secret confidante. The flowers were a tribute, not from a member of the Kennedy family, from a political operative, or from one of the late President's many lovers, but from his personal secretary, Evelyn Lincoln.

Lincoln was one of those women, rarer now than in her generation, who accept the most alarming responsibilities and the most delicate political and personal assignments as a professional secretary, while having no political ambitions and no prospect of any personal renown except in the footnotes and indexes of historians.

Lincoln used to sit in the small secretary's room next to the Oval Office in the West Wing of the White House, a cool figure who often dressed in grey and never seemed flustered by even the maddest day of overcrowded schedules and outsized egos. It was possible to wonder at the time, when the White House rustled with rumours about the President's private life, and later, when so many of those rumours were confirmed, how much the impeccably proper Lincoln knew about what was going on.

Recently she made it plain that she was very well aware, indeed that she helped to facilitate the amorous President's rendezvous. Those of us who waited in the West Wing for briefings and statements about this international crisis or that tense confrontation in domestic politics, imagined that Lincoln spent all of her time marshalling the flow of calls from heads of state and congressional callers. "Half my time", she divulged in a recent interview, "was spent with women calling to find out about him."

Lincoln, whose own marriage appears to have been a model one, was expected to contact young women - socialite friends from New York, call-girls, or government secretaries - and arrange for them to be picked up in one of the White House's black Mercury limousines and brought to the executive mansion, where they would be escorted to the pool or the private quarters by Kennedy's even more personal aide and principal procurer, Dave Powers, an amiable Irishman who acted as a sort of body-servant to the President.

Until Lincoln herself spoke about this part of her duties, most of what was known about her involvement in the President's sexual adventuring related to the extraordinary episode of Kennedy's prolonged affair with Judith Campbell Exner, whose favours he shared with the well-known Mafia don Sam Giancana.

Lincoln had a special number, changed every week or so, on which girlfriends could contact her and arrange dates with the President in the White House. When Campbell admitted to her affair with Kennedy, she released the numbers she had called Lincoln on, and they allied exactly with numbers Kennedy had previously given to Benjamin Bradlee, then the editor of the Washington Post, which published her revelations.

Kennedy's affairs, or many of them, have been public knowledge for years. But Lincoln surprised experts on the Kennedy legend in a recent television interview when she said she believed Jacqueline Kennedy, too, had affairs before his assassination. Lincoln seems not to have been particularly fond of her, and complained bitterly when Mrs Kennedy terminated her services. "Oh, Mrs Lincoln", said the former First Lady "this shouldn't be so hard for you, you still have your husband".

She was born Evelyn Norton, in Polk county, Nebraska, the daughter of John N. Norton, a member of the House of Representatives. She graduated from George Washington University in English and married Harold Lincoln in 1930.

Capable as she undoubtedly was, Evelyn Lincoln was not infallible. When the Kennedys were married in 1953 and flew to Mexico for their honeymoon in Acapulco, Lincoln failed to discover that the Mexican authorities would need to see their birth certificates. While the then senator, in some embarrassment, called Lincoln in his senate office to send the certificates, Jacqueline Kennedy irritated her new husband with a string of pointed comments about how even one of the most powerful US senators could not get himself admitted to Mexico.

Lincoln's reign as executive secretary in the White House ended with brutal abruptness. The morning after President Kennedy's body was brought back from Dallas, she went to the office, only to find that the new President was already there. "I have a meeting at 9.30", he said, "and I would like you to clear your things out of your office so that my own girls can come in." In the end, she was given an extension until noon. By 11.30am, she was gone.

The episode may help to explain her insistence, accepted by some historians, and disputed by others, that Kennedy, before his death, told her that Lyndon Johnson would be removed from the ticket when Kennedy ran for re- election in 1964. She had the rest of her life to remember those years of excitement and indiscretion. Until the very end of her life, she resisted what must have been an overwhelming temptation to avenge "the insolence of office, and the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes", not to mention the boss's widow's sharp tongue.

Evelyn Norton, office administrator: born Polk County, Nebraska 1910; married 1930 Harold Lincoln; died Washington DC 4 May 1995.

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