A Childhood in the Whitehouse

Dolls modeled on the Japanese Emperor, Empress, and retinue given to Caroline Kennedy by the Japanese government. - Photo by Mimi Yeh

Dolls modeled on the Japanese Emperor, Empress, and retinue given to Caroline Kennedy by the Japanese government. – Photo by Mimi Yeh

MiMi Yeh

Generally a visit to the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum merits retrospection of a turbulent time in our country’s past. However, “Gifts From the World to the White House” shows a lighter side of politics-that of Caroline Kennedy’s doll collection. Kennedy was three when her father took presidential office in 1961. Visiting dignitaries and citizens would bring these dolls as state gifts to Caroline, who, along with her brother John, was the first child to be raised at the White House in 52 years.

Although there were many more dolls given than those actually displayed, Kennedy’s mother, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, feared that her children would be spoiled and donated them to hospitals and orphanages around the world. Because the collection has been so popular, its stay has been extended until November 5. Kennedy’s collection is impressive, with 77 dolls from 30 countries and a variety of famous faces that include Indira Gandhi and Monaco’s Princess Grace.

Clothed in native dress, the dolls are exquisitely crafted with minute attention to detail, a trait that can be seen in the likes of those given by the Japanese government. The emperor and empress are seated side-by-side while below, in matching delicately embroidered silk robes, are members of their retinue. An African doll in a colorful print costume and matching turban was a gift from President Houphouet-Boigny of the Ivory Coast.

“Many of the dolls are handcrafted and therefore both beautiful and delicate. Restoration efforts have returned each doll to its original appearance and will serve to preserve all the dolls for years to come,” said Frank Rigg, the museum’s curator.

The Kennedy collection can even boast having a fierce-looking kachina doll, a gift from representatives of the National Congress of American Indians. Kachina dolls come from the Hopi cultural tradition where they are given to young children as links to the spiritual world. With a bow in one hand, bulbous eyes, and sharp teeth, it’s hard to imagine cuddling with this particular toy.

However, the crowning piece in this collection is a five-foot-tall dollhouse bearing Kennedy’s name on the front door, given to her by President and Madame Charles de Gaulle. With its red roof and dove-carved shutters, it quickly found a home in Kennedy’s bedroom. In the front stands a doll smiling sweetly while another peeks through the side over a pink flower-filled window box.

“This collection represents what was a remarkable time at the White House. Not only did the nation and world benefit from the energy and fresh outlook of a brilliant young president, but also from the liveliness and fun of his young family,” said Deborah Leff, director of the museum. “Leaders, as well as citizens, from around the globe embraced the wonderful opportunity to bring dolls and toys to the White House. We are eager to share them with the public through this special exhibit.”