JFK's Missing "Tooth" Found

For Immediate Release: May 10, 2000
Further information: Tom McNaught (617) 514-1662

Boston - Employee’s Detective Work Leads to Missing Artifact. A piece of scrimshaw from President Kennedy’s collection, long thought missing by the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, has been loaned by the family of Greta Garbo for display in the Library’s new exhibit "John F. Kennedy – Man of the Sea." The new exhibit opens June 3 and runs through November 1. The decorated whale’s tooth was given to the Swedish movie actress by President Kennedy following her private White House dinner with the President and Mrs. Kennedy on November 13, 1963.

Little record of Garbo’s White House visit exists and Kennedy Library curators were unaware of the President’s gift to the actress until last year. James Wagner, the Library’s museum specialist, was performing routine research when he came across a letter written by Greta Garbo to first lady Jacqueline Kennedy. In the letter, Garbo thanks the first lady for entertaining her at a private White House dinner.

"It was a most unusual evening for me that I spent with you in the White House," Garbo wrote to Jacqueline Kennedy. "It was really fascinating and enchanting. I might believe it was a dream if I did not have in my possession the President's ‘tooth’ facing me."

Intrigued by Garbo’s reference to the President’s "tooth," Wagner surmised that perhaps President Kennedy had given Garbo a piece from his prized scrimshaw collection as a memento of her White House visit. Hoping to confirm his theory and, if true, perhaps borrow the scrimshaw for the Kennedy Library’s upcoming display of President Kennedy’s nautical memorabilia, Wagner made a series of phone calls to actor’s unions in New York and Los Angeles in an attempt to get a contact name for the Garbo estate. [Greta Garbo died in 1990 at age 84].

Successful in reaching Garbo’s grandnephew in Colorado, their conversation led to Wagner receiving a phone call from Gray Reisfield, Garbo’s niece and heir, a week later. Reisfield confirmed that President Kennedy had indeed given her aunt a piece of scrimshaw during her White House visit and graciously agreed to loan the tooth to the Kennedy Library for the duration of the six-month exhibit.

"She always spoke of it as a magical evening," Reisfield said of Garbo’s dinner with President and Mrs. Kennedy. Reisfield recalled that her aunt, who herself had a small collection of scrimshaw, was "touched by the president’s gesture and extremely proud of the souvenir."

Wagner flew to New York in March to meet with Reisfield and bring the tooth back to Boston. Upon inspection, it was further determined that this particular piece had in fact been listed as missing in a 1964 study of Kennedy scrimshaw. Apparently the gift was a spontaneous gesture on the president’s part, and, as a personal gift, was never officially recorded in White House files.

The missing "tooth" from Greta Garbo’s estate will be among the many new materials the Kennedy Library will display as part of its special exhibit to mark the return of the Tall Ships, and the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy to Boston this summer.

Included among the historical treasures which document John F. Kennedy’s naval career and celebrate his lifelong love of the sea and sailing are items from his private collections of scrimshaw, tall ship models, and maritime paintings; his boyhood sailing trophies; the 26-foot sailboat Victura he sailed all his life off Cape Cod; and artifacts relating to his service in the U.S. Navy, including his World War II uniform and cap, and the coconut shell on which he scratched the message that brought the rescue of his crew after their PT boat was sunk by an enemy ship.

Other items include the sailboat shaped weathervane from President Kennedy's Hyannis Port home; the sword of John Barry, the founder of the U.S. Navy; JFK’s chronometer and barometer; seabird sculptures given to the President by Jacqueline Kennedy; and one of the many doodles the President made of his sailboat Victura.

President Kennedy’s love of the sea is legendary. An avid sailor as a young man, he served in the United States Navy during World War II, earning the Purple Heart and receiving the Navy and Marine Corps medal for his heroism in the rescue of his crew.

The exhibit John F. Kennedy: Man of the Sea will run concurrently with Jacqueline Kennedy Travels Abroad, a special exhibit on Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy's travels as first lady. Both new exhibits run through November 1.

The John F. Kennedy Library and Museum is the nation's official memorial to John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the United States. It is a presidential library administered by the National Archives and Records Administration and supported, in part, by the Kennedy Library Foundation, a non-profit organization.