Everything in Mary Barelli Gallagher’s Alexandria home has a special story, and almost all of it involves the Kennedys.
Gallagher, 88, was personal secretary to Jacqueline Kennedy from 1957 to 1964, which includes the Kennedy presidency. Before that, she was Sen. John F. Kennedy’s secretary and worked briefly for Jackie’s mother.
Gallagher took care of many of the first lady’s affairs even before the White House, including reporting her expenses to her husband, a task she was issued thanks to a St. Patrick’s Day toothache.
The senator had been scheduled to march in a St. Patrick’s Day parade in Boston, but when Gallagher arrived at the Georgetown home to organize Mrs. Kennedy’s affairs, she found him at home with a puffy cheek and a toothache. He became interested in the expenses and requested that Gallagher keep him informed of his wife’s excessive spending, a job that would take up much of her extra time in the next years.
“Any time our paths would cross in the White House, I’d end up with homework because he’d ask me about her bills,” she said. “I like to say, ‘His toothache became my headache.’ ”
Gallagher recalled the time just before the 1961 inauguration when she was with Jackie, who said to JFK’s press secretary Pierre Salinger: “Oh, Pierre, Mary has to come to the White House.” Gallagher responded, “Are you talking about this Mary?” Jackie reassured her, “Mary, it’ll be just like Georgetown.” (She sometimes stayed in the White House living quarters.)
During all her time and work with the Kennedys, more than 50 years ago, Gallagher saved notes, photos and gifts, many of which will be part of a presidential exhibition by Bonhams at Decatur House on Lafayette Square March 25. The night before, she, and others who worked at the White House, will discuss their time there, as well as display their Kennedy-related items, their reminders of years spent with the president, first lady and family.
Through Gallagher, our relationship with Jackie also involved details like clothes, as she and Jackie were the same size, standing at five foot seven. Sometimes, Gallagher received hand-me-downs — and even pets.
Tom Kitten was young Caroline Kennedy’s cat, but Mrs. Kennedy entrusted him to Gallagher due to her husband’s allergies. Caroline often visited Tom Kitten and played with Gallagher’s sons, Chris and Greg, with their adventures documented in photos of the three sitting on the kitchen counter or standing around the piano while a Secret Service agent played. Jackie’s and the children’s visit to Gallagher’s Belle Haven home — where she has lived since 1954 — got a mention in the newspapers.
When Tom Kitten died, Gallagher’s husband Ray dug a grave for the cat in their backyard next to a memorial for Tippy, a golden retriever also given to them by Mrs. Kennedy. As her husband filled in the grave, Gallagher said to him, “I don’t think you’ve quite finished!” Tom Kitten’s tail was still sticking out.
Gallagher also has memories and items more indicative of the lifestyle she observed while working for Jacqueline Kennedy, including a leopard-fur pillbox hat and purse.
The fur came from a well-recognized Somali leopard coat that the first lady wore on her trip to India. Gallagher had arranged for Ted Kahn of Ben Kahn Furs to bring the piece to Mrs. Kennedy, and her wearing it led to high demand. In appreciation, Kahn later had the gifts made for Gallagher.
While the first lady’s leopard coat was popular, her most recognized outfit is the pink Chanel suit she wore in Dallas, famously blood spattered when her husband was shot. (The pillbox hat was lost.) Gallagher has another outfit worn that day — her own, a pink jumper with a white and pink striped blouse and a long tan coat.
She vividly recalls that fateful 1963 day, riding a few cars behind the president and seeing policemen running with guns drawn but not knowing what had happened. When her bus arrived at the Dallas Trade Mart, rumors were flying that the president had been shot. At the hospital, as the doctor emerged from the operating room, he quietly instructed Gallagher to support the first lady. “Dr. Burkley told me to go stand next to Jackie but not to change the expression on my face,” she said.
That Christmas, she received a chilling gift. It was an etching of the White House, inscribed, “For Mary, with greatest appreciation and affection,” signed by both the president and the first lady and dated Christmas 1963. The president had been assassinated in November.
Gallagher said she considers the first lady’s finest singular achievement to be “the brilliant renovation” of the White House, shown to the world during a national television interview and tour in February 1962.
Jacqueline Kennedy left Washington in 1964 and married Aristotle Onassis in 1968. As the American public questioned Kennedy’s motives, Gallagher felt an obligation to add her own story of everyday life with Jackie to the record and published the memoir, which she had originally written just for her sons.
Just as her mementos serve as relics of her time with the Kennedys, her 1969 book, “My Life with Jacqueline Kennedy,” offers a uniquely personal perspective on the first lady. At the time, the book was criticized for being too revealing and personal.
“She was a human being like we all are,” Gallagher said. “And she had a right to live her life as she felt like it.”