REVIEW: In JFK's White House: The Greatest Dinner Party of All Time

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Dinner in Camelot: The Night America’s Greatest Scientists, Writers, and Scholars Partied at the White House by Joseph A. Esposito  

ForeEdge   252 pp. 

By Jim Swearingen

Don’t let it be forgot
that once there was a spot
for one, brief, shining moment
that was known as . . . Camelot!

So sang Richard Burton playing a heartbroken King Arthur on the stage of the Majestic Theater in New York on opening night in 1960. The Broadway smash was based on novelist T.H. White’s 1958 retelling of the medieval epic, The Once and Future King. When President John F. Kennedy was felled by an assassin’s bullet two years later, his widow seized on the popular Arthurian legend to lionize her husband’s 1000-day administration. She enlisted the help of famed journalist Theodore H. White (no relation to T.H.), and the two crafted a presidential legend that cemented JFK’s image as a martyred patriot, while also trivializing the complexity of his place in history.

If there was one moment in Kennedy’s brief administration that embodied the glorious Camelot myth, it was a lavish, formal White House dinner that the Kennedys hosted at the White House in 1962, where the guests included over 100 celebrated men and women of letters and the sciences, 49 of whom were American Nobel laureates.  Historian Joseph Esposito has produced an exhaustively researched and well written account of that iconic assembly of New Frontier intellect and creativity.

That glittering night was as much a thank you to America’s heroes and thinkers—our intellectual explorers—as a social event marking our national maturity.  The dinner came at a critical historical moment: the United States, locked for years in a bitter Cold War, was poised to surpass its Soviet nemesis morally and intellectually. The men and women summoned to court that night were the ones who, above all, were making that ascendance possible.

The White House was reinvigorated after the sleepy Eisenhower years.  The dashing, young President and his glamorous wife were embracing public displays of erudition and declaring that America, with its brilliance and diversity of perspectives, was now poised to lead the world.  The dinner exemplified the “Kennedy style,” which mixed business with pleasure, politics with poetry.

The White House setting itself was a part of the renaissance.  With the help of a team of prominent architects and designers, Jackie Kennedy had overseen the refurbishment of the landmark to its original, Federalist-era splendor. The First Lady was instrumental in turning the Executive Mansion into a lavishly decorated and highly cultured salon, one that celebrated American exceptionalism -- while also paying tribute to European sophistication by employing a pair of French and Italian chefs. Jackie’s continental tastes added flair to a capital city that the Founders had designed to impress foreign powers.

Esposito’s approach captures all of that remarkable evening’s many dimensions, reading like a melding of American Heritage, Architectural Digest, and Gourmet, along with a national newspaper’s page 1 above the fold and society pages.  His cast of characters comprises a Round Table of American genius and audacity that included John Glenn, James Baldwin, Robert Frost, Pearl Buck, John Dos Passos, Katherine Anne Porter, Robert Oppenheimer, Linus Pauling, Robert Kennedy, William and Rose Styron, the last of whom wrote the book’s foreword and provided the author with an extensive first-hand account.

Esposito structures his work using the dinner’s seating chart, devoting individual chapters to the diners at each table, including their conversations, faux pas, and personal jealousies. He treats us to Mary Hemingway’s badgering JFK over his Cuba policy while invoking her dead husband’s memory, Pearl Buck’s dismay at the President’s culturally tone-deaf suggestion that Japan should help post-war South Korea rebuild, and James Baldwin’s first in a series of tense conversations with Bobby Kennedy that would eventually lead circuitously to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In Esposito’s telling, the dinner was emblematic not only of the sophisticated Kennedy style, but of a pragmatic approach to governing and national progress that are starkly absent from our current era. The First Family’s impulse to assemble a legion of great minds that were supremely informed and experienced on critical issues, and then allow them to pepper the Chief Executive, represents so much of what was right about the Kennedy Presidency – and so much of what is lacking in the one we are enduring now.

As Esposito recounts it, the Kennedys’ night of erudition and graciousness cannot help but throw the current administration in stark relief.  The guests’ unrestricted access to the President reflected his confidence with experts and critics, with opinions to his right and left. A strong leader, whose character had been tested by an elite education and world war, gracefully displayed the difference between measured leadership and brash authority.

The book’s final chapter presents a calm but unapologetic appraisal of the current administration’s approach to governing as seen through the lens of what he labels “one of the most important social events of the 20th century.”  With Kennedy-like savoir faire, he critiques the current occupant of the White House placidly, but with unmistakable intent.

Joseph Esposito’s account of this White House dinner captures a style of leadership that feels today like a fanciful anachronism. Was there ever really a time when an American President could navigate a ballroom full of intrepid minds, with sophistication and panache?  Joseph Esposito makes it clear that on this brief, shining evening half a century ago there was indeed “a fleeting wisp of glory . . .called Camelot.”

Jim Swearingen is a Minneapolis-based writer.