Doodles on the margin of a memo: stacks of triangles, intersecting boxes, staircases with no clear beginning or end that travel the length of the paper. What makes these quick sketches so unique is the letterhead at the top of the page—The White House—and the hand that drew them—John F. Kennedy.
Kennedy was known to sketch on pieces of paper while on the phone or in meetings. His boxy, lined designs would circle the address of the White House, the typewritten agenda for a cabinet meeting, or even his own notes in meetings on the Cuban Missile Crisis.Each doodle served as a brief window into the mind of a President, during both the mundane and the crucial moments of his short time in the Oval Office. After Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, the nation struggled to make sense of not just the tragedy, but the man himself—a President whose image had defined an era in American pop culture.
Cracking Kennedy’s inner workings was something that Washington, D.C. lawyer Mark Scher grappled with even before the President’s death. Through connections at the White House, Scher obtained copies of doodles drawn by Kennedy (now at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum) in 1961. According to Scher, “There is an enigma to greatness that the others of us attempt to resolve through perception,” and he wanted to help make the unconscious artistry of a great man into great art itself.
In 1965, Scher brought photos of the drawings to a local D.C. designer Ralph M. Tate, whose M Street studio was known for working on floats for the inaugural parades of a number of Presidents, including Kennedy. Scher commissioned Tate to transform these sketches into art, although for months he withheld identification of the original creator. “When he told me first whose they were, I was struck dumb,” Tate told the Washington Post. Tate later wrote, “To say that this [information] provided additional perspective and direction for the work ahead would be an extraordinary understatement.”
Tate’s goal was to replicate the exact details of Kennedy’s doodles—first enlarging Scher’s photographs, then welding brass, aluminum, and steel to create the tangle of intersecting lines President Kennedy had left on his cabinet meeting agendas. Work on the sculptures went from the fall of 1965 through the late summer of 1966, and cumulated in more than twenty pieces ranging in size from a few inches to more than twelve feet in length. In the summer of 1967, Tate connected with Anacostia Neighborhood Museum (now Anacostia Community Museum) Director John R. Kinard through a museum staff member, and the men worked together to get the exhibition together in the span of a few months.
Tate’s “humble tribute to the thirty-fifth President of the United States” titled "Doodles in Dimension," opened to the public on November 22, 1967 at the Anacostia Museum, marking the four-year anniversary of Kennedy’s death. The exhibition—which, according to Anacostia exhibit meeting minutes, received Jacqueline Kennedy’s blessing—was covered extensively by the local press.
Two years after the exhibit’s opening, Tate was also the subject of a feature and photospread in Ebony magazine. Pictured showing U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy his sculptures, Tate told Ebony: “Once I realized that this was the work of Kennedy, I felt an obligation to bring out the magnificence of each little curlicue and squiggle. It may sound silly, but from that point I felt that I could get some kind of guidance from the spirit of JFK—the same kind of spirit he brought to the Presidency and which he must have been expressing in his drawings.”
It wasn’t just Tate that connected with President Kennedy’s drawings. After an article in a January 1968 Scholastic classroom publication, News Explorer, showed photos of Tate’s sculptures and Kennedy’s doodles, kids were inspired, too. Letters came to the Anacostia Community Museum and U.S. Senator Robert Kennedy’s office from classrooms across the country, asking for more information about the sculptor and his lofty inspiration. For others, the sculptures served as their own inspiration. As one girl wrote, to the “Sirs” of the Anacostia Museum: “I don’t write well but I can doodle…I used this paper to do it on. I showed you mine. Now it is your turn.” The letter, signed off as “Your doodler,” is on a loose-leaf sheet of paper, adorned with intersecting circles and curling lines so exact that they could be befitting of a former president.
Record Unit 265, Anacostia Neighborhood Museum Office of the Director, Records, 1966-1975, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Doodles series, Papers of John F. Kennedy, The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.