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Pamela Turnure Timmins, press secretary for Jackie Kennedy, dies at 85



Pamela Turnure Timmins, who served Jacqueline Kennedy as the first press secretary ever hired by a first lady, restoring Camelot’s image of sophistication and glamor while helping to usher in a high-profile new era for the east wing of the White House, died April 25 at her home in Edwards, Colorado. She was 85 years old.

The cause was lung cancer, said his half-brother O. Burtch Drake.

Ms Timmins, then known as Pam Turnure, was just 23 when she started working for the Kennedy White House in January 1961, days before the President’s inauguration. Unlike her colleague Pierre Salinger, a debonair press secretary to the president himself, she had no experience in journalism, apart from a summer spent working in a magazine run by her father-in-law, the publisher of Harper’s Bazaar.

But she had the faith and trust of the Kennedy family, whom she had known since 1957, when she met the then senator. John F. Kennedy at the wedding of Jacqueline Kennedy’s half-sister.

Ms. Timmins was hired as an assistant in the senator’s office and continued to work on his presidential campaign, helping type speeches, setting up state campaign headquarters in Wisconsin and West Virginia and organizing a roast beef for supporters. On election night, she was working on the phone at the Kennedy family compound on Cape Cod, gathering information about the results.

By some accounts, her relationship with John F. Kennedy extended beyond politics. Presidential columnists including Robert Dallek, Seymour Hersh and Barbara Leaming have reported that Ms Timmins was one of many women with whom Kennedy had affairs, a claim his family denied.

Ms Timmins has never commented on the allegations, according to her half-brother and half-sister, Deedee Howard. In interviews, they said Ms Timmins only had a platonic relationship with the man she described as “the most selfless person I’ve ever known”, and added that she was genuinely devoted to Jacqueline Kennedy, continuing to work as a press secretary for several years after the president’s assassination in 1963.

“She answers every question exactly as I would,” the first lady wrote in a 1962 letter to a friend. “I know she’ll do it right,” she added, “so we don’t even communicate for weeks.”

From her office on the second floor of the East Wing, Ms. Timmins has helped shape interviews, luncheons, state dinners and other public appearances for the first lady, working closely with Salinger and with Letitia. Baldrige and Nancy Tuckerman, who served successively in the White House. social secretaries.

Ms Timmins was the first person to officially hold the position of press secretary, although other officials have previously helped first ladies deal with the media.

“As modern communications took off, there was a need for the first lady to have a media presence,” said Barbara A. Perry, biographer of Jacqueline Kennedy and presidential scholar at the University of Virginia. In a phone interview, she added that the first lady was relying on Ms. Timmins both “to feed the beast,” promoting her husband’s presidency to reporters, and to “keep the beast at bay,” maintaining confidentiality around his marriage and his young daughter. children.

This attitude was summed up in a private note Jacqueline Kennedy sent to Ms Timmins ahead of the inauguration, explaining that ‘everyone is trying to get to us – but you’ll be there as a buffer’.

“My relations with the press”, she added, “will be a minimum of information given with a maximum of politeness”.

Ms Timmins executed this edict charmingly and at times bluntly, saying she quickly discovered the value of phrases such as ‘without comment’ and ‘for informational purposes only’.

At times, she received 50 calls a day from reporters asking for information about the presidential family, along with response letters asking for the first lady’s favorite photo, autograph or recipe. She pleaded with photographers to stop taking pictures of the couple’s children playing outside the White House; traveled to Europe with the first lady and the president; and once introduced to the media the family’s new pet, a gray cat known as Tom Kitten.

She also garnered media attention in her own right, including in newspaper profiles that emphasized her “hazel-eyed beauty” and “dark, shiny locks.” Society columnists noted that she had dated Aly Khan, ex-husband of Hollywood actress Rita Hayworth. “Let’s say he had a number of friends, and I was one of them,” Timmins noted.

For the most part, she kept the spotlight on her boss. When Jacqueline Kennedy decided to focus on restoring the White House, turning the building into a museum of United States history, Ms Timmins encouraged the first lady to take part in a television special showcasing the project. She spent about four months helping him prepare for the 1962 special, which drew an estimated 80 million viewers inside the White House.

Ms. Timmins later sought to protect the first lady’s privacy during times of tragedy, including when the Kennedys’ newborn son Patrick died in August 1963. Three months later, Ms. Timmins was part of the presidential motorcade to Dallas when she heard what “sounded like firecrackers”, as she later said.

It wasn’t until her bus arrived at the Dallas Trade Mart that she learned from a reporter that the president had been shot.

“You must be kidding,” she remembers saying. “Of course that’s not true. We have just been in the procession with him.

In a 1964 oral history released by the JFK Library after Ms Timmins died, Ms Timmins said she went to Parkland Memorial Hospital, where she joined the first lady outside the ward of operation. During a period of “agonizing waiting”, she saw someone carrying a paper bag, apparently containing the president’s personal effects. Someone else was wearing the pink pillbox hat that the first lady ripped off after her husband was shot.

Inside the hat, according to Ms Timmins, was “a bobby pin and a large strand of hair”, which the first lady had accidentally ripped from her head as she rushed to help her husband.

That afternoon, Ms. Timmins and other officials were taken aboard Air Force One, where they witnessed Lyndon B. Johnson being sworn in as president. The plane’s window blinds had been drawn and the plane seemed “cut off from the outside world”, Ms Timmins recalled.

“You knew things were going on, other people’s lives were going on,” she said. “But on that plane, time really stood still.”

Pamela Harrison Turnure was born in Manhattan on November 20, 1937. Her father, Lawrence Turnure, was a banker, and her parents divorced when she was just a few years old. She was raised by her mother, the former Louise Gwynn, and her stepfather, magazine publisher Frederic Drake.

After graduating from Bolton School for Girls in Westport, Connecticut, she studied at Colby Junior College in New Hampshire and Mount Vernon Junior College in Washington, D.C., where she got a job as a receptionist. at the Belgian Embassy. Then she met John F. Kennedy, then a married senator, who would become a frequent visitor to her apartment.

In his 1996 book “Jack and Jackie: Portrait of an American Marriage”, journalist Christopher Andersen wrote that Mrs. Timmins’ landlords, Florence and Leonard Kater, first heard of the late-night guest Mrs. Timmins’ “when they heard someone throwing rocks at her second-story window around 1 a.m. ‘We looked outside,’ Florence Kater said, “and saw Senator Kennedy standing in our backyard shouting: “If you don’t come down, I’ll come up your balcony.” So she let him in.

Ms. Timmins’ landlords sought to discredit Kennedy during his presidential campaign, circulating a photograph that allegedly showed the senator leaving their building late at night. Their efforts received little media attention, however, and Ms Timmins remained close to Jacqueline Kennedy after she left the White House, helping run the widowed first lady’s private office in New York.

When Mrs. Timmins married Canadian-born investment banker Robert N. Timmins in 1966, the wedding reception was held at Kennedy’s apartment on Fifth Avenue. Kennedy married shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis two years later, and Ms Timmins continued to work as an interior designer. After her husband’s death in 1990, she moved to Colorado.

In addition to his half-siblings Drake and Howard, survivors include another half-brother, William Drake.

Unlike many of her colleagues, Ms. Timmins never wrote a memoir of her time in the White House. But she still had vivid memories of those years, starting on the night of the inauguration, when she found herself driving journalist Joseph Alsop home after the inaugural ball.

Invited inside for a party, she helped her host prepare a late-night meal of scrambled eggs and terrapin when the new president dropped by unannounced.

“It was suddenly no longer the senator or Jack, whatever people called him, but Mr. President,” she recalled. “And I can’t really adequately describe the electric feeling that was in that room.”


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