Fifty years ago today, Valentine’s Day 1962, one in three Americans finally heard the voice of their First Lady. On that night, Jackie Kennedy led a television tour of the restored rooms of the White House, which she’d been working on for over a year. She’d done a few brief interviews during the 1960 campaign, but most Americans couldn’t make sense of her more sustained speaking since they were remarks she made in foreign countries – in Spanish and French. Otherwise, Jackie had been essentially mute during her first year as First Lady.
That Valentine’s night, the First Lady went room to room with CBS reporter Charles Collingswood in the pre-taped presentation, made on the relatively new technology of videotape, albeit in black-and-white. Two nights later, both ABC and NBC aired it. Apart from being of especial curiosity to a small number of antiquarians, it exposed the wider population to the largely unknown and unappreciated intellectual flowering of the American culture at the turn of the 19th century. It was a point Jackie emphasized not only for her fellow citizens but, as she explicitly stated, “foreigners who have no idea of how great our civilization has been.”
Judging by newspaper stories and mail pouring into the White House, the public response to “The Jackie Show,” was overwhelmingly supportive though less in reaction to learning history than for being able to stare and listen to “America’s leading star,” as TV Guide called her. “I remember focusing more on how Mrs. Kennedy sounded and looked,” was the later confession of a Houston housewife – by the name of Barbara Bush. In fact, as a result of her T.V. tour, Jacqueline Kennedy became the first – and only First Lady to earn an Emmy Award.
Regardless of whether the response was to her voice, clothes or scholarship, it was enough for the State Department, through its powerful Cold War propaganda venue of the U.S. Information Agency to turn its First Lady into an export commodity in high demand. It produced copies of “A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy” with sub-titles and distributed them to over one hundred nations, including six behind the Iron Curtain. It was broadcast on television in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Great Britain, Hong Kong, Italy, Korea, Lebanon, New Zealand, Norway, the Philippines, Colombia, Finland, Iran, Japan, Sweden and Switzerland and shown in free theater screenings in Guatemala, Hungary, India, Israel, Jordan, the Netherlands Antilles, Nyasaland, Pakistan, Rhodesia, Romania, the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and the United Arab Republic. The numbers of foreign viewership were staggering: 80,000 in Norway, 1.5 million in Denmark, 3 million in Sweden, 8.75 million in England. An estimate of several hundred million people around the globe watched and listened in awe, making it the most widely seen film of its era and establishing Jackie as a bona fide international figure in her own right. Mrs. Kennedy taped introductory remarks in French, Spanish and Italian for copies sent to nations where those were the primary language spoken. The State Department distribution of “The Jackie Show” would explode her image to the furthest reaches of the globe, a fact in seeming conflict with her love of privacy.
Not everyone was quite so ga-ga about “The Jackie Show.” It was famously parodied on the best-selling record album The First Family, which spoofed the entire Kennedy family in the White House – and won a Grammy Award in 1963.
Writing a lengthy piece about it five months later in Esquire magazine, the gruff man-of-letters, author Norman Mailer compared her voice to those of women on late-night commercials selling depilatories, and found her “performance” as an “actress” a dismal failure. “I liked her, I like her still, but she was a phony—it was the cruelest thing one could say, she was a royal phony,” he said.
To her friend Arthur Schlesinger, Jackie later confessed that Mailer wasn’t so wrong – that she felt she was stiff and self-conscious. Not until the late 70s, when she took her son and daughter to the then-new Museum of Broadcasting to see an old tape of the special did she ever watch it in its entirety.
Here is The Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy in the first of six parts:
- A President’s Residence Saved: The Kennedy Family Compound with Rare Photos of their Real Life There (carlanthonyonline.com)
- The Jackie Kennedy Tapes: Finally, Her Political Intelligence (carlanthonyonline.com)