The Power of Misinformation

Historians work to clear up misinformation all of the time. That’s one aspect of research that really attracted me to the field. You mean I can dig up better information about a “well known story” that is incorrect and help it to fade away? Sign me up!

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Miss Lowe, in her Madison Avenue studio…I like to think that she’s patiently waiting for a nosy historian to get her research and writing on the way.

If you follow this blog a bit, you’ll know that I am working on an adult biography of Ann Lowe. It’s sort of a big project. And while there are many exclusive discoveries that I look forward to sharing for the first time in that book, there’s one that I don’t mind going public with early–really early –for the greater good. If you are working on anything about Ann Lowe, feel free to use this, pass it along, shout this next paragraph from a rooftop. I’d appreciate it if you cited me in your writing, but I won’t fall to pieces if you don’t.

There’s a popular story that Jackie Kennedy (a long time client of Ann Lowe as a teenager and into her early twenties) described Lowe to a reporter (when asked about her wedding gown) as “a colored woman dressmaker.”

THIS NEVER HAPPENED.

I’ve had nightmares of being on an author tour and having to swat this question down like a bug, over and over again. Sharing the truth broadly will make us all feel so much better.

It’s one of the first things I ever read about Ann Lowe and it’s wrong wrong wrong. If there was ever a piece of misinformation worth kicking to the curb with a parade and fireworks and a 6 piece brass band–this is it! But it’s so gossip worthy that without our help to spread the right information, it will refuse to go away.

When I read it the first time, it FELT incorrect. And when I learned more first hand about the respect and admiration that Lowe’s clients held for her, this “quote” began to feel even more off tone and out of place. But it was reprinted in nearly every scholarly article written about Lowe, so I sort of shrugged my shoulders about it and moved along. I even put it into my masters thesis without question.

I HELPED TO SPREAD THE MISINFORMATION TOO!

Something that IS true is that, when she looked back years later, Mrs. Kennedy didn’t like the busy design of her gown and she did tell her daughter that it looked a bit like a lampshade–when it was donated to the JFK library, it was being stored with little fanfare in a family attic, in a department store dress box (or maybe even just a shopping bag!) That story is correct, but the“colored woman dressmaker” thing? Nope.

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The dress doesn’t have the “Jackie look”—but neither did Jackie in 1953…
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…by the sixties? Yep. (Not an Ann Lowe dress.)

 

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Remember these? Reader’s Guides to Periodical Literature? They take FOREVER to rummage through, but can still be a big help with early 20th century printed materials…if your library still keeps them around.

So where does the confusion start? The last installment of a three part article in Ladies Home Journal from 1961 that (ironically enough) will never turn up (when looking for Ann Lowe) in a search of those green reader’s guide to periodical literature books or online about Lowe because she is never mentioned in the article by name. She’s mentioned in the article only as “a colored woman dressmaker” because those are the words of the author of the article. The author repeated the phrase that year in her own book about Jackie Kennedy and from there, the first person to incorrectly attribute an author’s words to The First Lady (in the 1980s) made an honest mistake in their own research and the error took on a life of its own. For at least 30 years.

How did I find this out?

From a 1961 Newspaper article. My first, hey, wait a second! moment
From a 1961 Newspaper article. Not enough to confirm my hunch, but my first, “hey, wait a second!” moment.

About a half year after my thesis was finished, I ran into a 1961 newspaper article that mentioned Ann Lowe and said that she was “described in the book Jackie Kennedy as a colored woman dressmaker” intriguing, but any other info dried up from there. Tracking down the right quickie paperback 1961 book named Jackie Kennedy turned out to be impossible—I had no idea that it was used first in teaser articles in the Ladies Home Journal!

Until a search at the JFK library turned up correspondence “related to an issue about Ann Lowe” Oh really??

And buried in the correspondence of a Kennedy lawyer? A set of letters that helped the true story to unfold. The journalist’s insensitive words upset Lowe deeply. She wrote a concerned letter to Mrs. Kennedy, where she clearly stated that she held the journalist responsible for the comment, however she was concerned that if Mrs. Kennedy had cleared the article for publication, she also cleared the use of that phrase.

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For me, the most important phrase in here is when Lowe states “I would prefer to be referred to as a “noted negro designer” which in every sense I am.” It is so powerful to have her own words here.

 

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Memorandum from Letitia Baldridge
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This is one of those things that historians love to run into: An informal note at the top of a letter.

Mrs. Kennedy’s secretary, Letitia Baldridge responded by phone (and thankfully, logged the details of the call in this pile of correspondence.) Mrs. Kennedy never saw the final draft of the article and she did not know that the journalist used that language.  The details provided in the flurry of correspondence to follow helped me to track down the original article. The remaining letters in the bunch, between the Kennedy attorney, Lowe’s attorney and Curtis Publishing (seeking the Kennedy family’s help in getting a retraction from Ladies Home Journal—which was promised, but does not appear to have ever happened) are very interesting, and in another newspaper article a few years later, Lowe discussed the pain of that article and also mentioned that the apology from the Kennedy family was good enough for her, but she began to get the feeling that her lawyer (the husband of a client) was pushing the conflict between the Kennedy lawyer and Curtis Publishing because he was a Republican and hoped to make some trouble for the Democrats, so Lowe decided not to take the situation any further.

headshotAs an historian, It can be embarrassing to turn around and realize that you helped to spread misinformation! It is nice to get the chance to correct a situation—and this one just couldn’t wait.   —Margaret