On the eve of the 50th anniversary of Jacqueline Kennedy’s televised White House tour, the John F. Kennedy Library released for the first time personal papers that detailed her involvement in almost every aspect of the restoration project of the 54-room, 16-bath presidential mansion.
The papers show how the 31-year-old first lady led many aspects of the scholarly restoration, from sketching the draperies to scripting the taped TV tour, which aired on Feb. 14, 1962 in a program that 80 million people watched and which earned her an Emmy nomination.
The papers provide an interesting insight into the inner life of the first lady, particularly when juxtaposed with the news last week, when Mimi Alford, one of JFK’s interns, confessed the president took her virginity in the first lady’s bedroom and carried on an affair with Alford while in the White House.
Despite so much focus over the last half century on her fashion sense, little girl voice and her husband’s trysts, Jacqueline Kennedy emerges in these papers as neither a victim nor just a pretty wife.
She was determined, smart, funny and thoughtful. And the restoration project, which was her idea, seemed to feed her intellect and keep her sane during a stressful time in her life.
She had a hand in everything from managing the children’s play dates and the carpool schedule for the on-premise nursery school, to tracking down masterful works of art that rightly belonged in the place she once called Maison Blanche.
Within a month of becoming first lady, Kennedy established the White House Historical Association and Fine Arts Committee and helped pass legislation designating the White House as a historical monument — a radical concept at a time when there were water fountains jutting out from the walls, the décor was filled with Mamie Eisenhower’s favorite shade of pink, and the rooms arranged with cheap B. Altman furniture.
When Kennedy first saw the White House at age 11 on an Easter trip with her mother, she had a dim impression of it, saying “all I can remember is shuffling through” and complaining that there wasn’t even a guidebook for visitors — an omission that she corrected.
Among the papers released Monday is a galley copy of such a guidebook, still in publication today, with Kennedy’s handwritten edits in the margins, previewing her long career later in life as a literary editor. She sold the book for $1 each, helping to fund the project.
In one memo to Lorraine Pearce, whom Kennedy hired to be the first-ever White House curator, the first lady said the president threatened to cancel the sale of the guidebook because there was no place to display it.
“But I told him we were so in debt we just had to. So you and [White House Chief Usher] Mr. West MUST find a suitable place — even on the street — maybe to speed things up — cards could be sold in a pack at 5 or 10…But I do think we should also print a real catalog — more expensive — with room by room description of items, + a list of EVERYTHING in W House…this can be sold for $$ to scholars, libraries + one given to every donor — That should be ready by next spring — Why don’t you get Smithsonian to give you people to work just on that till it’s finished.”
Also among the papers are the extensive changes that she made to the TV tour script, including a reminder to name the donor of a Martin Van Buren chest — a politically astute move for a woman who carefully cultivated philanthropists and collectors of fine antiques, including Walter Annenberg of Philadelphia, the founder of TV Guide. Kennedy convinced Annenberg to send her a rare portrait of Benjamin Franklin by employing a gushing letter, a means that she used repeatedly to fill the house with period-appropriate furnishings. The White House also issued a news release for Annenberg’s donation and the publicity that Kennedy generated through such tactics prompted the public to search their homes for objects she might like and send them to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Pearce and Kennedy scoured old receipts and photographs to find objects, their origins, and where they belonged in the White House, including four Cézanne paintings hanging in the National Gallery of Art that were moved to the family quarters. They also found Teddy Roosevelt’s rugs, Monroe’s gold and silver French flatware, and a heavy oak desk, piled with electronics in the broadcast room, that Queen Victoria had given to President Hayes. Jackie had it set up in the Oval office. John Jr. would later crawl beneath it.
The airing of the White House tour (on CBS, NBC and the BBC) generated mounds of congratulatory mail and telegrams for her performance, including a letter from one man in Chicago who said he was a Republican.
“Your ability to project your ideas with such sincerity prompted me to write this, my first letter to the White House.” (It was signed Roy. M. Frisby.)
Her dressmaker Oleg Cassini sent her a telegram that said: “Your performance last night absolutely first rate. The only logical destination for you is Hollywood. You looked more beautiful than any star. Congratulations again. Oleg.”
In addition to the White House restoration papers, the JFK Library also released some of the first lady’s social files, including jocular handwritten changes Kennedy made to an invitation for a dinner at Mount Vernon in 1961. On the paper card, next to the typed attire guidelines to wear a “short evening dress” she wrote: “with hoops.” Next to “white dinner jacket” she scrawled: “and knee breeches.”
While the library released reams of documents, some of the first lady’s personal papers from the White House years remain closed, including some information about the nursery school that Kennedy established; personnel files; her personal scrapbooks and photo albums; and her correspondence with Nancy Tuckerman, a close aide and confidante in the White House years up until Kennedy’s death in 1994. (Tuckerman is still alive.)
Tina Cassidy is the author of the forthcoming Jackie After O: One Remarkable Year When Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Defied Expectations and Rediscovered Her Dreams.