Travels With JFK's Suitcase and Other Relationships
by Jean Harris
In 1962, my late husband Edward Harris, part time Surrealist artist and full time fund raiser, went to work for the University of Pacific as Director of Development. His major project was to raise funds for a new building for their excellent College of Physicians and Surgeons. Although P& S was one of the major dental schools in the country, it was inadequately housed in a Quonset hut in the Mission district of San Francisco.
Like everything else he tackled, Ed brought to the job all the imagination and intelligence he possessed, which was considerable. He read
everything he could about the history of dentistry and then wrote then wrote inspired
and inspiring columns for their monthly alumni magazine, the source he hoped to tap for his fund raising ambitions.
Dr. Max Rabinovich, retired San Francisco dentist, was President of the Alumni Association, and before long he and Ed were good friends. Max had a daughter named Marilyn, who was also an artist. He introduced her to Ed and then Ed brought me along to Marilyn's studio in North Beach where we met a few local artists and dealers and had a lovely time.
North Beach was the heart of the city and Enrico's coffeehouse on Broadway was where you sat and watched the action. The Matador was down the block and on Columbus, the Hungry I and the Purple Onion were where we heard Mort Sahl
and Lennie Bruce. The Troubadour and Basin Street West were for jazz, and
around the corner on Upper Grant Street was Café Trieste and Italian family
style restaurants like La Pantera where Rosa wouldn't seat you if she'd
didn't think you belonged. City Lights was the cornerstone and the bar at
Vesuvio the hangout. It was a heady time to be in San Francisco.
We lived out in the sticks, in Walnut Creek, not yet a suburb. San Francisco was where we went for culture and fun.
Marilyn introduced us to Elke Stolzenberg, fresh from Stuttgart, Germany: tall, blond, gorgeous and a photographer. She had been hired by the San Francisco Examiner.
We invited Elke to visit us in Walnut Creek where we lived in an old ranch house with our three sons, 13, 9 and 7. Ed asked if she'd photograph the family in exchange for a wardrobe of clothes from my apparel shop, to which she happily agreed.
And so we have a collection of black and white photos that perfectly captures us and our lives at that time. And Elke became part of our lives.
The following year she came to visit and told us she was moving to Spain. What? we exclaimed. Spain? Why Spain? Franco was still in power.
"I've fallen in love," Elke announced, "with a flamenco dancer. His name is Ciro. He was performing at the Old Spaghetti Factory and the paper sent me to interview him and I fell in love. I'm going back to Spain with him, and I'm going to study Flamenco dancing myself."
And she did. In addition, she learned Spanish and discovered that Ciro was gay. Their relationship was to remain that of teacher and pupil. That was alright too, because she found her second home in Madrid among the dancers and the cantadores and the musicians.
In addition to traveling most of the world billed as Elke La Rubia, a sensation as a tall blond gypsy, she used her camera artistry to
photograph all the performers of Flamenco she met and had two books published, one in German and one in Spanish. She bought an apartment in Madrid and visited her mother in Germany twice a year.
Back at the dental school Ed also developed other friendships among the faculty and administrators. The school's
reputation was growing, and there was a sense of pride and purpose in its direction.
One of the new faculty members had recently closed a prosperous practice in Boston, in order to spend the rest of his professional life teaching. Among his former patients had been John F. Kennedy when he was a Senator from Massachusetts and now recently elected President of the United States.
Ed and this Dentist, (whose name I never knew) would lunch together frequently. One day the dentist came into Ed's office carrying a leather suitcase. Stenciled on one side were the initials JFK.
"Here!" he said to Ed, handing him the suitcase. "It's yours!"
"What do you mean it's mine?" Ed asked.
"It's yours now! I'm giving this to you the way John F. Kennedy gave it to me."
Then the dentist explained that one day in Boston, Senator Kennedy showed up for his appointment straight from the airport, and was carrying this handsome hand-tooled leather suitcase. When his dentist admired the bag, Kennedy opened it, removed a few items and handed it over, insisting the dentist keep it.
"In Boston I lived in a large house with lots of closets," the dentist explained, " but here in San Francisco I have a small apartment and no room for extras. You live in the country in a big house, so now you keep it!"
And that's how Ed brought home the suitcase belonging to JFK. One year later, President Kennedy was assassinated and we all mourned.
The suitcase sat in the hall closet for years, brought out by the boys now and then to show their astonished friends.
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