Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Jackie Kennedy's Valentine's Day Gift

I don’t know who came up with the timing—probably network executives--but First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s tour of the restored White House was aired by CBS on Valentine’s Day 1962.  Mrs. Kennedy narrated the one-hour black-and-white program along with the urbane journalist Charles Collingwood.  President Kennedy joined them at the end.

Mrs. Kennedy was delighted with the efforts that had been undertaken, which were the most extensive in the d├ęcor and furnishings at the White House since Theodore Roosevelt’s administration.  Eighty million people—30 percent of all Americans at the time—watched the broadcast, and the First Lady was given an honorary Emmy. 

The reports on the program were glowing.  The New York Times in a front-page story the next day called her “a virtuoso among guides.”  An Associated Press report said, “It was informative, entertaining television at its very best and credit is due largely to the easy, authoritative commentary by Mrs. Kennedy.”   As a result of the broadcast, this thirty-one-year old First Lady’s role in American society was significantly enhanced.

Jacqueline Kennedy placed a high premium on upgrading the executive mansion—highlighting art and history—and making it a living museum.  Among other initiatives, she hired the first White House curator, established a White House Fine Arts Committee, and launched the White House Historical Association.

Some of these developments were highlighted in an extensive cover story in the September 1, 1961 issue of Life magazine.  Following closely after the February 14 televised tour, a grand—if more intimate unveiling—took place at the dinner for Nobel Prize winners and other American intellectuals ten weeks later.  Perhaps the most impressive room on display was the Blue Room, which was restored to the grandeur of President James Monroe’s time.

Perry Wolff, the producer of the program, released a book which was, in effect, an annotated transcript of the Valentine’s Day presentation.

Monday, January 29, 2018

JFK and Robert Frost

Robert Frost, who died fifty-five years ago today, was one of America’s preeminent poets.  In writing my book Dinner in Camelot (ForeEdge, April 3), I highlighted one brief aspect of his long life:  his relationship with John F. Kennedy.
Their relationship began the night of Frost’s eighty-fifth birthday party at the Waldorf-Astoria in 1959.  At a news conference that evening, Frost implied an endorsement for the Massachusetts senator’s anticipated presidential candidacy.  Two weeks later, Kennedy sent a letter to Frost, in which he extended birthday greetings, joined him in extolling the virtues of New England, and gushed over the four-time Pulitzer-Prize winning poet.

Kennedy asked Frost to deliver a poem at the 1961 inauguration, and his recitation of “The Gift Outright” quickly expanded his national recognition. After the inauguration, Frost counseled Kennedy, who was forty-three years younger:  “Be more Irish than Harvard.  Poetry and power is the formula for another Augustan Age.  Don’t be afraid of power.”

The following year, on April 29, 1962, he was invited to the Nobel dinner at the White House—which is the subject of Dinner in Camelot—and was seated at the president’s table.  He also joined a select few at the after-party in the second-floor family residence. 

A few months later Kennedy sent Frost to the Soviet Union as part of a cultural exchange program.  Frost, who had a triumphal tour of the communist country, also met with Nikita Khrushchev.  But on his arrival back home, the tired old poet made a misstep at an impromptu news conference, saying, “Khrushchev said that we were too liberal to fight.”

President Kennedy, a cautious politician, avoided Frost, no report was received, and they never met again. The poet died in January 1963.  In October, Kennedy helped dedicate the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College.  In paying tribute to Frost and American artists, Kennedy gave his last speech in Massachusetts.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

JFK's First Press Conference

President John F. Kennedy held his first press conference on January 25, 1961, five days after taking office.  He demonstrated what would become commonplace for his subsequent press conferences:  open, witty, articulate, and well-prepared responses to the media.   These sessions  attracted many reporters; this one had 418 people in attendance.  

He held sixty-four press conferences during his 1,036-day presidency.  The usual venue was a large auditorium in the State Department building.  Broadcast live, they attracted widespread interest.  Years later when I worked in the State Department building, I would attend meetings or simply wander by what became the Loy Henderson Auditorium and express awe at the issues that were discussed in that room between 1961 and 1963. 

Kennedy’s use of television and his easy interaction with the media—sometimes sparring with reporters using humor—became the basis of what we considered normal exchanges between the president and media for over fifty years.  Several other presidents conducted themselves well at news conferences, but JFK set the bar high.

The photo is from that first press conference.  Credit:  Abbie Rowe.  White House Photographs.  John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston; public domain.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Inauguration Day: March Fourth

It’s widely known that inauguration day occurs on January 20 every four years.  But perhaps less recognized is that inaugurations up through 1933 took place on March 4, on the day that the U.S. government was officially launched in 1789. It was changed as a result of the Twentieth Amendment,  the ratification of which came too late to affect the inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was elected president on November 8, 1932. 

Travel considerations were at least partly to blame for the lengthy gap between the election and inauguration.  But it can’t be overlooked that the interregnum created difficulties, especially when the nation was in crisis.  That certainly was the case in 1860-61 as newly-elected Abraham Lincoln was powerless to deal with the rush to secession by southern states between December and February.

The problem also was acute during the long period between the defeat of Herbert Hoover in 1932 and inauguration of Roosevelt.  The outgoing administration tried to address some of the deep challenges of the Great Depression, but the incoming president was unwilling to work with them.  FDR, showing the political acumen—or political manipulation—that he would practice so skillfully in the White House, did not want to share any credit or blame with Hoover and preferred to begin the New Deal with a clean slate. 

Roosevelt was formulating his plan while Hoover pursued his futile effort.  A major architect of the early response of the new administration was William H. Woodin, a successful train foundry entrepreneur from Pennsylvania.  Woodin was an intriguing figure, a Republican who had multiple interests, including being a musician and a prominent numismatist.  He worked tirelessly on banking and monetary issues for about a year as treasury secretary before dying in May 1934.    

Oh, the first president, George Washington—unique in presidential history is so many ways—was inaugurated on April 30, 1789.

Here’s the “Franklin D. Roosevelt March,” composed for the inauguration by the musically-talented Woodin (from my collection).  It is quite lively.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

John Dos Passos at 122

The twentieth-century writer John Dos Passos was born 122 years ago today.  He was perhaps most noted for the novels Manhattan Transfer, published in 1925, and the USA trilogy of The Forty-Second Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money, all published in the 1930s.

Dos also had been a great friend of Ernest Hemingway, knowing him in France and during the Spanish Civil War.  But as with many relationships for Hem, the relationship turned sour.  Dos Passos and Hemingway, however, did appear at the 1962 Nobel Prize dinner, one in person and the other by proxy. 

Dos Passos was among the 175 guests invited to dinner by his fellow Choate and Harvard graduate, John Kennedy. Hemingway—who was a Nobel laureate--had died the previous year, but he was represented that night by his widow and fourth wife, Mary Welsh Hemingway.  The main feature of the post-dinner literary entertainment was a reading of an unpublished excerpt from what later became Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream.  

Dos Passos also knew Mary Hemingway, whom he met during World War II.  Both had disagreed with Kennedy’s handling of the Bay of Pigs invasion.  Mary’s position was stated directly to the president  when she sat next to him in the State Dining Room that night. I discuss all of this in my forthcoming book, Dinner in Camelot: The Night America's Greatest Scientists, Writers, and Scholars Partied at the Kennedy White House.

John Dos Passos was especially celebrated in the twenties and thirties.  John-Paul Sartre once called him “the greatest writer of our time.” But the rise and fall of his relationship with Hemingway has also been a subject of interest in literary circles.  James McGrath Morris does a magnificent job of discussing this in his book The Ambulance Drivers: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and a Friendship Made and Lost in War (2017).

This photo of the two writers from happier times is also included in Morris’s book.  It comes from the Ernest Hemingway Collection.  John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.   There is no known copyright for it.