John F. Kennedy Jnr. under the Resolute Desk

As the first child born to a sitting president in nearly 80 years, John F. Kennedy Jnr enjoyed a national spotlight throughout his life. He was in utero during his dad’s campaign, and grew up in the White House. The photo of John Jr. peering out from the panel which he called ‘the secret door’ under the desk (‘my house’ to John Jnr) as his father reviews the papers was an instant icon — both for its timing and composition.

The photo was taken by Alan Stanley Tretick, a former Look magazine photographer who took many intimate pictures of President Kennedy and his children. Ms. Kennedy was against her children being photographed and used for political purposes, and the above photo was taken when Jacqueline Kennedy was out of the country. JFK invited Tretick over in October 1963 — by this time, JFK had recently lost a child to premature birth and needed all the family affection.

An advance copy of Look magazine with the photos travelled with the Kennedys to Dallas — and hit the newsstands several days after the assassination. The image immediately comes to summarize the myth and memory of Camelot — that of a youthful President running the country with a young family playing at his side in the White House. It would take another Democratic president some forty years to portray a similar image in these photos (here, here).

The desk in the photo was the Resolute Desk, was a gift from Queen Victoria to President Rutherford B. Hayes and was built from pieces of a salvaged Arctic discovery vessel. With a few exceptions, it has been used in the Oval Office by every president including Obama. Nixon used the same one he had used as vice president. After the Kennedy assassination, President Johnson allowed the desk to go on a traveling exhibition with the Kennedy Presidential Library and later to be displayed in the Smithsonian. Primary reason was that Johnson found he was too large for the desk, and commissioned a plainer replacement from the Senate cabinet shop. Under President Reagan, the desk underwent a height adjustment so that the President could sit at the desk without banging his knees. The ‘secret door’ dates to an earlier adjustment. President Franklin D. Roosevelt requested that the kneehole be fitted with a modesty panel carved with the presidential seal to conceal his leg braces. (He had to placed a waste basket in front of his desks). FDR did not live to see it installed, but Truman liked the eagle motif and had it installed.