“I think this is 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,” President John F. Kennedy famously remarked with his characteristic wit and charm the night of April 29, 1962 when he hosted a remarkable gathering of forty-nine Nobel Prize winners and assorted writers, artists, scientists and intellects. More than fifty-six years later—and nearly fifty-five years since JFK was murdered—it seems almost impossible to believe that the America of that era and the White House of that evening ever existed. That is less because of the presence or absence of Kennedy—both the mythical icon and the admirable yet flawed man who walked the earth—than it is because of us, of what we have become. That dinner was symbolic of a time when science and expertise and the arts were respected, even cherished, and that in itself is a cruel juxtaposition to our own moment when as a nation we embrace charlatans and blatantly celebrate ignorance.
It is the mark of a great historian to locate a single moment in time containing an outsize if overlooked significance and focus a narrow lens upon it; it is the mark of a great author to transform that snapshot into a full-length portrait that is at once interesting, informative, and even inspiring. With Dinner in Camelot: The Night America’s Greatest Scientists, Writers, and Scholars Partied at the Kennedy White House, Joseph A. Esposito demonstrates that he is worthy of both superlatives. In one slim but dense volume, Esposito artfully weaves together the collective stories of the notables who attended, of the young President, just a bit more than a year into his term, of the elegant and beautiful First Lady, of the staff behind the scenes, of the event and its import, and even the architecture and décor of the twin event venues, the State Dining Room and Blue Room in the White House. The attendees were what we would in contemporary idiom dub the “rockstars” of their fields in their day, and looking back it seems fully extraordinary that such a gathering ever really took place with all of them actually in one place at the same time.
Dinner in Camelot opens with a peculiar scene that is highly significant as a reflection of the United States of America, then and now: hours before dinner was served, one of the most famous guests, Linus Pauling—Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry and peace activist—joined a passionate crowd outside picketing the White House to lobby for a nuclear test ban treaty. Later that evening, in the receiving line, the First Lady chided Pauling for upsetting their daughter Caroline with his protest. The President was hardly thrilled with Pauling’s agitation either, although he mostly kept it to himself, but it is striking that Pauling was nevertheless welcomed to the dinner and treated with the appropriate respect due to a man of his stature. No one questioned his right to be part of that demonstration. Another eminent scientist in attendance that evening was J. Robert Oppenheimer, known popularly as the “father of the atomic bomb,” who had gone on from his great accomplishments to have his security clearance revoked as he fell victim to the excesses of McCarthyism. This dinner was the first step back on the road to his rehabilitation. Oddly enough, Pauling and Oppenheimer had once been very close friends, but had a falling out years earlier when the latter made a clumsy play for Pauling’s stunning wife. Among scientists, however, the real “rockstar” that night would have been astronaut John Glenn, who just two months before had become the first American to orbit the Earth. Glenn was seated at Jackie Kennedy’s table that evening.
Spouses were not seated together at this dinner. The foreward to Dinner in Camelot was written by poet and writer Rose Styron, who sat a different table that evening from her husband, William Styron, who was not yet the celebrated novelist he was to later become. But there were plenty of authentic literary legends in attendance, including Pearl Buck, John Dos Passos, Katherine Anne Porter, power couple Lionel and Diana Trilling, and especially the iconic eighty-eight-year-old poet Robert Frost, who was not only seated at the President’s table that night but was among a select group invited to an after-dinner gathering at the Kennedy’s private quarters. Also at JFK’s table was Mary Hemingway, widow of Ernest Hemingway, who had committed suicide only nine months before. The noted actor Frederic March presented some of Papa’s unpublished work after dinner. Both Pearl Buck and Mary Hemingway took issue with aspects of Kennedy’s foreign policy, but only Mary spoke up, gently challenging the President on Cuba.
Another literary figure at the dinner was African American author James Baldwin. Kennedy has often been criticized for not moving fast enough on Civil Rights, and while there may be some merit to that reproach, at the same time it should be noted how radical it was to a Southern audience in 1962 for a black man to break bread at the same table with white men and especially white women, this at a pivotal moment with steam gathering in the national struggle for Civil Rights and its widespread resistance by a stubbornly segregationist and solidly Democratic South—at a White House dinner hosted by no less than the President of the United States, who was a Democrat himself! When Booker T. Washington dined with President Theodore Roosevelt in 1901, the national outrage in its aftermath was so extreme that while T.R. defended the invitation he never repeated it; it was nearly thirty years before another black person was welcomed for dinner at the White House. In addition to Baldwin, African American diplomat and Nobel winner Ralphe Bunche was also a prominent guest that evening. The President was ever mindful of political realities and the road to re-election in ’64, but for the first time since Lincoln sat across from Frederick Douglass, the front door to the White House was truly open to African American guests.
If we are going to apply the term “rockstar” in its twenty-first century parlance, then the real “rockstar” was John F. Kennedy, the young, handsome, articulate President who was in the spring of 1962 still slowly finding his way. 1961 had not gone well for him. He had pushed the button on a hare-brained Cuba scheme inherited from his predecessor that turned into the Bay of Pigs fiasco. A subsequent summit with the mercurial Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had left him beaten and bruised. Acquiescence to the construction of the Berlin Wall made Kennedy seem to many like an irresolute leader, although in retrospect it said more about the weakness of the Soviet system rather than the strength of the American one. No matter. Obstacles like these were not about to serve as roadblocks for a guy ever in ill-health who nonetheless schemed to get past the “4F” he had earned to gain naval command in World War II, who after his PT boat was sunk put raw courage and ingenuity to work to save his crew, including a harrowing four hour long, three-and-a-half mile swim to an island refuge while towing a badly injured crewman with a life jacket strap clenched between his teeth. Kennedy had a brilliant mind and a visceral sense of the world, and he learned well on the job. Perhaps his greatest challenge, the Cuban Missile Crisis, was six months ahead of him when he sat down with that incredible array of intellectual superstars that evening, but when that chilling time was upon him, he proved to be ready for it. Few who were alive during Kennedy’s brief tenure doubt that had he lived, much of what was to follow in American history after Dallas would have gone very, very differently. The night of the Nobel dinner, no one could have guessed that the charming, vibrant Kennedy had just a year and a half left on this earth. But that evening, he was the host of this amazing gathering of giants, and he too was a giant among them, whether he or any of his guests could have imagined that at that time.
We all know that the “Camelot” in the book’s title—the name the grieving widow gave to the press for the Kennedy White House shortly after it was forever taken from us—was a myth, a tearful hyperbole, an imaginary glory. But was it? Was it really? Because we know now that the President had many affairs, that the President had many flaws, that the President made many mistakes … But … has there ever been a White House like the Kennedy White House? Could any of his successors have hosted a dinner like that? Probably not. But the truth is, since that date, no one has.
The beauty of this wonderful book is that it is a collection of many different kinds of stories that all happen to coalesce on this one evening, at this White House, at this particular moment in American history. When we look back on JFK there is always a sense of a promise unfulfilled, but this dinner is an example of a real promise for America that was fulfilled; of a moment of real greatness when science and literature and the arts were not simply tolerated but embraced. What would Jack Kennedy—indeed what would any of the most notable of the attendees of that dinner—make of the current climate of the nation today … of the current occupant of the White House? Dinner in Camelot is not only a celebration of what once was, but a stinging rebuke of what currently is. I urge you to read this magnificent book as a means to both celebrate a past that has been lost to us and to inspire us to seek a future that better resembles that emblem of the past than the unfortunate specter of the present.
[Dinner for Nobel Prize Winners. Mrs. Lady Bird Johnson, Pearl Buck, President Kennedy, Mrs.Jacqueline Kennedy, Robert Frost, others. East Room, White House on April 29, 1962. Photo courtesy of Robert Knudsen, Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository]
NOTE: This review is also available as a podcast:
PODCAST#3 … Review of Dinner in Camelot: The Night America’s Greatest Scientists, Writers, and Scholars Partied at the Kennedy White House, by Joseph A. Esposito