Etiquetteer wonders why it had never been thought of before, and why it hasn’t happened since.
“I was mesmerized by the story of this dinner and what it represented,” writes Joseph A. Esposito in the preface of his absorbing new book Dinner in Camelot. “It remains a celebration of some of the most impressive qualities of this nation: research and thinking at the highest levels, often accomplished by people fleeing from tyranny and turmoil in other countries. This dinner also shows the United States at its finest and reminds us that we can again place a premium on civil discourse, consensus building, and recognition of serious achievement at the highest level.”
What dinner, you ask? White House social secretary Letitia Baldrige referred to it as the “Brains’ Dinner,” leading executive chef René Verdon to reply “We are not serving brains at that dinner.” But the April 29, 1962, gathering of Nobel laureates of the Western Hemisphere at a White House dinner with President and Mrs. Kennedy could indeed be said to be the biggest serving of brains ever at the White House. Etiquetteer does not say greatest because of President Kennedy’s famous remark that night: “I rather think this is the greatest collection of human talent ever brought together in this room since Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
Dinner parties used to be the basis of American social life, and 20th-century etiquette books concentrated most on how to give a dinner party at home with Perfect Propriety.* White House entertaining often influenced the hospitality of the rest of the nation, and the Kennedys truly revolutionized How Things Were Done. Dinner in Camelot is such an interesting time capsule because the author explores not just the famous guest list and how they behaved, but how the Kennedys and their staff created and managed the dinner so that everyone left glad they came.
Richard Goodwin, a Kennedy friend at the State Department, first had the idea for a dinner honoring Nobel laureates as a way for Mrs. Kennedy to pivot from the arts to the sciences. The team who put it all together, directed of course by Mrs. Kennedy, assembled the guest list and alternates (no mean feat before the Internet - James Baldwin’s invitation had to be sent to his publisher, only to be returned because he’d changed publishers), devised a program and entertainment, wrote remarks for the President, planned a menu, and especially a seating plan to ensure convivial conversation.
Seating charts helpfully reproduced among the illustrations show how best to handle having one dinner party in two dining rooms. The 50 diners who could not fit in the State Dining Room had to make do in the Blue Room, where the First Lady put her own table. That kept guests from feeling relegated to the children’s table. Both Vice President Lyndon Johnson and Attorney General Robert Kennedy hosted tables in the Blue Room, too. (Bitter political rivals, it was suggested that they might have been seated thus to keep an eye on each other.) President Kennedy’s toast was broadcast into the Blue Room, and specifically referenced a guest seated in the Blue Room. No one there could or should have felt left out.
Married couples were not seated together, or even at the same table. This is Perfectly Proper. One dines out to see others. Etiquetteer can only wonder if anyone complained about it to Tish Baldrige. Etiquetteer gets both mystified and annoyed when married couples make a fuss about this.
The menu, also helpfully reproduced, includes only three courses, a reduction by almost half from official entertaining of previous years. Mrs. Kennedy wanted lighter menus.
The Nobel dinner began with a seafood mousse, followed by beef Wellington accompanied by two vegetables and potatoes, and a molded ice cream with tropical fruit that at least one guest found too sweet. Altogether quite a contrast from the “groaning board” of yore, and a very pleasant change from the bland White House cuisine of previous administrations.**
Devotees of Mrs. Kennedy’s restoration of the White House will be overjoyed to note Esposito’s rigorously accurate notations on the placement of art and furniture in the State rooms and on the second floor, including the foyer outside the elevator. He goes into meticulous detail, including the number of spindles in the chairs, the dimensions of paintings in inches, etc. Much of this gave Etiquetteer the impression of padding a story that didn’t need filling out. But he does take care to point out Portraits of Significance to the assembly: Healy’s portrait of Lincoln in the State Dining Room, and especially a portrait of Benjamin Franklin in the Green Room - sure to be of interest to all the scientists present.
Regardless of political affiliation, conservative fashion is most Perfectly Proper for the White House. Ladies have always had more choices, but gentlemen were really not given much leeway in their dinner clothes then. Vice President Johnson’s gray silk dinner jacket with black lapels came in for some criticism from Diana Trilling: “I don’t know what it was made of, but it seemed to shimmer, as if he were a master of ceremonies in some cheap night club.”*** Not an impression a Vice President should make! You can see him arriving with Mrs. Johnson in this newsreel footage at 00:13. Remember gentlemen: you can never go wrong with a classic.
PERFECTLY (IM)PROPER TABLE TALK
As at any dinner party, some people behave well, and others ill. Mary Hemingway, widow of Ernest, sat next to the President and tried to hector him about Cuba right at the beginning, leading to some testy exchanges. Later that night the President called their mutual friend Bill Walton to complain about her - “she never cracked a smile or a joke” - not knowing that she was Mr. Walton’s houseguest at the time. Whoopsie-doo! Arthur Schlesinger Himself made less than a great impression on his dinner partner, Ava Helen Pauling, who disapproved of his hoarding the White House matchbooks on their table. “He is a clout and a boor,” she finally determined - less because of the matchbooks than for his grilling her about picketing the White House earlier in the day with her husband, Nobel laureate Linus Pauling.
Wait, what? One of Esposito’s principal story lines in Dinner in Camelot is about Ava Helen and Linus starting their day by picketing the White House to protest nuclear testing and ending it dancing in the White House Entrance Hall. Some, including Arthur Schlesinger, didn’t feel it was quite Perfectly Proper to accept a President’s invitation while publicly protesting one of his positions. But President Kennedy passed off the situation with aplomb, even telling Pauling that he hoped he “would continue to express his opinions.” Mrs. Kennedy got the best line though . . .
Handling mistakes, your own or others, with grace is one of the hallmarks of Perfect Propriety. Nobel Prize winner Pearl Buck got to talk with Mrs. George Marshall after dinner, who was so very pleased to meet her. “‘I enjoyed your book So Big,’ confusing her with Edna Ferber . . . Buck was gracious and simply thanked her.”**** Rose Styron, seated next to Nobelist Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, heard that he worked in “mussels” instead of “muscles.” That launched her on a conversation about seafood until he gently corrected her.
The Air Force Strolling Strings performed throughout the evening, as was typical of Kennedy entertainments. But dancing was not, so when Linus Pauling asked the musicians to play a waltz and swept his wife Ava Helen into the Entrance Hall, it was delightful enough for four other couples to join them - and unexpected enough that Mrs. Kennedy was “taken aback.” Trust Jackie not to make a fuss in public though!
Etiquetteer could just keep pulling little bits out of this wonderful book, but you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy and enjoy without already knowing everything in it. Esposito spends most of his time following the Paulings, the Styrons, J. Robert Oppenheimer, John Glenn (!), James Baldwin, Mrs. Hemingway, Mrs. Marshall, and a couple others. But one couldn’t follow the stories of all 177 diners. For the sake of friends at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, however, Etiquetteer rather wishes he’d explored the dinner experience of three of its presidents and their wives who were all there: James Killian, Julius Stratton, and Jerry Wiesner (then President Kennedy’s National Science Advisor).
The epilogue is a gauntlet - a good old-fashioned chain mail gauntlet - flung at the feet of the current President as if to say “These are all the fine things you are not, and that America needs twice as much as before because of you.” President Kennedy’s better attributes are listed and expounded: his good relationships with Republicans, his ability to conciliate and compromise, the importance he placed on briefings, input from experts, and the value he put on public engagement.
Esposito writes “The idea of American unity has waxed and waned over the years, but in 1962 there was an appreciation and understanding of what held us together as a people. It was a time of consensus building. And John Kennedy was a master at doing that. Such an effort began at the very outset of his administration with an inaugural address that called on Americans to work together to achieve a peaceful world and to live up to our responsibilities and fight ‘the common enemies of men: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.’ . . . the sense of pessimism, foreboding, and failure - abetted by calls for divisiveness - that is often encouraged by our national leaders today was rare, if not absent.”
Obviously the path ahead needs to include a lot of dinner party diplomacy! Etiquetteer found this book a “refreshment of the spirit” and feels sure that those who care for Perfect Propriety in public life will, too.
*That, and weddings. Now etiquette books are mostly about how to interact with (and sometimes correct) people who are insensitive to the needs of others.
**Etiquetteer knows some of you are thinking fondly of the White House Housekeeper We Love to Hate, Henrietta Nesbitt. Mrs. Kennedy really inaugurated the era of Good White House Food, sweeping away forever any possibility of the return of Mrs. Nesbitt-style cooking.
***Page 142. It’s not in the index under Johnson, only under Trilling. Index compilers, take note.
****So different from the late Broadway star Vera Charles. Approached at a dinner party by a gushing fan who said “Oh Miss Charles, I can’t tell you how I adored you in Mary of Scotland!” Miss Charles icily responded “Did you, dear? That was Helen Hayes.” (Witness the exchange at 02:10 here.)