Boston Sunday Globe

Pamela Turnure Timmins, 85; served as press secretary to Jacqueline Kennedy

- By Harrison Smith

Pamela Turnure Timmins, who served Jacqueline Kennedy as the first press secretary ever hired by a first lady, burnishing the Camelot image of sophistica­tion and glamour while helping to usher in a media-savvy new era for the East Wing of the White House, died Tuesday at her home in Edwards, Colo. She was 85.

The cause was lung cancer, said her half brother O. Burtch Drake.

Mrs. Timmins, then known as Pam Turnure, was only 23 when she began working for the Kennedy White House in January 1961, days before the president’s inaugurati­on. Unlike her colleague Pierre Salinger, the debonair press secretary to the president himself, she had no experience in journalism, aside from a summer spent working at a magazine put out by her stepfather, the publisher of Harper’s Bazaar. But, she did have the faith and trust of the Kennedy family, whom she had known since 1957, when she met thenSenato­r John F. Kennedy at the wedding of Jacqueline Kennedy’s stepsister.

Mrs. Timmins was hired as an assistant in the senator’s office and went on to work on his presidenti­al campaign, helping type speeches, setting up state campaign headquarte­rs in Wisconsin and West Virginia, and organizing an ox roast for supporters. The night of the election, she was working the phones at the Kennedy family compound on Cape Cod, gathering informatio­n on the results.

By some accounts, her relationsh­ip with John F. Kennedy extended beyond politics. Presidenti­al chronicler­s including Robert Dallek, Seymour Hersh, and Barbara Leaming reported that Mrs. Timmins was one of a number of women with whom Kennedy had affairs, an assertion her family rejected.

Mrs. Timmins never commented on those allegation­s, according to her half brother and her half sister, Deedee Howard. In interviews, they said that Mrs. Timmins had only a platonic relationsh­ip with the man she described as “the most selfless person I have ever known,” and added that she was genuinely devoted to Jacqueline Kennedy, continuing to work as her press secretary for several years after the president’s assassinat­ion in 1963.

“She answers every question exactly as I would,” the first lady wrote in a 1962 letter to a friend. “I know she will do it correctly,” she added, “so we don’t even communicat­e for weeks on end.”

From her second-floor office in the East Wing, Mrs. Timmins helped shape interviews, luncheons, state dinners, and other public appearance­s by the first lady, working closely with Salinger and with Letitia Baldrige and Nancy Tuckerman, who served as successive White House social secretarie­s.

Mrs. Timmins was the first person to formally serve in the press secretary role.

“As modern communicat­ions took off, there was a need for the first lady to have a media presence,” said Barbara A. Perry, a Jacqueline Kennedy biographer and presidenti­al scholar at the University of Virginia. In a phone interview, she added that the first lady relied on Mrs. Timmins both “to feed the beast,” by promoting her husband’s presidency to reporters, and to “keep the beast at arm’s length,” maintainin­g privacy around her marriage and young children.

That attitude was summed up by a private memo Jacqueline Kennedy sent to Mrs. Timmins before the inaugurati­on, explaining that “everyone is trying to get at us — but you will be there as a buffer.”

“My press relations,” she added, “will be minimum informatio­n given with maximum politeness.”

Mrs. Timmins carried out that edict with charm and occasional bluntness, saying that she quickly discovered the value of phrases like “no comment” and “for background only.”

At times she fielded 50 calls a day from reporters asking about the presidenti­al family, along with answering letters asking for the first lady’s picture, autograph, or favorite recipe. She pleaded with photograph­ers to stop taking pictures of the couple’s children playing outside the White House; traveled to Europe with the first lady and president; and once introduced the media to the family’s new pet, a gray cat known as Tom Kitten.

She also attracted media attention in her own right, including in newspaper profiles that emphasized her “hazel-eyed beauty” and “dark lustrous locks.” Society columnists noted she had once dated Aly Khan, the ex-husband of Hollywood actress Rita Hayworth. “Let’s say he had a number of friends, and I was one of them,” Mrs. Timmins remarked.

For the most part, she kept the spotlight on her boss. When Jacqueline Kennedy decided to focus on restoring the White House, effectivel­y turning the building into a museum of US history, Mrs. Timmins encouraged the first lady to participat­e in a television special showcasing the project. She spent about four months helping her prepare for the 1962 special, which brought an estimated 80 million TV viewers inside the White House.

Mrs. Timmins later sought to ensure the first lady’s privacy during moments of tragedy, including when the Kennedys’ newborn son Patrick died in August 1963. Three months later, Mrs. Timmins was riding in the presidenti­al motorcade in Dallas when she heard what “sounded like firecracke­rs,” as she later put it. Only when her bus arrived at the Dallas Trade Mart did she learn from a reporter that the president had been shot.

“You must be kidding,” she recalled saying. “Of course it’s not true. We’ve just been in the motorcade with him.”

That afternoon, Mrs. Timmins and other officials were taken aboard Air Force One, where they watched as Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as president. The plane’s window shades had been drawn shut, and the aircraft seemed “sealed off from the outside world,” Mrs. Timmins recalled.

“You knew things were going on, other people’s lives were going on,” she said. “But on that plane time had really stopped.”

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