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Inside the private world of the Kennedy White House

From 1961 to 1963, a 43 year-old president and his 31 year-old first lady captivated America and the world — Jack and Jackie Kennedy. Best-selling author Sally Bedell Smith conducted over 140 interviews and gained access to letters and personal papers to take us inside the White House during those transformative years in a new book called, "Grace and Power: The Private World of the Kennedy White House.” Smith discusses the book on “Today.” Here’s an excerpt:

They certainly have acquired something we have lost — a casual sort of grandeur about their evenings, always at the end of the day’s business, the promise of parties, and pretty women, and music and beautiful clothes, and champagne, and all that. I must say there is something very 18th century about your new young man, an aristocratic touch.
—British prime minister Harold Macmillan on John and Jacqueline Kennedy and their White House circle.

On November 29, 1963 — a week after the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy in Dallas, Texas — his widow, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, summoned presidential chronicler Theodore H. White to the Kennedy family compound in Hyannis Port, on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. She wanted White to write an essay about her husband for Life, the magazine that had celebrated the Kennedys in words and photographs for more than a decade.

Jackie Kennedy spoke for four hours, until just past midnight, with “composure,” a “calm voice,” and “total recall.” It was a rambling monologue about the assassination, her late husband’s love of history dating from his sickly childhood, and her views on how he should be remembered. She didn’t want him immortalized by “bitter” men such as New York Times columnist Arthur Krock and Merriman Smith, the AP White House correspondent. Well versed in the classics, she said she felt “ashamed” that she was unable to come up with a lofty historical metaphor for the Kennedy presidency.

Instead, she told White, her “obsession” was a song from the popular Broadway show Camelot, by Alan Jay Lerner (a JFK friend from boarding school and college) and Frederick Loewe, which opened only weeks after Kennedy was elected. The sentimental musical popularized the legend of the British medieval King Arthur, his wife Queen Guinevere, and the heroic knights of the Round Table. Jackie recounted to White that at night before going to sleep, Jack Kennedy listened to Camelot on his “old Victrola.” “I’d get out of bed at night and play it for him when it was so cold getting out of bed,” she said. His favorite lines were at the end of the record: “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.”

White spent only forty-five minutes writing “For President Kennedy: An Epilogue,” a thousand-word reminiscence for Life’s December 6 issue. With close editing by Jackie Kennedy (among her numerous alterations, she changed “this was the idea that she wanted to share” to “this was the idea that transfixed her”), the piece set forth the Camelot metaphor that has defined the Kennedy presidency for four decades. At an exhibit of Jackie Kennedy’s designer clothing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, and the Corcoran Gallery in Washington in 2001 and 2002, the Lerner and Loewe tune played over and over, a soothing loop of background music.

As a child, Jack Kennedy would “devour [stories of] the knights of the Round Table,” according to Jackie. After the Wisconsin primary during the 1960 election campaign, he read The King Must Die, by Mary Renault, about the martyrdom of such folk heroes as Arthur in Britain and Roland in France. Given Kennedy’s middlebrow fondness for show tunes, it was only natural that in May 1962 Jackie invited Frederick Loewe to a small dinner at the White House. At the President’s request, the composer played the score of Camelot on the piano.

Still, many of Kennedy’s friends, especially the intellectuals, have tried to dismiss or downplay the Camelot image as inapt and mawkish, suggesting that it would have made the cool and brainy JFK wince. Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith said Jackie regretted the Camelot association as “overdone.” Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called it “myth turned into a cliché. It had no application during President Kennedy’s life. He would have been derisive about it.” Jackie’s conversation with Teddy White, he said, was “her most mischievous interview. The image was mischievous and legendary . . . Camelot itself was not noted for marital constancy, and it ended in blood and death.”

For those very reasons, Jackie Kennedy might well have wished to retract her words. Although the Arthurian legend evoked battlefield bravery (King Arthur and his knights fighting to regain his kingdom) and idealism (the quest for the Holy Grail of perfection by the knights), it also, as Schlesinger pointed out, featured treachery (Arthur’s nephew Mordred seizing his kingdom and taking the queen captive) and adultery (the love affair of Guinevere and Arthur’s valiant knight Sir Lancelot).

But Jackie Kennedy never backed away from Camelot. What she wanted to convey was the “magic” of her husband’s presidency — an interlude marked by grand intentions, soaring rhetoric, and high style. At the end of January 1964, in a letter to former British prime minister Harold Macmillan, she conceded that Camelot was “overly sentimental,” but maintained it was “right” because those 1,036 days had been a “brief shining moment” that would not be repeated.

Two years after the assassination, in A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House, the book that set the template for the Kennedy years, Schlesinger himself described the period’s “life-affirming, life-enhancing zest, the brilliance, the wit, the cool commitment, the steady purpose.” It was a view that remained undimmed for him, and for many others, despite forty years of tawdry revelations about JFK’s reckless womanizing and his administration’s decision to enlist the mob to assassinate Fidel Castro.

The picture of the Kennedy White House has been blurred by this competition between the Camelot mythology and the powerful impulse to tear it down. Thousands of books, articles, and television documentaries have created a fun-house mirror in which reflections of the Kennedys jump-cut from clarity to distortion. Hopes had been so high, the romance so strong, and the tragedy so great that the everyday reality of the Kennedy White House seemed insufficiently dramatic.

Because Jack and Jackie were such magnetic stars, their supporting players — and their complex interactions with the Kennedys — were often overlooked or given short shrift. But with the passage of time, emotions have softened, and members of the Kennedy circle, including many who have never spoken publicly before, discussed their years in the limelight with detachment and a sense of perspective. Fresh insights were also drawn from previously unavailable letters and personal papers. The story that emerges, recounted in this book, is more compelling than the Kennedy mythologies. It is a story of people selected by history — some with extraordinary talents, others blessed with the gift of loyalty — struggling to guide the United States through perilous times even as they wrestled with their own frailties and the temptations of power. From the remove of four decades, the Kennedy White House emerges not as a model of enlightened government nor as a series of dark conspiracies, but rather as a deeply human place.

The Kennedys may have been Democrats, full of compassion for the poor and dispossessed, but the image of Jack and Jackie as king and queen surrounded by their court had occurred to many people familiar with the administration. The British political philosopher and formidable Oxford don Isaiah Berlin — a guest at several private White House dinners — saw the Kennedys as “Bonapartist,” finding parallels in Napoleon’s brothers who, like Robert F. Kennedy as attorney general and Edward M. Kennedy as U.S. senator, held responsible positions in the government. Berlin found further similarities in the aides who served their leader: “devoted, dedicated marshals who liked nothing better than to have their ears tweaked.” Kennedy’s “men with shining eyes,” Berlin observed, had a “great deal of energy and ambition” and were “marching forward in some very exciting and romantical fashion.” David Ormsby Gore, the British ambassador during the Kennedy administration and one of the President’s most intimate friends and advisers, likened the administration to a “Tudor Court.”

Richard Neustadt, then a professor of government at Columbia University, mused that the Kennedy “court life,” a cynosural arrangement last seen in the White House of Theodore Roosevelt, had the equivalent of “apartments at Versailles” and “latch keys for the weekends.” The columnist Stewart Alsop complained after one year of the Kennedy administration, “The place is lousy with courtiers and ladies in waiting — actual or would be.” As with court life in earlier centuries, the Kennedy entourage made a stately progress: from the White House to expensive homes in the Virginia hunt country, to Palm Beach, Hyannis Port, and Newport — all playgrounds for the rich and privileged.

“Jackie wanted to do Versailles in America,” said Oleg Cassini, her official dress designer and self-described “de facto courtier close to the king and queen.” “She said this many times,” Cassini added. “She had realized some very smart women encouraged a court throughout history.” In particular Jackie admired Madame de Maintenon, who presided over a legendary salon before marrying Louis XIV, and Madame de Récamier, the early nineteenth-century hostess famous for the wit and intelligence of her gatherings.

Jackie organized her life in the White House according to what interested her, handing off many of the ritual obligations to others and delegating the paperwork to subordinates. “My life here which I dreaded & which at first overwhelmed me — is now under control and the happiest time I have ever known — not for the position — but for the closeness of one’s family,” Jackie wrote to her friend William Walton in mid-1962. “The last thing I expected to find in the W. House.”

On any given day, President Kennedy would be managing what veteran Democratic adviser Clark Clifford called “the cockiest crowd I’d ever seen in the White House,” a group of West Wing aides that National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy likened to “the Harlem Globetrotters, passing forward, behind, sideways and underneath.” At another moment JFK might be swimming in the White House pool (heated to 90 degrees for his ailing back) with his trusted factotum Dave Powers and a couple of fetching West Wing secretaries, or having a tête-à-tête lunch (grilled cheese, cold beef, consommé) with Jackie, or clapping his hands three times to welcome his three-year-old daughter, Caroline, into the Oval Office.

Jackie, meanwhile, might be at the long table in the Treaty Room on the second floor of the White House, smoking her L&M filtered cigarettes and scribbling memos on foolscap, or composing a letter to French culture minister André Malraux, one of her mentors. Perhaps she would be bouncing on the canvas trampoline on the South Lawn to relieve stress, or curled up with Marcus Cheke’s The Cardinal de Bernis: A Biography, or ducking into the White House school in the third-floor solarium, where the squeals of children competed with the yelps of five dogs and the chirps of two parakeets: part of a menagerie that brought to mind Teddy Roosevelt’s days in the Executive Mansion.

In the evening Jack and Jackie would typically host a dinner for eight — a collection of close friends with an imported New York artist or writer as a “new face” — as Italian songs played softly on the Victrola. The conversation, invariably informal and candid, might touch on the queen of Greece (“nothing but a busy-body . . . seeming to save the world [but] basically, building herself up,” according to Jackie), the origin of the French ambassador’s pin-striped shirt (Pierre Cardin, not Jermyn Street in London), the character of Richard Nixon (“nice fellow in private but . . . he seems to have a split personality and he is very bad in public,” in Jack’s view), or JFK’s concerns about NATO (“Europe wants a free ride in its defense”).

The Kennedys gave memorable private dinner dances as well — a half dozen in less than three years — where waiters carried large trays filled with such exotic mixed drinks as the Cuba Libre, a lethal combination of rum, Coca-Cola, and lime juice. “They served the drinks in enormous tumblers,” recalled writer George Plimpton. “Everybody had too much to drink because they were excited.” State dinners set new standards for culinary excellence (with menus in French for the first time) and cultural entertainments featuring Shakespeare’s sonnets and Jerome Robbins’s ballets. “It was Irish, which made it fun,” wrote television correspondent Nancy Dickerson, “and blended with the spirit of Harvard and the patina of Jackie’s finishing schools, the mixture was intoxicating.”

Highbrow seminars brought in “great guns” to provoke “great thoughts” for a select group of friends and administration officials, in the irreverent view of Arthur Schlesinger’s wife, Marian. “It was rather self-conscious though harmless,” Marian said, “sort of like Voltaire at the court of Frederick the Great.” Guest lecturers included noted historian Elting Morison on Teddy Roosevelt (“Not so,” TR’s daughter Alice Roosevelt Longworth periodically murmured in a stage whisper, a malicious glint in her eye) and philosopher A. J. Ayer on logical positivism (“But St. Thomas said,” Ethel Kennedy twice interjected before her husband barked, “Drop it Ethel, drop it”). The sober atmosphere collapsed entirely during Rachel Carson’s talk on “The Male Screw Worm” when Treasury Secretary Douglas Dillon’s giggles caused the gathering to dissolve in laughter.

Such levity masked a more shadowy reality — a hedonism and moral relativism that anticipated the sexual revolution of the following decades. Behind the scenes, Kennedy engaged in private sexual escapades in the White House, Palm Beach, Malibu, Manhattan, and Palm Springs, activities that many in the Kennedy court heard as rumors, others refused to acknowledge, and a select few — primarily trusted White House aides Kenneth O’Donnell and Dave Powers, as well as inner-circle crony Charles “Chuck” Spalding — witnessed and sometimes abetted. Jackie knew what was going on, and confided as much to her sister, Lee Radziwill, several intimate friends, and even administration officials such as Adlai Stevenson. But publicly she stoically chose to ignore her husband’s infidelities, which gave her greater latitude in pursuing her own rarefied life of foxhunting and hobnobbing with jet set friends in Europe.

Some, like her friend Eve Fout in Virginia, saw occasional evidence of Jackie’s sadness and noticed that “she didn’t have the easiest marital situation.” Many assumed that Jackie simply shared the European aristocratic view that it was natural for husbands to stray. “All Kennedy men are like that,” she once told Ted Kennedy’s wife, Joan. “You can’t let it get to you because you shouldn’t take it personally.” Jackie adored her father and her father-in-law, both of whom had been openly unfaithful to their wives. “She had made a bargain with herself,” said her longtime friend Jessie Wood. “She discovered Jack was a real philanderer, but she decided to stick it out. I think she loved him.”

Because of their youth, beauty, and social pedigree, along with their pursuit of fun and intellectual stimulation, Jack and Jackie Kennedy attracted a glamorous coterie of friends and colleagues — what Harold Macmillan characterized as the “smart life” (international socialites and Hollywood stars), “the highbrow life” (pundits and professors), and the “political life” (chosen aides and cabinet officers). Perhaps as never before, Washington was sharply divided between the “ins” and the “outs.” Washington society columnist Betty Beale, who observed from outside the circle, commented that Washingtonians invited to private parties at the Kennedy White House “adopted a comical air of smugness.”

Within the court, “very few really had much in common with each other,” said newspaperman Charles Bartlett, a Kennedy intimate. Some were accomplished athletes, others hopelessly uncoordinated. The socially prominent carried equal weight with those from modest backgrounds; neither Jack nor Jackie could be accused of snobbery.

Only two personal friends of the first Catholic president shared his religion, along with three of his close aides. A remarkable number in the inner circle — five personal friends and three members of the administration — were Republicans, not to mention Jackie Kennedy’s entire family, including her half sister Nina Steers, who wrote anti-Kennedy articles for a Tennessee newspaper during the 1960 campaign.

Several Kennedy insiders were thought to be homosexual, although only one, the columnist Joseph Alsop, ever acknowledged it. Despite the macho image of the Kennedy administration, JFK was comfortable with homosexuals, perhaps, some friends believed, because he understood the tensions of having a secret life.

Most members of the Kennedy court were stars in their fields, lending what Kennedy biographer William Manchester called “an elegant, mandarin tone.” They tended to be “cheerful, amusing, energetic, informed and informal,” observed Kennedy’s chief domestic aide Theodore Sorensen. Nearly everyone in the Kennedy court was attractive — and even those of lesser looks, such as the pockmarked artist William Walton, were clever and debonair.

Brainpower and a talent to amuse were the most highly valued traits. JFK “enjoyed . . . almost anyone from whom he could learn . . . communicating on the level of the Bundy brothers and the Cassini brothers,” wrote Sorensen. Both Jack and Jackie abhorred the mundane. JFK said he “hated the suburbia-type existence” with its endless cocktail parties. Even as a teenager Jackie had confided to her sister a distaste for country club women who could converse only about monograms on guest towels and the progress of their children’s teeth.

JFK expected “real ping pong in the communication,” in the words of White House aide Fred Holborn. Katharine Graham, then the mousy wife of the Washington Post’s glamorous president and publisher, confessed that her “terror” of boring JFK “paralyzed and silenced” her. When Suzanne Roosevelt, the wife of Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr., hosted Jack and Jackie for dinner, she caught the President’s attention by quoting Lincoln. “My God, I said something that interested him,” she recalled thinking at the time.

Kennedy “hated dimness,” said Isaiah Berlin. “Anybody who was dim, no matter how virtuous, how wise, how . . . noble . . . [was] no good to him.” Nor was anyone with less than one hundred percent loyalty. “The Kennedys were pretty tough eggs,” said Marian Schlesinger. “Either you were in or you were out. . . . I think the Kennedys really turned people into courtiers. . . . They manipulated and used people in a rough way.”

Jack and Jackie Kennedy would quite literally command their courtiers to sing and dance. Paul “Red” Fay, who became friendly with JFK during World War II, routinely performed “Hooray for Hollywood,” yelling out the lines as JFK doubled over with laughter. Oleg Cassini would launch into his “Chaplin walk” or the latest dance step from New York nightclubs. “Kennedy knew he was a potentate, and at a dinner for 150 he would point a finger at you and say, ‘Talk,’” said Cassini. “Was I a performing seal? Yes, and it was a slightly naughty thing. He did it to a lot of people. In Palm Beach after a heavy lunch he told everyone to do pushups and everyone did, trying to impress him.”

Excerpted from "Grace and Power" by Sally Bedell Smith. Copyright© 2004 by Sally Bedell Smith. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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