Jackie Kennedy’s Television Tour 50 Years Ago Today

Not until magazines published color photographs did the public see that Jackie Kennedy had led her TV tour in living color.

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.

With host Charles Collingswood in the Red Room during her television tour.

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.

The Emmy awarded to the First Lady (JFK Library)

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.

The First Family Comedy Album

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.

Norman Mailer’s critical article of Jackie Kennedy’s White House tour in Esquire.

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.

Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Mailer in the 80s.

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:

Categories: First Ladies, The Kennedys, Today in FLOTUS History

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8 replies »

  1. Courage can be defined in many contexts, and this was an example of her courage. She was a shy person who worried that she might say or do something which would harm the reputation of the Kennedy presidency (the “sable underwear” comment she made during the campaign in reference to her supposedly spending $30,000/year on clothes essentially stopped her from making further extemporaneous remarks to reporters). Yet here she was, without a script, convinced of her own knowledge of these scholarly decisions about the restoration, including detailed information about the furniture, paintings, and architecture. She may have been a bit “stiff” but she was not an actress nor an experienced television personality. She was 32 years old with a strong intellect and a sense of pride in what had been accomplished in the President’s House.
    Too many times the references to her courage are those connected to the weekend in November, 1963 when she was a national source of dignity and strength. But I see her courage in so many other times, like this one. It couldn’t have been easy, stepping out of her comfort zone of privacy, but she did it and did it very well.
    The tapes she did for Arthur Schlesinger are another example of that courage. (And thank you so much for actually listening to them before commenting on them, which is something most of the media neglected to do.) She knew that only by being honest could she avoid the penalties of future historians who might expect her to have had a certain point of view. She simply told her story as she knew it.
    I so enjoy all your postings about her and your books are by far the best ever written concerning her. I was lucky enough to have dinner with her older stepbrother and he also said ” As We Remember Her ” was the most true and fair book about her.
    Thank you for all you do to preserve her place in history

    • Jane – I’m honestly speechless – not an easy task for me (!) but I greatly appreciate what you say. I have come to believe that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was perhaps the most creative and imaginative person who ever lived in the White House, except perhaps for Thomas Jefferson. I believe there are so many different aspects of her life and work, especially in just those three short years as First Lady that each are worthy of more indepth focus, rather than just a general biography. In As We Remember Her, I really tried hard to get to the heart of her as a human without a lot of the cynicism and judgment for the decisions she made or didn’t make and to instead give focus to the way she saw life and what made her passionate as an individual – and that was creative ideas and expression. And even now, I find there is quite a bit more to study and interpret about her. I believe she will be seen as a pivotal figure of the 20th century, perhaps even more than her husband. But thank you for your encouraging and uplifting words.

  2. I remember it well. I spent quite a while looking for the music to “Chester”, the pre-Revolutionary War tune that was played at the beginning. Looking at the pictures of the tour now (on Youtube and in the commemorative book I bought at a second-hand store some years ago), it’s amazing how dreary the White House used to be – looked like the lobby of a cheap hotel. The process she set in motion when she began her efforts fifty years ago has utterly transformed it.

    • You know she had this extraordinary vision of what the White House could be – and with every tiny detail building into the larger impression of each room and then each room working in concert together, she managed to convey the impression of the early President – Adams-Jefferson era in the Green Room, Madison-Monroe in the Blue Room and Jackson-Van-Buren in the Red Room. And she put into place a system that was intended to long outlast the Kennedy Administration and, of course, did that exactly. Did you ever find the music “Chester?”

  3. Carl! You keep writing and I keep learning! Happy Valentine’s!


  4. Loved the article. It was especially timely since I just read that the Kennedy Library just released some of Jackie’s papers from her time in the White House this week–including a copy of her script for this t.v. special with her own handwritten editing.


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