Excerpt from Entertaining in the White House, by Marie Smith, Acropolis Books, Washington, DC, 1967.
A New Generation in the White House
Not since the days of Dolley Madison had the White House been the scene for such brilliant entertaining as was done by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and her history-conscious husband, John F. Kennedy - and not since the days of Thomas Jefferson, America's first gourmet of renown, had more serious thought been given to White House standards of food and drink.
A new generation had moved into the snow-covered executive mansion on that January 20, 1961, when John F. Kennedy, of Massachusetts, was sworn in as the 34th president of the United States. At forty-three he was the first President to be born in the twentieth century, and his beautiful, artistic wife, who was twelve years younger, was the nation's third youngest First Lady.
She had been living in the White House less than a week when she gave evidence she was not going to be an ordinary First Lady. In the months that followed she proved it.
There was hardly a facet of American life that did not feel the impact of her creative interests and imaginative originality. She brought new dimensions and stature to the position of First Lady, making it a job for accomplishments outside the realm of the President's duties.
One month and three days after moving into the White House, she announced plans to restore its state rooms with authentic furniture of the period when the house was built. She asked seven men and five women, all leaders in the field of arts, to serve on the Fine Arts Commission for the White House, which made a nation-wide search for period furniture. During its first year, the Commission received hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of antique treasures for the mansion.
She focused on culture in all its aspects from the culinary arts to the performing arts. She gave encouragement to budding artists and focused attention on those who had already achieved.
She had a guide book to the White House published, emphasizing its history, and the number of visitors who entered its portals increased to more than a million a year.
She brought almost as many changes to the White House social functions as she did to the mansion's decor, and she set precedents with the food and entertainment served at official functions.
She began entertaining two days after moving into the White House and started by having her stepfather and mother, Mr. and Mrs. Hugh D. Auchincloss, in for six o'clock tea. Two days later she had George Balanchine, the famous choreographer of the New York City Ballet, for tea, and they had a good time talking about ballet, an interest held by the First Lady since her childhood.
On a Sunday afternoon, nine days following the President's inauguration, the Kennedys gave their first official reception. It followed the swearing in of fifteen new presidential appointees and the guests who had been to White House parties in other administrations were instantly alert to the sweeping changes the Kennedys were making.
For the first time anyone could remember there was a bar in the State Dining Room, and butlers to stir up martinis, pour vodka, scotch, bourbon or champagne. There were ashtrays all around, indicating that guests could smoke if they wished. Previously, inexpensive glass ashtrays had been kept in table drawers and brought out for emergency use. About the only reminder of previous parties that afternoon was the Marine Band, playing from its traditional station in the foyer.
On the tea table in the State Dining Room were full-blown yellow tulips in silver bowls providing a forecast of spring to come.
President and Mrs. Kennedy came downstairs unannounced and through the Green Room to the doorway of the East Room where three hundred guests had assembled for the swearing-in ceremony. It was a friendly, informal atmosphere as they mingled with the guests, exchanging greetings.
Jacqueline Kennedy wore a black velvet sheath with a high boat neck in front cut to a shallow V in the back. Her pearl earrings barely showed under her swept-forward chestnut colored hair, and completing her jewelry were a diamond bracelet and diamond ring.
That afternoon she indicated that entertaining in the White House with her as hostess was going to be livelier and more exciting. This forecast was underscored eleven days later when she and the President gave the traditional Diplomatic Reception, to which the ninety-seven chiefs of missions and ten ambassadors from Latin American countries to the Organization of American States and their wives were invited.
The invitations read five to seven and there was a flurry of questions among diplomats as to what to wear. Traditionally the receptions had been held later in the evening and white tie was the proper dress. This time, most of them came in black tie.
They arrived to find fires burning brightly in every fireplace and the atmosphere that of a gracious but large private home. There was no receiving line. The President was in a jovial mood as he circulated through the crowd exchanging greetings, pausing here and there to have a quiet, serious conversation with some diplomat. He tried out his French on the French Ambassador and Madame Herve Alphand, asking only "How are you?" before he lapsed back into English to say proudly "My wife speaks very good French." Mrs. Kennedy was using not only French but her command of Italian and Spanish as she moved among the guests.
"You can tell a different person lives here," commented Mme. Alphand as she pointed out, first, the fires in the formerly empty fireplaces, then the lighted candles everywhere, and the flowers that were arranged the way the French women do them, natural and even a little wild, looking more as if they had come from the field than the florist.
The Kennedys gave their first state dinner on May 3, 1961, in honor of Tunisian President and Mrs. Bourguiba. Mrs. Kennedy had never before attended a state dinner at the White House but she had grown up in surroundings of formal entertaining and was not unfamiliar with the procedure. She made elaborate preparations for this one and went back into the records and read reports on state dinners that had been given by preceding Presidents and First Ladies. These reports provided a pattern and framework around which she applied her own originality. She spent hours in consultation with her capable social secretary, Letitia Baldridge, who had been a classmate at Miss Porter's School in Farmington, Connecticut. She received help and advice from the State Department Protocol Office. She conferred with the President, who took an active interest in the state dinners, and sometimes stopped by on the way from his office to the family quarters to sample the wines that were to be served at the dinner.
For the Tunisian visitors, Mrs. Kennedy selected a menu that would reflect the spring season and also be in keeping with the dietary customs of the honor guests. It consisted of:
Medallions of Cold Salmon
Roast Lamb with Vegetables
Salad and Brie Cheese
Molded Strawberry and Vanilla Ice Cream
The guest list had been whittled down to ninety persons after much checking and rechecking of a master list originally compiled. Nineteen of the guests were members of the Tunisian President's cabinet or entourage and there was a similar representation from President Kennedy's cabinet and administration, plus a select group of outstanding citizens from various walks of life.
In making plans for the entertainment, Mrs. Kennedy had checked the weather forecast and was promised a clear night, but a little chilly. President and Mrs. Bourguiba arrived at the White House a few minutes before eight o'clock and had a brief visit with the Kennedys in the First Family's private quarters on the second floor of the mansion before the foursome descended the steps to the Marine Band's "Hail to the Chief."
Mrs. Kennedy wore a Grecian-style gown of pale yellow silk organza touched with brilliants. Mrs. Bourguiba, a handsome, older woman, wore a gown of blue-gray satin.
Following dinner, guests were directed outside to the South Lawn for the big surprise of the evening. It was a patriotic American military panorama staged on the South Lawn. Klieg-lights formed a stage for the parade of units from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps in a setting that was dazzling.
The setting was a natural one, with the illuminated Washington Monument rising above the trees like a bright white sentinel to the left, and the South Lawn fountain playing in the center background. The shrubbery on the grounds served as curtains to shield each unit until its turn "on stage," so that the 480 performers seemed to appear from nowhere as they marched into the light. Overhead and in the distance could be seen the twinkling lights of planes coming in for a landing at National Airport, and visible on the lawn were the mul-ticolored tulips blooming around the fountain.
President and Mrs. Kennedy and a dozen top-ranking guests watched from the second floor balcony outside the Blue Room. Mrs. Kennedy wore a mink coat over her sheer dress to ward off the 52 degree chill, and Mrs. Bourguiba wore a brocade coat collared in fur. On the terrace below sat the remaining eighty guests in chairs arranged theater-style.
Mrs. William Fulbright tried to share her mink stole with her husband, the Arkansas Senator, until military aides appeared with white blankets borrowed from the White House closets to wrap the shivering guests as they watched the brilliant performance.
The program which began just after ten o'clock ended on the dot of ten-thirty when both Presidents rose to take the final salute. President and Mrs. Kennedy, looking pleased at the apparent success of their first state dinner, escorted the state visitors back through the White House and bade them good-night at the door. The Kennedys remained at the door and shook hands with the other departing guests.
Simplicity, comfort and convenience were the guidelines Mrs. Kennedy followed in planning a state dinner, with a generous mixture of unpretentious glamor and excitement. She was always on the lookout for exciting new dishes to serve, and was an avid recipe collector. If she went to an embassy or restaurant and ate something she liked she would ask for the recipe.
While visiting in Greece one summer as First Lady, she enjoyed greatly the fish dishes there. When she returned to Washingron she asked the wife of the Greek Ambassador for recipes from the Embassy kitchen. One of these became a regular on the Kennedy's dinner menu. It was called Broiled Fish a la Grecque.
When she went with the President to a $1000-a-plate Democratic fund-raising dinner at Washington's new International Inn, she liked the Filet of Sole Veronique served at the dinner and asked the hotel manager to have his chef send her the recipe. It is a fish served with white grape sauce.
Mrs. Kennedy had a distinct preference for French cooking, and soon after moving into the White House, began looking for a chef to add the inimitable French touch.
She subsequently lured Rene Verdon, the French expert, away from the Carlyle Hotel in New York to preside over the White House kitchens. The French flavor he added to state dinners was an instant success. "People talk about what Mrs. Kennedy has done redecorating and restoring the White House, but they should talk more about how she has improved the food," Mrs. Alben W. Barkley, widow of the former Vice President, commented after attending one of the Kennedy's state dinners.
In planning a menu, Mrs. Kennedy kept an eye on cost and tried to select foods that were in plentiful supply and in season. She also kept the number of courses to four although the previous White House dinners ran to five and six, and during the Grant administration ran as high as twenty-nine.
Mrs. Kennedy's streamlined menus consisted of either a fish or soup course first, then the main dish, salad and dessert. She followed the same menu pattern for her family meals, except that then, she usually eliminated dessert and ended with salad and cheese.
She turned her menus over to the executive house-keeper for the mansion, who did the buying for official functions as well as private meals. Ann Lincoln, who became the Kennedys' executive housekeeper, usually did the marketing once a week, telephoning the order to Henry Brothers, a small independent grocery store a few blocks from the White House.
Mrs. Kennedy personally selected the china used at state dinners, and her favorite was that purchased during the Benjamin Harrison Administration. Designed by Mrs. Harrison, it has a cornsheaf and goldenrod rim and in the center of the plates an eagle, wings outspread, perched on the shield of the United States.
Because there were not enough settings of the Harrison china for large dinners, however, Mrs. Kennedy used the Truman and Eisenhower china more often.
To keep the table as uncluttered and simple as possible, she did not use bread and butter plates-following instead the French formal dinner settings.
Folded white napkins were placed on the plates, and gilt-edged place cards laid on top of the napkins. At each place was an urn of cigarettes, a salt dish with a tiny spoon, an ashtray with White House matches, and an individual nut dish.
The table service, which she kept to only what was actually needed, was not silver but vermeil, and two of the knives had gleaming opalescent pearl handles.
Four long-stemmed tulip-shaped glasses were set beside each plate. One was for water, two for wine, and the fourth for the champagne for the toasts.
When Mrs. Kennedy and the President dined privately in their family quarters on the second floor, it was usually by candlelight, and they had no music, for it was then they kept each other informed on current plans and projects.
Mrs. Kennedy chose the entertainment for the White House as carefully as she did the food. She felt that entertainment presented at the White House should represent the best in American life and she was delighted if she could give recognition to some undiscovered or unrecognized talent. When she read in a national magazine about a young mezzo-soprano from St. Louis, Grace Brumby, who had won honors at the Bayreuth Festival while practically unknown in her own country, the First Lady asked her social secretary to check on the singer's talent and schedule, to see if she would sing at the White House.
The twenty-four-year-old Negro was receptive, and came to sing at a dinner jointly honoring the Vice President, the Speaker of the House and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. She sang for the White House audience "O Don Fatale" from Verdi's opera Don Carlos, the same number that won her acclaim at the age of seventeen when she sang it on Arthur Godfrey's radio-television Talent Scout program in 1954.
Her selections at the White House included also two eighteenth century Italian love songs, two numbers by Richard Strauss, two by Duparc, an American Folk Song, "Boatmen's Dance" by Aaron Copeland, and an American spiritual.
At a dinner on April 29, 1962, honoring Nobel Prize winners in the Western Hemisphere, the White House staged a "coup" for the blue-ribbon audience.
It was three readings by actor Frederic March. One was an excerpt from one of the late Ernest Hemingway's unpublished works dug out of the vaults by his widow; the others were the preface to "Main Street," the novel for which Sinclair Lewis won the Nobel Prize in 1930; and four paragraphs from the speech in which General George Catlett Marshall launched his plan for helping Western European nations recover from the devastation of World War II, and won his Nobel Prize in 1953.
There were forty-nine Nobel Prize winners among the 175 guests and it was the largest number at a White House dinner in recent years. They overflowed from the fourteen round tables in the State Dining Room to five tables in the Blue Room.
Another dinner that turned the White House into a brilliant international culture center was the one the Kennedys gave to honor one of France's most distinguished men of letters, Andre Malraux, the sixty-year-old Minister of State for Cultural Affairs for the Republic of France.
The guests, all distinguished in the arts, were served an evening of music, including Schubert's "Trio in B Flat Major, Opus 99" in four parts played by Eugene Istomin, pianist; Isaac Stern, violinist, and Leonard Rose, cellist.
The spring menu was impressive and international. It consisted of:
Consommé Madrilène Iranien
Lobster en Bellevue
Stuffed Bar Polignac
Pheasant Aspic Salad
Cream Puffs garnished with Nuts
The guests were seated at twelve tables in the State Dining Room and five tables in the Blue Room, and both rooms were an old-fashioned garden scene. Natural-looking arrangements of lilies of the valley, baby's breath, red and white tulips, blue iris, daisies, lavender, pink sweet peas, violets and sand lilies centered each table.
The all-American western ballet, "Billy the Kid," was presented on a portable velvet-mounted stage in the East Room by the American Ballet Theater of New York, as the entertaining climax to the dinner in honor of the President of the Republic of the Ivory Coast and Madame Felix Houphouet-Boigny. And when the Grand Duchess Charlotte of Luxembourg was entertained at the White House, Mrs. Kennedy added a special reading dedicated to President Kennedy to the program of Elizabethan poetry and music presented by actor Basil Rathbone and the Consort Players, a scholarly group of musicians who played sixteenth and seventeenth century instruments.
The special reading by Rathbone was "Henry V"'s famed "St. Crispin's Day Speech" spoken on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, and was added because President Kennedy was so fond of quoting those lines by Shakespeare himself.
The White House took on an opening-night-on-Broadway atmosphere at the dinner honoring the Shah and Empress of Iran. The entertainment was Jerome Robbins' "Ballets: U.S.A." which Mrs. Kennedy had seen both in Europe and New York and enjoyed so much. The company had been disbanded, and some of the fifteen original dancers were in other Broadway musicals, but were released from those shows for one night, for the performance at the White House. Electricians, carpenters, stage directors and stagehands had worked around the clock to prepare for this special show.
After the dinner honoring the Sudan's English-speaking President Abboud, the players from the American Shakespeare Festival Theater of Stratford, Connecticut did the prologue from "Henry V," the Macbeth murder scene, a love scene from "Troilus and Cressida," "Seven Ages of Man" from "As You Like It," and Prospero's speech from "The Tempest." It was a full evening of Shakespearean drama, and among the guests, attending their first state dinner, were the two teenaged daughters of Vice President and Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson.
When Lynda Bird and Luci Johnson first received their invitations, they thought a mistake had been made, and telephoned Mrs. Kennedy to ask if she realized they were only seventeen and fourteen. She said she did, and wanted them to come and enjoy the Shakespeare players.
Mrs. Johnson's advice to her daughters before going was "Don't drink any of the wines at the White House."
She knew the finest wines were served and that they could be heady to teenaged drinkers. One of President Kennedy's state visitors at another dinner found the wines heady also, especially on top of drinks he had imbibed before arriving at the White House.
Before the dinner ended, this guest of honor began to show signs of intoxication. President Kennedy recognized the situation, speeded the dinner to an end, and led his guest of honor to the library on the ground floor of the White House. President Kennedy was presenting his distinguished visitor a copy of his book, "Profiles in Courage" when the man suddenly dozed off in mid-sentence. He was helped into a waiting limousine that had been summoned and, after a brief ride in the chilling night air, he was returned to the privacy of Blair House (the President's guest house) where he was staying.
Other guests were not aware that the guest of honor was not in his front row seat during the after-dinner entertainment in the East Room that evening.
There were many other notable social events during the swiftly-passing three years the Kennedys occupied the White House. Among them was the concert given by cellist Pablo Casals following a dinner attended by the foremost American composers and conductors. Among the guests was Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of former President Theodore Roosevelt, who had heard Casals play at the White House in 1904, when her father was President.
The Kennedys gave many private parties that were as brilliant as their state dinners. There was a special dinner for the great Russian-born composer and conductor, Igor Stravinsky, and guests came from London, Paris, New York and Chicago. The eighty-year-old composer did not play any of his compositions on the grand piano in the East Room, but a Kennedy staffer who had been a child prodigy at the piano gave a whimsical performance after Stravinsky left. It was Pierre Salinger, the President's press secretary, who played a composition he wrote when he was fifteen years old.
At another dinner in honor of former President Harry S. Truman, also a piano player, he turned star performer after dinner and played for the forty-three guests following a concert by Eugene List.
It was not unusual for guests invited to President and Mrs. Kennedy's state dinners and private parties to see a wide-eyed little girl with blond hair sitting in pink pajamas and robe on the top of the stairs, watching the parade of guests. Occasionally the President and First Lady would look up and smile, and she would wave to them. It was their four-year-old daughter, Caroline, who was not too young to enjoy from her vantage point on the steps the excitement that was going on in the house of history.
Of all the brilliant social events the Kennedys gave in the White House none outranked the state dinner they gave on the lawn at Mount Vernon, home of America's first president, in honor of the President of Pakistan, Ayub Khan. A huge tent was erected on the lawn high above the Potomac River, and sixteen round tables covered with yellow damask were set up underneath the colorful marquee to seat the 138 guests.
The neatly manicured grounds were sprayed three times that day with insecticides, the last time less than an hour before the time for guests to arrive, to free the area from gnats and mosquitos. As a further precaution against the insects, citronella candles burned on the tables.
Guests were transported down the Potomac River on the President's three yachts, and on a fourth one borrowed from the Secretary of Navy. Music for dancing was provided on the trip down the river and back.
On arrival, the guests were treated to a parade of the Fife and Drum Corps, whose members were dressed in Colonial uniforms patterned after those worn by the Continental Army at the time of the American Revolution.
Before dinner, the guests were given a tour of the home of George Washington, a national shrine owned and maintained by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union. The menu was one that could be prepared at the White House and transported in military vehicles that served as field kitchens, the twelve miles to Mount Vernon. It included:
Avocado and Crabmeat Mimosa
Couronne de Riz Clamart
Framboises a la Creme Chantilly
Petits Fours Secs
The wines were Haut-Brion Blanc 1958, Moet et Chandon Imperial Brut 1955, and liquers after-dinner.
After-dinner entertainment was a concert by the National Symphony Orchestra with Lloyd Geisler conducting. Selections played were Gould's "American Salute"; Mozart's "Allegro con spirito from Symphony No. 35 in D Major," "Haffner"; Debussy's "Dialog Between the Wind and the Sea" from "La Mer"; and Gershwin's "American in Paris."
Mrs. Kennedy introduced the practice of mixing men and women guests at coffee after state dinners. Formerly the men went with the President to the Green Room for coffee and cigars, and the ladies went with the First Lady to the Red Room for coffee. The Kennedys let the guests go to whichever room they chose.
Mrs. Kennedy was the first President's lady to travel abroad on her own while her husband occupied the presidency. As a goodwill ambassador abroad, she ranked at the top among all women in American history. She was such a hit in Paris and Vienna on her visit there with President Kennedy in the summer of 1961, that he told one audience "I do not feel that it is inappropriate for me to introduce myself. I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy into Paris."
U. S. Ambassador to India Kenneth Galbraith requested that her influence for goodwill be extended to that country by a personal visit, and one was scheduled.
Mrs. Kennedy's one big problem in the White House was the lack of privacy for her children, Caroline, four, and John Jr., who was only two months old when he moved into the mansion. "How can I bring up normal children if they are to be treated that way?" she asked as photographers connived to get photographs of the children at play and on their daily outings.
Mrs. Kennedy started a nursery school in the White House for Caroline and her specially-chosen classmates. When John, Jr., got older, a class was added for him.
No challenge in the White House was too great for Jacqueline Kennedy, who had proven her resourcefulness as an inquiring photographer for a newspaper before her marriage to the handsome eligible Senator from Massachusetts who was destined to become President.
Both had been born to wealth, but Jacqueline had also been surrounded by culture and standards that were decidedly highbrow in comparison to those of her husband, who selected instead a career in politics and public service. However, he was guided by her to participation in the aesthetics and had the same high appreciation as she for talent and achievement in the world of culture.
During their three years in the White House, an era that ended when an assassin's bullet cut short the President's life on November 22, 1963, Mrs. Kennedy established a pattern for entertaining that enriched the social history of the mansion and provided a challenge for her successor to do as well.