| Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years |
By Hamish Bowles
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Being the first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton has said, isn't a job"it's a role."
Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy was thirty-one years old at the inauguration of the thirty-fifth president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy She was by nine years the youngest presidential wife to enter the White House with her husband. (Tyler and Cleveland married still younger women but did so in the White House.) Like thirty presidential wives before her (Jefferson, Jackson, Van Buren, and Arthur were widowers; Buchanan was a bachelor), Jacqueline Kennedy confronted the challenge of figuring out a role as first lady.
She hated the title and instructed the staff that she should be known, not as first lady, but as Mrs. Kennedy. Carl Sferrazza Anthony, the historian of first ladies, traces the title to President Zachary Taylor's eulogy at Dolley Madison's funeral in 1849. Mrs. Kennedy thought the term undemocratic; also, "First Lady" sounded to her like the name of a saddle horse. Eventually, she acquiesced in the usage.
She was a young woman of notable beauty, at once wistful and luminous, and of acute intelligence and exacting expectation. She had been reared in a class, a timethe 1940sand a placeNewport, Rhode Islandwhere young ladies were taught to conceal their brains lest they frighten young men away. She observed upper-class conventions, but underneath a veil of lovely inconsequence she developed a cool assessment of people and an ironical slant on life. One soon realized that her social graces masked tremendous awareness, an all-seeing eye, ruthless judgment, and a steely purpose.
Jacqueline Kennedy brought several unusual qualities with her to the White House. One was a knowledge of the arts. Her response to life was aesthetic rather than intellectual or moralistic. When she won Vogue's Prix de Paris in 1951, she wrote that the three men she would most like to have known were Baudelaire, Wilde, and Diaghilev. Her natural habitat was the international world of society and art. Bernard Berenson once cautioned her that "American girls should marry American boys. They wear better."
Her husband, an American boy, was wholly sympathetic to his wife's artistic leanings, though his own tastes ran to literature and architecture more than to music and decor. He asked Robert Frost to read a poem at his inauguration and embraced a proposal by Kay Halle, a Kennedy friend, that leading writers and artists be invited to the ceremony. This idea rather annoyed the politicians on the Inauguration Committee who were hoarding tickets, but it went through, and W H. Auden, Robert Lowell, Alexis Léger, Jacques Maritain, John Steinbeck, John Hersey, Allen Tate, and fifty other writers, composers, and painters were in the audience. "What a joy," said Steinbeck, "that literacy is no longer prima facie evidence of treason." "Thank you," said Lincoln Kirstein, "for restoring to the United States the pleasures and powers of the mind."
To her appreciation of the arts Jacqueline Kennedy added a passionate sense of history. She liked to know how things began and how they evolved, and her glamorous modernity was based on an intense curiosity about the past. "We would tour the battlegrounds," Edward M. Kennedy recalled of the l950s, "and my brother and Jackie knew everything about the Civil War." "She had a fantastic desire for historical knowledge," said Letitia Baldrige, her social secretary, "and she was a sponge once she learned it."
And she knew Washington. She had lived there for eighteen years, had been a photographer and columnist for the Washington Times-Herald, and had absorbed the distinctive atmosphere of what Henry James called the City of Conversation. Her Times-Herald columns show a particular interest in the White House and its occupants. Though she had the reputation of being indifferent or even hostile to political life, she came in fact to enjoy politicians and their free and easy talk. As a senator's wife, she often attended debates and hearings, and in due course she also came rather to like campaigning.
Jacqueline Kennedy had thought hard about her new role as the president's wife. With her historical sense, she understood that the White House was not a private residence but the property of the American people. She also hoped to use the White House to honor achievement in the arts. Before the inauguration, Letitia Baldrige announced to the press, "Mrs. Kennedy plans to make the White House a showcase for great American art and artists."
During the interregnum between the election and the inauguration, she carefully studied books and files on the executive mansion supplied to her by the Library of Congress. Mrs. Eisenhower gave her a tour of the White House. "As soon as she left," said Jacqueline Kennedy's friend Mrs. Henry (Sister) Parish, the famed interior decorator, "she called me, and it was then that I realized that Jackie did not have two big eyesshe had dozens. Every room was observed, down to the last detail." The day after the visit Mrs. Eisenhower told J. B. West, the White House chief usherin the voice, he noted, that she reserved for disapproval"She's planning to redo every room in this house. You've got quite a project ahead of you."
In a phrase much used in the City of Conversation, Jacqueline Kennedy hit the ground running. On her first working day as the president's wife she discussed with David Finley, the chairman of the federal Commission of Fine Arts, ways and means of soliciting gifts that would reclaim for the White House its historic integrityperhaps a committee to raise funds for that purpose? Finley was so delighted that he made the first gift himself: a splendid eighteenth-century walnut highboy in the Chippendale style.
Sister Parish arrived at the White House two days after the inauguration. (Her nickname caused some confusion. One newspaper ran the headline KENNEDYS PICK NUN TO DECORATE WHITE HOUSE.) Her inspection was unsparing. The rooms used for state functions on the first floor were, she thought, "tattered, worn, and seemed to have no rhyme or reason. I felt sad for the neglected rooms. It disturbed me to know that these badly designed, poorly maintained rooms belonged to the United States.... What did the kings and queens and great statesmen of the world think when they came to our president's home?" As for the family room on the second floor, "the Eisenhowers had given it a cold, stiff hotel look, and it was all there, including the TV sets."
Three days after the inauguration Mrs. Kennedy had George Balanchine for tea (the great choreographer wondered whether the White House might provide anything stronger). She asked him, "What can I do for the arts?" Like Finley, Balanchine was delighted by her and afterward observed to a reporter, "She looked like a pussy-cat." Later he told her that she should become the "spiritual savior" of America. "I don't mean in a religious sense," he wrote, "but I mean to distinguish between material things and things of the spiritart, beauty. No one else can take care of these things. You alone canif you will."
Mrs. Kennedy had more limited objectives. Her first priority was to become spiritual savior of the White House. Even here she proceeded with caution, afraid that she might seem officious in calling for changes. Her husband reinforced her apprehensions. Americans, the new president feared, did not like presidents or their wives fooling around with the White House. President Truman, when he dared to build a second-floor balcony on the south portico, provoked such wrath that he felt he was being accused of interfering with the natural order of the universe. How to rehabilitate the White House without rousing a political storm?
President Kennedy now turned to Clark Clifford, not only a trusted adviser and personal attorney but a veteran of the Truman wars. At luncheon with the Kennedys two weeks after the inauguration, Clifford recalled the outcry against the balcony. President Truman, he added, had wanted to match the historic tradition of the White House with furnishings equally historic, but funds had not been available and the result, Clifford said, was the "somewhat pathetic and shabby air the building had acquired during the Eisenhower years."
Still, thousands of visitors came through the White House every day, Jacqueline Kennedy reminded the group at lunch, "We must make this building something that they will be proud of. I want to make the White House the first house in the land." And she also envisaged the White House as a history lesson. "People who visit the White House see practically nothing that dates before 1902. People should see things that develop their sense of history."
Clifford endorsed the objective but warned that great care had to be taken. "The White House is a sacred cow to the American people and woe to any president who touches it without preparing the groundwork." A fine arts committee for the White House, he suggested, might provide legal and political cover. President Kennedy seized upon the idea; Clifford drew up the legal framework; and on February 23, 1961, hardly a month after the inauguration, the Fine Arts Committee for the White House came into existence as a body empowered to "locate authentic furniture of the date of the building of the White House  and the raising of funds to purchase this furniture as gifts for the White House."
The original formulation seemed to restrict the restoration to objets of the very early republic. Life ran a jocose editorial entitled "Forward to 1802." Mrs. Kennedy soon clarified her purpose. "The White House," she said in an interview, "does and must continue to represent the living, evolving character of the Executive Branch of the National Government. Its occupants have been persons of widely different geographical, social and economic backgrounds, and accordingly of different cultural and intellectual tastesit would therefore be highly inadvisable, even if it were possible, to fix on a single style of decorating and furnishings for a building that ought to reflect the whole history of the Presidency."
"This," she continued, "should put to rest the fears of people who think we might restore the building to its earliest period, leaving [out] all that came after; or fill it with French furniture; or hang modern pictures all over itand paint it whatever color we like. The White House belongs to our past and no one who cares about our past would treat it that way."
The Kennedys' friend Charles Wrightsman, whose wife Jayne played a generous and resourceful role in the restoration, proposed as chairman of the new committee Henry Francis du Pont, the founder of the Winterthur Museum in Delaware, a noted authority on and collector of American antiques, a millionaire, and also a Republican. Though eighty-one years old, du Pont accepted the assignment. It was, Jacqueline Kennedy said, "the biggest red-letter day of all.... Without him on the Committee I didn't think we would accomplish muchand with him I knew there would be no criticism."
The fourteen members of the committeeeight women, six men gave generous support in funds as well as in artifacts, and the restoration was rapidly under way. None of this would have worked, however, without the wholehearted collaboration of the chief usher, who, despite his title, was not an usher at all but the general manager of the White House.
Mrs. Eisenhower's prediction was right: the chief usher had quite a project ahead of him. But J. B. West, who had started out at the White House in the Roosevelt years and had been chief usher since 1957, applauded the restoration. "Mr. West," said Sister Parish, "was a fund of knowledge and unceasingly helpful. Nothing was too much in his desire to help us." "He was ever patient and understanding," said Letitia Baldrige. "He went through a terrible lot. He had to referee everybody's fight and never say no to the Kennedys."
And he delighted in Mrs. Kennedy. His memoir, Upstairs in the White House (1973), offers a vivid description of her modus operandi. "I soon learned that Mrs. Kennedy's wish, murmured with a 'Do you think...' or 'Could you please....,' was as much a command as Mrs. Eisenhower's 'I want this done immediately."' The new first lady, West said, turned the White House inside out and imprinted her own style upon the mansion. "In public, she was elegant, aloof, dignified, and regal. In private, she was casual, impish, and irreverent. She had a will of iron, with more determination than anyone I have ever met. Yet she was so soft-spoken, so deft and subtle, that she could impose that will upon people without their ever knowing it."
Relaxed and uninhibited, she was always popping up everywhere, wearing slacks, kicking off her shoes, sitting on the floor, hair flying in every direction. She poked fun at everything, including herself. She was highly organized but rarely held herself to a schedule. She conducted "spelunking" expeditions into dusty storerooms and warehouses in search of forgotten treasures. She had, West observed, a "total mastery of detailendless, endless detail." West found himself "thoroughly enjoying the most creative and challenging work to which the Chief Usher had ever been put."
Jacqueline Kennedy's chosen medium of communication was a memorandum on a legal pad, scrawled upon in the looping society handwriting she had learned at Miss Porter's. She fired memos off every morning rather in the manner of the "Action This Day" memos with which Winston Churchill used to torment generals, admirals, and cabinet ministers during the Second World War.
Showing impressive executive ability, Jacqueline Kennedy skillfully managed an unruly team. Du Pont was to be the authority on historic furnishings, but, recalling that President Monroe had furnished the White House in the French Empire style, the first lady chose Stéphane Boudin of the Jansen firm in Paris as the authority on decoration. "From the first day the two men met," J. B. West noted, "it was apparent they'd never see eye to eye on anything. Mr. du Pont, a dignified Eastern millionaire, was interested only in authenticity, and didn't care about arrangement or proportion or compatibility. M. Boudin, a bubbly, dramatic little Frenchman, cared only about pleasing the eye."
Jacqueline Kennedy, confident of her own taste and charm, kept them working together. "Next time Mr. du P comes," one of her memos to West reads, "the poor man can't bear to think our moving days are overhe enjoyed it soell him Mrs. K loves the rooms the way they are and doesn't want to make any more changesthe press and Maxine Cheshire [of the Washington Post]... write rather nasty stories and Mrs. K feels it may undermine work of committee etc. etc. I am sorry he wastes your time but I don't dare tell him.... Put him off until we have LOTS of new furniture or he can come on his way back from Fla to see 3rd floor & Q[ueensl room (and not change ANYTHING)."
She quietly favored Boudin. A memo: "Mr. West. Could you send Mr. du Pont Boudin's 3 samples for green room 1) big ocean on green design 2) smaller green-on-green piece 3) tiny bit more of moiré. Also return him his own darker green stripe materialon white board. Please enclose this humble letter soliciting his approvalIf we don't get it he will have the shock of me doing it anyway."
There was tension, too, between Boudin and Sister Parish. This did not work out so affably. A coolness arose between Mrs. Parish and Mrs. Kennedy. "Finally, I learned the source of our problem," Mrs. Parish later said. "She had been told that I had kicked Caroline, and she was convinced it was true." Sister's granddaughter commented, "I wouldn't have put it past her, but that was not the root of the falling-out," and attributed it instead to a dispute over money Indeed, Mrs. Kennedy felt that she had been overcharged for modest work in Glen Ora, the Kennedys' country house. In any case, Mrs. Parish's specialty was creating small, cozy rooms. Boudin was better able to cope with the state rooms of the White House.
Jacqueline Kennedy was a mistress of meticulous detail. On the Treaty Room, which had served as the Cabinet Room before Theodore Roosevelt built the West Wing: "Mr. West. I was looking at treatiesin Treaty Room. a) They should all be ones that were signed in that room. That would be [Andrew] JohnsonTRisn't that right? Or did J Q Adams use that as office and sign treaties there? Is there any way of finding out which were signed in officewhen room was thatand which when it was Cabinet Roomprobably not. So I thinkas Treaty of Peace with Spain is obviously in that room we should just have Johnson TRand lots more. Let's get rid of FDR and Cubaand get lots more treaties of 1864-1902. We could put them way up [on] walls. b) Where the name of treaty is printed on the matI think date should be printed alsoas it is too complicated to read treaty to find out."
The Queens' Bedroom for distinguished guests, like Winston Churchill and V M. Molotov, was the subject of a number of Jacqueline Kennedy's bullets: "Mr. West. When was mantel put in Queens room1902; 1948? I don't really want to change it. If it's 1948 will you send photo to Boudin and ask him if he thinks we should get lower, more English one." It all came out well: "Mr. West. The Queens' room is INCREDIBLE. It really could be [fit] for a Queen now."
Before their falling out, Sister Parish had arranged for Amory Houghton of Corning Glass to make Steuben wineglasses engraved with the Great Seal of the United States. Mrs. Kennedy's refusal displays her social consciousness as well as her skill in maneuver. She had already purchased wineglasses she loved from West Virginia and, as she explained to Mrs. Parish, at "one millionth the price." Nor did she miss the Great Seal. "It is almost a relief: Our flatware and china are all engraved."
Then she added: "West Virginia is the most unemployed area in the country and...I just don't want to put a lot of people in West Virginia out of work now, especially as so many of them found jobs because of this glass." She was sure, she continued, that Mr. Houghton would understand her concern. "The thing I would really love to have from him is the marvelous English furniture for the Queens' Room, so you might try that tack. Do be sure to let him know that you had not consulted me when you thought of this."
President Kennedy no doubt was all in favor of protecting the West Virginia glass workers and, when his own domain was involved, had no hesitation about registering preferences. "Mr. West JFK approves Cabinet Room curtainsdoes not like muddy colors of rug.... His office. We don't want white chairshe wants to see sample of rug. He says curtains are OK but I think perhaps they should be a creamier coloras it makes everything else in room look so dirty & we can't make sofas whitewhat does B[oudin] suggest for sofa? I just think design might be a bit feminine for Pres officeI like something less draped more like Cabinet or Red Room curtains."
When she traveled, she would dictate instructions through the U. S. Signal Corps. Once she recommended from abroad that historical items be put in glasspaneled cases, or "tastefully designed vitrines." This was unluckily transcribed and distributed as "tastefully designed latrines," resulting in much highlevel merriment.
The Fine Arts Committee for the White House and its devoted members sent out pleas for furniture, paintings, busts, chandeliers, and rugs that had been or might have been at one time or another in the executive mansion. They were astonished by the response. "The White House," said J. B. West, "was barraged with everybody's old quilts, spittoons, and paintings." Many items were hopeless; some were genuine finds.
Meanwhile, Jacqueline Kennedy had focused on a new White House needa permanent collection of American paintings. Most paintings on White House walls were portraits of presidents and their wives. In many cases these were poor copies of vanished originals. A Special Committee for White House Paintings was set up, headed by the artist James W. Fosburgh. Within two years the committee gathered for the White House more than one hundred and fifty paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptures.
Other items were offered for purchase. "Mr. West. I so like the rug, but we are short of dollars and I am ENRAGED at everyone trying to gyp the White House. Tell him if he gives it he can get a tax deduction and photo in our bookif not goodbye!" The costs of the restoration project far exceeded the White House allocation in the federal budget. "They don't even have a brochure for all the tourists who go through here," Mrs. Kennedy told the chief usher. "But if we could sell one, we could finance the restoration."
President Kennedy hesitated at first, fearing criticism over the commercialization of the president's house. Once again Clark Clifford came to the rescue, proposing the creation of a nonprofit organization. On November 3, 1961, the White House Historical Association came into existence. Its first assignment was to produce a White House guidebook, an undertaking in which Mrs. Kennedy took an intense personal interest.
"This must be scholarlyand not talk down to the public then they will learn from it and I have never seen a case, in politics or books, when talking down did any goodit just bores people.... This shall be something which Berenson, Uncle Lefty and Arthur Schlesinger would want to read " (Uncle Lefty was Wilmarth Lewis, the Horace Walpole scholar and Jacqueline Kennedy's stepfather's brother-in-law.)
The author of The While House: An Historic Guide was Lorraine Pearce, the first occupant of the Jacqueline Kennedycreated position of White House curator. Mrs. Kennedy herself submitted the text to rigorous editing. The National Geographic Society provided the illustrations and supervised the publication. The guidebook proved to be a smash. More than six hundred thousand copies were sold in the Kennedy years, and it has been selling steadily ever since. Having helped pay for the Kennedy restoration, the White House Historical Association devoted the guidebook proceeds to additional historical furnishings and paintings.
By this time Jacqueline Kennedy's restoration protect, despite initial doubts, had won enthusiastic national support confirmed by the popular success in February 1962 of the CBS program "A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy." It was, Theodore H. White said, "the most successful nonfiction show" CBS had ever presented. (Norman Mailer filed a dissent in an article for Esquire: "I liked her, I like her still, but she was a phonyit was the cruelest thing one could say, she was a royal phony." Jacqueline Kennedy later confided that she rather agreed with Mailer's account of the image she presented on television.)
The guidebook's success led her to her next project and the White House Historical Association's next productiona guide to the presidents. She wanted, she wrote me, something so "someone like me can get a vague but interesting idea of each Pres (for instance I haven't a clue what party Pierce or Buchanan were of or what they didexcept fail)." There should be a "lively, even controversial, big sketch (not just born, married, wrote Monroe Doctrine, died) with some description of their character....It must be short enough so people will read it allin other words all on one page.... I would hope they wouldn't have more (except in some cases you'll have to) as that detracts from the concision I want. So many people and children are lazyif they can learn something in a glance at a pagethey will do itrather than thumb through a history book."
"If you can do all this," she said, "I will carve your name on the Blue Room mantelpiece. It's your penance for not coming to India when we were there." Then she sketched herself in a nightgown with arms outstretched walking down a corridor past busts marked Lincoln and Washington. She and I had seen together Alain Resnais's haunting film Last Year in Marienbad, and her caption under the sketch read: "Last yr. in the White House I was looking for Arthur Schlesingerwhere is hebehind what doordown the long corridors past the statuesis he writing the guidebook, or is it only a dream?"
It was, alas, only a dream. Despite this irresistible plea, I couldn't do the presidents myself Her husband had other ideas about how I should spend my time. But I prevailed on my Harvard colleague Frank Freidel, the biographer of Franklin Roosevelt, to undertake the text, which he discharged with style and speed. The National Geographic Society again produced the book as a public service.
Her next idea was a working library for the White House. A small room on the ground floor contained a random assemblage of volumes, but the White House had no serious collection of fundamental works on American history. Here, again, I was enlisted as the first lady's point man. What we had in mind were the "American Classics"the two thousand or so volumes most essential to an understanding of the American experience. James T Babb Jr., the Yale University librarian, headed the selection committee. Jacqueline Kennedy directed the committee to choose the "writings that have influenced American thinkingLocke etc. and all books by Presidents...just what a gentleman's library should look like."
The restoration of the White House was the first step in a larger vision. "President Kennedy and I," she said in later years, "shared the conviction that the artist should be honored by society, and all of this had to do with calling attention to what was finest in America, what should be esteemed and honored. The arts had been treated as a stepchild in the United States. When the government had supported the arts, as in many WPA projects, artists were given a hand, and many wonderful things emerged.... Our great museums and great performing companies should of course be supported, but the experimental and the unknown should also be thrown a line. Our contemporary artistsin all the mediahave excited the world. It was so sad that we couldn't help them more. Of course, the president and I talked of these things. It was something he responded to and cared about for his country. Who else had had a poet read at his inauguration, and so many great writers invited to it?"
The first lady had strong White House support beyond her own staff. Pierre Salinger, the president's press secretary, had started out as a concert pianist before turning to journalism, and he retained a lively interest in the arts. Richard Goodwin was a constant source of imaginative ideas about government encouragement of the arts. I, too, helped where I could.
An important unofficial adviser was William Walton, a journalist, painter, and confidant of both Kennedys (he had run the presidential campaign in New York in 1960), who eventually succeeded David Finley as chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts. The Kennedys were wholly unaffected in their attitude toward the arts, Walton explained; it was simply that they were "susceptible to the comfort of the arts. They couldn't live without themit was woven into the pattern of their lives."
White House dinners afforded opportunities to recognize and celebrate the importance of the arts and of artists. In November 1961 Pablo Casals, who had long declined to play his cello in public until democracy was restored in Spain, agreed to perform at the White House on an evening honoring Governor Luis Muñoz Marín of Puerto Rico. Kennedy said with emphasis in introducing Casals: "We believe that an artist, in order to be true to himself and his work, must be a free man."
Other dinners followed: for Igor Stravinsky; for the western hemisphere's Nobel prizewinners (whom Kennedy famously called "the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone"); for André Malraux (at which Kennedy began his toast by saying, "This will be the first speech about relations between France and the United States that does not include a tribute to General Lafayette"). And dinners in honor of visiting statesmen or monarchs always included artists and writers and entertainment of high quality The administration, Thornton Wilder said, had created "a whole new world of surprised selfrespect" in the arts.
Jacqueline Kennedy played a dazzling role in the White House dinners. She enjoyed especially the one for Malraux. After John Kennedy met Malraux in Paris in 1961, I asked him what the adventurous author of Man's Fate was like. The president said wryly, "He was far more interested in Jackie than in mewhich I perfectly understand." When Malraux came to Washington in May 1962, the Kennedys summoned an impressive list of American writers and artists to meet him: Edmund Wilson, Leonard Bernstein, Elia Kazan, Robert Lowell, Archibald MacLeish, Saul Bellow, Arthur Miller, Isaac Stern, Robert Penn Warren, Tennessee Williams. (Later, sitting next to Mme Malraux at a dinner at the French embassy, I asked her what American writers were admired in France. She named William Faulkner, of course, then paused for a minute and named Margaret Mitchell. When my reaction betrayed surprise, she said, "Oh, and my husband admires her toohe found Gone with the Wind fascinating.")
John F. Kennedy's reaction to most problems was "OK, but what can we do about it?" The national government, he noted, did all sorts of things within its own jurisdiction that bore upon the arts, from erecting public buildings to designing stamps.
Here was an opportunity to set standards that might serve as examples to the rest of the country. In the summer of 1961 he asked Pierre Salinger and me to consider how the White House might take hold of this problem. We recommended that he appoint a special consultant on the arts to survey the areas where government policy had impact on cultural life and to define the elements of a national cultural program.
In December, after the success of the Casals dinner, the president invited August Heckscher of the Twentieth Century Fund to conduct "without fanfare" an inquiry into the resources, limitations, and potentialities of national policy in relation to the arts. "Obviously government can at best play only a marginal role in our cultural affairs," he told Heckscher. "But I would like to think that it is making its full contribution in this role."
Heckscher looked first at the question of whether government kept its own house in beauty and fitness. Government was, after all, "the great builder, the coiner, the printer, the purchaser of art, the commissioner of works of art, the guardian of great collections, the setter of standards for good or for bad in innumerable fields." He reviewed the impact of tax and tariff laws on artists and artistic institutions. He proposed an advisory council on the arts and, as "the logical crowning step in a national cultural policy," a national arts foundation. In the spring of 1963 he put these and other recommendations in a report entitled "The Arts and the National Government."
A few days later, the president set up the Advisory Council on the Arts by executive order and prepared to make the Special Consultancy on the Arts a fulltime and permanent office. The Heckscher report laid the basis for the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities soon to be established in the Johnson administration. Since Heckscher wished to return to the Twentieth Century Fund, Jacqueline Kennedy proposed Richard Goodwin as his successor. Goodwin hesitated (and the president said to me, "Why the hell does Dick want that job anyway?!"), but Mrs. Kennedy sent him a most beguiling and persuasive letter that closed the deal. Goodwin saw the special consultancy as a way of approaching the whole problem of the aesthetics of American society the way our cities looked and the beauty of our environment, along with general encouragement of the arts.
Washington had always been a company town, dominated by government and politics, and Jacqueline Kennedy wanted to make it, like Paris and London, the cultural as well as the political capital. The Eisenhower administration had endorsed proposals for a national cultural center, and Mrs. Kennedy hoped for something along the lines of Lincoln Center in New York City. The project became in due course the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and has given new salience to the arts in the republic's capital.
Most presidents, including even the two Roosevelts, remained rather indifferent to the physical appearance of the capital. Lafayette Square, in front of the White House, was surrounded by Federal row houses where once had lived notables like Dolley Madison and Stephen Decatur. The Eisenhower administration, seeking office space, had decided to replace the graceful old residences with banal modern office buildings. The Kennedys were appalled by the sentence of death pronounced on Lafayette Square.
"They are now planning to put up a hideous white modern court building," Jacqueline Kennedy wrote Bernard Boutin, the head of the General Services Administration. "The important thing is to preserve the 19th century feeling of Lafayette Square....I so strongly feel that the White House should give the example in preserving our nation's past. Now we think of saving old buildings like Mt. Vernon and tear down everything in the 19th centurybut, in the next hundred years, the 19th century will be of great interest and there will be none of it left; just plain glass skyscrapers."
After exhaustive discussions, Kennedy and William Walton, his architectural counselor, were about ready to give up the fight. Mrs. Kennedy held out. "The wreckers haven't started yet," she said, "and until they do it can be saved." Then the president, running by chance into John Carl Warnecke, the San Francisco architect, asked his advice. Warnecke came up with a brilliant solution that protected the historic houses by placing new and harmonizing redbrick office buildings behind them.
The president kept careful watch on the progress of Lafayette Square. One day Walton apologized for interrupting him when weightier affairs were on his desk. "That's all right," the president said. "After all, this may be the only monument we'll leave."
The Eisenhower administration had also wanted to tear down the old State Department building, a charming Neoclassical structure with Baroque features erected just west of the White House during the Grant administration (and known today as the Old Executive Office Building). Jacqueline Kennedy saved that building too. "She was the one who really deserved the credit for the whole thing," Bernard Boutin recalled. "It was her idea. Her imagination. Her drive. Her ability to work with people." But when the new plan for Lafayette Square was unveiled, she whispered to Boutin, "Remember, not me. The president. The president, Bernie, the president." Boutin said, "She did not want to take any of the credit."
President Kennedy's great architectural dream was the rehabilitation of Pennsylvania Avenue, the broad boulevard running from the Capitol to the White House, conceived by Pierre Charles L'Enfant, the city's eighteenthcentury planner, as the "grand axis" of the city but now decaying into block after block of dingy buildings and cheap shops. The Kennedys set up a Council on Pennsylvania Avenue, headed by the architect Nathaniel A. Owings and protected in the government by a brilliant and resourceful assistant secretary of labor named Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
"You, sir," said J. Roy Carroll Jr., president of the American Institute of Architects, to Kennedy in the spring of 1963, "are the first president of the United Statesexcept, possibly, the first and third oneswho has had a vision of what architecture and its allied arts can mean to the people of the nation, and of what the careful nurturing of the architecture of the city of Washington can mean to the millions who come here to pay homage to the heart of their country."
On October 24, 1963, President Kennedy traveled north to Amherst College to take part in a ceremony honoring Robert Frost. "I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization," Kennedy said, "than full recognition of the place of the artist. If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.... The highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation."
He concluded: "I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty, which will protect the beauty of our natural environment, which will preserve the great old American houses and squares and parks of our national past, and which will build handsome and balanced cities for our future. I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well."
The next month Goodwin, about to take over as White House special consultant on the arts, proposed to the president that the aesthetics of American society could he to him, and to his legacy, what the conservation of natural resources had been to Theodore Roosevelt. "It's a good idea," Kennedy said. "Let's work on it."
The next day the president departed for Dallas.
Much has been written about John and Jacqueline Kennedy; much has been imagined about them; their lives blend into legend, sometimes adoring, sometimes sensational, sometimes scurrilous. This is not the place for a comprehensive assessment of their thousand days in the White House. But the Kennedys must be given credit for the intensity of their commitment to the vitality of the arts in America.
In 1957 William Faulkner had told the American Academy of Arts and Letters, "The artist has no more actual place in the American culture of today than he has in the American economy of today, no place at all in the warp and woof; the thews and sinews, the mosaic of the American dream."
Seven years later, again before the Academy of Arts and Letters, Lewis Mumford called John Fitzgerald Kennedy "the first American president to give art, literature and music a place of dignity and honor in our national life." He should have added: in partnership with Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.
One summer day in the early 1960s Jacqueline Kennedy was in a drugstore not far from the village of Osterville, on Cape Cod, where we lived at the time. It was the perfect country drugstore, with a soda fountain on one side, BandAids, drugs, bathing caps, etc., in the middle, and a magazine stand at the far end. Here people gathered and picked up magazines to read before buying them. This morning there were more people than usual reading in intense silence.
When I walked in, I found Mrs. Kennedy sitting at the soda fountain, enjoying a large cone of peach ice cream, with five small children who were chattering away like happy sparrows. Seeing me, she called "Well hi!," and smiled mischievously Looking over toward the magazine stand, which had her picture or some reference to her on many of the covers, she said, "all those people over there are so happy reading what I don't do, they have never looked over here to see what I really do." The truth of this remark has often been repeated in my mind when I hear and read the madeup, untrue fantasies about Mrs. Kennedy, whose charm in reality was simplicity.
We had met years before when she came with Adele Astaire Douglas and some friends from Washington for tea in my home in Virginia. That evening Dellie called and said, "young Mrs. Kennedy wants to call you, but feels I should ask you first if she should." Her telephone call the next morning was about her house. "I loved your house, but I don't like mine." She had noticed almost every detail with enthusiasm, but it was not until she said "I even loved the stale candies in the antique jars" that she won me over. I agreed to go to Washington and see if I could help. When I arrived, she was sitting on the floor surrounded by large books of maps and drawings. Her voice low, but with the unique charm that was one of her characteristics, she thanked me enthusiastically for coming. Mrs. Kennedy told me that the things she had loved most were the painted floors that I had found in Sweden and was able to duplicate at our Virginia farm.
Before we went much further, the front door opened and a large pram was bumped up the steps and into the front hall. "That's Caroline," she said smiling, and jumped up to carry the baby in to meet me. Before leaving, I understood her need for warmth in her house and the unusual details that would create it. More important, it was the beginning of a friendship that brought us both continuous joy.
Mrs. Kennedy was a true "bluestocking" in the oldfashioned sense of the word. She explored history in all its aspects and was fascinated when meeting people unlike herself, whose lives had created worlds unknown to her; however, it was her family and children who were foremost. This private world she guarded ceaselessly with dignity.
It was in midAugust of 1960, when, arriving home from Europe, I found three urgent phone messages waiting: "Please call Mrs. Kennedy." There was a seriousness in her voice, and when I called, she asked, "When can I come over?" She arrived a few hours later and, with short gasps for breath, told me, "Jack may be president. The count isn't in but what will I do?that big house and all those curtains." Her fear of this enormous change in her life had focused on her house, her family, and her children.
Time passed, November came, the narrow margins of votes were counted, and Senator Kennedy had won.
John was born fiftysix days before the inauguration, and Mrs. Kennedy, in spite of a weakened back, had found her own way to this new life before it began. Her sense of history had helped her see the White House in a different way. It was the president's house, a large southern mansion, with an everchanging atmosphere of administrations and new families that moved in and out. She studied its history, and with her youth, love of family, and love of life, worked endlessly to blend the past with the present.
She did not like it or feel that the title "first lady" was appropriate; she would be the president's wife. It was a big task she had to facelike exploring a new world. Fortunately, there existed the most unusual and wonderful man, Mr. J. B. West.
He was the chief usher in the White House, a title that meant he knew all the intricacies of staff management, the ways of past families, the protocol, and the tiresome details. His fame lay in his way of dealing and working with people of all types and walks of life. His smile and calm never left him. Jacqueline Kennedy and I often wondered what would really shake Mr. West. I worked with him, not only helping her inside the White House but also with garden questions. Going to his office, I marveled at his almost empty desk. Mr. West was the president's young wife's greatest support and help from beginning to end. He was also the true friend of Mrs. Kennedy's secretary and school classmate, Nancy Tuckerman. Jacqueline Kennedy reached out to many friends and people, but it was the few close to her who helped her daily to find in the White House the understanding and sense of home she had had in Georgetown. During the years Mrs. Kennedy was in the White House, she had three priorities that filled most of her time: her admiration for and support of the president, her time spent with the children, and bringing the fresh history and importance of the White House, as well as the lives of past presidents, to the children and people of America. The tours and White House guidebook are the results of her dreams and effort.
Jacqueline Kennedy was true to herself. Her gift of insight into people and her dislike of false pretenses were strong guidelines in carrying out her new responsibilities.
She dressed most of the time in pants and sweaters, with her tumbled hair often tied in a scarf, and radiated an irresistible smile. Nevertheless, she gave importance to her formal clothes in her role as the president's wife. Whatever she wore, she had her own sense of effortless elegance.
Her perception of the White House as a large southern mansion helped her make changes almost immediately, winning over sympathetic members of the devoted White House staff with her directness and sense of fairness. Windows were soon opened. Fireplaces and chimneys were cleaned so fires could burn in all the rooms when needed. She redesigned the flower room and the way flowers were to be arranged in all the State Rooms. Dozens of longstem roses, which constantly arrived as gifts, were cut shorter and often mixed with country flowers. A new atmosphere blew through the White House like wind with a clearing sky. Cupboards and warehouses were opened to search for historic treasures. Entertaining was full of pleasure and celebrated the importance of the guests. The kitchen staff was changed and mixed American dishes with those of France. The existing party dining chairs were sad, not suitable for the new cheerfulness of the dining room, painted in white and gold. Traditional chairs used in Paris for such occasions were ordered and made in France.
She felt that the early influence of French culture on the new republic, introduced by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, should be emphasized whenever possible in literature, social behavior, and taste. Washington's copious correspondence with Lafayette dealt with all subjects, including the exchange of seeds and plants with France. After Jefferson visited Paris, he, too, saw the importance of America's need to learn from this European country. Today, the gardens of Mount Vernon and Monticello continue to grow with their inspiration.
President Kennedy asked me to redesign the Rose Garden. He explained that after his trip to Europe, where he had met with the heads of state in Germany and France, he became aware of how walking in the gardens between serious meetings and lunch brought a common interest of the different nations together in a relaxed and informal way. The president was an active participant in the construction of the garden and had constant pleasure as it grew. Noticing a boxwood bush that looked not too well, he asked me how much it would cost to replace it. I told him, and he reached in his pocket and gave me the sum, explaining with a smile that he did not want to add it to the government's expense.
The Rose Garden was supervised and planted by a devoted and extraordinary man, Irwin Williams, who is still there after forty years. We met when he was in charge of Dangerfield Island, on the Potomac River, and, like Mr. West, he was the Kennedys' and my loyal and dear outdoor friend, forgiving dogs and ponies for trespassing and redoing the damage without a word.
I was in Antigua when news came over the radio from Martinique of the tragedy in Texas. We had no telephones on the island at the time to get further information. The earliest plane leaving Antigua was the next day. Arriving in New York the following evening, I found a message from Mr. West that Mrs. Kennedy wanted me to come to Washington. It was a stormy night when I left. I arrived at the North Portico of the White House at 2:00 a.m. The steps were lined with Marines. They clicked their heels as I passed, going up alone. Mr. West opened the door, he was alone; he had been sitting nearby waiting for my arrival. After embracing me, he said, with tears in his eyes, "Mrs. Kennedy is asleep now, but would like for you to be at the Capitol tomorrow morning at 9:00 to organize the flowers." I asked him if I could go in and pay my respects to the president. The East Room seemed particularly large. It was lit with candles. The chandeliers were draped in black gauze. In the center of the room lay the president under a large American flag. At each corner of the casket stood a motionless guard from each of the four services, Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. Holding tight to Mr. West's hand, I said my prayers.
We walked back together to the front door. As we went down the steps outside, a heavy snow was falling. The ground was already white. Three days later Mrs. Kennedy asked me if I would go to the Rose Garden and pick a small basket of remaining flowers. She handed me a note she had written, "Please put this in the basket for me and take it to Arlington."
Excerpted from Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years , by Hamish Bowles . Copyright (c) 2001 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top