Filler On The Block

'What Am I Bid For Jack Ruby's Kitchen Sink?'
By Tom Miller

IT WASN'T SOTHEBY'S, and it wasn't in New York. In fact, the auction-house I went to for Kennedy-related items didn't even have a name, and barely a zip code. Yet when I read about an $85,000 lighter and million-dollar golf clubs, I think back to April 29, 1972, in Athens, Texas, and I have to laugh.

Jacqueline Kennedy was married to Aristotle Onassis at the time. Dallas had won Super Bowl VI, and Marlon Brando had just refused an Oscar for The Godfather. We were armpit deep in Vietnam, and Watergate meant a fancy address and nothing more.

When Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby was jailed for killing accused Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, his Carousel Club shut down. The nightspot's landlord stashed all the club's fixtures at a rural warehouse 75 miles from Dallas. Eventually he defaulted on storage payments, and Jack Ruby's sleazy cabaret--or at least its contents--became the property of the warehouse. The owners of Athens Transfer and Storage had no use for the goods, and decided to sell them at auction. This event initiated the Kennedy memorabilia industry, a phenomenon which climaxed last week at Sotheby's. I traveled to Athens, Texas, that day.

We were an odd lot--cafe owners looking for second-hand equipment, a few assassination buffs, local ranchers and farmhands, and the macabre and curious. Athens, a town where you could still pump gas for 21.9 cents a gallon, hosted 75 of us for items that, under other circumstances, couldn't draw fleas at a flea market: a brass chandelier, a stove, clothes racks, metal closets, chairs, an ice cream freezer, and the object of my desire, Jack Ruby's kitchen sink.

Two nights before the auction someone broke into the warehouse and stole the most tantalizing item: an 800-pound safe that hadn't been opened since its Carousel Club days. It was never located. With the safe gone the most sought after leftovers from Ruby's club were signs that said "CAROUSEL" and a metallic engraving of a horse on a wooden backing. Those two items, which went for $60 and $200, respectively, pulled in the most money. We are not talking big bucks in Central Texas almost a quarter-century ago. The high bid for a barstool was $26, for Jack Ruby's lime squeezer, $7, and a broken cash register, $31. A stage light shell, the Club's bathroom scale, and item No. 53, a can opener, together garnered less than $20.

I know that last one for sure; I bid successfully on Jack Ruby's can opener for one dollar. In all, 400 items sold, from broken corks to rusty silverware.

Afterward, I kicked myself for stepping out just before the kitchen sink went on the block, but I took solace in my booty for the day. To call a slightly corroded can opener a piece of history invites consideration of just what anoints an object historical--is it the item's intrinsic worth, who put it to use, or the use it was put to? With its success, Sotheby's has redefined history, and with it, the notion of value and the value of notions.

Image For years I carefully stowed my prize possession deep in a file drawer at my home on the west side. On occasion I would take it out to show someone who would understand--understand what I could never put my finger on--and hold it up as a totem of American history. Among these people was then-Tucsonan David Quammen, author of the current success, The Song of the Dodo. I became increasingly intrigued with how people related to the Kennedy assassination and how this singular event had become absorbed into mainstream American culture; I devoted my first book--long since out of print--to the subject. I credit Jack Ruby's can opener with launching that fascination.

I mentioned the can opener in that 1977 book, of course, but it wasn't until 10 years later that I saw it immortalized in fiction as well. The same David Quammen was then spinning spy thrillers, among them The Soul of Victor Tronko, which had a caustic and wonderfully funny portrait of assassination sleuths: "I met a retired newspaper editor, otherwise quite sane and intelligent, who had bought Jack Ruby's can opener at an auction," an exasperated congressional staffer says mid-way through a page-long harangue.

"Not for any evidential value, God knows, but just as a ghoulish sort of souvenir. He showed it to me. A rusty can opener. He carried it wrapped in a piece of chamois."

Today I keep that same can opener in a safe deposit box in downtown Tucson, a self-conscious reminder of its curious significance. The Texans who turned out for Jack Ruby's wares that afternoon 24 years ago were more confident. "I bet that's going to be worth a thousand dollars some day," one said to his neighbor as they loaded their knick-knacks after the auction.

"Yup. that's what I'm counting on."

"I got these for my young 'uns," said the first, pointing proudly to a few nondescript small tables at his side. "To give my kids a little something from their dad."

Indeed, if bidders at Sotheby's Kennedy sale preened their upper-class obsessions, the Jack Ruby auction drew working class desires. Buyers at both wanted a bankable piece of history. As for the Athens, Texas, warehouse owners, they should have kept their Carousel Club loot until the market heated up.

Imagine what they could get today for Jack Ruby's kitchen sink.

Tom Miller is the author of Trading with the Enemy: A Yankee Travels through Castro's Cuba, to be published in paperback next month by Basic Books. TW

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