'There Will Never Be Another Camelot': The Kennedys' White House

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Igor Stravinsky, music composer and conductor and Mrs.Vera Stravinsky are greeted at door of the White House by President John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy on Jan. 18, 1962. (Harvey Gorry/AP)
Igor Stravinsky, music composer and conductor and Mrs.Vera Stravinsky are greeted at door of the White House by President John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy on Jan. 18, 1962. (Harvey Gorry/AP)

BOSTON — As part of our ongoing series "November 1963," we peeked inside the Kennedy White House — and its "Camelot" mystique.

"First day he came in, he said, 'You know, we really ought to have the nicest entertaining here, with the greatest distinction," Letitia Baldrige remembered Kennedy saying. She was Jacqueline Kennedy's social secretary from 1961 to 1963. "'Whatever it is, I'm counting on you to work towards it.' He was interested in perfection in every department."

Baldrige's story comes from a collection of newly-enhanced audio recordings of interviews with some of the people who knew the East Wing of the Kennedy White House best. Marie Natoli, professor of political science at Emmanuel College — an expert on the presidency — joined WBUR’s Morning Edition to revisit the "Camelot era."

Marie Natoli: This was a new era, as he said in his inaugural address. This was the first generation president born in the 20th century and I think he wanted to set a particular note of class and vigor to the White House. Think about his background and Mrs. Kennedy's background. They were accustomed to grace, and that's what they gave the White House, an extraordinary flair.

Bob Oakes: So it was under the watchful command of Baldrige that the Kennedys hosted their first official public party for the new presidential appointees, which really kicked off the Camelot years. Let's hear from Baldrige again:

"The usher's office informed me that under the previous regime they just didn't serve hard liquor at these parties, they served a spiked punch. And I said, 'Well, the Kennedys won't entertain — they wouldn't hear of that.' So he had a bar put up in the dining room and another one in the East Room. Well, the next morning's papers screamed. 'Liquor in the White House! Bars in the White House!' Finally, the president called me up in a rage, 'What did you do to me? Why did you do this?' And about eight months after that, I passed him in the corridor and he said, 'You know, I've been meaning to say something to you, Tish. The fact that you put one over on us and served hard liquor at that first party — and we've been serving it ever after — was the greatest thing that's ever been done for White House entertaining.'"

That's great.

It's so funny to hear her say that, but it brings out a point that's important to the era. Guests, of course, had always been thrilled to be invited to the White House for a dinner or a party out of the opportunity to be in the proximity of power. But now, a White House social event became a real social event.

It did. And that set the scene for the continuance of those Camelot years. We're going in a different direction. This is not the stodgy era of predecessors. This is a youthful crowd and, as far as the public was concerned, that was only part of the love affair. Camelot was the couple, the kids, the entourage and that whole elegant atmosphere in the White House.

Which, on the social scene, certainly drew a lot of well-known people on a regular basis. One of the frequent guests at the Kennedy White House was Princess Grace of Monaco. In this soundbite, Princess Grace recalls a luncheon encounter with the president at the White House. Let's listen:

"Well, he turned to me suddenly and asked, 'Is that a Givenchy you're wearing?' And I said, 'Well, how clever of you, Mr. President. However did you know?' 'Oh,' he replied. 'I'm getting pretty good at it now that fashion is becoming more important than politics. And the press is paying more attention to Jackie's clothes than to my speeches.'"

Jacqueline Kennedy, of course, a magnet for attention when it came to her attire. The cultural awareness that the Kennedys brought to the White House and to the nation plays into this, doesn't it?

Absolutely. You know, it was more than a fashion statement. It was politics. The attention given to Jackie was an extension of his presidency. She began to set a style for women in America. Women all over the country were wearing pillbox hats.

There was a public fascination with this kind of thing.

Absolutely, absolutely. And we have to also keep in mind that this was the first televised presidency. The first live press conferences, the constancy of the photo ops. But all that fit that whole scene of a personal love affair with that administration. And I don't think any presidency has been able to capture that since.

Let me ask about the performing arts, if I might for a moment. There were so many performances by the great performing artists of the era, from many genres. Why was it important, do you think, to the president and Mrs. Kennedy, and how did their love of the performing arts prove significant?

Well, both of them had been steeped in a love for the arts. I remember having heard one commentary saying, you know, the daytime world of Defense Secretary McNamara and Secretary of State Rusk turned into, in the evening, that of Bach and Grieg and Mozart. That there was this transition from the politics of the day to the culture of the night.

Alright, Leonard Bernstein, the famous composer and music director of the New York Philharmonic attended many public and private functions during the Camelot reign. A reign that he says was truly unlike any other. Here he is from a 1965 interview:

"The murder in Dallas was... Well, for me, I think it was the worst experience of my life. But for thinking people and working artists, I don't think we all realize to what an extent we were involved with it. And to what an extent America had a new image and a new promise for the artist until he was killed. And then it dawned on us like a very bleak dawn. And, I must say, it's never been the same since."

Leonard Bernstein from a 1965 interview. Though, at that time, he said it's never been the same since. Those years changed how the White House approaches the cultural involvement of every president since then.

Absolutely. And, you know, the Kennedys set a very important precedent, but it was a precedent that was more than something to be followed, it was something to be admired because of the message it sent out to the country and to the world — that government and politics and the arts need to go hand in hand.

The tapes in this story came courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and the radio documentary project, "We Knew JFK: Unheard Stories From The Kennedy Archives."

Funding for that project was made possible by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

This program aired on November 14, 2013.


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