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.

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