When personal letters written by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis go under the gavel Saturday at Palm Beach Modern Auctions, they offer a glimpse of a cultural and style icon who was never too busy to say thanks.
For 15 years from the Eighties until the early-Nineties, the former first lady penned numerous letters and thank you notes to Bill Hamilton, who worked as Carolina Herrera’s design director for 18 years. Onassis was a frequent shopper there for the last 15 years of her life, according to Rico Baca, auctioneer at Palm Beach Modern Auctions.
In one of her notes to Hamilton, Onassis, who was never one to shy away from color, wrote, “I am SO sick of everyone constantly in black — like Mediterranean villages where everyone is mourning for 20 years.”
Interior designer Richard Langham was also the recipient of numerous letters expressing her gratitude. Nineteen letters to Hamilton and 10 notes to the late Bob Davidoff will be sold Saturday starting at noon. The letters were written from Onassis’ Fifth Avenue apartment and her Chilmark summer house on Martha’s Vineyard during the mid- to late-Eighties and the early-Nineties. Palm Beach Modern Auctions expects the lots of letters to go for $800 to $1,200, based on previous private auction sales of some of Onassis’ other letters by other firms. She died in 1994 at the age of 64.
The sale also includes photos from the Sixties and Seventies taken by Davidoff, who first photographed Onassis and her family in Palm Beach during their White House years. Baca’s personal favorite is a 1973 shot of her walking confidently across a tarmac in wide-leg white pants, a silk blouse and her unmistakably oversized sunglasses. “Of course, the glasses were her signature. I love it because women didn’t wear pants at that time.”
He was also struck by how considerate Onassis was about thanking Hamilton and Langham. “The letters reveal an angle of someone who was inarguably the most famous person in the world for decades, and she managed her image remarkably well,” Baca said. “You send someone a thank you note not because you have to but because you respect them. Everyone loves a thank you note. No one ever says, ‘Oh no, I got another thank you note.’ It’s very old-school. It’s also the right thing to do.”
Having worked as a hair stylist for 25 years in Palm Beach, Baca is familiar with the frequent requests and favors asked of high-powered women. “These women have to be careful about the types of people that enter their lives. I know that with women like her, the phone is ringing all day and the mail is coming in — and it is all about what people want from her,” Baca said. “Hamilton and Davidoff were in her life for what she wanted. They were not trying to get something from her.”
Langham, who worked two floors away from Hamilton in the same office building, asked his friend more than once to introduce him to Onassis, but he declined. The fashion designer would, however, give Langham a heads-up before his meetings with Onassis, so that Langham could ride the elevator with the former first lady solely to exchange the occasional smile and pleasantry. After a few years of working with Hamilton, Onassis mentioned that she needed some interior design work done and inquired about whether the fourth-floor interior design business would be a good choice. Upon meeting Langham, she said, “Oh, it’s my friend from the elevator,”Baca said.
At that time, Langham was employed by Keith Irvine. Over a 10-year stretch, Langham decorated rooms for Onassis in her Martha’s Vineyard, Manhattan and New Jersey homes as well as the Virginia cottage she liked to refer to as “the Mouse House.”
As for how Baca tied the sale together, he said he first worked with Hamilton, who was Steve Rubell’s former partner, on a Studio 54-related sale a few years ago. Hamilton later put him in touch with Langham. The fact that Onassis went through the trouble to thank them reflects how she stood apart. “They worked in service industries. I doubt they expected to be thanked.”