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Fate of Jackie's pillbox hat remains mystery decades later

In the nation's collective memory, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy is a clash of images and mysteries that may never be sorted out to the satisfaction of everyone.

But if there is a lasting emblem that sums up Nov. 22, 1963, the day America tumbled from youthful idealism to hollow despair, it is first lady Jacqueline Kennedy's rose-pink suit and pillbox hat.

The pink suit, blood-stained and perfectly preserved in a vault in Maryland, is banned from public display for 100 years.

The pillbox hat, removed at Parkland Hospital while Mrs. Kennedy waited for doctors to confirm what she already knew, is lost, last known to be in the hands of her personal secretary, who won't discuss its whereabouts.

Mrs. Kennedy could not have imagined the outfit she put on that day would come to epitomize the essence of Camelot and the death of it.

"The single symbol of that event and of her as a persona is that pink suit," said Carl Sferrazza Anthony, a first ladies historian. "It's all anyone need see and, in an instant, people know what it is in reference to."

Few public figures understood the power of fashion the way Jacqueline Kennedy did, and when she packed for Dallas, she chose nothing she hadn't worn before.

The goal was not to upstage the president as she had to his delight on a recent trip to Paris, but to exquisitely accentuate him as the 1964 election season kicked off. She took along two suits, one of them the pink Chanel knock-off created by a New York dress shop so she could indulge her French tastes and still buy American.

The pink was unforgettable -- the color of roses, azaleas, watermelon. Kennedy himself asked her to wear it. It was trimmed in navy blue, with a blue blouse, blue pumps and handbag, and the trademark pillbox hat, secured with a pin. All that day, her clothing bore witness to history.

Clint Hill, the Secret Service agent assigned to protect the first lady, remembered resting his hands on the suit's trembling shoulders, the left side of the skirt wet with blood where the first lady had cradled her husband's head.

Somewhere inside the hospital, the hat came off.

"While standing there I was handed Jackie's pillbox hat and couldn't help noticing the strands of her hair beneath the hat pin. I could almost visualize her yanking it from her head," Mary Gallagher, the first lady's personal secretary who accompanied her to Dallas, later wrote in her memoir.

Despite urgings from staff and handlers to "clean up her appearance," Mrs. Kennedy refused to get out of her bloodied clothes, according to biographer William Manchester's detailed account of the assassination, "The Death of a President."

"Why not change?" one aide prompted. "Another dress?" the president's personal physician suggested. Mrs. Kennedy shook her head hard. "No, let them see what they've done."

The suit was never cleaned and never will be. It sits today, unfolded and shielded from light, in an acid-free container in a windowless room somewhere inside the National Archives and Records Administration's complex in Maryland; the precise location is kept secret.

And the hat?

Agent Hill, 79, who famously lunged onto the back of the limousine that day to protect the first lady, had the answer. "I know what happened to the hat," he said in a phone interview. "I gave it to Mary Gallagher."

Gallagher, 83, and Providencia Paredes, the maid who boxed up the clothes after Mrs. Kennedy returned to the White House, together have posted for Internet auction a long list of items that once belonged to the former first lady: a pink nightgown: $300-$400; a used tube of lipstick and some pale blue stationery: $200-$300; an unopened pack of Greek cigarettes and matchbook: $100-$200.

But reached by phone, Gallagher refused to discuss the hat.

The whereabouts of the hat is a little-known mystery no one is working to solve; Kennedy historians contacted for this story were surprised to learn it's missing.

They suspect it was sold to a private collector, or stuck away in somebody's attic, lost to the nation, a hole in history.