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. 

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