29 August 2014

Greta Garbo and President Kennedy's "tooth"

Greta Garbo retired from acting in 1941 to lead a reclusive life far from the public eye. Despite her need for solitude, at times she did socialise with friends or acquaintances and occasionally hung out with the rich and famous. On 13 November 1963, Garbo was invited at the White House for a private dinner party with President Kennedy, the first lady and a few other guests. She enjoyed the evening immensely and would later refer to it as "magical". To thank her hostess, Garbo wrote Jacqueline Kennedy a short letter on 18 November. The letter was written just four days before the tragic events in Dallas. Upon hearing the news of Kennedy's death, Garbo was devastated. It wouldn't be long before she wrote another letter to the first lady, this time to offer her condolences.

In her thank-you letter to Jackie Kennedy (as seen below), Greta Garbo mentions President Kennedy's "tooth" which she had in her possession. Curious to know what she meant, I found the following fascinating story. President Kennedy was a collector of scrimshaw, and one of the items in his collection was a decorated whale's tooth. As a memento of her visit to the White House, Kennedy gave the tooth to Garbo who had a small collection of scrimshaw herself. Having been a spontaneous gesture from the president, his gift to Garbo was never officially listed in the White House files. Thus, when the collection of President Kennedy was catalogued in 1964, the tooth was missing and nobody knew what had happened to it. It wasn't until 1999 that James Wagner of the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum came across Garbo's letter and became intrigued by her reference to the president's "tooth". Wagner realised that she had to be talking about the missing tooth and assumed Kennedy had given it to her. So he got in touch with Garbo's family who confirmed his beliefs. Much to Wagner's delight, he got permission to borrow the tooth (which now belonged to Garbo's heirs) for display in a special exhibit at the JFK Library in 2000. 

Here is Garbo's letter that solved the mystery of Kennedy's missing "tooth":


Transcript: 

450 East 52nd Street
New York 22, New York

November 18, 1963

Dear Mrs Kennedy,

It was a most unusual evening for me that I spent with you in the White House. 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.

I shall forever cherish the memory of you, the President and the evening.

With all my affection,

Greta Garbo (signed)

To: Mrs. John F. Kennedy

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