Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Jackie Kennedy's Favorite White House Dinner

The Nobel Prize dinner at the White House on April 29, 1962 may have been the most impressive dinner of the Kennedy years—and perhaps the dinner of the century at the White House—but First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy was especially excited about the next dinner, which took place only twelve days later.  It honored French cultural affairs minister Andre Malraux.

Mrs. Kennedy was fascinated by Malraux.  When asked about what made him special, she replied:  "He happens to be a war hero, a brilliant, sensitive writer, and he happens to have a great mind."

The dinner, like the Nobel event, was star-studded with many people from the literary world.  Among them were Saul Bellow, Paddy Chayefsky, John Hersey, Archibald MacLeish, Robert Penn Warren, Thornton Wilder, and Tennessee Williams.

Others included Charles Lindbergh, who sat at the president’s table, and Anne Morrow Lindbergh—both of whom had met with the president at the White House earlier in the day—and Andrew Wyeth.   Stephane Boudin, who was so instrumental in the recent refurbishment of the White House, also was there.

What was also noteworthy about the Malraux dinner was that shortly afterward, the French government loaned Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, the Mona Lisa, to the United States, where it was shown at the National Gallery of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Jacqueline Kennedy, America’s unofficial queen and social trendsetter of the early 1960s, continued to have special dinners and events at the White House as she went about making the famous building both a national salon and a living museum for the American people.

Photo credit:  Abbie Rowe. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Presidential Entertaining at Mount Vernon

The U.S. and French presidents are scheduled to dine tonight at Mount Vernon, the estate of George Washington across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.  Undoubtedly, the most impressive presidential dinner to take place there was on July 13, 1961.

Nearly six months into the new administration, President and Mrs. Kennedy hosted Pakistani President Mohammad Ayub Khan in what was the first state dinner undertaken outside the White House.  More than 137 guests, mostly American and Pakistani officials, attended the gala event held under a tent on the lawn.

There were huge logistical issues, notably, transporting the guests, food, dishes—in fact, everything needed for the dinner.  Four boats, including two presidential yachts, left from the pier at the Naval Weapons Plant in Southwest Washington, D.C., sailed up the river to Mount Vernon, giving the guests a breathtaking view on a warm and pleasant evening.

Guests dined on a main course of Poulet Chasseur.  They listenedd to the National Symphony Orchestra perform selections from Mozart, Debussy, Barber, and Gershwin.

This was only one of the many gala dinners and events during the Kennedy years.  The Nobel Prize dinner, honoring American intellectuals, would take place eleven months later, and would be a highlight of Camelot.

Photo credit:  Robert Knudsen. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

"Dinner in Camelot" is Published

Dinner in Camelot is finally released today.  In addition to events at The Ivy Bookstore in Baltimore and Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C., this week, fifteen radio interviews are imminent.

I feel honored that Rose Styron—who was present at the Nobel dinner with William Styron—wrote the foreword.  Thanks, again, for the kind blurbs from Doug Brinkley, Evan Thomas, David Stewart, Larry Tye, Jay Parini, Kai Bird, John Shaw, Linus Pauling, Jr., Peter Joffre Nye, and Charles Robbins. 

Someone asked me recently of all the people at the 1962 Nobel Prize dinner at the White House—the subject of the book—whom did I find the most impressive.  After spending three years living with the most significant scientists, writers, and scholars of the mid-twentieth century, that question might appear to be difficult to answer.   After all, among the 175 guests—the largest dinner of the Kennedy era—were J. Robert Oppenheimer, Robert Frost, Pearl Buck, John Dos Passos, John Glenn, William Styron, Katherine Anne Porter, Lester Pearson, Arthur Schlesinger, and many more. 

And yet, my answer to this question was relatively quick:  Linus Pauling, James Baldwin, and, perhaps surprisingly, Jacqueline Kennedy.

Pauling was an enormously versatile and gifted scientist.  He received the Nobel Prize in chemistry and came close to winning one in physiology or medicine.  As a result of the encouragement from his social activist wife, Ava Helen Pauling, he became a prominent peace advocate.  Pauling could be difficult and self-righteous, but he was dogged in his efforts at controlling nuclear arms.  His pursuit of ideals put him at loggerheads with a more measured President Kennedy, but he continued to seek to win over the chief executive of whom he saw—hoped—had potential.  To picket against and then dine with the political leader of the Western world on the same day required a certain level of cockiness.  That and similar efforts led to his winning a Nobel Prize for peace—the first American to receive two Nobel Prizes.

James Baldwin was one of the two most widely known African-Americans at the dinner—Nobel laureate Ralph Bunche also was there—and he understood the significance of being part of this elite group.  He enjoyed himself, but he also used the opportunity to promote his views, as he did later that night at an after-party at Arthur Schlesinger’s Georgetown home.  His writing would increase in its vitality over the next decades, and his meeting that night with Robert Kennedy was crucial for the future of civil rights.

Jackie Kennedy enjoyed the glamour of the White House and the opportunity to create a European-like salon in Washington, D.C.  Her impact on arts and culture over a period of 1,036 days was enormous.  She also was instrumental in resuscitating the White House, restoring an earlier grandeur with original art and furnishings; establishing the office of curator; creating a Fine Arts Committee; and launching the White House Historical Association. 

Carl Sandburg in regretfully declining an invitation to the Nobel dinner nonetheless called it “an event of a lifetime.”  Pauling, Baldwin, and Mrs. Kennedy helped make it so—as did dozens of other giants at the apogee of America’s worldwide influence.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Robert Frost and Tennessee Williams Share a Birthday and Almost a Dinner

Two titans of American letters, Robert Frost and Tennessee Williams, were born on this day—Frost in 1874 and Williams thirty-seven years later.  Both had a connection with the Nobel Prize dinner at the White House in April 1962.

Frost, who had developed a relationship with President Kennedy, famously recited “The Gift Outright” at the inauguration in 1961.  Kennedy had given him the Congressional Medal at the White House on the poet’s birthday in 1962.   He was back, at the president’s table, for the Nobel dinner one month later. Frost, one of the main attractions at the gathering of American intellectuals that night, was invited to the intimate after-party in the family quarters, in the Yellow Oval Room. 

Shortly after, Frost was Kennedy’s personal choice for a cultural exchange visit to the Soviet Union.  But, alas, a political misstep by the octogenarian poet on his return to the United States caused a rift with the president; he died soon afterward.  Still, Kennedy eulogized him at the dedication of the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College in October 1963; it was the president’s last speech in Massachusetts.

Tennessee Williams, the famous playwright, was invited to the Nobel dinner, but declined with no reason given.  He also was invited to the next dinner, honoring French cultural minister Andre Malraux, held seventeen days later.  He was going to decline this invitation, too, but Jackie Kennedy cajoled him into attending.  Williams sat at a table hosted by White House aide Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and next to actress Susan Strasberg.

Yet a third person born on March 26, the distinguished scholar and administrator James B. Conant, was also invited to the Nobel dinner.  He had been president of Harvard, a Manhattan Project leader, and ambassador to Germany.  Conant’s response to social secretary Tish Baldrige said “regret extremely that previous engagement prevent” attendance.

The photograph of Frost, which is in the public domain, is credited to Abbie Rowe, White House Photographs.  John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. 

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.