Phillip Bailley has had this RFK portrait for nearly 40 years. Now he wants to own it.
Phillip Bailley has had this RFK portrait for nearly 40 years. Now he wants to own it. Credit: Illustration by Philip Gerhardt

It was June 5, 1968, the day Robert F. Kennedy was shot at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Back in D.C., a young campaign worker named Phillip Bailley made his way to Kennedy’s headquarters and entered the “Boiler Room,” the campaign command center.

The Boiler Room was famous. Edward Kennedy had his office there. So did a group of female staffers known as the “Boiler Room Girls.” But the Boiler Room was relatively empty that day. Some of the staff members had gone to California. Others were at the Kennedy home in Virginia.

Looking around the office, Bailley eyed a portrait of RFK hanging on a door. It was a sketch drawn earlier in the campaign by a student at the Corcoran College of Art & Design. Bailley decided to take it. He unpinned it from the door, drove it home, and hung it in his living room.

For the next four decades, Bailley would take the portrait with him wherever he moved, hanging it in the living rooms of many houses and even, for a time, in the lobby of a Key West hotel where he worked as a desk clerk. Whenever someone asked about it, he would proudly tell them of his time on the Kennedy campaign, about how he took the portrait as a keepsake after Kennedy was killed.

The Kennedy sketch is one of his most prized possessions, his attorney, Richard Murray, says. Now he wants to become its official owner. Early in November, Bailley filed papers in a D.C. federal court seeking legal proprietorship over the portrait. The defendants? Ethel Kennedy and the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

“We’re trying to get something resolved,” Bailley says. “I’m suing Ethel Kennedy, but really, it’s a win-win situation for everyone. I’m really just asking her, do you own this portrait that I’ve been carrying around lovingly for all these years?”

Bailley, 64, is seeking “legal claim” to the portrait because he has held it for such a long time, Murray says. His case is based on a legal theory called estoppel, which provides a statute of limitation on how long an owner has to claim a piece of property after it has been taken.

“If someone had a prior claim to it, they should have come forward at an earlier time,” Murray says, adding that anyone who objected to Bailley taking the portrait had ample opportunity to say so.

According to Bailley’s suit, “the portrait was removed in the presence of RFK’s personal and private secretary Rosemary Keough (aka Cricket) who did not object to Mr. Bailey’s [sic] taking the portrait.”

In addition, the suit says, “the portrait was viewed by numerous individuals who visited Mr. Bailey’s residence.” When he moved to the Pacific Northwest, “the portrait was displayed in fourteen different locations and observable to all those who came to visit Mr. Bailey.”

And when people entered the Key West hotel, “a full description of the portrait and how Mr. Bailey acquired it was given to all those who inquired.”

Not only was Bailley open about his possession of the portrait, his lawyer says, nobody else ever seemed to want it. “We’ve checked with the Corcoran and they’ve made no claim,” says Murray. “We don’t know who the artist was. As far as the Kennedys are concerned, you’d think Ethel Kennedy would be the one interested, if anyone.”

Murray says his office even reviewed police records from the summer of 1968 to see if anyone had looked for the portrait. “We did conduct a search as best we could to see if this was ever reported missing or stolen, and we couldn’t find anything.”

Rebecca Gentry, vice president of Institutional Advancement at the Corcoran, says she had never heard of the portrait until the Washington City Paper brought it to her attention. “At this point, our comment is simply that we have received the summons and are evaluating our interest,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Rosemary Keough, now Rosemary Redmond, tells a different story from the one recounted in Bailley’s suit. Redmond says she spent the day after the assassination with Kennedy’s children at the family’s Virginia home—not at campaign headquarters, as Bailley’s suit suggests. If she did go to the office, it was only for a very short period of time, she says, before flying to New York for Kennedy’s funeral.

“I was at Hickory Hill the day after the senator died. I went directly from the house to my apartment to the plane to New York,” she says. “I don’t have any memory of a portrait being taken.”

She doesn’t remember a man named Phillip Bailley, either, although she admits it’s possible he worked in a different area of the campaign headquarters. The volunteers tended to work on a separate floor, she says. “And I guess, when you think of it, there could have been some mayhem [that day]….Probably that office was exposed to people who were not in the inner circle.”

As for the portrait, “There were lots of images of the senator all over the office,” Redmond says. “Do I remember [the office] being decimated? No. I do remember that everything was being broken down.”

Still, she says, Bailley’s story “doesn’t ring a bell.”

Murray says the conditions under which Bailley took the drawing are less important than his behavior afterward, and as long as no one is contesting his ownership, why shouldn’t he keep a picture that has meant so much to him?

“There’s a part of Phillip Bailley who wants to get this matter resolved, because he’s been carrying this thing around for years, and he does want to determine the ownership,” he says.

Asked if the timing has anything to do with Bobby, the new movie written and directed by Emilio Estevez, Murray says, “the answer is no, not really….I think he does want to do a memoir or something….He has a fascinating story.”

Perhaps, but it’s not impressing the Kennedys. Gregory B. Craig, a partner at the law firm Williams & Connolly LLP, represents Ethel Kennedy. In a Nov. 28 filing on Kennedy’s behalf, Craig opposed the measure that Bailley is seeking.

“Mrs. Kennedy has no knowledge of the facts or circumstances alleged in the complaint. That Mr. Bailley would find it necessary to bring suit against Mrs. Kennedy in federal court on this matter is mind boggling,” says Craig.

The looming fight with America’s most-storied political family will provide another exciting chapter in Bailley’s long legal history.

According to an article in Time, Bailley graduated from Catholic University Law School in 1969 after being voted “most likely to be disbarred” by his classmates. Bailley spent his first few years out of school cultivating a practice based largely on “defending the indigent,” Time says. By 1972, the year the article came out, Bailley had been charged with “inducing into prostitution secretaries and office workers on Capitol Hill.” He pleaded guilty, was sent to St. Elizabeths Hospital for mental-health observation, and was disbarred, Murray says.

Bailley’s legal battles picked up again in the ’90s, with a series of defamation cases related to the 1991 book Silent Coup: The Removal of a President. The book, written by Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin, suggested that John Dean orchestrated the Watergate break-in to find out if the Democrats had information linking his girlfriend to a call-girl operation that Bailley promoted.

“There were really three cases,” says Murray. In 1992, Dean sued the book’s authors, publisher, Bailley, and G. Gordon Liddy, but “Bailley was eventually dropped from the case,” Murray says. He was also listed as a material witness in two subsequent Watergate-related cases. Murray represented him in all three.

“The real story of Phillip Bailley was that he was railroaded, he thinks, with Watergate,” Murray says. “He’s never publicly discussed it, but at some point, he will.”

In the meantime, Bailley, who lives in Fairfax with his wife and works as a legal assistant, just wants to stake a claim to the Kennedy portrait. He might decide to sell it or, at the very least, feature it in his memoirs, Murray says. “If he’s going to start telling his story, one of the things he’s going to talk about is that portrait.”

And that portrait could be worth a pretty penny one day, says Matthew Weigman, a spokesperson for Sotheby’s. Last year, Sotheby’s auctioned off a painting of Caroline Kennedy and her brother John F. Kennedy Jr. reading together. It was estimated to be worth between $3,000 and $5,000 and sold for $48,000, he says.

Elaine Stainton, executive director of the paintings department at Doyle New York, an auction and appraisal house, says that, right now, the Robert Kennedy drawing isn’t worth much because the artist is unknown, but “if you can name a name, right there, it has more value.” If Kennedy actually sat for the portrait, as Bailley claims he did, Stainton estimates that it could be worth as much as $2,500. And if Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis happened to own it for awhile, it could be worth as much as $5,000. “It sounds silly, but that’s the way it is,” she says.

Additional reporting by Dave Jamieson