Pamela Timmins, Press Secretary to Jacqueline Kennedy, Dies at 85

The president was concerned about what a windblown ride in a motorcade would do to his wife’s hair. He asked her press secretary, Pamela Turnure Timmins, for advice. She proposed that the couple not ride in a convertible.

“We did discuss it, and I suggested the bubble top,” Ms. Timmins said in a 1964 oral history, “and just immediately he said, ‘No, that’s semi-satisfactory; if you’re going out to see the people, then they should be able to see you.’”

The president in question was John F. Kennedy, and the motorcade they were discussing was the fateful one through Dallas in November 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated.

In 1961, at 23, Ms. Timmins had become the first person ever to hold the title of press secretary to an American first lady when she joined the staff of Jacqueline Kennedy. It was a post that made her a witness to considerable glamour and considerable tragedy.

Ms. Timmins died on April 25 at her home in Edwards, Colo. She was 85. Her half brother, O. Burtch Winters Drake, said the cause was lung cancer.

Ms. Timmins had been a receptionist at the Belgian Embassy and, beginning in 1957, a secretary to Timothy Reardon, a top aide to John Kennedy, before she was chosen to be the first lady’s press secretary. The new first couple were made for the age of television and glossy magazines, and Mrs. Kennedy was going to be a magnet for media coverage the way few first ladies had been before.

The choice of Ms. Timmins (who was Ms. Turnure at the time) was unconventional, since she had almost no journalism experience or track record of working with the news media. According to “Jack and Jackie: Portrait of an American Marriage” (1996), by the journalist Christopher Andersen, it was Mr. Kennedy who told Pierre Salinger, his White House press secretary, to hire Ms. Timmins.

In any case, she settled into that fast-paced job, fielding dozens of phone calls and writing 20 or 30 letters a day; accompanying the first lady on trips and public appearances; and answering reporters’ questions about what Mrs. Kennedy was wearing, for example, and who had designed it.

“I can’t imagine anything more exciting,” she told the Washington newspaper The Evening Star in August 1961, when she was seven months into the job. “The whole aura of being here is wonderful.”

Mr. Anderson’s book described “a flowery welcome-aboard letter” to Ms. Timmins from Mrs. Kennedy, who wrote, “You have sense and good taste enough not to panic, and to say the right thing.”

The news media wrote about Ms. Timmins in profiles that were, by today’s standards, cloying and sexist; she was “a trim and pretty young lady,” a “comely brunette,” the “pretty press secretary.”

What those articles did not say, but what Kennedy biographers have said, was that Ms. Timmins may have been among the many women with whom the president had affairs. The relationship was said to have begun in the late 1950s, when Ms. Timmins was on then-Senator Kennedy’s staff. Mr. Anderson, in his book, wrote that Ms. Timmins had been Kennedy’s “on again, off again mistress” when she was appointed press secretary.

Mr. Drake said by email that Ms. Timmins had seldom talked about the subject and had maintained that the relationship was platonic.

Pamela Harrison Turnure was born on Nov. 20, 1937, in Manhattan to Lawrence and Louise (Gwynne) Turnure. Her parents divorced when she was young, and she was raised by her mother and stepfather, Frederic Drake, a magazine publisher.

She attended the Bolton School for girls in Westport, Conn., then Colby Junior College (now Colby-Sawyer College) in New Hampshire. She also studied at Mount Vernon Junior College in Washington before working for an interior decorator and then taking the Belgian Embassy job.

As Mrs. Kennedy’s press aide, “forbidden subjects for Pam to discuss with the press are Caroline’s kindergarten class, the first lady’s fox hunting, and nonofficial doings,” Helen Thomas, the longtime White House correspondent for United Press International, wrote in March 1963, referring to the Kennedys’ daughter. But her responsibilities grew more serious that August, when the Kennedys’ infant son, Patrick, died; she was instrumental in handling the crush of media attention.

Then came the assassination. Ms. Timmins assisted Mrs. Kennedy through all of it, including dealing with an avalanche of mail — tens of thousands of letters a day.

“There was no place to process it,” she recalled in the oral history, which was recorded for the Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. “It was just being stacked in enormous cardboard cartons, one on top of another, from floor to ceiling.”

She continued to work in Mrs. Kennedy’s office until 1966, the year she married Robert Timmins, an investment banker. She then worked for a time in interior decorating. After Mr. Timmins’s death in 1990, Mr. Drake said, she eventually settled in Colorado, where she enjoyed hiking with her partner, Steve Boyd, who died in 2018.

In addition to Mr. Drake, she is survived by another half brother, Willie Drake, and a half sister, Deedee Drake Howard.

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