Sunday 20 January 2013

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner at the White House?

Jacqueline Kennedy loved the arts.  With a degree in French literature and a background in journalism, it was the First Lady's dream to invite as many artists, musicians and writers to the White House as possible.  The parade of artists started with her husband's inauguration in January of 1961 when on a frosty Washington day American poet Robert Frost recited "The Gift Outright".

Early in her husband's presidency, Mrs. Kennedy arranged to have a stage built in the East Room of the White House for musical and theatrical performances.  Among others, the Metropolitan Opera, Jerome Robbins  Ballet and American Shakespeare Festival all performed there.  The First Lady also arranged a series of state dinners with famous guests from the world of arts and literature.  Cellist Pablo Casals performed at the White House in November of 1961.

But the "piece de resistance" was the dinner Jacqueline organized for May of 1962 where the guest of honour was French novelist Andre Malraux.  She had met the Frenchman when she had visited Paris and invited him to the United States.  Fearing the Monsieur Malraux might be bored in Washington, she invited dozens of artists, musicians, playwrights and poets to the affair.  Wearing a "shocking strapless pink gown", Mrs. Kennedy schmoozed with her guests who included:  musician Leonard Bernstein, playwrights Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, painters Andrew Wyeth and Franz Kline, poet Archibald MacLeish and novelists Saul Bellow and Robert Penn Warren.  After dinner the guests retired to the East Room stage where they were entertained by violinist Isaac Stern.  The highlight of the evening took place when Andre Malraux, seated beside the First Lady at dinner, whispered:  "How would you like me to bring the Mona Lisa to Washington?".

The Mona Lisa might be the most famous guest of all to visit the White House, a rare event which took place in December of 1962.  A radiant Jacqueline Kennedy stood in front of the famous painting, knowing that she  had performed the ultimate cultural coup.


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