On the evening of Feb. 14, 1962, 56 million Americans were riveted to their television sets, watching the Jackie Kennedy White House tour.
During the broadcast, the First Lady showed CBS newsman Charles Collingswood through the White House. She had great pride in her work restoring the mansion and reversing the depredations of the Eisenhower years. In the broadcast, she told the stories of significant historic pieces — and made sure to mention her wealthy donors.
It didn’t please everybody. Novelist Norman Mailer, assigned to cover the show for Esquire magazine, panned it. A popular comedian mocked it.
But the public loved the Jackie Kennedy White House Tour.
White House Restoration
Jackie Kennedy had made it her mission to restore the building’s historical character, and she succeeded. As she told Collingswood, the mansion had hardly anything in it made before 1902.
She spent a year tracking down missing furnishings and finding donors to fund the White House restoration. She begged, borrowed and scrounged to fill the White House with original antiques.
“The American people should be proud of it,” she said. “We have such a great civilization. So many foreigners don’t realize it. I think this house should be the place we see them best.”
By the time of the TV special, she’d gotten rid of the bedroom curtains she called “seasick green.” She redecorated the hallway that looked like a “dentist’s office bomb shelter” and threw out the “Pullman car ashtray stands.”
The First Lady relished the project of making the White House elegant again. Kennedy’s civil rights liaison, Harris Wofford, recalled what happened when he brought Martin Luther King to the mansion to meet with the president.
“We got in the elevator to go up, and it went down instead,” Wofford recalled. “Jacqueline Kennedy got on, in jeans and soot on her face. And I introduced her to Dr. King.”
She then said, “‘Oh, Dr. King, I just wish you had been in the basement with me this morning, looking at Andrew Jackson furniture, you would have been thrilled down there’.” When they got off, she said, “‘But you have other things to talk to Jack about, I know’.”
Wofford called her charming but wacky. King’s response? “My! Wasn’t that something?”
Jackie Kennedy White House Tour
President John F. Kennedy easily talked CBS into broadcasting the First Lady’s tour of the White House. Scheduled for Valentine’s Day, TV Guide teased the show with a cover photo of Jackie Kennedy close up with slightly tousled hair and a direct gaze.
In honor of the holiday, the First Lady wore a red dress and walked Charles Collingwood through the Executive Mansion. She had to forgo her three-pack-a-day cigarette habit during the broadcast.
Despite her frozen half smile, the breathy sing-song voice and her wooden delivery of an endless list of items, most critics praised the show. One called it ‘television at its best.’ She even won an Emmy, the only First Lady to do so.
Norman Mailer thought it stunk.
Panning Jackie Kennedy
Mailer had met her at the Kennedy compound in Hyannisport, just down the road from his summer home in Provincetown.
“I liked her,” he wrote, “but she was a phony.”
He knew what her voice sounded like, and it was nothing like the breathy, sing-song delivery he heard on the televised Jackie Kennedy White House Tour.
In his essay, An Evening With Jackie Kennedy, he wrote that the first sound of her voice “produced a small continuing shock.”
He objected to the endless list of items and the wealthy people who donated them. It depressed the viewer with facts, he wrote, more than 200 of them – 400 if you count repetitions.
“As the eye followed Mrs. Kennedy …through the Blue Room, the Green Room, the East Room, the State Dining Room, the Red Room; as the listeners were offered a reference to Dolly Madison’s favorite sofa, or President Monroe’s Minerva clock, Nellie Custis’ sofa, Mrs. Lincoln’s later poverty, Daniel Webster’s sofa…the presentation began to take on the undernourished, overdone air of a charity show, a telethon for a new disease,” he wrote.
But then he cut her some slack – sort of: “Somehow it was sympathetic that she walked through it like a starlet who is utterly without talent.”
Norman Mailer received no more invitations to visit the Kennedys in Hyannisport.
Another New Englander, comedian Vaughn Meader, poked relentless fun at the Jackie Kennedy White House Tour. Meader skyrocketed to fame with his impersonation of the Kennedys on his record album, The First Family. During the four-minute bit, a stiff newsman asks her to point out the paintings. She replies, “There’s this one and this one, and that great big one over there and this little teeny one down here.”
She describes the Richard Nixon dumbwaiter, the Dolly Madison pinochle room and the Woodrow Wilson ping-pong room. And entering the Blue Room, she said, “We decided to leave it just the way President Blue had it originally.”
Still, the world loved the Jackie Kennedy White House tour, as it was distributed to 120 countries.
To listen to Vaughn Meader’s bit, The Tour, click here.
To see a documentary about the Jackie Kennedy White House Tour, click here.
Image of Norman Mailer By Grlucas – Norman Mailer Society Conference 2006, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63095348. Vaughn Meader album cover Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3176477. This story updated in 2022.