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Jackie Kennedy


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#1 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 13 May 2001 - 09:38 PM

I took my mother to the Jackie Kennedy exhibition at the [url="http://"http://www.metmuseum.org"]Metropolitan Museum of Art[/url] today. Besides giving one a serious sense of wardrobe envy (princess seams! pillbox hats! shantung in every hue! Good Lord, that woman was a clotheshorse!) there were several items of ballet-related memorabilia.

The Kennedy White House was one which patronized the Arts in a way I can't recall in any recent administration. It seemed to go way beyond obligation to genuine love of culture. Dance related souvenir programs included with the exhibition include one from the POB during the Kennedy's visit to Paris. Included was a Harald Lander ballet, Rendez-vous, to Mozart and performed by Josette Amiel and Flemming Flindt. A second program was for ABT's Billy the Kid performed at a White House function. Billy was John Kriza, Alias was Bruce Marks.

I know that there were other times the Kennedys had ballet at the White House. One of my first teachers, Marie Paquet, had a picture in the studio of her meeting JFK along with the Joffrey company after performing at the White House. Victoria or Mel, would you have anything to add on either ABT or the Joffrey's visits?

#2 Mel Johnson

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Posted 13 May 2001 - 10:08 PM

I do recall that the Johnson White House was host to both the Joffrey and the Harkness Ballets - how's that for bipartisanship? It was before I was with the co., however. I believe the Joffrey also had a performance at the Kennedy White House, and the '65 Johnson Inaugural featured NYCB performing, what else, "Stars & Stripes"!

But I believe Victoria was with ABT for the Kennedy performance.

#3 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 13 May 2001 - 10:37 PM

It doesn't mention anything about ballet proper, but the NY Times article on the exhibition is at [url="http://"http://www.nytimes.com/2001/05/04/arts/04MUSC.html"]http://www.nytimes.com/2001/05/04/arts/04MUSC.html[/url] and very thought provoking, especially the final paragraph.

It does not seem a small thing now to have made art a matter of national policy. In an age still racked by fear — missile shield, anyone? — it is vivifying to be reminded that the desire for beauty can survive the rage to destroy.



#4 dirac

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Posted 14 May 2001 - 01:55 AM

I am of two minds about the Kennedy administration's use of the arts, and I employ the word "use" deliberately. Mrs. Kennedy's husband appears to have regarded culture chiefly as window dressing to attract academics and other egghead types to the Kennedy banner; he was patronizing the arts in more than one sense. (I don't mean to deprecate him,I've tried repeatedly to dislike the guy and failed.) Jacqueline Kennedy's interest was quite genuine, but I was struck by an observation made by Sarah Bradford in her biography "America's Queen"-- which is, incidentally, a very good book on a topic that generally attracts mercenaries and airheads: namely, that Mrs. Kennedy refused to sit on committees or do the scut work involved in working for community arts projects, preferring instead to focus on unique high-profile events, such as Pablo Casals' appearance at the White House. Very canny lady. The Johnsons, as Mel notes, made similar gestures toward the arts, but somehow those haven't registered; the Johnsons were redneck vulgarians, lacking in Style.

I'm all in favor of the President taking notice of the arts, and sponsoring them; don't get me wrong. And I think it's great that Mrs. K. invited Balanchine to the White House for a chat. I'm sure it lifted his spirits, if nothing else, and thus served a good purpose. (Imagine Laura Bush sitting down with Mark Morris!) But I also think it's worth pointing out that, in exchange for tolerating a few evenings of ballet, symphonies, and such like, President Kennedy received the undying fealty of distinguished intellectuals who have proved to be loyal tribunes of the glories of the Kennedy years in the face of some damning historical evidence. Who profited more, the Kennedys or the arts? The former, I'm inclined to think.

Also, I think those stiff shantung frocks and Kenneth bouffants look like hell, to be honest. It's a tribute to Mrs. Kennedy's personal flair that she brought such stuff off.

#5 Paul W

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Posted 14 May 2001 - 05:21 AM

Mrs. Kennedy's husband appears to have
                  regarded culture chiefly as window dressing to attract academics and other
                  egghead types to the Kennedy banner; he was patronizing the arts in more than
                  one sense.


I'm not a fan of everything JFK did, but I would never have concluded that he considered "culture" as window dressing. Is there some factual trail of evidence to support this assertion Dirac? I can't think of any other President since I've been alive who supported and "seemed to" appreciate the arts more in the context of U.S. culture.

#6 salzberg

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Posted 14 May 2001 - 06:49 AM

The only question that really matters is, "Were the arts better off as a result of Kennedy's policies?"

If the answer is "yes" -- which it is -- his motivations are irrelevant.

#7 Drew

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Posted 14 May 2001 - 07:56 AM

Jimmy Carter was a supporter of the arts -- he not only sponsored televised performances at the White House -- but often attended performances in Washington, not necessarily gala events either. I saw him myself at a performance of _Amadeus_. As for ballet specifically, I always understood that Kissinger liked ballet...I know I saw him at at least one performance (not a gala), and in an interview, Farrell mentioned meeting him after a performance, and commented that he seemed to really know something about dance. (Of course, she may have been being polite, and Kissinger's attendance at ballet performances would have had little or no bearing on arts policy!)

But I remain pretty indifferent to the personal tastes of these figures, though -- up to a point -- I do appreciate public policy that supports the arts. However, I very strongly agree with Dirac's comments about the Kennedys. I have been quite appalled by the uncritical tone of many intellectuals and artists on the subject of the Kennedy administration. From a specifically "arts" perspective, one might invoke Salzberg's question -- are the arts better off? -- but actually I don't think it's always easy to know if the answer is a straightforward "yes."

I also think that it does matter that the arts and intellectuals generally were supported during the Kennedy administration in large part because American artistic and intellectual institutions, including the New York City Ballet, were seen as weapons in the propaganda wing of the cold war. If you want references, a somewhat sloppy book recently came out about this: Frances Stonor Saunders _The Cultural Cold War_. It's full of silly mistakes, but the overarching argument and research that went into it remains worth attention. One might respond, "who cares" if public and even some private funding (Ford Foundation) that spurred the dance boom can ultimately be traced to the CIA? Didn't the arts benefit? (See Saunders book if you want references...) And I would add that ALL arts support is likely to be 'tainted' in some way or another, if not politically then commercially, socially etc. But in a larger perspective, I don't think the supporters of the arts should be indifferent to what is going on -- or WHY it's going on -- partly because there are situations where independence can be compromised, but also for more pragmatic reasons. It may, for example, account for patterns of public support AND their withdrawal. Today's arguments against public funding of the arts rarely mention, for example, the end of the cold war and, in the meanwhile, people look back (in my opinion over idealistically) to the Kennedy adminstration, as a time whe the arts were "understood." But if in fact federal support for the arts has often been motivated by other, seemingly alien issues, like foreign policy -- then a great deal of this debate, however sincere on all sides, simply misses what is really happening.

#8 Victoria Leigh

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Posted 14 May 2001 - 08:05 AM

Leigh, I was in ABT's performance of Billy the Kid at the White House. I believe that we were the first ballet company to be brought in to perform. The occasion was a State Dinner for the President of the Ivory Coast. It was quite a feat fitting that ballet on the tiny East Room stage, but what an exciting day that was for all of us who were privileged enough to be there! We were flown to DC from NY in one of the Air Force jets, rehearsed early in the day, and then had some rooms at a nearby hotel for the day. The performance was not until 10:00 at night, after the dinner. It was my first time in DC, and also my first performance in Billy the Kid! There are photos of us on stage, with the President and Mrs. Kennedy. Mrs. Kennedy then took us on a tour of the White House. And then we were flown back to NY! A great memory :)

#9 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 14 May 2001 - 09:16 AM

dirac -

It's a fascinating and complicated issue, and there's material in the exhibition that supports your view. One thing that's interesting to those of us in the age of Betty, Rosalyn and Hillary is how studiously Jackie avoids political positions. She understands her job as PR and sticks to it assiduously. I have no personal knowledge of the administration; I was born one month before JFK died, so politics really didn't enter into my understanding until Watergate and the end of the Nixon administration. One of the most surprising things for me was that the Kennedy administration did indeed seem like Camelot in the exhibition, mythical and long-ago.

In a tape of Jackie talking about arts in the White House, the interviewer asks, (I may be misquoting this exchange, I only heard it once) "Do you think there should be a relationship between the government and the arts?" She smiles and talks with that breathy voice, "That's so complicated! I don't know. . .as long as it's the best." She absolutely refused to be pinned down to an issue.

I've got to say I love the clothes and the 'dos, though. My Mom's take was "hate the gowns, love the suits." To bring this back to ballet, Balanchine's visit with Jackie is not mentioned in the exhibition but it is in Taper's biography. He was her first guest to the White House, on Jan. 25, 1961. It seems he was as taken with her as Kruschev. The stiff, costumelike qualities of her clothing made sense to me in this context. She seemed to see her job as being Goethe's Eternal Woman; Balanchine said it explicitly in a letter to her where he asked her to take on the role of "spiritual savior" of America.

I don't mean in a religious sense but I mean to distinguish between material things and the things of the spirit -- art, beauty.  No one else can take care of these things.  You alone can--if you will.

Your husband is necessarily busy with serious international problems and cannot be expected to worry too much about the nation's art and culture.  But woman is always the inspiration.  Man takes care of the material things and woman takes care of the soul.  Woman is the world and man lives in it.  Woman makes the earth into a home for man.

Even in art, it is woman who inspires man.  God creates, woman inspires, and man assembles.

I firmly believe that woman is appointed by destiny to inspire and bring beauty to our existence.  Woman herself is the reason for life to be beautiful and men should be busy serving her. . ."


It's quite a quote, romantic and patronizing all at once. But it seemed like a role Jackie Kennedy understood for herself, and she had the wardrobe tailored to fit.

#10 doug

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Posted 14 May 2001 - 12:55 PM

Kent Stowell, Artistic Director of Pacific Northwest Ballet, has a letter in his office from President Johnson (dating from Kent's years with NYCB) thanking him for his performance at the White House. It is very short but it is signed by Johnson.

#11 Alexandra

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Posted 14 May 2001 - 01:53 PM

I think it's very hard to know whether someone's support of the arts is window dressing, unless one is really knows them. And I think the attendance of famous people at ballet generally does good -- and that politicians care enough about dance to sit through an evening is to the good, for two reasons. One is that it raises the profile -- monkey see, monkey do. Many Kennedys attended ballet here (I write as one who's watched Kennedy Center audiences for 25 years). Joan Kennedy was a regular balletgoer, often with her children. JFK Jr and Caroline Kennedy attended a lot as well. If some people also attended because the Kennedys put the idea in their heads, or they wanted to hang out with John-John, it got them in the door.

On the other hand, on balance, I've noticed many more Republican politicians in the audience at ballet performances than Democratic ones, and Republicans aren't known for their generous policies to the arts -- although it's quite possible these people give privately. FBI directors, CIA directors, not only Kissinger but Brzezinski; several Senators. Sandra Day O'Connor is the only Really Big Wig I've ever seen at a non-glamorous event. I've noticed her at smaller modern dance performances, even some ethnic fare at the Smithsonian.

Back to Jacqueline Kennedy, Lady Camelot, one of the most exciting stories I've ever heard about politicians, possibilities and the arts was how Mrs. Kennedy was attending a gala at (I believe) DAR hall and phoned her husband at a break saying, "You've got to come over and see this." He did. I like the idea that a President is four blocks away from dance and can just "pop over," and that one would. I don't think that can be a bad thing for dance.

I think we're at a pendulum swing on the Kennedys now. He was very unpopular in many circles at the time of his death, then became sainted, and now is in the disembowelling stage. There's a quote from Jackie Kennedy that was used as a promo for a PBS bio that seems appropriate here: "It is difficult to separate the good from the bad [in a person]. And perhaps there is no need to do so." I think she was a lot wiser than her pillbox hats.

#12 dirac

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Posted 14 May 2001 - 08:00 PM

Actually, I think JFK's stock is rising again, but I did not intend my remarks to be taken as Kennedy-bashing. If the Democrats exhumed his corpse and nominated him in 2004 he'd have my vote against almost any of his prospective living opponents. I meant my comments only as a caution against taking image and reputation as fact, and I think it's particularly important in Kennedy's case because an interest in the arts became an important part of his political persona. ( I confess that I don't regard this resurgence of Jackie-worship as a entirely a Good Thing; it's almost as if people were wishing to return to a time when First Ladies were ladies first and focused on matters such as accessorizing, interior decoration, and the Arts and kept their noses out of, for instance, public health policy.) It is also true that she was not a "political wife" in the contemporary or even midcentury sense of the phrase, but that's another story. Returning to the topic at hand: if you delve into the literature of the Kennedy administration even slightly, you'll find considerable evidence that backs me up. Anyone who wants to e-mail me for some book titles should feel free to do so. I'd rather not go into it here because it's just getting too far afield.

I can't resist, however, one minor anecdote. A delegation of Girl Scouts paid a visit to the White House and required an official welcome. The President had other ideas and dispatched Pierre Salinger to Mrs. Kennedy to suggest that she do the welcoming. Salinger returned in short order with the message that Jackie viewed the Girl Scouts as her husband's problem. JFK accepted his fate and went to have a talk with his wife. Mission accomplished, he so informed Salinger, who said something like, "How'd you do it?" The President made a face and said, "Two symphonies."

Leigh, the Balanchine quote is a striking one. "Your husband is necessarily busy with serious international problems and cannot be expected to worry too much about the nation's art and culture," nicely sums up the feminization of culture that has played a part in promoting the arts in this country but has also held them back. Sigh.

#13 Nanatchka

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Posted 14 May 2001 - 09:23 PM

Imagine getting to the White House, thinking, "I can get anyone I want to come see me, " and deciding on Balanchine. Just amazing and wonderful. For no political purpose whatsoever, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis contined to support ballet after her short years in the White House. I remember seeing her with Caroline at Lincon Center here in New York. I don't know what the ballet was,but Caroline had wonderful red patent leather Mary Jane shoes. I was quite astonished, because I had thought only black ones were acceptable. My grandmother was rather shocked. I can still see those shoes so clearly. I hope they made Caroline very happy.

#14 felursus

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Posted 16 May 2001 - 01:37 AM

I saw Jackie Kennedy many times at the ballet in New York - and at several different companies, too. Her love of ballet was quite genuine.

Alexandra - it's not ballet, but Ruth Bader Ginsberg was the interviewee at a recent Met Opera broadcast. She's a big fan of opera. She revealed that both she and Scalia had actually been onstage as extras with the Washington Opera.

Two other famous ballet fans are the Newmans (Paul and Joanne). Due to a crush in the orchestra bar area, I came within inches of Paul's gorgeous blue eyes on one occasion.

Back to the Kennedys: I think that Jack wanted to be viewed as an intellectual, sophisticated and cultured individual - a contrast to the rough-and-tumble Irish image some had of him. Jackie had the genuine interest and knowledge of the arts. She used it to further the image of the Kennedy presidency as well as to further the image of the US as a nation of high cultural standards - and yes, as a weapon of the cold war.

#15 Victoria Leigh

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Posted 16 May 2001 - 09:10 AM

Jackie Kennedy was present in 1965, at the State Theatre, for ABT's world premiere of Robbins' Les Noces. Bernstein conducted that performance, and it was quite an exciting event :)


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