Thomas Oliphant is co-author, with Curtis Wilkie of “The Road to Camelot: Inside JFK’s Five-Year Campaign.”
The credit for arguably the best idea ever for a White House event goes to the fertile brain of Richard Goodwin. In a note to Jacqueline Kennedy in November 1961, the president’s aide was to the point: “How about a dinner for the American winners of the Nobel Prize?”
Within six months, the largest social event of the New Frontier had occurred. By contemporary accounts, it was a smash. And it has resonated through the decades as a symbol of what that “one brief, shining moment” was capable of on its best days, and of the impact a White House can have on American culture and the creative minds who inhabit it. Comparisons to the disgusting atmosphere of the present are obvious.
John Kennedy was pleased, but not entirely. According to his and his wife’s friend, the artist William Walton, the president called him later to complain about the woman who had been seated on his right, Ernest Hemingway’s fourth wife and widow of a year, Mary, who gave him repeated guff for his Cuba policy; Kennedy was more impressed by the dignified woman on his left, Katherine Marshall, the widow of George C. Marshall, the World War II commander and architect of the postwar reconstruction plan that bore his name.
“Well, your friend Mary Hemingway is the biggest bore I’d had for a long time,” Walton quoted JFK as saying. “If I hadn’t had Mrs. Marshall I would have had a terrible night.”
Walton couldn’t say much in reply: Mary Hemingway was right next to him in his Georgetown home when the call came.
According to author Joseph A. Esposito — whose “Dinner in Camelot” is a delightful, detailed account of the dinner, its background, its repercussions and its lasting meaning — the 127 seated guests (at 19 tables, 14 in the State Dining Room and five more in the Blue Room, where Mrs. Kennedy was located) included 49 Nobel laureates and spouses. The vast majority had toiled in the hard sciences; for the April 29, 1962, affair, the list expanded to include a sprinkling of Latin American luminaries and one Canadian, Lester Pearson. He was on his way to becoming prime minister after getting a Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 for his efforts as foreign minister to end the fighting over the Suez Canal. It also included several bright lights in the emerging field of American letters. Of the five U.S. winners of the literature prize, three were dead (Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill and Hemingway); William Faulkner, in his final weeks and under care in Charlottesville, said he thought 100 miles was a bit too far to go for supper; and John Steinbeck, who got his Nobel later that year, pleaded business in Europe. T.S. Eliot, a St. Louis native and eventually a British subject, wasn’t invited; but Pearl Buck was there and briefly debated Korea policy with Kennedy before the post-supper program in the East Room.
Relative youth also had its place. Thirty-eight-year-old William Styron (his wife, Rose, wrote the forward to the book) and 37-year-old James Baldwin attended. They were close friends, with much of their creative and activist lives ahead of them. But 43-year-old J.D. Salinger, already a budding recluse, declined without an excuse.
Esposito brings a solid blend of intellectual and writing background to his task. He has taught history, written it and lived it in three administrations. The book is a largely skillful mix of diligently researched detail and chatty anecdotes, all woven together without excessively florid Camelot rhetoric. Readers with equally rich backgrounds can probably skip the frequent digressions (histories of White House rooms, for example), but we generalists appreciate the added information. He calls his work “a paean to what America can be.”
Even at the height of the Cold War, the evening was boldly inclusive. It marked the formal reemergence of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physics genius and scientific manager of the Manhattan Project. He had famously lost his security clearance eight years earlier during the McCarthy days — a dark period that a younger Kennedy had done nothing to combat. And two of the guests, along with their wives, had that very afternoon picketed the White House during a demonstration supporting a ban on atmospheric nuclear weapons tests that Kennedy would propose 14 months later: Linus Pauling, whose chemistry Nobel would be supplemented by the Peace Prize later that year; and Clarence Pickett, a veteran leader of the American Friends Service Committee, the Peace Prize recipient in 1947. Preferring wit and grace to posing, the Kennedys knew all about them. Jacqueline Kennedy even asked Pauling in the receiving line, “Do you think that it is right to walk back and forth out there where Caroline can see you so that she asks ‘What has Daddy done wrong now?’ ”
At an affair like this, even the food was notable (the menu was entirely in the first lady’s favored second tongue, French, though the main course was an anti-Napoleonic filet de boeuf Wellington). Rene Verdon, the first executive chef at the White House, had been on the job for more than a year and had already drawn favorable notice from no less than Craig Claiborne on the front page of the New York Times. After a long apprenticeship in Paris and time as an assistant chef at the Carlyle Hotel and Essex House in New York, he was secure and well served by his Italian deputy, Julius Spessot. Lest anyone forget, the Kennedy White House was minutely attentive to politics; the applications by the two men for American citizenship were expedited. When Verdon returned to the real world in 1965, The Washington Post editorialized that his departure “truly signals the end of the Kennedy era.”
The evening is best known for one of Kennedy’s better lines, commencing the after-dinner program: “I think this is 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.”
The line was not in the draft of his remarks, mostly the work of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. But the copy of it in the book includes familiar Kennedy scribbles with “Jefferson” visible as his prompt.
The evening’s performer was the distinguished actor Fredric March, who read then-unpublished material from Hemingway as well as excerpts from George Marshall’s plan-unveiling speech at Harvard. White House social secretary Letitia Baldrige noted ahead of time that March was extremely nervous and led him upstairs to lie down for a half-hour. When she informed him where he was, on the huge bed in the Lincoln Bedroom, tears formed in the actor’s eyes.
Barely 18 months later, ABC produced a tribute to the president days after his murder that was entirely about his and the first lady’s vigorous promotion of American arts and letters. The host was Fredric March.
By Joseph A. Esposito
ForeEdge. 230 pp. $29.95