< Jacqueline Kennedy's White House

Transcript

Friday, February 10, 2012

[CAMELOT/THE HOLLYWOOD STUDIO ORCHESTRA,

UP & UNDER]

BOB GARFIELD:

Tuesday is Valentine's Day, and 50 Valentine’s Days ago the First Lady offered the nation a box of chocolates in the form of a televised tour of the White House. All three networks were there when Jacqueline Kennedy invited America to come in, and America collectively replied, don't mind if we do. WNYC's Sara Fishko brings it back.

[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

SARA FISHKO:

It was a television program no one really wanted to make. But on Valentine's Day 1962 at 10 p.m. 56 million people gathered around their TV sets to watch it.

CHARLES COLLINGWOOD:

This is the White House, as seen from its South Lawn. For the next hour, Mrs. John F. Kennedy invites you to visit the President's house and see some of the restorations she's made in its interior. I'm Charles Collingwood….

[SOUND UP AND UNDER]

SARA FISHKO:

CBS' Charles Collingwood escorted the First Lady around, as she told the history of the White House and explained her approach, and audiences were transfixed.

[CLIP]:

CHARLES COLLINGWOOD:

Before we look at any of the changes you've made, what's your basic plan?

JACKIE KENNEDY:

Well, I really don't have one, because I think this house will always grow, and should. It just seemed to me just a shame when we came here to find hardly anything of the past in the house, hardly anything before 1902.

SARA FISHKO:

Jackie, 31 when she'd arrived in Washington, had been given her own tour of the White House by Mamie Eisenhower and had had a few comments to make, says broadcast historian Mary Ann Watson.

MARY ANN WATSON:

She said that she thought the White House looked like a hotel that had been furnished by a January clearance sale furniture store.

SARA FISHKO:

So the new First Lady made this redo her project. She raised the money herself from private funders.

MARY ANN WATSON:

They had a Fine Arts Committee, she had a curator and they had a two-million-dollar budget.

SARA FISHKO:

But in the beginning, nobody had been thinking about TV, least of all Jacqueline Kennedy, who'd really wanted a coffee table book to document the work she'd done, and certainly not CBS Television's head of investigative documentaries at the time, Perry Wolff, who was assigned the job of producing the program.

PERRY WOLFF:

It was the Vietnam War time and I wanted to go to — you know, I wanted to go to Vietnam. And I kept saying this is the kind of thing you read in the dentist's office on the National Geographic, I mean, a tour of the White House! [LAUGHS] On the other hand, I was wrong. [LAUGHS]

SARA FISHKO:

JFK was a great appreciator of the power of television, so when the subject of a TV show came up Jack Kennedy convinced Jackie Kennedy it was a good idea. CBS began months of pre-production, with the director Franklin Schaffner and producer Wolff.

PERRY WOLFF:

But we could not have direct contact with Mrs. Kennedy. We had to work through her press agent.

SARA FISHKO:

So they all met for the first time on the day of the taping, January 15th. They had no idea what to expect. She might need a teleprompter. She might need a script.

PERRY WOLFF:

But she didn't need it. She showed up ready to go.

[CLIP]:

CHARLES COLLINGWOOD:

Have you made any good finds lately?

JACKIE KENNEDY:

Well, we have. This chest is rather interesting. As you know, the thing we care about most is something that belonged to a past President. This little chest was left by President Van Buren to his grandson.

[END CLIP]

PERRY WOLFF:

And the way it worked was we would go to a room and sort of talk it over, and she would tell us what she wanted to do, and then we'd just — we'd shoot it, and then the next room.

[CLIP]:

CHARLES COLLINGWOOD:

What is the diplomatic reception room used for, besides receiving diplomats?

JACKIE KENNEDY:

Well, it's the room that people see first when they come to the White House. Everyone who comes to a state dinner…

SARA FISHKO:

Even as she was gliding through the long taping day, Perry Wolff remembers she was nervous.

PERRY WOLFF:

There was a bench with wonderful silk covering that had come from France, and she was a smoker, and she put the cigarette out — on the fabric and not in the ashtray. She missed the ashtray.

SARA FISHKO:

Nevertheless, she took charge and pretty much hosted the whole hour. Our correspondent was in the background.

PERRY WOLFF:

There's nothing more than cues for her to speak, "And now, Mrs. Kennedy, can we go to the next room" and that sort of thing."

[CLIP]:

CHARLES COLLINGWOOD:

This is the part of the White House where you have the musical affairs.

JACKIE KENNEDY:

That's right. This piano was designed by Franklin Roosevelt with the Eagle support, and this is the end of the room where Pablo Casals played for us.

[END CLIP]

PERRY WOLFF:

Of course, she was not a professional. You know, her voice was a little constricted.

[CLIP]:

JACKIE KENNEDY:

I just think that everything in the White House should be the best...

PERRY WOLFF:

It was not her normal speaking voice. But that's where the tension was shown, but not that much.

[CLIP]:

JACKIE KENNEDY:

That's the oldest thing in the White House.

PERRY WOLFF:

It was astonishing, how much she knew.

[CLIP]:

JACKIE KENNEDY:

You should look at this pier table. It's Empire and it belonged to Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon's brother, who came here after Waterloo. He lived in Bordentown, New Jersey...

[END CLIP]

SARA FISHKO:

From 11 to 7 the big TV cameras on wheels followed Mrs. Kennedy around as she spun out her well-learned historical facts.

[CLIP]:

JACKIE KENNEDY:

And here Jefferson gave his famous dinner and introduced such exotic foods as macaroni, waffles and ice cream to the United States.

[END CLIP]

PERRY WOLFF:

So we were just — well, we were taken by her personality, as the whole world was, of course.

[CLIP]:

PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY:

I don't think the solution should be to deny medical care to the people. However…

[END CLIP]

SARA FISHKO:

That same day President Kennedy was holding a press conference.

PRESIDENT KENNEDY:

…And I would suggest that the best remedy would be…

SARA FISHKO:

So he came over when he finished and taped a few words for the end of the broadcast. But he was still in press conference mode.

MARY ANN WATSON:

That evening CBS played the unedited tapes for the President and the First Lady, and he wasn't happy with his performance.

PERRY WOLFF:

He said no, I've got to do it again, Mr. Wolff, I've got to do it again. So he came back the next morning.

SARA FISHKO:

It's a sign of the times that this situation caused a bit of a broadcast backup.

PERRY WOLFF:

The cameras were due to go to Ohio for the Pillsbury Bake-Off and, you know, the plane was standing by and they were standing by. And I don't know what happened to the Pillsbury Bake-Off but the President of the United States did his retake.

PRESIDENT KENNEDY:

Well, I think the great effort that she's made has been to bring us much more intimately in contact with all the men who lived here.

SARA FISHKO:

So on February 14th CBS and NBC ran the program simultaneously without commercials, and a few days later ABC ran it. It was the most watched television program ever, at that time. Tens of millions of people tuned in.

PERRY WOLFF:

You know, it wasn't their curious interest in the history of the White House but it was a curious interest in Jackie Kennedy.

SARA FISHKO:

Mrs. Kennedy won a special Emmy Award for the broadcast, and the President maintained his interest in the power of TV.

MARY ANN WATSON:

As a matter of fact, he called the next day after the CBS and NBC broadcast. He called the Chairman of the FCC, he called Newton Minow.

NEWTON MINOW:

He called me and he said, "What was the rating?" I said, “I'll find out.” And I called Frank Stanton, who was the president of CBS. I said, “I’ve got to know something right away.” He called me back and I called the President. He said, "Well, what was the answer?" And I said, "Mr. President, Jackie's rating was higher than your press conference."

[CLIP]:

[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

CHARLES COLLINGWOOD:

Thank you, Mr. President, and thank you, Mrs. Kennedy for showing us this wonderful house in which you live.

[END CLIP]

SARA FISHKO:

So with this particular Valentine's Day Special that night in '62, America was well into its love affair, not with the house, not even with the husband, but with the host. For On the Media, I'm Sara Fishko.

[MUSIC]

[CLIP]:

VAUGHN MEADER AS PRESIDENT KENNEDY:

I seem to have made the wrong turn somewhere.

[AUDIENCE LAUGHTER]

Now, I'm trying to find the bedroom. I just came out of the John Hancock bathroom where I was taking a shower in the Alexander Hamilton bathtub.

[LAUGHTER]

And I think that the —

NAOMI BROSSART AS MRS. KENNEDY:

The carpenter and painters here have been just working like beavers 'round the clock.

[AUDIENCE LAUGHTER/OVERTALK]

We have to have it finished in May.

"PRESIDENT KENNEDY":

Which way is he — the bedroom, the bedroom is where?

[TAPPING SOUND/LAUGHTER]

I just wanted to walk to the bedroom…

"MRS. KENNEDY":

Actually, the original schedule didn't call for it to be completed until July.

[LOUD LAUGHTER]

But the work has gone on.

"PRESIDENT KENNEDY":

I should like to point out that I am —

[TAPPING/AUDIENCE LAUGHTER]

I am — I am standing here in my shorts dripping wet.

[LAUGHTER]

Now, I've — I've got an important conference in 15 minutes, so I must be dressed in 10 minutes, which means I shall have to move ahead toward our bedroom with great vigor.

[LAUGHTER]

"MRS. KENNEDY":

Excuse me, Charles. Here, go down this hall to the Andrew Jackson Smoking Room and turn right into the President Rumpus Room, cross over through the Woodrow Wilson Ping Pong Room, then left at the Dolly Madison Pinochle Room-

[LAUGHTER]

— through the President Grant Drinking Room, past the Richard Nixon Dumbwaiter.

[LAUGHTER]

And that's our room.

"PRESIDENT KENNEDY":

Well, let's see, now I go past the Dolly Madison Ping Pong Room, across the Richard Nixon Drinking Room and then I go left at the Andrew Jackson —

[BANGING SOUND]

"CHARLES COLLINGWOOD":

Wasn't that your husband?

"MRS. KENNEDY":

Yes, it was.

"CHARLES COLLINGWOOD:"

He's a magnificent-looking man.

"MRS. KENNEDY":

Yes. And we decided to leave him just the way he was originally.

[LOUD AUDIENCE LAUGHTER/APPLAUSE]

[END CLIP]

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

That was a clip from Vaughn's Meader's historic comedy album The First Family.

BOB GARFIELD:

That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman and Chris Neary, with more help from Liyna Anwar and Hannah Sheehan, and edited — by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Andrew Dunne and Dylan Keefe.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Katya Rogers is our senior producer. Ellen Horne is WNYC's senior director of National Programs. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and find transcripts at Onthemedia.org. You can also post comments there. You can find us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter and you can email us at onthemedia@wnyc.org. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I'm Brooke Gladstone.

BOB GARFIELD:

And I'm Bob Garfield.