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.

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