Historical Resources
 
Archives

Search

Search the archives, the web site, or other NARA resources

Begin Search
Reference Desk Research Policies Research Grants

Music at the White House

By Elise K. Kirk
(From Music at the White House: a History of the American Spirit, by Elise K. Kirk. 1986, University Press, Chicago)

Ask every person if he's heard the story,
And tell it strong and clear if he has not;
That once there was a fleeting wisp of glory
called Camelot.

                                      Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, 1960.

 


     He was a knight extraordinaire, possessing elan, elegance, courage, and wisdom; she was "Guinevere in a contentious Camelot," whose large eyes reflected an elegiac sophistication, sensitivity, and hint of shyness. John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Jacqueline Lee Bouvier brought to the White House fresh images youth and vitality that appealed immediately to America's pride and sense of self-confidence. "I feel that I'm a part of this man's hopes," said gospel super-star Mahalia Jackson when Kennedy was inaugurated in January 1961. "He lifts my spirit and makes me feel a part of the land I live in." 1

     Taking a vigorous stand in the cause for equal rights, Kennedy's administration saw the rise of new hopes and visions for an America that would be remembered, as he said, "not for our victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit. 2 in an era of burgeoning commerciality, Kennedy looked forward to a nation that would not be afraid of grace and beauty. "I am determined that we begin to grow again, and that there will be an American renaissance in which imagination, daring and the creative arts point the way." 3 But he saw only the beginning. He was killed by an assassin's bullet at the close of his third year in office while rising in a motorcade through Dallas, Texas-the youngest man to be elected president, and the youngest to die in office.

     John and Jacqueline Kennedy's arrival upon the national scene at this time was a felicitous and dramatic coincidence in American cultural history. The United States was experiencing a wave of city living advances in mass communication, and an awareness of education that provided fertile soil for artistic pursuits. But without the Kennedys to give these pursuits a clearly defined focus, they might have fallen on barren ground and progressed less vigorously. Leonard Bernstein summarized Kennedy's rare attitude toward the arts as stemming from "the reverence he had for the functions of the human mind in whatever form, whether as pure thinking or political thinking or creative functions of any sort, including those of art and literature." 4 August Heckscher, who was appointed by Kennedy as the first White House Cultural Coordinator in February 1962, noted that the president "wanted to move 'without fanfare' in a field new to the national government, and with awareness that it would always be the artists and creators themselves, along with support of private patrons, who would play the main role in the development of the nation's cultural life. I fully agreed with this approach. Yet as the popular reactions proved favorable and popular interest mounted, he seemed ready to give increasing support to activities in this area. Toward the end of his life President Kennedy came to feel, I think, that progress in the arts was intimately related to all that he wanted America to be....In part it was because he was responding as any sensitive and enlightened leader must, to currents that were stirring within the social order." 5

     The newspapers were full of America's great "cultural explosion" and the young president became a sort of mythical hero. In the words of Dore Schary, "When Kennedy endorses ballet, painting and the theater, the average man is bound to change his mind about such things as being effete." 6 Kennedy's brief administration did not allow much time for inaugurating and developing public policies in the arts, but the young president immediately surrounded himself with astute advisory talent-such as Press Secretary Pierre Salinger, Presidential Assistant Arthur Schlesinger, Secretary of Labor Arthur Goldberg, and August Heckscher, whose resignation as cultural liaison in June 1963 included a report that had seminal bearing on the formation of the National Endowment for the Arts. Heckscher stressed the need to consider our domestic cultural community now, as well as our international cultural relations, and he recommended a national arts foundation to provide grants in aid to states and institutions of the arts. To guide, encourage and sustain the arts, President Kennedy supported the dynamic development of the National Cultural Center plans and established by Executive Order the formation of a Federal Advisory Council on the Arts the month Heckscher resigned.

     The real spotlight on the American cultural scene, however, fell on the White House itself-on the dramatic, cynosural array of musical entertainments that now had a positive mission: "to demonstrate that the White House could be an influence in encouraging public acceptance of the arts." 7 It was more than just a question of bringing the finest quality artists to the great mansion, however-fine opera stars, dancers, instrumentalists had performed there from the earliest years. It was the superb focus that the Kennedys to create. The White House became a deliberate showcase for America's leading performing arts organizations--the Metropolitan Opera Studio, Jerome Robbins Ballet, American Ballet Theater, Interlochen Arts Academy, American Shakespeare Festival, New York City Center Light Opera Company, Opera Society of Washington, Robert Joffrey Ballet, and others. Entire scenes were presented, tastefully staged with costumes and lighting. "My main concern," said Jacqueline Kennedy, "was to present the best in the arts, not necessarily what was popular at the time." 8

     New also were the youth concerts presented by young people and organized into a definite series. Chamber music programs included longer, more serious works, such as the complete forty-five minute Schubert B-flat Trio performed as the evening's only selection by the famous Stern/Rose/Istomin Trio for French Cultural Minister Andre Malraux. Elizabethan music, elegantly underpinning poetry readings from this era, was played on authentic early instruments--viols, virginal cittern, and lute. 9 Jazz, a long-time poor sister of the classical arts, was now listened to attentively for its own artistic merits rather than merely heard as a background for dancing. But the most, significant innovation of the Kennedys involved the guest lists that included not only political and business leaders but also prominent performers, critics, composers, producers, and cultural luminaries from all over the nation. The press capitalized on the "Kennedy Command Performance", if and an enchanted America followed every nuance and interpretative detail of the White House performing artists that the media offered. "In all those areas, it wasn't a matter of social entertainment in the White House at all," said Heckscher. "It became a matter of recognizing great talent, regarding great achievement in the cultural field." 10 And displaying these points to the nation with drama and imagination.

     Culture was by no means new to the Kennedys when they came to the White House; their patronage was a natural extension of their accustomed way of life. A Harvard graduate, John F. Kennedy won the Pulitzer Prize in history for his Profiles in Courage, and his professional dealings with words and images are legend. Music, however, was another matter, and his tastes ranged from middlebrow to noncommittal. He studied piano as a child but, as one report indicated, "Anybody studying this boy's character when he was practicing scales would have said he'd never grow up to become President of the United States." 11 When Carl Sandburg's daughter Helga sent a query to the White House regarding Kennedy's favorite song, the president "wondered if Jackie might have a suggestion" for him, and the reply to Mrs. Sandburg was: "Greensleeves, a very old English song." 12 It was not only that he didn't particularly enjoy it [music], but I think it was really painful," August Heckscher noted:

I don't mean only painful for him to sit because of his back for any length of time, I think it hurt his ears. I really don't think he liked music at all except a few things that he knew. Other forms of art, however, he felt very differently about. Painting I think he looked on with a certain amount of good nature as any man would look upon something which his wife both practiced and appreciated. Ballet I think he looked upon the way any normally healthy man, would, as something that was really quite beautiful and exciting to see. Poetry he liked very much. So it was a shading, really, from music, which I think he found painful, into poetry, which for various reasons he found both challenging and quite fascinating." 13

     With Jacqueline Kennedy, the performing arts were quite a different matter, and there can be no doubt that the White House programs reflected her cultivated and intuitive tastes as well as her direct involvement in their planning. Jackie was educated at the finest private schools, wrote poems and stories for which she drew her own illustrations, and studied piano and ballet. During her junior year at Vassar she studied in France, and its culture left a mark upon her throughout her life. "Mrs. Kennedy was White House impresario," asserted Chief Usher Bernard West. "She knew all of the arts extremely well. When the ballet dancers rehearsed at the White House, she seemed to know even when they took a wrong step....She often wrote to the artists herself inviting them to perform or even called them on the telephone. Can you imagine the performer's reaction to the first lady saying, 'Can you come and play for us at the White House?' 14 But Mrs. Kennedy also had an astute advisor. "Pierre Salinger had been a child prodigy on the violin," she admitted, "and his great musical knowledge was enormously helpful in suggesting artists who might perform at the White House." 15

     It is significant, ironic perhaps, that it took almost ten months for the new White House image within the performing arts to take firm hold. As administrations change hands, there is always a transitional period of two to three months during which the musical entertainments are planned, scheduled, and realized along the lines of the new first family's tastes. With the Kennedys, however, there seemed to be an unusually long experimental period. Heckscher's words qualify this when he noted that everything President Kennedy did in regard to the field of the arts was a "trial step...I don't think he ever had any grandiose-he would have hated the word 'grandiose'-any large plan from the beginning. So, when one hundred and fifty eight scholars artists and creative individuals were invited to the inauguration...I don't think he had any idea of the reverberations or the expectations that it would create in the mind of the artistic community itself. They all said, now the President has done this, what is he going to do next?" 16

 

     There is also indication that at first the Kennedys preferred small, private parties with informal entertainment to the large structured concerts held after the state dinners. 17 Mrs. Kennedy valued her privacy perhaps more than the nation realized. "I can't be away too much from the children," she once told Heckscher. "I can't be present at too many cultural events. After all, I'm not Mrs. Roosevelt," she said with a sort of smile." 18 But the big, spectacular parties came anyway--assembled with such skill and flair that they still managed to achieve the warmth and intimacy the first family so cherished. No better overview of this ambiance and its engaging tribute to the nation's great I artists can be found than that of Leonard Bernstein, who had last played at the White House under Dwight Eisenhower. At the Eisenhower dinner, Bernstein recalled,

the food was ordinary, the wines were inferior, and you couldn't smoke. By the time I got to play I was a wreck. Compare that with the Casals dinner at the White House....Dinner turns out to be not at a horseshoe table but many little tables, seating about ten people apiece, fires roaring in all the fireplaces, and these tables are laid in three adjacent rooms so that it's all like having dinner with friends. The food is marvelous, the wines are delicious, there are cigarettes on the table, people are laughing out loud, telling stories, jokes, enjoying themselves, glad to be there.

I'll never, forget the end of that evening when there was dancing. The Marine Band was playing waltzes or something and Roy Harris and Walter Piston and people like that were kicking up their heels in the White House, a little high, just so delighted to be there, so glad that they had been asked, feeling that they had finally been recognized as honored artists of the Republic. You know, I've never seen so many happy artists in my life. 19

     Ironically, both the first and last major entertainment to be held at the White House by the Kennedys featured the bagpipes, the noble, haunting instruments that especially appealed to the president's Irish heritage. The Air Force Pipers and the Drum and Bugle Corps performed on the South Lawn after the first state dinner on May 3, 1961, for President Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia. The next function, for Mohammad Ayub Khan, the president of Pakistan, broke all tradition. It was the first White House state dinner to be held away from the mansion, in this case at historic Mt. Vernon. For the seventy-four-piece National Symphony Orchestra that played an outdoor program of Mozart, Debussy, Gershwin, and Morton Gould, a specially constructed shell-backdrop was provided by the chief usher and his crew-three hours before the guests were to arrive. Although the White House staff had to grapple with poison ivy, lack of electricity, and ways of concealing the portable toilets, the evening was a total success. The guests were transported to Mt. Vernon on boats floating down the Potomac with small orchestras on board. Somehow the whole concept had a regal flair that conjured up images of King George I's festive party reverberating with the music of George Frederic Handel from picturesque barges on the Thames. Indeed, the idea of holding the party at Mt. Vernon may have been inspired by the Kennedys' recent visit to France when President Charles de Gaulle entertained them with a dinner and ballet at Versailles.

     But with the historic Pablo Casals concert of November 13, 1961, the White House dramatically displayed the way in which it wished to participate in the cultural life of the nation. Without question the Casals event was the most publicized of all White House concerts--perhaps of any concert in America-and it drew press attention from all over the world. It harked back to the great musicale tradition of Taft, Coolidge, and Hoover, but with the important distinction of being opened now for the world to enjoy. It was broadcast nationally by NBC and ABC radio (though turned down by CBS because the tape made by the Signal Corps did not meet the network's standards), and a recording was distributed commercially by Columbia with four pages of notes, critiques, and photographs. "It is evident that the present first family has a proper appreciation of the relation of art to life," wrote critic and musicologist Paul Henry Lang in the New York Herald Tribune on November 14.

     President Eisenhower had been attempting to do this sort of thing at the close of his administration, but it did not work as well as it did for the Kennedys. Among the 200 invited guests for the Casals evening, moreover, was an aggregation of the nation's most prominent composers: Samuel Barber, Elliott Carter, Aaron Copeland, Henry Cowell, Normal Dello Joio, Howard Hanson, Roy Harris, Alan Hovhaness, Gian Carlo Menotti, Douglas Moore, Walter Piston, William Schuman, Roger Sessions, and Virgil Thomson. Included also was composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein and conductors Eugene Ormandy and Leopold Stokowski. It was perhaps the rarest chance in history for musicians, cabinet members, diplomats, and arts patrons to mix and meet at a single, very special, event.

     The program was a serious one, lasting over an hour. To open, Casals chose Mendelssohn's flowing, virtuosic Trio in D Minor, op. 49, for which he was joined by pianist Mieczyslaw Horszowski and violinist Alexander Schneider. The remainder of the program consisted of Robert Schumann's Adagio and Allegro in A-flat Major, OP. 70, for. cello and piano, and a suite of five pieces by Franqois Couperin. Critics' lauded the eighty-four-year-old master's retention of the same power, variety of inflections, and muscular control that had made him famous when younger: "Even in a long, slow bow there was not the least waver at the tip," observed Lang. 20 But it was a simple encore that expressed Casals's feelings most eloquently and powerfully. He closed his program with a piece from his birthplace; which he claimed depicted the people's longing for freedom. "You might know this song," he said almost weeping as he grasped the hand of Marine Band musician, John Bourgeois, after the concert. "It's a Catalan folk song, 'The Song of the Birds'-but to me, it's the song of the exile. 21

     Casals, who had played in the White House for Theodore Roosevelt in 1904, ceased his American appearances in 1938 because the United States recognized the Franco dictatorship that he despised. His long, self-imposed exile from his native Spain led him to establish residence in Puerto Rico, and when he received a letter from President Kennedy inviting him to play for a state dinner honoring Governor Luis Munoz-Marin of Puerto Rico, he accepted because of his admiration for Kennedy. Returning to Puerto Rico after his historic White House concert, he wrote Kennedy:

I have received your letter of November 14th and again, I have been moved by your very generous words.

Last Monday night I played with all my heart-and I feel that the results have been rewarding. I am grateful and happy if my humble tribute to you may have at the same time contributed to music and culture. That whole day of November 13th will always have a very special meaning for me. My visit and conversation with you have strengthened and confirmed my faith and hopes for our ideals of Peace and Freedom. Thank you, Mr. President.

We are still re-living the wonderful moments spent at the White House. There was much more than the honor we received-we were enriched by your and Mrs. Kennedy's human warmth and kindness.

May I repeat once more my respects and my affectionate wishes. 22

     Five months after the Casals concert another array of cognoscenti were invited to dine in the White House. The forty-nine Nobel prize winners included composers, scientists, authors, and artists, prompting the president to comment that it was 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." 23 At another historic cultural event in the mansion, the dinner for Andre Malraux, Kennedy's comments to the distinguished group of artists carried overtones of his characteristic wit and charm: "This is becoming a sort of eating place for artists," he said. "But they never ask us out!" 24

     On January 19, 1962, along with other distinguished guests from the arts, eighty-year-old Russian-born composer Igor Stravinsky was feted by the Kennedys. Mr. and Mrs. Leonard Bernstein were there, as well as Princess Lee Radziwill, Mrs. Kennedy's sister; Goddard Lieberson, president of Columbia Records and his ballerina wife, Zorina; Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.; the Parisian composer Nicholas Nabokov; and Robert Craft, musical associate of Stravinsky. "When I came into the room," recalls Leonard Bernstein, "there was a line greeting Stravinsky, and when he came to me, he kissed me on both cheeks in the Russian fashion, and I kissed him on both cheeks. There was all this Russian kissing and embracing going on when I suddenly heard a voice from the other comer of the room saying, 'Hey, how about me?' And it was the President. That's the sort of thing I mean: it's so endearing and so insanely unpresidential, and at the same time never losing dignity or that quality, I can't think of the word, but stateliness is the only thing I can think of, majestic presence." 25

     Programs for children throughout White House history had usually been given by adult entertainers and centered around holidays, such as Christmas and Easter. The Kennedys' inspired touch of offering a series called "Concerts for Young People by Young People" paid tribute to the nation's burgeoning talented youth groups and became a source of encouragement to young people everywhere. Presented mainly outdoors on the White House lawn, the programs were executed, in the words of the social secretary, Ledda (Tish) Baldridge, "on a minimum financial budget and a maximum blood-sweat-and-tears budget." 26 The Social Office in conjunction with the chief usher not only had to work with the carpenters and sound engineers on the acoustical shell and loudspeaker system, but also had to arrange for the housing and feeding of the visiting musicians and chaperones who numbered about 100. They usually stayed at Army barracks just outside of Washington. All progressed smoothly, but there was one accident when embassy teenagers representing sixty-nine countries crowded into the East Room for a ninety-minute production of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte sung in English by the young professionals of the Metropolitan Opera Studio: Stanley Kolk as Ferrando wore an exotic turban with a towering plume that caught fire from a burning candle sconce in the State Dining Room afterward. 27

     Other programs in the youth series were presented by the eighty-five-piece Transylvania Symphony Orchestra from the Brevard Music Center (August 22, 1961); the Greater Boston Youth Symphony with the Breckenridge Boys Choir from Texas (April 16, 1962); the National Music Camp Symphony Orchestra and Ballet (August 6, 1962); the Central Kentucky Youth Symphony Orchestra and Berea College Country Dancers (April 22, 1963); and the twenty-year-old Korean pianist Ton Il Han who played Scarlatti, Schuubert, Chopin, and Liszt on the same program as the Paul Winter Jazz Sextet (November 19, 1962). All of the youth programs took place outdoors with the exception of the Mozart opera and the jazz sextet-the latter an especially important event, since it featured a jazz concert for the first time in White House history. While Paul Winter did not move on to become a major force in the development of jazz, he founded a talented combo of twenty-year-olds that had toured Central and South America under the Cultural Exchange Program shortly before they played in the White House. Their program for the mansion included several pieces in the newly emerging bossa nova style, which combined Brazilian and American jazz idioms. The group capped its tribute to Latin America with the excellent "Toccata" written for Dizzy Gillespie by the Argentinean pianist Lalo Schifrin. How did all of these foot-stomping nuances impress the audience of diplomatic children? "They applauded politely but sat placidly through the concert," noted the press. 28 More pronounced reaction to the innovations of jazz came from the president's daughter earlier in the year. The dynamic Jerome Robbins dancers wore deliberately understated white sweatshirts, black pants, and sneakers for their program for the shah of Iran. Six-year-old Caroline kept asking when they were going to put on their costumes.

     Youth was honored once again when twenty-five year-old Grace Bumbry from St. Louis made her American debut on February 20, 1962, following a state dinner for Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, Speaker John McCormack, and Chief justice Earl Warren. The black mezzo-soprano, a European sensation since her appearance with the Paris Opera as Amneris in 1960, drew raves from U.S. critics. Irving Lowens reported in the Star: "The Bumbry voice is astonishingly rich, flexible and powerful...Americans can take pride in more than Astronaut Glenn's exciting achievement yesterday. They can also take pride in the fact that musicians such as Grace Bumbry can feel comfortable and at home in the President's house." 29 The singer's enthusiastically received program consisted of Gluck, Marcello, Strauss, Duparc, Copland, and Dawson. Henri Duparc's elegiac "L'invitation au voyage" seemed to be a favorite of Mrs. Kennedy, who leaned over toward the president and gently sang the words to him. 30

     More than any other administration to date, the Kennedys placed new emphasis and demands on the role of the social secretary. With the large productions, both inside the White House and on the lawn, came new problems that would have chilled the marrow of Henry Junge and the modest White House staff of the early years. "Fortunately, a kind of euphoria sets in, " noted Tish Baldridge, "not the drug induced kind, nor the starvation-induced kind of the far-Eastern monks. Ours was simply a White House Mania." 31

     With the Kennedy's came the White House's first portable stage, a simple series of panels covered with rich red velours mounted on top of an eighteen-inch-high platform. The light however, was completely inadequate, and Tish Baldridge called on Georgetown University's fine drama department to order the proper stage lights and manipulate them for each performance. "The Georgetown boys [all volunteers. saved our lives," she said. But for Baldridge it meant becoming embroiled in a dispute with one of the electrical labor unions shortly thereafter. Then she and Bernard West (nicknamed the "miracle maker of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue") soon learned the hard way that their basement makeshift dressing rooms were not adequate: "We were to learn new lessons with each type of performer-actors, singers, dancers, and musicians...we would, soon have enough full-Iength mirrors for costume checks, enough hangers and enough chairs for performers to flop in, enough ironing boards and irons, and makeup mirrors with good strong lights." 32

     The Opera Society of Washington's Magic Flute, mounted during the company's regular 1961-62 season in the Auden-Kallman version, had to be brought indoors because of drenching rains. "This was an operation very much like pouring two quarts of milk into a one pint bottle," wrote Lowens in the Star. "The scenery would not fit... there was no place for the orchestra....Mr. [Paul. Callaway stood with one foot in the East Room and one foot out," conducting the orchestra placed in the grand foyer. And then there was the problem of the costumes. Superbly rendered by Constance Mellon, they were caricatures of Indian dress that the State Department felt might offend the guest of honor, President Sarvespalli Radhakrishnan of India. Fortunately, they were not changed, and the production came through as a well presented highly satisfying endeavor, despite all the harrowing circumstances. For Lowens the real unsung hero of the occasion was Wilham Ramone, "who made the East Room sound like an opera house with his hidden microphones, loudspeakers and technicians--a brilliant acoustical achievement which surely should not go unnoticed." 33

     There were other brilliant feats of technology-and some less notable. For the New York City Center Light Opera Company's presentation of excerpts from Lemer and Loewe's Brigadoon for the king of Morocco, Baldridge used two tape recorders playing simultaneously (with only one turned up) in place of the usual live accompaniment of the Marine Band. While this managed to save precious space, it evoked comment from the president: "He stopped by the rehearsal as he often did and asked with a worried frown, "But what if the tape breaks?" Tish pointed to the two recorders, explaining, and the President smiled, "Smart girl." But the evening was not yet over.

     That night a rotating trooper light was installed by the Georgetown boys at the back of the room to give a very strong center spotlight. They had not used it at rehearsal. Toward the end of the first half of Brigadoon, they turned it on. Voila-the electrical circuits could not take it. Every fuse in our part of the mansion blew, plunging the East Room into total darkness. No lights, no music, no nothing. The Secret Servicemen sprang to all exits, guns drawn, fearing the worst.

     The audience was shocked into silence, but I heard the President from the first row, saying in embarrassment, "Your Majesty, it's part of the show, you know."

     It was the longest minute and a half I ever spent in my life. I half prayed in English, half swore in Italian, for those fuses to be fixed. Then the lights went on again, and the tape began to revolve. The dancers on stage had frozen in their stances, without a word, when the electricity failed. They began again exactly in step; they had not missed one beat. It was an incredible tribute to the dancers and to Agnes de Mille's training. It was also a tribute to the sanity of the Social Office that we all lived through it. 34

     One of the most important tasks the social secretary faces is communicating with the president about matters of taste and protocol. The Kennedy years were no exception. Some samples follow from the Baldridge files.

     On applauding:

The President had always had a little problem with classical music. He had been caught in the East Room on several occasions clapping at the wrong time and not being sure when the concert was finally over. Even following a program, the number of different movements within one composition confused him-as it does many people. We therefore worked out a code system for the Stern concert. As the last piece was almost finished, I was to open the central door of the East Room from the outside about two inches-enough for him to glimpse the prominent Baldridge nose structure in the crack. It worked beautifully that night and for all future concerts. When the President noticed the door slightly ajar, that meant the last piece was in progress. He would await the applause; then, clapping heartily, he would take Mrs. Kennedy by the arm, and escort the honored guests to the stage, to congratulate the musicians. Both Kennedys thought I was brilliantly sophisticated in music to be able to do this. What they did not know was that I knew less than they did about serious music. I simply made one of the Social Aides stay by me. He happened to be an accomplished musician who was familiar with all major classical compositions. 35

     On hurt feelings:

Sol Hurok was deeply hurt by The President's joke the night of the Roberta Peters/Jerome Hines concert when he stood up and said to the guests: "Miss Peters and Mr. Hines are here-courtesy of Arthur Goldberg." Although I tried to convince him that it was a jest and that every guest in The White House knew for sure that Sol Hurok had sent them to us, his Russian heart is bleeding. I think he needs a nice letter from The President subito. He has been out of pocket considerably in getting the artists down here, paying for their hotels, etc. Thanks a lot. 36

     On guest lists:

I have made up the list on the basis of fresh faces.... Supreme Court; Congress; White House Staff; Press (OK'd by Pierre); Negroes; Writers; Education; Music...Nadia Boulanger should have been invited to Casals from France; Theater; Ballet; Medicine and Science; Religion; Art; Big Contributors; Miscellaneous." 37

     On donating money to the symphony:

I found out that the Eisenhowers gave $25 in their check last year. Does the President wish to match or better it? Will you handle that? The amount of the check will not, of course, be publicized in any way. It's just the action of handing the check over to Diana Walker that counts." 38

     On the Harvard University Harvard dinner:

     Would you like a big cake with an "H.U." monogram on the icing? (served with a light dessert?) ["yes"] scrawled in the president's hand.

     Would you like the Strolling Strings to come in at desert time and the Marine Band to play in the hall? ["yes"].

     Would you like the menus to have printed at the top: "Harvard Overseers Dinner? ["yes"].

     Would you like a comedian to come in during coffee and liqueurs? ["no"]. 39

     But Baldridge, always full of enthusiasm, would sometimes "get her ears pinned back a little bit," according to Heckscher: "I would see memoranda--Tish would sound up some idea to Mrs. Kennedy and Mrs. Kennedy would just write "no" with an exclamation point on it." 40 The first lady, in fact, vetoed ideas presented to her on several occasions. "Someone came up with the idea that the Marine Band should wear Lederhosen when they performed for German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer-but Mrs. Kennedy said 'no' after seeing me modeling mine," admitted John Bourgeois, a horn player who later was to become the leader of the Marine Band. 41

     The Kennedys expanded traditions in the area of military musical practices both ceremonial and social. They added more dignity to the annual ceremony for a state visitor by holding it now on the White House grounds rather than at the railroad station or airport where it had taken place formerly. They also formalized the position of director of ceremonies under the Military District of Washington, established in 1960 by President Eisenhower, and appointed Paul Miller. Under the Kennedys, moreover, the current practice of alternating the four service bands (Marine, Army, Navy, Air Force) for White House arrivals was established. The Kennedys also added pomp and historical flair in greeting their foreign dignitaries through both the Fife and Drum Corps in their Continental Army dress red uniforms and the U.S. Army's Herald Trumpets created under Eisenhower in 1959.

     Inside the White House, however, the Marine Band held firmly to its tradition as "The President's Own." But it now fell more directly under the thumb of Mrs. Kennedy, who wanted "constant music-no dull Moments." 42 As a consequence, the band formed more units and ensembles. Under the Eisenhowers, the guests entered the mansion and then mounted the long stairway into the East Room in silence, passing the red-coated musicians who sat "like so many mournful bellhops on a coffee break." Now "happy, peppy music by the Marine Band flooded the house the minute the guests began to arrive. The music was contagious. Everyone walked with a spring in his step, from footmen to dowagers." 43 But the new emphasis on the social scene prompted the presidential military aides to succumb to Tish Baldridge's "war plan"-a command they clearly were not used to: "My favorite young Marine captain came up to me one afternoon when a general had issued instructions counter to mine, and said, 'But Miss Baldridge, think of the predicament. You're a girl-and hell, I mean, excuse me, Ma'am, the General is my commanding officer here.'" 44

     With all their innovative finesse, the Kennedys, like other presidents and their wives, had their share of criticism. Objections were made to "twisting in the historic East Room" to the vigorous beat of Lester Lanin's orchestra. While the president did "NOT," as the press emphasized, dance the twist, he did go in to get a look at the new fad. Twenty-six-year-old Andrew Burden, who had the reputation of doing "the best Twist in New York Society," showed the president how it was done. Kennedy however, preferred to dance the more conservative steps with his two dinner partners, Signora Gianni Agnelli, wife of the president of Flat Company, and Chiquita Astor, wife of the Honorable John Jacob Astor, son of Lady Astor." 45 There was more criticism of the "finger-snapping, sweatshirt-and-sneakers jazz ballet," performed in Jerome Robins's Ballets: USA, however, than of any social dancing at the White House. Robert Prince's snappy New York Export, Op. Jazz was presented for the shah and empress of Iran after a state dinner, on April 11, 1962. A slightly flabbergasted reporter from the Washington Star wrote that the "hipswinging, torso-tossing" Robbins choreography at times seemed rather strong stuff to be serving up to visiting royalty." 46

     The accusation by Republican Representative William E. Miller in October 1963 that "Sinatra types were infesting 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue" was mere mud-slinging, however. Frank Sinatra's intense loyalty in top political arenas is legend. Labeled "a skinny kid who looked like he still had milk on his chin," the crooner's first association with the presidency was in 1944, when he had tea at the White House with FDR. He also backed Truman and Adlai Stevenson and later Nixon and Reagan, but with his endorsement of John F. Kennedy's campaign in 1960 came real political power-or so it seemed. Sinatra participated generously in Kennedy's inaugural gala, the "super-benefit of all time" despite a snow storm that left rows of empty seats and forced Leonard Bernstein, who had been marooned in a stalled car with Bette Davis, to conduct his "Fanfare of Inauguration" in a shirt two sizes too big. But it was not long afterward that the Kennedys cooled in their attitude toward Sinatra, mainly because of his alleged Mafia connections, a rejection Sinatra never quite got over. He tried to produce a recording of the inaugural program for a price of $15 a copy which, he said, "should bring us some loot," 47 but nothing came of it." The White House was edgy that the notorious "Rat Pack" was making its nest in the great mansion. And while Sinatra attended a luncheon at the White House on September 18, 1961, which included Peter Lawford (the president's brother-in-law), Walter Pidgeon, Franchot Tone, and Henry Fonda, a White House memo of this date indicates a snub may have been more in order; "Frank Sinatra is also coming. Tish said there was no way she could keep from asking him as he was in Peter Lawford's room when she called him about the luncheon." 48

     On November 13, 1963, the famous Royal Highland Regiment, The Black Watch, presented a special program of piping, marching, and spirited dancing on the South Lawn. Guests for the afternoon were 1,700 children from child care agencies served by the United Givers Fund, and they managed to devour over 10,000 cookies. "I don't know when I have seen the President enjoy himself more," wrote Mrs. Kennedy to Major W. M. Wingate-Gray. "The ceremony was one of the most stirring we have ever had at the White House. 49 Soon she would hear the pipers again. Jack would not. Ten days later the president was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald. At the White House nine pipers played once again "The Barren Rocks of Aden." But this time the hauntingly poignant march was rendered for the statesman's funeral cortege-and the whole world mourned.

     Washington, London, Tokyo, Paris, Berlin, Nairobi-for a fleeting moment the world joined hands and with bowed heads turned to music to quell its grief and eulogize John Kennedy. There could be no other way. The majestic procession, touching the Capitol, the White House, St. Matthew's Cathedral, and Arlington Cemetery, was followed by millions on the day of the funeral. And for a moment millions shared the hymns dear to America's only Roman Catholic president--"Holy God, We Praise Thy Name," "Ave Maria," the Gregorian "Subvenite,", "O God of Loveliness," and "Holy, Holy, Holy." Millions also shared his love for Irish and Scottish melodies. On the north portico of the White House, the Naval Academy Catholic Choir sang "Above the Hills of Time the Cross Is Gleaming" (the "Londonderry Air"). The Royal Highland Regiment led the cortege from the White House to the cathedral playing "The Badge of Scotland," and the Air Force Bagpipers rendered "Mist-Covered Mountain" as the coffin was moved to the burial site. All five service bands participated in the day's ceremonies and their selections included patriotic and religious memorial music chosen by the Kennedy family. 50

     But the most impressive use of music took place the day before the funeral. Twenty-four drummers, their instruments muffled and draped in black cloth, accompanied the caisson as it moved down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House to the Capitol where the body would lie in state. It was Mrs. Kennedy's wish that there be no bands or choirs on that day, and the ponderous stately "dead march," paced to 100 beats per minute, reached back momentarily into the past-to the somber processions from the White House for Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Garfield, Lincoln, and William Henry Harrison. It reached back further-to the year 1652, when John Evelyn described the "magnificent funeral" for Cromwell's son-in-law, General Ireton: "[He was. carried in pomp from Somerset House to Westminster accompanied with drums, regiments of soldiers, horse and foot. Thus in a grave pace, their drums covered with cloth...[they. proceeded through the streets in a very solemn manner." 51

     Musical artists, great and small, paid tribute in ways they knew best: a young Bosnian in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, sang to his own accompaniment on the ancient single-stringed gusla, his lyrical epic:

They know for certain John was gone.
The caisson carries him
With a white horse from the White House
To the soldiers' grave of heroes. 52

     In New York Isaac Stern, Leonard Rose, and Eugene Istomin played on television the expressive slow movement from Schubert's B-Flat Trio, which they had performed at the White House for Andre Malraux. Symphony orchestras all over the land paid their last respects with commemorative programs. One of the most hauntingly moving was the National Symphony's post-midnight performance to a completely empty Constitution Hall, a few blocks from the White House. "The orchestra of the presidents," as it had come to be called, was conducted by Howard Mitchell and played Debussy's La mer in memory of the president's love of the ocean and his valor as a naval officer; the "Adagio for Strings" by the American composer Samuel Barber, the last distinguished representative of the arts to be invited to the White House before the president's death; and the overture to Beethoven's Fidelio, a tribute to Mrs. Kennedy, described by Mitchell as a "true heroine" who "walked in tragic beauty during her days of sorrow." 53

     In memory of the assassination, Igor Stravinsky composed a miniature for baritone (later revised for mezzo-soprano) and three clarinets called simply "Elegy for JFK" (1964-). The text by W. H. Auden consists of four stanzas of free haiku, and the atonal, transparent textures seem to feature an interplay between the diabolical tri-tone (G#-D) and the eternally hopeful perfect fifth (D#-A#)-the "oneness," perhaps, of both "sorrow and joy." Thus music, a vital part of the Kennedy White House years, offered its oven special tribute to the new image, the fresh promises, said the bleak dawn.

When a just man dies
Lamentation and praise,
Sorrow and joy are one.

Why then? Why there?
Why thus, we cry, did he die?
The Heavens are silent.

What he was, he was:
What he is fated to become
Depends on us.

Remembering his death
How we choose to live
Will decide its meaning." 54


End Notes

     1. Mahalia Jackson, Movin' On Up (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1966), 139.

     2. From words of John F. Kennedy written on the facade of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C.

     3. "John F. Kennedy: Government and the Arts," John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Inaugural Program, Sept. 8, 1971.

     4. Oral history interview with Leonard Bernstein, composer and music director of the New York Philharmonic, by Nelson Aldrich, July 21, 1965, New York, 2-4, Kennedy Papers.

     5. August Heckscher, "Kennedy: The Man Who Lives On," typescript address, Larchmont Temple, Nov. 20, 1964, 6-7, August Heckscher Papers, JFKL.

     6. Letitia Baldridge, Of Diamonds and Diplomats (New York: Ballantine Books, 1968), 185. However, to many Americans "culture" could be a "smelly word" with a "hint scent of communism to it" Tish Baldridge, Mrs. Kennedy's social secretary added. Another criticism of the New Frontier's promotion of the arts came from American artist, Thomas Hart Benton, who felt that the White House was "making a dilettante show of it...the art that I am expressing has nothing to do with high society... I get more out of a backwoods saloon than at the White House." New York Times, May 14, 1962.

     7. This concept was formulated by Salinger, Schlesinger, and Mrs. Kennedy shortly after the inauguration. Arthur and Barbara Gelb, "Culture Makes a hit at the White house," New York Times, Jan. 28, 1962. Stephen Birmingham in his Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1978), 106, notes that Jacqueline Kennedy was a decided political asset to the president, and he let her do pretty much what she wanted.

     8. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to Elise Kirk, Feb. 3, 1984.

     9. The program on April. 30, 1963, was presented for Grand Duchess Charlotte of Luxembourg by Basil Rathbone and the Consort Players. The early music group was organized in 1953 by Sydney Bedt head of the Rare Book and Manuscript Section of the Music Division of the New York Public Library. Another tribute to musical scholarship took place when the president sent a note to the Eighth Congress of the International Musicological Society congratulating the IMS on its achievements.

     10. Oral history interview with August Heckscher, by Wolf von Eckhardt, Dec. 10, 1965, New York, Kennedy Papers.

     11. New York Times, Aug. 10, 1962.

     12. Evelyn Lincoln to Helga Sandburg, May 3, 1962, President's Official File [POF]. , Kennedy Papers.

     13. Heckscher/Eckhardt interview, 14-15. Washington Post music critic, Paul Hume, learned from Mrs. Kennedy that both she and the president liked symphonic music with extra musical associations, such as Tchaikowsky's Romeo and Juliet Overture and Debussy's Prelude to "Afternoon of a Faun." William Lichtenwanger to Edward Kennedy, Mar. 17, 1971, Music Division, Library of Congress.

     14. Bernard West in an interview with Elise Kirk, Washington, D.C., July 22, 1981; Klapthor, First Ladies, 79. See also "Jackie Brings Culture to the White House," New York-Journal American, Nov. 23, 1960. "A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy" was broadcast on the CBS Television Network, Feb. 14, 1962.

     15. Onassis to Kirk. Mrs. Kennedy also founded the Office of the Curator of the White House, the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, and the White House Historical Association in 1961. While the Office of the Curator was approved by law on Sept. 22, 1961, it received precise standing through an Executive Order issued by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

     16. Heckscher/Eckhardt interview, 3.

     17 John Steinway to Henry Steinway, May 12, 1961, Steinway & Sons. The memo comments also on Mrs. Kennedy's dislike of the design of the state piano in the East Room and her request that a smaller grand be placed on the main floor. This she felt could be easily moved into the other rooms for small affairs. The Steinways complied with a Hepplewhite console, which was kept on the second floor and moved downstairs when needed. It was eventually replaced by a larger upright still in use under the Reagans.

     18. Heckscher/Eckhardt interview, 51.

     19. Bernstein/Aldrich interview, 8-9.

     20. New York Times, Nov. 14, 1961. Reprinted in program notes, "A Concert at the White House," Columbia AKL5726. See also Washington Post, Nov. 14, 1961.

     21. Col. John Bourgeois, in an interview with Elise Kirk, Washington, D.C., Feb. 12, 1982.

     22. Casals to John F. Kennedy, Nov. 17, 1961, Kennedy Papers. For more on Casals event, see Marta Istomin interview with Elise Kirk, Washington, D.C., July 20, 1982; Casals, joys and Sorrows, 289-94; and jacket notes "Concert at the White House."

     23. Herbert S. Parmet, JFK: The Presidency of John F. Kennedy (New York: The Dial Press, 1983), 129.

     24. Ibid.

     25. Bernstein/Aldrich interview, 13; New York Times, Jan. 19, 1962.

     26. Baldrige, Diamonds and Diplomats, 178.

     27. Marjorie Hunter, "Mozart and Milk Offered to White House Visitors," New York Times, Feb. 8, 1962. The performance used piano accompaniment.

     28. New York Times, Nov. 20, 1962; press release, Office of the Assistant Social Secretary for the Press, The White House, Oct. 3 1, 1962, Music Division, LC.

     29 Irving Lowens, "White House Guests Thrilled by Bumbry," Washington Evening Star, Feb. 21, 1962. The Kennedys had done away with separate state dinners for the vice-president, Speaker, and chief justice and combined the events into a single evening. Tish Baldridge recalls this concert as one of the highlights of the Kennedy years. Letitia Baldridge to Elise Kirk, Jan. 30, 1985.

     30. Betty Bege and Daisy Cleland, "Kennedys Are Hosts," Washington Evening Star, Feb. 21, 1962.

     31. Baldridge, Diamonds and Diplomats, 207.

     32. Ibid., 186-187.

     33 Lowens, "Move to East Room Solves 'Magic Flute,'" Washington Evening Star, June 4, 1963.

     34. Baldridge, Diamonds and Diplomats, 196-97.

     35. Ibid., 194.

     36. Tish Baldridge to Evelyn Lincoln, memo, Sept. 25, 1961, POF-staff memos, Kennedy Papers.

     37. Tish Baldridge to President and Mrs. Kennedy, memo (nd), POF staff memos, ibid. The list was compiled for the dinner on Feb. 20, 1962, for the vice-president, Speaker, and chief justice at which black mezzo-soprano Grace Bumbry made her U.S. debut.

     38. Tish Baldridge to Evelyn Lincoln, memo, Feb. 20, 1961, POF-staff memos, ibid. During FDR's administration the White House donated $2.50 to the National Symphony.

     39. Tish Baldridge to the President, memo, Apr. 26, 1963, POF-staff memos, ibid.

     40. Heckscher/Eckhardt interview, 56.

     41. Bourgeois/Kirk interview.

     42. West/Kirk interview.

     43. Baldridge, Diamonds and Diplomats, 159-60.

     44. Ibid.

     45. Betty Beale, "Dancing at the White House: Adlai Stevenson Honored," Washington Evening Star, Nov. 13, 1961.

     46. "Reminder Service," typescript, Apr. 20, 1962, Washington Star Archives, MLKL; Washington Evening Star, Apr. 3, 1962. Robbins was choreographer for the film version of West Side Story, produced by United Artists.

     47. Frank Sinatra to Pierre Salinger, Mar. 30, 1961, White House Central Files-"Entertainers," Kennedy Papers. "Political Blows Give '64 Preview," New York Times, Oct. 17, 1963; Tony Scaduto, Frank Sinatra (London: Michael Joseph, 1976), 43-59; Baldridge/Kirk, Jan. 30, 1985.

     48. Memo from Evelyn Lincoln Sept. 18, 1961, The White House POF-staff memos, Kennedy Papers.

     49. Ann H. Lincoln, The Kennedy White House Parties (New York: Viking, 1967) 176.

     50. The complete listing of the musical selections and organizations performing on the day of the funeral appears in the Washington Star, Dec. 1, 1963, compiled by Irving Lowens. Capt. Gilbert H. Mitchell, assistant conductor of the Army Band, served as music coordinator for the Military District of Washington during the ceremonies.

     51. J. Edwards, Military Customs, 5th ed (New York: Aldershot, Gale & Polden, 1961), 202. For more on the Kennedy assassination and funeral see Four Days: The Historical Record of the death of President Kennedy, comp. United Press International and American Heritage Magazine (New York: American Heritage, 1964).

     52. New York Times, July 12, 1964

     53. New York Times, Nov. 27, 1963

     54. Copyright 8 1965 by W. H. Auden. Reprinted from Edward Mendelson, ed., W H. Auden: Collected Poems, by permission of Random House, Inc.

 
Text of custom html meta tags to make it searchable by the Google Applicance basic search
Kennedy, John F. (John Fitzgerald), 1917-1963--Arts,Music,Chapter on music at the Kennedy White House from Elise Kirk's book Music at the White House: a History of the American Spirit.,