Artist reacquainted with JFK painting after auction

    10:48 AM, Mar 1, 2013   |    comments
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    UNDATED (CBS) - While on assignment covering an auction of John F. Kennedy's presidential memorabilia two weeks ago, CBS' Anthony Mason uncovered a story with a fascinating and personal twist.

    The painting and the artist were reacquainted this week; Mason's stepfather, Henry Koehler, hadn't seen his portrait of President and Mrs. Kennedy sailing since 1963.

    Now 86 and still at work, he was just 36 when the Kennedy's commissioned the picture. The commission was so important, that up in the attic of his home and studio in Southampton, New York, he still keeps a file of correspondence.

    In it is a 1960 cover story he illustrated on sailing. Jackie Kennedy liked this painting of his. Koehler says, "She saw this in the magazine and she wanted to give it to Jack."

    It was an anniversary gift. Jackie later appeared in front of it in a newspaper photograph. Mason says, "I love what she says here: 'It's by far the prettiest picture in our house and by far the only one I have given him that he actually likes.'" Koehler says, "Well, that is quite the compliment, isn't it."

    A few years later, he was asked to paint the picture of the president sailing. Koehler says, "It was commissioned with two others by the Kennedy sisters to give their three brothers for Christmas."

    He did sketches of Jack, Bobby and Ted aboard the family sailboat, the Victura. One of the Kennedy sisters went to his studio to approve them. But just after she'd left, Koehler says, "I had a call from Audrey, your mother, my wife, and she said, 'Henry, don't you have the radio on?"

    It was the afternoon of November 22, 1963. The president had been shot. Koehler says, "Oh, I thought that was the end of the commission. (But) I did get a phone call from the Kennedy office saying 'Mr. Koehler, now how are the paintings coming' I said, 'Just fine.' I started to paint with both hands to get them done for Christmas."

    The president's Christmas present was delivered to Mrs. Kennedy. Koehler says, "Yes, a very sweet almost 'Thank You' letter."

    "'Dear Henry," Mrs. Kennedy wrote on black rimmed stationary, "You will never know how much the painting of the Victura means to me, and I shall treasure it forever. You are right in saying it will serve as a constant reminder of happier days."

    But another letter would come from Jackie. A rambling note written entirely by hand. In it she asked Koehler to repaint the picture, to remove her from it and to make the president "vague and far away." Her secretary, Nancy Tuckerman, told him that, in her grief, Jackie had been staying up late into the night writing notes she would not ordinarily have written. Koehler says, "Nancy said just don't even acknowledge the letter. So I didn't. I kept it, of course. But I didn't do anything about it."

    And that was the last my stepfather head of it, until it turned up at the auction. Mason says, "The first question everybody always asks is why did you make the background yellow?" Koehler responds, "I just thought it would make a stronger picture. And if you want a photograph, get a photographer."

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