Friday, March 16, 2018

Robert Kennedy Runs for President

It was fifty years ago today that Robert F. Kennedy announced his presidential candidacy in the same Senate caucus room that launched his brother’s successful campaign in 1960.  The ensuing three months  were largely electric as many of us who remember it were inspired. 

Much has been written about Kennedy’s transformation after his brother’s death.  Chris Matthews, Larry Tye, and Evan Thomas are among those who talked about how the seemingly ruthless consigliere for JFK became a passionate advocate for the underdog and a hero in the African-American community.

Robert Kennedy’s transformation began before his brother’s death and was evolutionary.  But one of the most important events was his meeting with African-American leaders in May 1963.  I discuss it in my book, Dinner in Camelot, about the Nobel Prize dinner at the White House thirteen months earlier.

Kennedy met Baldwin at the dinner.  The brief encounter was enough for them to come together in the wake of the Birmingham civil rights campaign during which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was jailed.  They agreed to meet at Kennedy’s home, Hickory Hill, in McLean, Virginia, to discuss race relations.  They did on May 23, but a late plane truncated the discussion.  Kennedy asked Baldwin to assemble some African-American leaders for a meeting in New York the next day.

More than a dozen people were assembled at the Kennedy apartment across from Central Park.  Among those present were Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne, Lorraine Hansberry, and Dr. Kenneth Clark, a prominent psychologist.  The meeting was brutal.  Kennedy clearly did not understand their concerns and was defensive when several people, especially young activist Jerome Smith, challenged him.  Dr. Clark later called the session “the most intense, traumatic meeting in which I’ve ever taken part…the most unrestrained interchange among adults, head-to-head, no holds barred…the most dramatic experience I have ever had.” 

Both sides left angry.  And yet, after a few days the arguments made about discrimination and civil rights had an impact on Kennedy.  He started to raise the issue of black equality in meetings.  Eighteen days after the New York encounter, President Kennedy delivered his noted Civil Rights Address, covering many of the concerns discussed at the meeting and outlining the legislation that would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Robert Kennedy was the only Kennedy advisor to support this televised, fourteen-minute speech.

I’m drawing a connection between the encounter at the Nobel dinner to the Kennedy-Baldwin meeting to the Civil Rights Address to Robert Kennedy’s maturation on the issue of civil rights.  It is the subject of my next writing project, but it also is one of the amazing outcomes of the April 29, 1962 dinner at the White House; you can read about it in Dinner in Camelot: The Night America’s Greatest, Scientists, Writers, and Scholars Partied at the Kennedy White House.

Interestingly, we later learned that the My Lai Massacre also took place on this day fifty years ago, March 16, 1968.  Kennedy’s views on Vietnam evolved during the 1960s as well.

One final comment on the RFK presidential campaign:  I was eighteen years old and a fervent supporter.  Robert Kennedy’s death in June 1968, just as I was graduating from high school, was a traumatic event—only eclipsed by that earlier assassination in 1963.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

JFK and the Famous Jefferson Quote

What most people know about the April 1962 Nobel Prize dinner at the White House is a famous quote from President Kennedy.  He said, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

The remarks were originally drafted by aide Arthur Schlesinger and significantly enhanced by Kennedy.  Schlesinger’s dry iteration focused on Alfred Nobel, the dynamite manufacturer and the founder of the prestigious international prizes, and ended with a three-paragraph toast, quoting Benjamin Franklin. 

Kennedy, who took pride in his writing, was in essence an effective conceptualizer and editor with a talent for humor and an ability to combine soaring rhetoric with a common appeal.  He wrote two bestselling books, Why England Slept (1940) and, of course, Profiles in Courage (1956), for which he won a Pulitzer Prize.  Neither book was flawless, but they were read.

Much of this speeches, articles and even Profiles in Courage were a collaborative effort with Ted Sorensen, a master wordsmith.  But, again, Kennedy was actively engaged in his works.  It is interesting to see his handwritten changes on various documents that are now stored at the Kennedy Library in Boston.

By the way, although the Jefferson quote was memorable, the premise is faulty:  The third president rarely dined alone.  He was quite social and regularly invited members of Congress, their wives, and others to the executive mansion.  He planned the dinners and even kept a running guest list.

For more on JFK's remarks and the Nobel evening see Dinner in Camelot: The Night America's Greatest Scientists, Writers, and Scholars Partied at the Kennedy White House (ForeEdge, available April 3).

The image here is of the initial draft of the first of four pages of comments that President Kennedy delivered on April 29, 1962 at the White House.  Note his addition on the left margin about Thomas Jefferson; further changes were made.  Source:  Papers of John F. Kennedy. Presidential Papers. President's Office Files. Speech Files. Remarks at Nobel Prize winners dinner, 29 April 1962. 

Monday, March 12, 2018

Historians Behaving Badly

Two of the most prominent American historians of the mid-twentieth century were guests at the Nobel Prize dinner at the White House in April 1962.  And both behaved badly.

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and Samuel Eliot Morison, biographers and chroniclers of such diverse topics as the exploration of the New World, Andrew Jackson, American maritime and naval history, and Franklin D. Roosevelt were longtime faculty members at Harvard.  Together eventually received four Pulitzer Prizes.

Schlesinger was one of the organizers of the Nobel dinner, prioritizing guest lists and providing other help as was his role as a Kennedy White House aide and gadfly.  Perhaps he was jittery about the outcome of the event, but literary critic Diana Trilling, a guest, observed him at the pre-dinner reception.  “He appeared to be self-conscious,” she recounted as she watched him drinking his martini, “as if borne down by his official White House duties.”

Whether by chance—or more likely by design—Schlesinger was seated next to Ava Helen Pauling in the State Dining Room.  Earlier in the day she and her husband, Linus Pauling, had been picketing President Kennedy outside the White House because of stalled nuclear test ban talks.  This action, along with Linus’s hectoring of the president through letters, had obviously irritated Schlesinger.

The bespectacled historian settled his chair on Ava Helen’s gown and then inquired how her “husband could possibly accept an invitation to the White House after what he had said to the President” in a recent letter, she reported.  He pressed the point and then grilled her on other matters.  Ava Helen attributed his rudeness to having been a Harvard professor!  She caught him hoarding presidential matchbooks, and that reinforced her image of him:  “He is a clout and a boor.”

Morison was annoyed that James Baldwin, who was apparently especially friendly at the dinner, had repeatedly approached him.  In response, he made a rather nasty racial comment about Baldwin, according to fellow guest Katherine Anne Porter.  But there was no escape for Morison:  He bumped into Baldwin again at an after-party later that night at Arthur Schlesinger’s Georgetown home.

For decades, going back to my early training as a historian, I studied the works of Schlesinger and Morison.  They were distinguished in their field, both for their research and writing.  But in preparing Dinner in Camelot I saw another side of their personality, and it was not flattering.  More about these two and many others is in Dinner in Camelot: The Night America’s Greatest Scientists, Writers, and Scholars Partied at the Kennedy White, which will be released by ForeEdge on April 3 and available for preorder everywhere.

The photograph of President Kennedy and Arthur Schlesinger, taken in July 1962, is in the public domain.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, and Katherine Anne Porter

Ernest Hemingway, certainly a great writer, also was a prickly character.  He was notorious for his sour relationships.  At the Nobel Prize dinner at the White House in April 1962, where he was posthumously honored, there were at least two prominent writers who would recall their past with him.

One was Katherine Anne Porter, who was at the pinnacle of her career; her only novel, A Ship of Fools, reached number one on the New York Times bestseller list that day.  She would remember the unpleasant meeting with Hemingway in Paris in the 1930s, her only encounter with him. 

Sylvia Beach, the proprietor of the legendary Shakespeare and Co. bookshop, introduced them.  “I want the two best modern American writers to know each other,” the expatriate bookseller said.  Hemingway refused to acknowledge Porter and stomped out of the shop.  She said that “it must have been galling to this most famous young man to have his name pronounced in the same breath as a writer with someone he had never heard of, and a woman at that.  I nearly felt sorry for him.”

John Dos Passos and Hemingway had met in Europe during World War I and were once great friends.  But Hemingway was always envious of other writers’ success, and the rupture came over political disagreements affecting the Spanish Civil War.  It also was affected by Hemingway’s belief that Dos Passos was responsible for his crumbling marriage to his first wife, Hadley. 

In a final break, Hemingway, upset over an article that Dos had written for Redbook, sent him a letter in 1938 in which he said, “So long, Dos” and added, “Honest Jack Passos’ll knife you three times in the back for fifteen cents.”

So these two writers had to sit through the primary after-dinner literary entertainment at the Nobel dinner which highlighted an unpublished section of Hemingway’s work; it was eventually released as Islands in the Stream.  From several accounts, the recitation by Fredric March was poorly received, not because of the superb actor’s performance, but by the writing of the late Nobel laureate.  We can only wonder what Porter and Dos Passos thought that night about the man who had disrespected them.

In researching and writing Dinner in Camelot: The Night America’s Greatest Scientists, Writers, and Scholars Partied at the Kennedy White House (ForeEdge, April 3), I was constantly amazed by the steady stream of relationships—some good, some bad, and some just forming—between the people there or represented that warm spring night at the White House.  Indeed, there seems to be an unending number of compelling stories.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Notable Women and the 1962 Nobel Dinner at the White House

The Nobel Prize dinner held at the Kennedy White House on April 29, 1962 is relevant to International Women’s Day (March 8) and Women’s History Month (March).  Although a majority of the honored guests were men, there were many notable women present who contributed greatly in several fields.

The only female Nobel Prize laureate was Pearl Buck, but she was perhaps the most distinguished American novelist at the time.  Her prolific work on China—especially the novel The Good Earth—and Asia were widely hailed.  Sometimes known by her Chinese name, Sai Zhenzhu—which is on her gravestone—Buck also wrote a small volume entitled Asia and Democracy during World War II.  She was a humanitarian as well.

Katherine Anne Porter had been nominated for a Nobel Prize and eventually received a Pulitzer Prize.  A short story writer, her only novel, A Ship of Fools, hit number one on the New York Times bestseller list the day of the dinner.  Porter an activist, too, protested the Sacco and Vanzetti trial and years later wrote about that miscarriage of justice.

There were other social activists at the dinner, and Ava Helen Pauling was among the most vocal.  She had encouraged her husband, Linus, to become more engaged in social issues, something which he most certainly did.  Her interests included Japanese internment, women’s rights, world federalism, and nuclear nonproliferation.  She and Linus picketed outside the White House before dinner.

Among the other writers at the dinner was Diana Trilling, She was an essayist, critic, and reviewer known for her strong views.  One of her subjects was J. Robert Oppenheimer, another guest.  In 1981 she wrote a bestseller on Jean Harris and the death of Scarsdale doctor Herman Tarnower.  “Di” left the most complete account of the Nobel dinner, an article which was published posthumously.

Although remembered largely as Ernest Hemingway’s fourth and last wife, Mary Welsh Hemingway was a foreign correspondent for London’s Daily Express and for Time, Inc.  She covered a number of the most important events of the late 1930s and 1940s in Europe, including the appeasement at Munich, Hitler’s annexation of Czechoslovakia, Normandy at the time of the D-Day invasion, and the liberation of Paris.

Rose Styron, who accompanied her husband, writer William Styron, had been working on The Paris Review.  She would become a noted poet and writer herself as well as an activist.  It was a great honor for me to have her write the forward to my book, Dinner in Camelot, which discusses the Nobel dinner.

Jacqueline Kennedy’s role in restoring the White House is well known.  She established the office of the curator, set up a Fine Arts Committee, launched the White House Historical Association, and did landmark work in returning the executive mansion to some of its original artistic splendor.  Her televised tour of the White House in April 1962 marked the first time that a woman hosted a documentary in that medium.  She later was instrumental in saving Grand Central Station from the wrecking ball.

Even some of the lesser known women at the dinner were notable.  One example is Catherine “Kay” Kerr, the wife of University of California president Clark Kerr.  She was a founder of Save the Bay the year before the dinner.  That organization, which is still vibrant, helps protect San Francisco Bay. 

There were other women at the dinner whose accomplishments were significant in their local area, their region and, in some, cases, the nation.  While the male Nobel scientists took the limelight, these women also were given recognition.

More stories about these women and others are in Dinner in Camelot: The Night America’s Greatest Scientists, Writers, and Scholars Partied at the Kennedy White House (ForeEdge), available for preorder and to be released in only twenty-six days.

The photo is of Pearl Buck speaking with President Kennedy on Korea at the Nobel dinner.  Source:  Robert Knudsen, White House Photographs, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.