Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg: The quiet Kennedy

<preform>When the daughter of JFK and Jackie O held a yard-sale of old family furniture at Sotheby's, the world queued up to buy a piece of Camelot. David Usborne </b></i>looks at the life of its reluctant custodian</preform>
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The Independent US


Riding the lift last week inside the emporium of art and antiques that is Sotheby's in Manhattan was like taking a trip to a celebrity edition of Cash in the Attic. Someone famous was selling off the family tat. Clearly, they had fallen on hard times and needed the extra money to replenish a drained bank account. Or perhaps, this being New York, they craved a little media attention.

Riding the lift last week inside the emporium of art and antiques that is Sotheby's in Manhattan was like taking a trip to a celebrity edition of Cash in the Attic. Someone famous was selling off the family tat. Clearly, they had fallen on hard times and needed the extra money to replenish a drained bank account. Or perhaps, this being New York, they craved a little media attention.

That there was something unusual about this sale, at least, we knew for several reasons. We were at Sotheby's, not some dead-end auction house in a converted garage. The bidding, moreover, was to carry on for three days with 700 different lots. This person, you would have to guess, was either a magpie extraordinaire or had one hell of an attic to rummage through.

Confusing, though, was the nature of items to be put under the hammer. There was a scattering of quite nice pieces - a maple-wood desk here, a portrait by Aaron Shikler there - but the rest of it hardly inspired. Incomplete sets of china with cracks and chips, a fibre-glass kitchen tray, some folding suitcase racks and a pair of entirely ordinary deck chairs. You could only hope that this poor soul, whoever it was, was being realistic about what money to expect; enough to pay for a cruise, perhaps, or a half-decent car.

Know the identity of that seller, however, and all bafflement evaporates as do your way-off-the-mark assumptions about the seller and her motives. The title of the catalogue - available downstairs for $53 (£28) - told it all: Property from Kennedy Family Homes. This was a sale of the contents of five Kennedy residences - in Hyannis Port and Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts as well as Manhattan, New Jersey and Virginia - on behalf of Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, daughter of the late President Kennedy and the last survivor of a single family more loved and more touched by tragedy than any in America.

For her, in other words, this was not about money or the media fervour, although, God knows the auction generated enough of both. By its close on Thursday, the tally of bids had surpassed $5.5m. But Ms Kennedy Schlossberg does not need the cash. In fact, she made clear before the sale's start that most of the proceeds would go to charitable causes and to the Kennedy Library Foundation, on which she serves as chairwoman. As for the bright lights that such an event was bound to generate, she loathes them. If she attended the sale, then she certainly didn't let any of us know it. More likely, she remained home in her Upper East Side apartment, just two blocks away from the auction house. But, why would she have come? This was the second time, after all, that Ms Kennedy Schlossberg, who is married to the art dealer and historian, Edwin Schlossberg, had brought to Sotheby's remnants of her family's glory years.

The last occasion was in 1996. That was no cash-in-the-attic affair, featuring some of the most prized possessions of her late father and especially her mother, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who died in 1994. No fewer than 30,000 queued up to inspect the pre-sale exhibition that time and the auction raised $34.5m. Among the lots under the hammer in 1996 was a Lesotho diamond engagement ring from Aristotle Onassis to Jackie (they wed in 1968) that sold for $2.4m.

But more than that, no one can imagine that these fire-sales - as lucrative as they are - can be any sort of fun for JFK's last living child. Behind every estate disposal hovers the smell of death. And the connotations of mortality are especially sad and cruel when it comes to this family. Her mother died of natural causes, though too soon. Not so her father, whose time came brutally in 1963 on a roadway in Dallas, or her uncle, RFK, felled in 1968 in a Los Angeles hotel ballroom. Worse, when she carted the first consignment of heirlooms to Sotheby's in 1996, she had a younger brother to help her set up the auction and get through it. But John Kennedy Jr is gone now too, after losing his life when his small plane crashed into the sea just off Martha's Vineyard nearly six years ago. His wife Carolyn Bessette and her sister also died in the crash. Memories of tragedy overlap one another in this family.

So never mind that the mood for the rest of us last week was nearly jovial. When a grey-haired man, who had been jabbing his paddle into the air all afternoon, only to be outbid each time by buyers with deeper and braver pockets, finally snagged something, applause erupted all around him. His purchase was celebrated also because the lot - an ordinary looking rug - was the first to go at below the estimated price. For almost everything else, it was quite a different story, with final bids outstripping the estimates often by 10 times or more. "If you are thinking about the estimates, forget it," joked the auctioneer, prompting waves of laughter when bidding on a horse blanket soared from $500 to a final bid of $11,000. A rocking chair that the President once cherished with an estimated price of $6,000 was snapped up by an Italian ship owner for $96,000. Someone gleefully paid $21,000 for some dog-eared old atlases.

The cascading of dollars aside, there was also a shared and palpable sense of thrill in the room. This much became clear at Sotheby's last week: the fascination that Americans feel for Camelot - the name given to those all-too-brief 1,000 days that John and Jackie occupied the White House - still has not dimmed. And politics don't enter into it. These were not just Democrat buyers, but buyers from all corners of the country, red and blue. And they had come from Europe, Latin America and the Far East too. It made no difference that the questionable intrinsic value of many of the lots had prompted one tabloid to unleash the headline "Came-Schlock" on the eve of the auction. People wanted these things regardless, because if they bought at this auction, they went home with a part of America's best-known legend. JFK touched that candlestick. Jackie wore that brooch. John John sat in that baby-chair, and so on.

There was, however, some surprise at just how high the prices were going. Among the potential buyers at Sotheby's was Brian Manning, who described himself as an old friend of the Kennedy family. At one point in the proceedings he rings a friend on his mobile phone and lets him listen in to the bidding. "Can you hear that?" he asks into the phone. "Can you hear how high they are going?"

"It's really astonishing," he comments, retreating to the back of the salesroom for a breather. "It's just another indication of the desire of people to participate in any way that they can in what was an epic period of American history". Tom McNaught, a spokesman for the Kennedy Library, also tried to explain the phenomenon. "A lot of people in this country really do love having artefacts or memorabilia associated with a great American. And JFK was a greatly admired man in American politics. In every public opinion poll taken on the subject of the greatest president, President Kennedy always ranks near or at the top."

If not for the cash, then why would Ms Kennedy Schlossberg even bother with this sale? It is hard to answer when you consider the pain it surely reawakened for her. "With the things that she has been through," comments Mr Manning, "it's hard to imagine how she even gets up in the morning". Moreover, under the hammer were items you might imagine would hold precious memories for her, such as the celluloid frame from 101 Dalmatians signed by Walt Disney to her brother, or the ring binder of black-and-white photographs of Tom Kitten, the cat that was hers during the White House years. Everything sold, in fact, were fragments of the life of her family long since shattered. Was she trying to draw a veil on her own pain-tinged past by jettisoning all this? Did she simply not care about this bric-a-brac any more?

In a short letter at the start of the catalogue, she tried to offer her own explanation. "After my mother died in 1994, my brother and I were faced with the task of deciding what to do with her possessions, and after careful consideration, we sold some of them in 1996," she said. "In the intervening years and the death of my brother, I found myself again with more houses and belongings that I could possibly use or enjoy." She ended the letter: "I hope these objects, books and furniture will bring a new set of memories as they find new homes, and I hope those memories are as happy as my own."

Many buyers seemed to appreciate the sentiment. "It really does seem as if she had all this stuff and no possible use for it," remarked Carson Kressley, the style guru from the television show Queer Eye for a Straight Guy, who had come to the auction in the hope of buying one of the many equestrian-related lots. "Instead of getting rid of it, she is sharing it with other people. I think it was a selfless thing to do."

There are some genes of her clan that Ms Kennedy Schlossberg inherited and some that she did not. A taste for media exposure is not one of them. She has made a point of staying away from the media's attention, rarely giving interviews and preferring above all to give her energies to giving her three children, Rose, Tatiana and John, as normal a childhood as she can. Nor did she grow up with the political bug that consumed her father, uncles and even her brother.

But what she did grow up with was a sense of civic duty. It is evident in some of the books she has written, notably The Right to Privacy in 1995, and her work on numerous public bodies. As chairwoman of the Kennedy Library Foundation, she created the annual Profile in Courage awards, given to anyone who has taken political risks for a cause they believe in.

And no more a Kennedy, perhaps, than she was this past week in opting to take the remainder of family's estate to Sotheby's and allowing it to be distributed to new owners. Each of those successful bidders has taken custody of a part of the Camelot legend. And now they will play their role in keeping that legend, and the mystique of her family, alive.

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