February 14: The Best Docent Ever

2016/02/14 § 1 Comment

On this day in 1962, first lady Jacqueline Kennedy hosted a tour of the White House on television.

Americans are used to the idea of the television as a window into another person’s house, for vicarious, educational, voyeuristic or other reasons: from This Old House to Extreme Makeover and from MTV Cribs and to all those celebrity-at-home interviews by Oprah and Barbara Walters, it’s old hat.  But someone had to do it first (and one might argue, best).  Mrs. Kennedy must give them all a run for their money.

The program, A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy,  followed the FLOTUS and CBS newscaster Charles Collingwood through the house that, up to the Kennedy administration, was not the pristine museum-quality tourist destination (as well as working home and office) that it is today.  Restoration and rebuilding efforts had been carried out piecemeal; furniture and silver wandered off after each family moved out.  When Mrs. Kennedy arrived on the scene, we imagine her in that refined but distinct New England tone pronouncing: enough of that!  In a matter of weeks she established the White House Fine Arts Committee, which drew from the expertise of historians and preservationists to locate, preserve, restore and replace the furniture, decorative arts and architectural features that now make the building a cohesive symbol of American history and presidential leadership–and managed to raise private monies to fund the venture to avoid political friction.  Smart.

Mrs. Kennedy’s work at the White House was a significant contribution to the development of historic preservation in the US at a time when large swaths of historic urban fabric were being mowed down in the name of “slum clearance” and “urban planning” and “modern progress.”  With the television show, she thrust the matter into millions of American homes.  About 80 million viewed the show in its first week on the air; millions more saw it globally when it went into syndication in more than fifty countries–making it, perhaps, the most viewed documentary ever.  For point of comparison, note that some 36% of Americans tuned in for SuperBowl XLVI (2012); the famously popular finale of M*A*S*H attracted 60% of the population; a whopping 75%  tuned in to watch Mrs Kennedy give her White House tour (meaning she competed very favorably with Elvis Presley, who attracted a bit over 80% of the audience share when he appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show: FLOTUS as Rock Star).

And why wouldn’t you?  The lovely, über-coiffed Mrs. Kennedy is the picture of the gracious hostess, but she also knows her history, cold.  You watch this thing and get the very clear picture that this wasn’t a matter of telling other people to go plant roses in the garden: she may not have been stripping paint off the woodwork, but she dug in and was an active participant in the project–indeed, its guiding light–, make no mistake.  It’s clear she wasn’t reading off of cue cards or from a few select talking-points; Mrs. Kennedy knew her stuff.  And that shouldn’t be a big surprise: she may have been Debutante of the Year but she also earned a B.A. from George Washington.  Her seriousness is clear in her comments on the project (even if the language does feel a bit dated):

Every boy who comes here should see things that develop his sense of history. For the girls, the house should look beautiful and lived-in. They should see what a fire in the fireplace and pretty flowers can do for a house; the White House rooms should give them a sense of all that. Everything in the White House must have a reason for being there. It would be sacrilege merely to “redecorate” it — a word I hate. It must be restored — and that has nothing to do with decoration. That is a question of scholarship.  (Jacqueline Kennedy interview with Hugh Sidey of Life magazine,  1 September 1961)
Mrs. Kennedy deftly drew together the worlds she inhabited and exhibits all her strong  qualities in the Tour of the White House: part hostess, part curator, part First Lady, part docent, all encouragement for preservation and deference to history.

see part of the tour (in the State Dining Hall) here and more (Diplomatic Reception Room & in-house upholstery shop & East Room here and the whole thing here


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