BOSTON — Since former president Jimmy Carter dedicated the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library and Museum here in 1979, it has been a requisite pit stop for Sixties history buffs, Civil Rights researchers and Kennedy fans the world over. Now those with a more social mind-set have reason for a pilgrimage to the I.M. Pei-designed museum. An exhibition, “Jacqueline Kennedy Entertains: The Art of the White House Dinner,” which opened last week, features a display of her memorable gowns, place settings, speeches and handwritten memos responsible for, as the First Lady herself put it, establishing the White House as “an Emblem of the American Republic.”
“There’s always been such an interest in Jacqueline Kennedy,” the museum’s curator Frank Rigg says, adding that since the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York organized an exhibit of her dresses in 2001, visitors’ interest in the first lady’s social role and wardrobe has multiplied. “So, since she’s such a wonderful subject, we decided on another exhibit with a different focus — her efforts to bring the arts to the forefront of national life through her meticulous, detailed and impressive entertaining skills.”
Many of today’s social hallmarks can be traced back to the Kennedy White House. “She transformed the way state dinners were held, making them less staunch and formal,” says Rigg.
The First Lady used round tables, as opposed to the traditional U-shape, and incorporated lower, informal flower arrangements. “She wanted to encourage conversation at the tables,” Rigg says, adding that she asked that fires be lit in the winter and, for the first time in White House history, there was a French chef in the kitchen. Judging by the detailed guest lists, seating charts and notes to her staff all scribbled in her own scrawl, she was serious about her role as a hostess. One of her notations even specifies the type of candy to be left around the White House following dinner.
The guest lists changed as well. Indeed, Kennedy was one of the first public figures to acknowledge the media power of having more than just military men, diplomats and government officials at her table. “She wanted the best in American society,” Rigg explains. “She wanted the physical nature of the White House to represent the best, and the people there to represent the best, too.”
This story first appeared in the April 16, 2007 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Stars of the stage and screen, literary legends and notable musicians from around the world were welcomed, including cellist Pablo Casals, who played for a 1961 dinner for the governor of Puerto Rico, and violinist Isaac Stern and pianist Eugene Istomin, who performed at a 1962 dinner for French Minister of Culture Andre Malraux. (It was at the latter concert that the presumably impressed minister whispered in Jackie’s ear that he would send her the “Mona Lisa” to be displayed at the National Gallery in Washington.) The chartreuse Oleg Cassini and pink strapless Dior gowns she wore to these events, respectively, are also on display.
Rigg, who’s admittedly biased in favor of the former first lady, easily sums up her legacy in the White House: “It was these sorts of events that people recall when they use the word Camelot.”