The White House dinner on May 11 1962 for French Cultural Affairs Minister, André Malraux, is most often treated as a footnote to the Kennedy Administration and the Camelot White House. If mentioned at all, it places behind the Kennedy White House dinners for Nobel Laureates and another where celloist, Pablo Casals, who had refused to perform in the U.S. to the point, did play at the White House.
When mentioned, the Malraux dinner is seen as a key step in Mrs. Kennedy’s campaign to get the Mona Lisa to the United States (which did happen in January 1963):
Perhaps no other White House dinner had more personal meaning for Jacqueline Kennedy than the evening honoring French Minister of Culture [sic] André Malraux at the White House on May 11, 1962. Both President and Mrs. Kennedy shared an admiration of Malraux’s multi-faceted career as a novelist, art historian, explorer, Spanish Civil war fighter pilot, World War II resistance leader and advocate of the arts. The first lady and Malraux had developed a friendship following a tour of Paris art museums during the Kennedy’s state visit to Paris in June 1961. By according him all the courtesies normally reserved for a head of state, the Kennedys hoped to focus national attention on the role of the arts in America and encourage the development of Washington as a cultural center. . .At the end of the evening, Monsieur Malraux whispered a promise to Jacqueline Kennedy that he would send to her France’s most famous cultural treasure, the Mona Lisa , to be displayed at the National Gallery in Washington.
What I do here is dig deeper into the palimpsest we’ve been left for this dinner. Those attending were among America’s greatest living authors, playwrights, actors and artists—in other words, those whose profession was to speak or write well and who, fortunately for my purposes, wrote about being at the dinner. I want to see this event with fresh eyes, as if state dinner just happened. Why? Because all Americans are a party to White House events, high and low.
We find the President Kennedy using the dinner as a way to get Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh to attend. Kennedy also jawbones John Rockefeller, art patron and wealthy banker, about the U.S. economy. What would be the very scary Viet Nam War also makes an appearance that evening. And there in one place was the high and low gossip that is the molecular structure of American politics.
I’ll come back to the lessons for politics I take away form from the Malraux dinner at the end, but first read for the stories.
“They let us in, darlings! We’re here! We’re inside!” Thornton Wilder effuses, as he moves from table to table, embracing friends. The “new insiders” are America’s high-art grandees. The occasion is a White House dinner for André Malraux, French Minister of Cultural Affairs. Time: 8 p.m., black tie. Today: May 11 1962.
J.D. Salinger sends his regrets. So do Alexander Calder, W.H. Auden, Truman Capote, Jacques Barzun, Aldous Huxley, Martha Graham, and Marianne Moore. Those attending include Edmund Wilson, Saul Bellow, Robert Lowell, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Agnes de Mille, Charles and Anne Lindbergh, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, Leonard Bernstein, Mark Rothko, Paddy Chayefsky, and Irwin Shaw.
In August 1961 Gore Vidal writes that Jackie Kennedy really “did look forward to getting Malraux to the White House. She had found him impressive. At De Gaulle’s reception for the Kennedys in Paris, Malraux had appeared with his wife, whose face was bloated from weeping…[T]heir son had just been killed in an auto crash. But he had taken Jackie around museums and theaters and completely captured her imagination.” Nicole Alphand, whose husband was France’s ambassador to the U.S., picks up the story:
Anxious to give heightened brilliance to the reign of the ‘New Frontier’, the President had decided to give a dinner at the White House for everyone who mattered in American culture—writers, novelists, musicians and men of the theatre. He asked us whether André Malraux would agree to lend his presence to this event, and it was at once arranged for the month of May 1962. We had long discussions about it with Mrs. Kennedy during a weekend spent with her in Florida at the beginning of the year. “We mustn’t allow André Malraux to be bored,” she said, “and since he speaks English badly, we should first of all invite people who speak French.” We replied that what principally mattered was to gather round her table the greatest artists in America, French speaking or not.
My husband was in Paris during April, and he discussed with Malraux the details of the journey. The Minister found it a fascinating prospect. Not only would he speak about culture, he would also talk to President Kennedy about politics in general, for this was at a time when our points of view were at variance in many ways. The General [Charles de Gaulle] was not prepared, in the immediate future, to return the visit which Kennedy had paid him in the previous year, “but”, added Malraux, “he is quite glad to send on his tanks—in other words myself—and to have them set on fire to light his path.”
As the event approached, Jacqueline Kennedy “scattered seating charts across the floor of her sitting room [and] knelt among them to work out an arrangement,” in the words of TIME. “Of all the social events held at the White House, the one that mattered the most personally to Jackie was the dinner honoring André Malraux,” writes Mrs. Kennedy’s social secretary, Letitia Baldrige.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh gives a flavor of the day and hours leading to that evening:
CAL [Charles A. Lindbergh] and I took a taxi to the White House after taking the shuttle down from New York, and after picking up CAL’s newly made “black tie” outfit on Pennsylvania Ave. It was about five p.m. and the downstairs rooms of the White House were full of people arranging flowers and moving chairs about. We waited in a small reception room (it had two Cézannes in it) next to the big cleared ballroom where the Isaac Stern Trio was practicing in their shirtsleeves for the concert they were to give after dinner. Mrs. Kennedy’s secretary then came and greeted us—a gay, informal, pretty woman with quite a line—and took us in the elevator up to our rooms: “The Queen’s room for Mrs. L. and the Lincoln room for Mr. L.”
“So far away!” I cried out in dismay, so we were both put together in the Queen’s room.
We then had tea, brought us by a nice Negro maid who took my dress to press it, and I sewed some brilliant buckles on my new evening shoes (bought in Stamford that morning). I was handed the list of guests to look over and decided there was no use trying to read any more Malraux—I would never get to speak to him!. . .We dressed and were ushered (“Call Usher’s Office”) to a small private upstairs salon where the house guests and French Embassy were having cocktails. M. and Mme. Malraux, the French Ambassador and his umpteenth wife (he urban, intelligent and very smooth; she blond, beautiful and hard as nails), Vice President and Mrs. Johnson, and various members of the French Embassy, the Kennedys, etc.
…The French ladies were all dressed up and made up like mannequins—rather terrifying. M. Malraux, a nervous and interesting white mask. Mme. Malraux less mask-like than the others, quite sympathetic. Mrs. Kennedy swept in like a queen, looking extremely beautiful in a long pink stiff gown, hair high and stiff—rather Japanese—with a diamond star set in it! I talked in English to Mrs. Johnson, who was kind and quite natural and American, and in French to the French women (not too well—but they were surprised to have me speak at all).
Then we went downstairs to the main reception hall—where all the other guests were…
Edmund Wilson calls the Malraux dinner a “big cultural blowout,” Saul Bellow “a sort of crazy fantasy evening,” S.N. Behrman “a mass dinner,” and Arthur Miller, “manifestly a show of American intellectual pride.” Gawping was palpable. “It was such a celebrity roster that I wished I had brought an autograph book and swallowed enough pride to use it,” writes Baldrige. “It was a little like ‘heaven’ in that you kept seeing people who looked rather familiar and you had never met: Is that Tennessee Williams? Or Arthur Miller? Or Edmund Wilson? (I would like to have met E.W.),” Anne Morrow Lindbergh tells a close friend two days later.
Tennessee Williams remembers Wilder, “bustling about like a self-appointed field marshal” (Wilder had been in the two world wars). Lining everyone up in alphabetical order for the reception line, “Mr. Wilder rushed up to me with the radiant smile of a mortician and shrieked, ‘Mr. Williams, you’re a bit out of place, you come behind me.'” “If I am behind you it’s the first and last time in my life,” assayed Williams. (Williams remembers Shelley Winters in the reception line. Her assistant tells me she didn’t attend.) A “nice little contingent in ‘W’s’: Penn Warrens, Wilder, Tennessee Williams,” writes Wilder to a friend. A week or so later, Wilder is on the road in search of a desert town far from Washington where he could stay “without neckties, without shoelaces and without cultivated conversation.”
Behind Williams in the reception line comes Edmund Wilson and his wife. “Elena feels such physical revulsion [toward Williams] that she says she cannot stand to be near him,” records Wilson. “She said something of this kind to me in Russian. Williams turned: ‘What language is that?’ ‘Russian.’ ‘Fine.'” Behind the Wilsons stands another loner, Andrew Wyeth, “who has become the official American painter” in Edmund Wilson’s estimation. “When the long alphabetical line had nearly all shuffled past the President and First Lady and had been presented to M. Malraux, it came my turn to meet him and I had actually never heard of him before,” insists Tennessee Williams. “I said to him, ‘Enchanté, Monsieur Maurois’—and this made Jackie smile, but did not seem to amuse M. Malraux.” “‘Good evening’ and that was all—and not even in French,” is how Thornton Wilder describes his interchange with Malraux. During handshakes, President Kennedy tells Wilder, “I want to thank you, Mr. Wilder, for what you said last week,” when the playwright gave a reading at the State Department.
That other American playwright, Arthur Miller, isn’t in alphabetical order. “I found myself at the very end of the line, as had been my fate since grammar school due to my height,” writes Miller,
and as I slowly moved forward, I saw one lone man remaining outside. Of towering height, wearing a ruffled pale blue shirt, he was almost demonstrably disdaining the occasion, standing with one knee raised and a shoe pressed against the immaculate wainscoting, studiously cleaning his fingernails with a file like an idler in front of a country store. He looked friendless, if not peeved. I only gradually recognized his face. He was Lyndon B. Johnson, the vice-president of the United States, and clearly not in his element tonight. It was the only time I ever felt sorry for a vice-president.
Other theater people cast the consummate insider, Lyndon Johnson, also in the stock role of outsider. “There was this tall guy standing off there in a doorway all alone with no guards, no Marine Corps adjutants, no secretary, aides, nothing,” remembers Lee Strasberg. “I walked right by him…[I]t was Johnson over there on the side by himself waiting to get his hand shook. I literally stiffed the Vice President of the United States!” “It was terribly embarrassing,” remembers Susan Strasberg, who accompanies her father.
“All these people,” Tennessee Williams says at the dinner, “were absolutely overwhelmed by being invited. If our mothers could see us now.” Arthur Miller tells the Washington Post, “All these people are used to earning their living by pushing a pencil or a fiddle…They are absolutely overwhelmed by being invited.” “I wish my mother could be here,” actress Geraldine Page tells Williams. “I wish all our mothers could be,” he returns. Saul Bellow remembers Mark Rothko whisper that “all of this was a lot of crap, and meant nothing to [Rothko].” “But my sister!,” Rothko says to him: “It’s a great day for my sister.” “What he meant,” Bellow said, “was ‘If Mama could only see me now.'” “In this crowd, [I] saw several novelists and poets at one time strongly alienated, ex-intransigent’s, former enemies of society, old grumblers and life-long manger-dogs,” writes Bellow, “all having a hell of a good time, their faces beaming, their wives in evening gowns (could they afford them?).”
“I’d like to dine at the White House every night!” Elena Wilson confesses. Allen Tate tells her that the dinner is the first time “a man of my [Southern] blood” has been to the White House since President Buchanan. George Balanchine arrives depressed over a forthcoming trip to Russia (Wilder tells Balanchine that evening, “plump, in his face all that I owed him”). Gail Jones, daughter of singer Lena Horne, is introduced to Sargent Shriver, the President’s brother-in-law and director of the new Peace Corps. He asks if she wants to join the Corps; she declines. (“Miss Gail Jones colored” says a handwritten note in one of the White House’s files on the dinner.) “There was not a single social occasion at the White House, whether it was for Pablo Casals, André Malraux, or a host of others, to which I was not invited,” Adam Clayton Powell writes.
Archibald MacLeish tells Robert Lowell that the White House’s “trumpets made his heart beat.” “Red Warren [and] I had a frantic search for the men’s room,” Lowell remembers about Penn Warren. “[W]e drank a great deal at the White House, and had to sort of be told not to take our champagne into the concert, and to put our cigarettes out like children—though nicely, it wasn’t peremptory.” By the end of the evening, Lowell was insulting playwright, Paddy Chayefsky. “Chayefsky does provide a temptation,” notes Edmund Wilson, who considered Chayefsky “cheap, conceited, and corny”. Chayefsky tells Wilson earlier “that he [Chayefsky] wanted to talk to me about the Russian Revolution—I could see what he was going to do with it: he had some stupid conception of Lenin that he thought would make him a dramatic character, and it was evident that Stalin was going to be rather a noble fellow, too. There were people at that White House dinner—Chayefsky, for example—who would certainly never have been there if they hadn’t been friends of Arthur’s [Arthur Schlesinger].”
Some 170 guests sit at 17 tables in the State Dining Room and the adjoining Blue Room. (“Gracious sakes, there were 162 guests,” Thornton Wilder puffed to a friend.) The table decorations include lilies-of-the-valley, baby’s breath, red and white tulips and blue iris, while the “food at dinner was delicious: soup with double crème in the middle and on top of that a dab of caviar,” recalls Edmund Wilson. “Since it was Friday with a Catholic President in the White House, this was followed by lobster and fish.” “Vendredi, maigre,” Wilder parenthesizes to a friend, meaning no meat served that day.
“Paddy was a deeply if erratically cultivated man, endlessly curious, widely read in literature, history, science,” writes Schlesinger. “My wife and I introduced him to the Kennedys…” For Wilson, “Arthur’s hand was everywhere visible” at the dinner, “and these parties are really vast expansions of the parties they gave in Cambridge.” (It is Schlesinger who requests Behrman be invited as well.) During the evening, Wilson consults Schlesinger on his (Wilson’s) tax problems. “It was only through President Kennedy’s intervention that the matter was settled as favorably as it turned out to be,” Wilson admits.
The President’s table includes Irwin Shaw, Agnes de Mille, Charles Lindbergh, Edmund Wilson, Andrew Wyeth, Geraldine Page, and Mme Malraux. Wilder sits at the Vice-President’s table along with Robert Lowell and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. At the First Lady’s table sit André Malraux, Julie Harris, Arthur Miller, and Elspeth Rostow (wife of W.W. Rostow). According to Shaw’s biographer: “So anxious was Marian [Shaw] about her appearance the night of the dinner that the Shaws arrived notably late to the White House; Shaw would rail about the embarrassment for years…President Kennedy professed to have read Shaw’s work; the two men had mutual friends…” Edmund Wilson spins it another way. Shaw “has been living in Switzerland to avoid taxes, and had flown over especially for the dinner. The New Yorker people, who don’t much like him, expressed surprise at his being there; but I found out from Alfred Kazin the probable reason: Kennedy has a friend who wants to make a play out of one of Shaw’s stories, and he must have been asked at the President’s [request].”
The President expresses interest in Wilson’s work. “Kennedy told me he had seen a review of Patriotic Gore and asked why I had called it that. He asked what conclusions I had come to about the Civil War. I answered that I couldn’t very well tell him then and there and referred him to the Introduction. He said something about its being unusual for an author not to want to talk about his book.” Kennedy doesn’t let the topic go, we see in a moment.
“I found myself at Kennedy’s Table between Agnes de Mille and Geraldine Page,” continues Wilson. “Kennedy had Mme Malraux, looking very beautiful, on his right, Mme Alphand on the other side, the wife of the French ambassador, a much less attractive lady. I didn’t know then who Geraldine Page was, but she took it very well. She is handsome and seems intelligent; is not at all like an actress, has no public personality for off the stage…Agnes de Mille explained to me that she [de Mille] was a granddaughter of Henry George, and we talked about [George’s] Progress and Poverty.” Wilson remembers Irwin Shaw “on Mme Malraux’s other side, talking vigorously to her in French.” As for Page, she had “such a good time,” according to Newsweek. She later enthuses in a thank-you letter to Jacqueline Kennedy,
I hope you are First Lady for the next three hundred years at least! I have been trying to write to you ever since I experienced the honor of my life – being present at your unforgettable dinner for Monsieur and Madame Malraux.
I may never recover.
I have tried to write a dignified expression of my gratitude but I invariably fall into uncontrollable gushing & have finally decided to gush and be damned. You see – it’s like a fairy-tale from my childhood come true. All the legends of sleeping princesses awakened – ugly ducklings turning into swans – beasts into princes – all the life renewing myths are brought to mind by the stirring and awakening and coming to life all over the country and all around the world that is taking place because you two are who you are.
You remind us all who we can be and the re-establishing of values is bringing us all to life again. I had the sensation at your party of being a single blossom in a huge field of flowers all basking in the sun so we could hold up our heads and be beautiful.
With profound and all-embracing gratitude. . . you make us believe in miracles.
Newsweek captioned Charles Lindbergh “ill at ease” at the President’s table. According to TIME, the Kennedys “scored a real social coup by the presence of reclusive Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh.” At one point in the evening, Mrs. Kennedy took Colonel Lindbergh over to André Malraux, who had been in an animated conversation with Anne Lindbergh about French literature. Malraux was later asked what Charles Lindbergh had said to him. “He said, ‘I’m sorry I don’t speak French,’” Malraux reported. When reviewing the original invitation list for the dinner, President Kennedy had asked, “Where are the great Americans on this list? I mean really great Americans, like Charles Lindbergh.” Mrs. Kennedy, in turn, admired Anne Morrow Lindbergh and her writing. When she finally tracked the Lindberghs down, Letitia Baldrige remembers,
Anne Morrow Lindbergh answered the phone. That surprised me, but she was equally surprised to find Washington on the line. “My dear Miss Baldrige,” she exclaimed, “how did you reach us? No one knows our number. Oh, dear!”…I heard Mrs. Lindbergh whisper to her husband, “It’s the White House.” The next thing I knew, he was on the telephone…I managed to tell him that President Kennedy had said, “Of all the people who would do us the honor by coming to dinner, the Lindberghs would be number one.” “Did the President really say that?” asked Mr. Lindbergh skeptically. “He really did. I am telling you the truth.” There was a hushed conversation between husband and wife, then the general [sic] spoke into the telephone again. “We will come.”
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis reminisced:
The person that President Kennedy was most anxious to have attend the dinner was Charles Lindbergh, because of his life-long admiration for him and for Mrs. Lindbergh. We knew that Colonel and Mrs. Lindbergh did not like to attend public functions and for that reason we invited them to stay in the White House where they might be spared some press attention. I will never forget how sweet the Lindberghs were to the children. Mrs. Lindbergh gave an inscribed copy of North to the Orient to Caroline and Colonel Lindbergh gave The Spirit of St. Louis inscribed to John. They treasure these books now, and that occasion will always remain one of my happiest memories.
Impressions were mutual. Anne Morrow Lindbergh writes: “The next morning [after the dinner]…Mrs. K. came up with the children and we talked informally in the hall—without a mask and quite real and simple…The children were refreshingly children and she was quite real and still beautiful…We also saw the President in his office as we left. You have a sense of great integrity and naturalness—no pose. We were both impressed.” For his part, however, Saul Bellow “was deeply amused at the White House by the presence of [Edmund] Wilson who had had a tax problem, by Charles Lindbergh who had been a Nazi sympathizer and by Irwin Shaw who had established residence abroad in order to avoid taxes.” Bellow later recalls Lindbergh that evening “would look at everybody with his furious blue eyes, and knock them down mentally and pass on.”
At Mrs. Kennedy’s table, “Malraux spoke in passionate outbursts of French at a speed that defied comprehension by the president’s wife much of the time and by me at any time,” according to Arthur Miller. “He was a star fencer flicking his foil before you had a chance to get set. He smoked almost violently and had a fascinating and disconcerting tic that made you wonder how he ever relaxed enough to sleep.” Elspeth Rostow remembers Miller as “almost apoplectic,” when he was unable to talk to Malraux directly, using Rostow as a translator.
“In the Blue Room, Jacqueline Kennedy, brilliant in a pink strapless Dior, chatted in confidential murmurs with Malraux,” reports TIME. “At the table, Mrs. Kennedy in ‘hot-pink’ silk by Dior, talked French with Malraux” is Newsweek‘s version. (Part of Marian Shaw’s anxiety was she had been warned by her Paris couturier that Jackie might wear the same dress Shaw had chosen for the dinner. Wilder described the First Lady as “glorious in a white and pale raspberry Dior.”) “Whenever a wife says anything in this town,” President Kennedy comments later, “everyone assumes she is saying what her husband really thinks. Imagine how I felt last night when I thought I heard Jackie telling Malraux that Adenauer was ‘un peu gaga‘!” Mrs. Kennedy had just taken Malraux on a tour of the National Art Gallery in Washington. When asked what were her favorite pieces, she replies: “Mine are whatever his are.”
One or two confidential murmurs seem to stick. “What’s so great about Malraux?” Jackie is asked a few weeks before the dinner. “He isn’t even attractive looking.” She shot back: “He happens to be a war hero, a brilliant, sensitive writer, and he happens to have a great mind.” In 1964, Mrs. Kennedy speaks about Malraux and that evening with Arthur Schlesinger in a taped interview,
[Malraux] is the most fascinating man I’ve ever talked to. But again, he’s rather disillusioning because he sort of admires the simplest things. I mean, that dinner at the White House, he—well, his most impressive moment was when they took the color—you know the color flags—the Honor Guard downstairs. And, then, who was it? Oh, Irwin Shaw told me his greatest moment in life was when he was the head of a brigade or something, in the Maquis [guerrillas in the French Resistance]
When asked if she understood Malraux’s French, Mrs. Kennedy says, “Well, he talks so fast, but I can. Or else he repeats—it’s like being taken over this incredible obstacle course at ninety miles an hour.” Malraux dedicates the American edition of his next book, Anti-Memoirs, to “Mrs. John Fitzgerald Kennedy.” “We all thought she would marry someone like André Malraux,” a Polish writer is reported to have said after Jackie’s marriage to Aristotle Onassis, “and here she goes off with a gangster.” But that disappointment comes later. The evening was still fresh and better captured by the then-editor of Art News, who also sat at Mrs. Kennedy’s table. He telegrams the White House beforehand: “PLEASE TELL [Mrs. Kennedy] THAT HER TV PROGRAM WAS IN SUCH EXCELLENT TASTE AND SCHOLARLY STANDING THAT I EXPECT SHE WILL HAVE AN OFFER FROM THE LOUVRE AS CHIEF CURATOR AFTER THE SECOND TERM. BEST REGARDS ALFRED FRANKFURTER”.
Little is recorded of conversations at other tables. “I was at the table with Thornton Wilder, Robert Lowell and Alexis Léger,” writes Anne Morrow Lindbergh. “I loved talking to Alexis—and Vice President Johnson was sympathetic and very, very tired! (He had just flown in from Seattle where he had opened the [World’s] Fair!)”. Letitia Baldrige recalls “that, in contrast to the merrymakers at the [earlier] Nobel Prize winners’ dinner, this was a subdued group of people”. Mark Rothko, according to one of his biographers, “feigned aloofness” at his table with Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson. “I sat next to Mrs. Auchincloss, the mother of our hostess,” S.N. Behrman writes. “I had a play then on tour with Charles Boyer. Mrs. Auchincloss inquired about it. She was, she said, greatly interested in the theatre; she had, in fact, once written a play herself.” Elena Wilson sits next to Chip Bohlen and complains later that Bohlen “didn’t have the right reaction to Russia.”
What gets considerable press is President Kennedy’s dinner toast, as well as Malraux’s. Each causes its own stir. Edmund Wilson remembers: “The President, who had had paper and pencil brought to him and who had either been writing a message or making notes, now got up and introduced Malraux.” “Ladies and Gentlemen,” Kennedy begins,
I want to express a very warm welcome to all of you, and particularly to our distinguished guests Mr. and Madame Malraux.
This will be the first speech about relations between France and the United States that does not include a tribute to General Lafayette. It seems that almost every Frenchman who comes to the United States feels that Lafayette was a rather confused sort of ineffectual, elderly figure, hovering over French politics, and is astonished to find that we regard him as a golden, young, romantic figure, next to George Washington our most distinguished citizen. Therefore he will not be mentioned, but instead I will mention a predecessor of mine, John Adams, who was our first President to live in the White House and whose prayer on occupancy is written here. John Adams asked that on his gravestone be written, “He kept the peace with France.”
I am very glad to welcome here some of our most distinguished artists. This is becoming a sort of eating place for artists. But they never ask us out.
Earlier at the table, “I said to Kennedy,” writes Edmund Wilson, “that he had certainly done a thorough job of entertaining the literary world: ‘Maybe they ought to entertain me,'” Kennedy replies. But back to the President’s toast:
I want to tell you how very pleased we are to have so many distinguished writers and artists and actresses and creative thinkers.
You know, one of the great myths of American life is that nothing is pleasanter or easier than lying around all day and painting a picture or writing a book and leading a rather easy life. In my opinion, the ultimate in self-discipline is a creative work. Those of us who work in an office every day are actually the real gentle livers of American society.
We do not manage our cultural life in this country, nor does any free society, but it is an important part. It is one of the great purposes. And I would hope that this tremendous energy obtained in the intellectual life of America could be communicated not only to the people in this country but all around the world.
There are so many more people playing a musical instrument now, going to symphonies, going to the theatre, to art galleries, painting, than anyone realizes. And it is our hope that Americans will begin to look about them and realize that here in these years we are building a life, which, as I say, develops the maximum in each individual.
Now we have the best model that we could have this evening in welcoming Mr. and Madame Malraux. I suppose all of us wish to participate in all the experiences of life, but he has left us all behind. We are the descendants of early founders who were themselves men of great variety and vitality. But he has led an archeological expedition to Cambodia, been connected with Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Tse-tung—and has been active in the civil war—participated in the defense of his country—been involved with General de Gaulle—and has been at the same time a great creative figure in his own right. He has left, I think, most of us way behind.
So we regard him as an honored guest in this country, as participants in the cultural stream, and also as admirers of those who travel the far horizons of human destiny. So we are very proud to have him—and we are particularly proud to have him because of his association with a distinguished leader of the West—a good deal of which has been written by some of our distinguished correspondents about the difficulties that have occasionally come up between the President of the United States and General de Gaulle. But I want to say that there is a tradition in that regard, with Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower, and General de Gaulle continues on his way, and has built for his country and his friends in Europe a strength which is the most valuable source of comfort to us all.
I know that there are sometimes difficulties in life but I hope that those who live in both our countries realize how fortunate we are in the last two decades to be associated in the great effort with him. And we are glad to have Mr. Malraux and Madame Malraux here because we believe that they will go back to France and say a kind word for the United States—and its President.
So I hope you will drink to all of us, in the sense that you are leaders in our free society—and particularly to our distinguished leader whom we are very glad to have with us tonight—and most especially to drink to the President of France, General de Gaulle.
Malraux’s toast was calculated in a different way (the next day he concedes to Edmund Wilson that “Mon discours d´hier soir—c´était de la courtoisie” [“My speech last night—it was a matter of courtesy”]). For Robert Lowell, Malraux “refrained from saying anything objectionable.” Because Kennedy and Malraux are in separate rooms, a two-mike public address system is rigged for their toasts. At one point, the system fails, and Malraux begins his toast with
Mr. President, I believe [I am] to be the first guest you have received here who will have to reply to your speech without knowing what you have said. This may be difficult. It does not, however, make it difficult for me to thank you and to thank the United States for the hospitality with which I was greeted here, the hospitality with which you have greeted an artist and also a humble Minister of Cultural Affairs. You have greeted me here with the masterpieces of the world—and you have greeted me even better by having your masterpieces shown to me by Mrs. Kennedy.
I will say that I am greatly moved by it. And I will say that not only as something which is polite, I will say it because at one time I was in another country, in a country named Russia, and there in the enormous expanse of sorrow I felt something great—a great hope.
Here the situation is different. Here I feel also something great—we feel the very spirit of the Free World—we feel brotherhood, we feel the brotherhood of man, in this country. This is the brotherhood which so many people for so long had thought they would find elsewhere, in that other country, but which really exists and lives here.
And I believe that this shows to us a duty, a right, at the same time the right to give to every child, to every poor child, the riches of the mind and of the spirit in this country than can be hoped for by any poor child of Russia. This perhaps is a simple statement, but it is a statement of the very essence of our freedom.
I also wish to say that here in the United States of America is the only country which has become the leader of the world without having sought to become that leader, the country to which is entrusted the future—the destiny of mankind—and is the country, once again, to achieve this position without having sought it, without even having wished it.
History is full of great empires, history knows so many countries which have reached the first place in the world in their time, but they all did it through strenuous work, through strenuous attempts, through bloodshed—through thousands and millions of deaths. There was the Syrian empire, there was the Babylonian empire, the Roman empire. There is no American empire. There is the United States. There is the United States which has been the leader of the Free World without having conquered the word, without having conquered the world, without having sought to conquer it.
And it is really strange that in some many millennia there is for the first time today—that we find a country which has become the leader not through conquest but by seeking justice…
TIME quotes the last sentence approvingly. By this point in the toast, Edmund Wilson—described in the White House background notes as “responsible for Malraux’s early fame here”—has had enough of the “diplomatic absurdities.” He turns to Mme Malraux, “Dites à Malraux que je n´en crois rien” [“Tell Malraux I don’t believe anything he says”]. Kennedy, who had been taking French lessons, overhears. “You don’t tell us what you think,” the President says. Malraux continues,
…And so, ladies and gentlemen, I will raise my glass to the United States, to this country so great. And I would like also to reverse, perhaps, the order of precedence to thank you once again for having greeted me with your masterpieces…
“I couldn’t imagine at first what masterpieces he meant,” writes Wilson, “then realized he was referring to the pictures in the National Gallery,”
…and for having those masterpieces shown to me by Mrs. Kennedy. I will raise my glass to you, Mr. President, and to the first people in history, let me say, which has acquired a position of leadership without having conquered, without having sought it—without even having willed it. Thank you.
(Malraux said at the National Gallery that some of the Gallery’s “masterpieces” belong to humanity, while others belong to the U.S. Referring to a new acquisition, he adds archly, “I am glad to see that this one is here for the second reason.”)
Bellow sums up the toasts. “Mr. Kennedy’s after-dinner speech was very witty, and a witty President is worth more to artists than a congressional porkbarrel. M. Malraux, an impressive-looking man, spoke in greater earnest, saying that America had not sought imperial power and domination. In private, Mr. Edmund Wilson exclaimed irascibly, in tones of Mr. Magoo, ‘Hooey!’ There was an American empire! I felt it would be a pity to waste Mr. Wilson’s fine old rumblings on a lousy republic and that his eccentricities deserved at least an imperial setting.” (Later that evening after leaving the White House, Bellow meets up with Wilson, Wilder, Balanchine, Lowell and others for late night drinks.)
Kennedy’s toast did not pass without criticism. Robert Lowell sends Edmund Wilson a worried letter at the end of that May,
I meant to write you a little fan note after Washington. Except for you, every one there seemed addled with adulation at having been invited. It was all good fun but next morning you read that the President had sent the 7th fleet to Laos [New York Times headline: “US, Shifting Laos Policy,…”]…I feel we intellectuals play a very pompous and frivolous role—we should be windows, not window-dressing. Then, now in our times, of all times, the sword hangs over us and our children, and not a voice is lifted. I thought of all the big names there, only you acted yourself.
Laos may have been on the mind of others during that evening. One guest, Michael Forrestal, summarizes in a memo from that day an earlier conversation with former President Eisenhower: “If [Eisenhower] were sending troops into Laos, he would follow them up with whatever support was necessary to achieve the objectives of their mission, including—if necessary—the use of tactical nuclear weapons.” Almost three years later to the day, a letter of Lowell’s appears in the New York Times—this time to President Johnson—turning down his invitation to another White House event for the arts, with Lowell again objecting to a president’s military policy and statecraft in Southeast Asia.
But back to May 11 and this White House dinner. For Bellow, “Only Mr. [Adlai] Stevenson preserved a shade of intellectual irony. Everybody else seemed absurdly and deeply tickled” at being in the White House for the Malraux dinner. A few days afterwards, Thomas Hart Benton, the American painter, says his art “has nothing to do with high society,” nor did “a bunch of artists playing up to a social game.” He goes on and suggests that it was the artists rather than their work that the White House was putting on show. Whatever, “John Kennedy leaned back, lit an Upmann cigar and smiled” once the eating had finished, in the words of TIME.
Some look twice at the President’s smile. “[Kennedy’s] hard glazed eyes I found mechanized and a little frightening,” writes Arthur Miller. “He might have a quick mind, but I had to wonder about his compassion. Still the excitement and happiness with the company he had attracted tonight swept everyone.” Eugene Istomin observes: “I had never met a President before and was practically paralyzed with awe, but he was so likable. He looked at everyone so inquiringly, as if he really wanted to know what you thought. Sometime during our conversation, [Leonard] Bernstein said, of some policy matter Kennedy was considering, ‘Your problem is you don’t see the forest from the trees,’ and I saw Kennedy’s eyelids come down like the slamming of a gate.”
George Herman, the broadcast correspondent, remembers Kennedy “abandoned Mme Malraux once dinner was over, absolutely refusing to speak French to her,” presumably because he knew so little. “After dinner, there was a concert,” writes Edmund Wilson. “Schubert’s Trio in B Flat Major. The violinist was Isaac Stern. I had never heard it before—it was lovely, but I did not feel much like listening to music. Malraux, it seems, went to sleep. Marian Schlesinger said afterwards that he had had a little too much to drink; but I don’t think this was necessarily true.” Thornton Wilder remembers: “Stern-Rose-Istomin played the Schubert E-flat [sic] superbly but the audience, excited by all that glamour and a little tight, did not behave as it should…I sat next to Mrs. Sam Behrman—a lovely person she is—who is Jascha Heifetz’s sister. We listened.” “Three wines, champagne, Stern and Istomin playing a long Schubert trio,” remembers Robert Lowell.
From Saul Bellow’s vantage, “Even the drunks were well behaved, though at the end of the evening the Schubert trio seemed to be getting them and some were tapping the time on their neighbors’ knees.” Others were uncomfortable. Anne Lindbergh writes: “After supper…we went into the ballroom to listen to the concert. I found CAL, who was much disturbed by the numbers of press around and would not sit in the front rows as we were intended. We sat in the back rows and the music was heavenly, but I was concerned about C. and not entirely at ease.”
No encore followed. The President stands and thanks Isaac Stern and “those who accompanied them.” When George Herman asks Eugene Istomin if he felt slighted, Istomin says it was so wonderful just being there that the details didn’t matter. Stern remembers: “At the conclusion of the performance, when people were applauding, Kennedy rose, as was his custom, and said, ‘I want to thank Isaac Stern and his two accompanists.’ That didn’t go over too well with Lennie [Rose] and Eugene, and I wanted to sink through the floor.”
President Kennedy didn’t enjoy after-dinner concerts and he was apt to mistake the pause between movements as the end of the concert, when he “dashed up on the stage to congratulate the musician. Each time, the artist whispered—although the entire room heard it—‘But Mr President, the concert isn’t over.'” Letitia Baldrige continues:
We worked out an elaborate code system for the Malraux dinner concert: One of our military social aides, on loan from the Pentagon, was a music expert. I asked him to stand next to me, and when the concert was over, he cued me, I waggled my finger at the President through a slightly open French door close to him, and he jumped up to congratulate the artists, with Mrs. Kennedy trailing behind….The concert ended at about eleven-thirty and…[t]he Kennedys walked out of the East Room, expecting their guests to follow, but found themselves halfway down the hall with nary a guest in sight. White House aides urged the shy party forward, but no one wanted to make the first move. Finally a few brave souls ventured out and the rest followed.
This evening is not without the business of managing the economy. David Rockefeller, as president of the Chase Manhattan Bank, remembers: “During the reception the President took me aside for a brief conversation on the state of the U.S. economy. As we parted, he asked me to set down my ideas in writing, which I proceeded to do. The President then responded with a letter to me. Although there were obvious points of disagreement, both of us agreed a tax cut would help get the sluggish economy moving again. Henry Luce asked to see the letters and found them so intriguing that he published them side by side in Life magazine in July 1962.” (This interchange follows hard on the heels of the April 1962 steel crisis where Kennedy jawboned industry executives to rescind their price increases.) “So far as I know there have been no letters about the state of American culture,” gripes Saul Bellow.
American politics is nothing if not the personal on the public stage, and Rockefeller’s opening remarks in the Life interchange are little different. “Two weeks ago you were kind enough to suggest that I write you a personal and confidential letter concerning my views on the balance of payments problem confronting our country,” David Rockefeller begins. He then moves to the point: “Certainly one of the most critical tasks confronting you, as chief executive of our nation, is to cut down the persistent drain through military expenditures abroad, without doing damage to our essential military posture.” Even on an evening like this, the problem is defense.
Kennedy’s reply strikes a theme that he has worked out in discussions with Malraux and others—namely, the nation as a state can manage its way through economic difficulties. “I have said many times that we must meet this [balance of payments] problem with positive solutions,” the President writes to Rockefeller. Earlier, the President invites Malraux to luncheon, and
as Kennedy later described it [records Arthur Schlesinger], they fell into a discussion of the persistence of mythology in the contemporary world. “In the nineteenth century,” Malraux said, “the ostensible issue within the European states was the monarchy vs. the republic. But the real issue was capitalism vs. the proletariat. But the world has moved on. What is the real issue now?” The real issue today, Kennedy replied, was the management of industrial society—a problem, he said, not of ideology but of administration.
“This conversation, held through interpreters (Kennedy spoke little French), was quite vague,” in the view of Chip Bohlen, who also was at the luncheon. Schlesinger continues,
This conversation remained in [Kennedy’s] mind. A few days later, when he spoke to the White House conference on national economic issues, the “difference between myth and reality” provided the theme for his remarks. The old debates of FDR and [Woodrow] Wilson and [William Jennings] Bryan, the President observed, were increasingly irrelevant to the complex technical decisions of modern society…”[T]he fact of the matter is that most of the problems, or at least many of them, that we now face are technical problems, are administrative problems. They are very sophisticated judgments which do not lend themselves to the great sort of “passionate movements” which have stirred the country so often in the past…”
The President spells out these themes in more detail a little later in his 1962 commencement address at Yale:
[The central issues of our time] relate not to basic clashes of philosophy or ideology but to ways and means of reaching common goals….What is at stake is not some grand warfare of rival ideologies which will sweep the country with passion but the practical management of modern economy. What we need is not labels and clichés but more basic discussion of the sophisticated and technical issues involved in keeping a great economic machinery moving ahead.
Bohlen remembers the President in his discussion with Malraux “maintaining that in twenty or thirty years political problems would begin to fade away as economic prosperity grew.” Other discussions seem less weighty. Mrs. Kennedy remembered one private discussion involving Malraux and President Kennedy in these terms: “Malraux would talk brilliantly, and so would Jack, and [McGeorge] Bundy would always be there. So, you know, it was a wonderful exchange, but Malraux sort of off in a marvelous fog or—It was very interesting and they never you know, really got into policy or all that…”
Policy writ large worries others at the dinner. “If Mr. Wilson is right about the American empire,” writes Saul Bellow of that evening, “we must think the whole thing through clearly….A better understanding between writers and the imperial state has its dangers. I can foresee a bureaucratic situation, partly created by men of letters, in which the very call girls (who owe so many of their privileges to the Federal tax structure) may be required to pass Civil Service examinations administered by poets!”
The day after the dinner, Edmund Wilson and André Malraux meet for lunch. During their conversation, Malraux
expounded the difference between being an intellectual and being un homme politique. He had thought once that society would run all right if Marxists could be in control (I doubt whether he had really thought this); but to be actually in practical politics was something completely different, the problems and means of dealing with them were something altogether different. The intellectuals sometimes did a lot of harm through not understanding this.
Yet Wilson feels compelled to conclude that Malraux “sounded impressive without making much sense. He has, in fact, become a master of double-talk.”
At a French embassy party several nights later, Mme Malraux sits next to Arthur Schlesinger and tells him her husband was a great admirer of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind. As for Ethel Kennedy’s get-together for Malraux, it turns into farce:
Ethel’s party, later in the week, also a black-tie, long-dress affair, was outdoors. Ethel’s guests always faced the same hurdles in the hall—a variety of animals. Malraux was no exception. He stumbled over two dogs, one a huge Newfoundland that was easily mistaken for a rug.
It began raining in the middle of the dinner, a heavy rain difficult to ignore. Astronaut John Glenn found the back legs of his chair sinking into the lawn and Ethel assigned someone to stand behind his chair to keep it upright. The more it rained, the more Ethel laughed about it. Malraux insisted he had “a perfectly grand time,” and told the story for years afterwards.
Back again to the White House dinner, August Heckscher, who was the Kennedy’s consultant on the arts, remembers the President engaging Heckscher’s wife in a short conversation as they are leaving that evening. She mentions to Kennedy that she had a chance to talk to Malraux. Kennedy then points his finger at her and says mock seriously that he wanted all the details. The Kennedys are such “magnificent people, very friendly, very warm,” recalls another guest. “When we said good-bye to the Kennedys,” Edmund Wilson notes, “[Kennedy] said something again about my not wanting to tell him about my [Patriotic Gore]: ‘I suppose I’ll have to buy it.’ ‘I’m afraid so.'” The Wilsons and others leave, though some, like Stern, Istomin and Bernstein, stay on talking to Kennedy in his private quarters. “We joined him for a last drink,” remembers Stern,” and he was charming. By that time, he realized he had made a gaffe [over treating Istomin and Rose as accompanists], and he was especially gracious to Eugene and Lennie.”
The Kennedys also had a long talk alone with the Lindberghs. Anne Morrow Lindbergh recalls: “After the concert, people began to leave and we found ourselves being ushered upstairs to the same private salon, where about the same group were gathered as before supper—chiefly the French set. C. and I talked to the French Ambassador but nothing very real was said. And rather quickly, goodbyes were being said again. We said goodbye tactfully and went to our rooms though apparently Isaac Stern went on playing the violin until late at night. I wished we had stayed up.” After saying good-night to the Lindberghs, Mrs. Kennedy whispered to her social secretary, “You know, these are the moments of history I will really remember the rest of my life.”
The “guests drifted into Washington’s midnight while around them the great White House fountains shot prisms of lighted water into the darkness,” wrote TIME. “For the New Society, it had been another marvelous evening.”
Should it need saying, the above sequence of recollections is my composite among many possible combinations. But what images does my mosaic leave? What might we now know that we didn’t before about state politics, or for that matter, “managing the economy”?
A few days after the dinner, Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote a thank-you letter to Mrs. Kennedy,
It was an extraordinarily beautiful and stimulating occasion, which is not surprising. All parties—even big parties—I believe in some measure reflect the spirit of the people at their center. From this core radiates the beauty, vividness and good feeling which spread to the guests. That such an atmosphere was created, at such a party at the highest point of our government and in a formal and dignified setting, is a great tribute to you both and an inspiration to the people who were privileged to be witnesses.
As with so much in U.S. political culture, what is fresh astonishment, including the Malraux dinner, has a short half-life. Disappointment with the Kennedys was never far away, thanks in part to the likes of those at the dinner. Before long, the only thing unique about the Malraux dinner was its date.
Yet that falls very short of a point to be made here. I tried to find all the first-hand reports and personal recollections I could on the Malraux dinner (over several decades I also contacted a few living attendees left). That was to be my policy palimpsest—those scraps of conversation, over-heard remarks, and contemporary news reports—most if not all unfamiliar to the reader. My aim, as said at the outset, was to see this event—and in turn something of politics (also culture politics)—afresh in their complexity. I found I could only do that by seeing the evening in the present tense.
“Managing the economy” sounds so 20th century, but isn’t. What sociologist, Daniel Bell termed long ago, “the end of ideology,” is promised all the time, if not by administration and management, then through markets and technology. Yet a self-organizing economy is about as realistic as a self-organizing reception line of public intellectuals at the White House. Management depends on who has been let in and what those around the table are being distracted by, in a real time experienced then.
To see things afresh and in the present tense isn’t a faux innocence. It is to walk toward understanding that that some of the best parts of high politics is when it is distracted by low politics, that keeping the high and low contingencies together is the itinerant work of real time and about as far from trivializing the present as we can get.
Such is why the most significant episode of that evening, the one that I ask you to take as the exemplar for what this blog is all about, is the interchange between the country’s leading politician, John F. Kennedy, and the country’s leading literary critic, Edmund Wilson, over Patriotic Gore. It is perfectly legitimate for a policymaker to want a precis of the issue and what it offers; it is perfectly understandable for any type of advisor to say it’s more complex than a precis can indicate.
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———————– (2002), Memoirs. Random House: New York, NY.
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