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.

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