When Lisa McCubbin and I turned in the manuscript for our book Mrs. Kennedy and Me to our editor Mitchell Ivers at Gallery Books, he told us “every word is a gem, but it is far too long.” We needed to cut nearly 30,000 words. One easy way was to cut an entire chapter and he suggested The “50 Mile Hike.” We both loved that story and the photos that went along with it, so we pushed back. Our compromise was to cut the chapter about Mrs. Kennedy’s Emmy-award-winning televised White House tour.
Here is the never-before-published chapter.
A TOUR OF THE WHITE HOUSE WITH MRS. JOHN F. KENNEDY
by Clint Hill and Lisa McCubbin
After three weeks in balmy Florida, it was time to return to Washington. Frigid temperatures and biting cold greeted us as the “Caroline” landed at National Airport on January 10, 1962. It was time to get back to her duties as First Lady, the first of which was to accompany her husband to the U.S. Capitol for his first State of the Union address.
Sitting in the Executive Gallery overlooking the House of Representatives chambers, Mrs. Kennedy listened attentively to her husband’s speech about the current state of the American economy, looking every bit the devoted first lady—-confident and proud of her husband, the President of the United States. She nodded and clapped at the appropriate times, giving the impression that she was fully informed and aware of the issues her husband addressed. And I believe she was. I had no way of knowing what the two of them discussed in private, but I know that she strived to understand the complex issues facing the country. She was far more intelligent than most people realized.
Two nights in Washington at the White House was enough for Mrs. Kennedy, so the day after the State of the Union address, we were off to Glen Ora in Middleburg. After not having been there for several months, I was somewhat surprised when she didn’t immediately head to the stables. She seemed to be deep in thought, in a studious mood.
“Mr. Hill, will you please help me with these files?” she asked as she pointed to several big boxes she had brought along.
“Of course,” I said as I picked up one of the heavy boxes. “Where do you want them?”
“Oh, just bring everything into the dining room,” she said. “I need to be able to spread everything out.”
I picked up one of the boxes and saw that it was filled with books and papers and folders—all having to do with the White House restoration project.
“I’m going to do a television show about the White House restoration project,” she said as we walked into the dining room. Pointing to the table, she added, “Just set it over there.”
“A television show?” I asked as I set down the heavy box. This was the first I’d heard of this.
“Yes, it’s going to be a nationally televised special about the White House restoration. Charles Collingwood from CBS is going to interview me as we walk through the mansion. It’s a wonderful opportunity to showcase the art and history of the White House, but I have to make absolutely certain I know what I’m going to say, and make sure I’m accurate. I don’t want to confuse a McKinley piece with an Adams piece, or say something that was attributed to Truman when it was actually Roosevelt,” she said with a laugh. “I feel like I’m studying for an exam.”
I had never seen her focus so intensely on something like this before, and I was surprised that she didn’t seem nervous at all. Quite the opposite. She seemed extremely confident and excited to share the interior of the White House with the American people.
“I have no doubt you’ll be flawless,” I said. “Just let me know if there’s anything else I can do. I’m glad to help in any way I can.”
The president arrived on Saturday, along with Charles and Martha Bartlett. Even with houseguests there, she continued her intense studying, only stopping for a break on Sunday morning to attend Mass with the president at the Middleburg Community Center.
People were lined up along the street outside the plain building that held the Catholic services. Jackie! Look over here Jackie! Mr. President! How are you, Mr. President?
The people were respectful, and while both the president and Mrs. Kennedy smiled graciously, they didn’t stop.
The crowd had doubled by the time we came out of church. It was the same every week. The president and his wife couldn’t even go to church in the sleepy town of Middleburg without being mobbed.
Mrs. Kennedy and the Bartletts flew back with the president by helicopter that afternoon, and when we returned to the White House, there were technicians bustling around the East Wing, setting up lights and cameras and cables in preparation for the taping of Mrs. Kennedy’s “White House Tour” the next day.
I saw Mrs. Kennedy first thing in the morning, just before the taping began. Her hair had been professionally done so that not one hair was out of place, and she had on more make-up than she normally wore. She was wearing a dress I hadn’t seen before, and I must say, I didn’t care for it. It was a two-piece dark red wool boucle dress made to look like a suit, and with her three-strand pearl necklace tucked into the heavy boat neck collar, I didn’t think it did her justice.
I much preferred how she looked when we were in Middleburg—dressed in casual slacks and a loose blouse, or her form-fitting riding outfit, her hair windblown, and not a hint of powder or blush. That was the real Mrs. Kennedy. This morning she looked like a television housewife. A beautiful television housewife, but still, I did not like the dress.
The filming took close to eight hours. I wasn’t present when the cameras rolled, so I had no idea how the program would turn out. I would have to wait and see it on television, with the rest of America.
In a rare agreement between the three major networks, CBS produced the documentary, with ABC and NBC sharing the costs for the privilege of airing the finished product. On February 14, 1962, “A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy” was presented simultaneously on CBS and NBC. ABC would rebroadcast it four nights later.
Mrs. Kennedy made her on-camera entrance by walking down the hallway that connects the East Wing and the West Wing to the mansion. As she walked briskly toward the camera, in her characteristically erect posture, she looked very much the welcoming hostess. She looked beautiful, but I still didn’t like the dress.
The unscripted interview began in what was the working room for the restoration, where chairs and mirrors and porcelain were in varying states of repair. “It’s basically attic and cellar all in one,” she explained.
After a brief introduction, Collingwood asked Mrs. Kennedy to tell the audience her basic plan for the restoration.
Without hesitating, she said, “Well I really don’t have one.”
That made me laugh. At least she was being honest. She had gone about the restoration project like she did everything else—spontaneously and taking advantage of opportunities as they presented themselves. She would suddenly get an idea and call Mary Gallagher to dictate a letter, and lo and behold, someone would donate a chair that had been in the family for generations.
She elaborated further. “The White House will always grow—and should. It just seemed to me such a shame when we came here to find hardly anything of the past in the house, hardly anything before nineteen-two. I know that when we went to Colombia, the presidential palace there had all the history of that country in it—where Simón Bolivar was—every piece of furniture in it has some link with the past. I thought the White House should be like that.”
She spoke with genuine sincerity, her breathy voice so calm and soothing, it made you hang on to her every word. On television, as in person, she was captivating.
She talked about how difficult the task had been with the small budget they had. Everything had to be authorized by the Fine Arts Committee, and then they had to find a donor for each piece. She said it with such wistfulness in her voice that I was certain people were already getting out their checkbooks. She knew exactly what she was doing.
The reason the project was needed, she explained, was that it used to be when new residents came to the White House, they could do whatever they wanted with the furnishings they no longer didn’t wish to keep in the house—donate them, sell them, or even throw them away.
“But then a law was passed last spring which we asked to have passed, whereby everything that is given to or bought by the White House becomes part of its permanent collection. And if the future first family doesn’t want it, it goes to the Smithsonian where it will be taken care of and displayed.”
That idea of preservation of the past was so important to her. She led Collingwood into the Diplomatic Reception Room to begin the tour of the finished rooms. She loved this room and it showed.
“This is wallpaper that was printed in France about 1834. It’s all scenes of America: Niagara Falls, New York Harbor, Indians, West Point. I think the colors are marvelous.”
Collingwood asked about a certain wing chair that was in the room and asked Mrs. Kennedy about it. She said it was an American piece, and added, “Mrs. Eisenhower brought all this superb furniture into this room. We added the wallpaper.”
I knew she hadn’t forgotten the wheelchair incident when Mrs. Eisenhower invited her to the White House shortly after John’s birth, but Mrs. Kennedy would never say anything negative about her predecessor—-instead, she found a way to compliment her on national television.
She continued into the East Room and talked about the piano that was designed by Franklin Roosevelt, and how this was the room where Pablo Casals had played. Then into the State Dining Room where the long dining table was set with candelabra, beautiful floral arrangements, presidential china, and the simple crystal wine glasses she had ordered from a factory in West Virginia.
Walking toward the fireplace in the State Dining Room, Collingwood said he found the engraving on the mantelpiece to be the most moving thing in the White House.
“Yes,” Mrs. Kennedy agreed. Her eyes lit up as she told the story behind it. “That is from the very first letter that was ever written from the White House. It was written by John Adams, the first president to live here, to his wife Abigail, when he’d only been here for two days—-November second, 1800. And in it, he says, ‘I pray Heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.’”
In the Red Room, she told how President-elect Rutherford B. Hayes was secretly sworn into office in that room on March 3, 1877, to preclude a coup, then publicly sworn into office two days later. She then pointed to a pair of chairs, and added, “Not many people know that Mrs. Lincoln sold a lot of furniture after her husband’s death—-she was destitute . . . and one of the ways that we get most of our furniture back is people who got things from that sale.”
As she rattled off the names and dates and stories so effortlessly, I was so proud of her. No one would know how hard she had studied, but it had certainly paid off. She was magnificent. Along with the historical facts, she had also memorized who had donated particular pieces and made sure to credit them whenever possible. It was a smart tactic—-she knew that by mentioning the generosity of the donors, it not only gave them prestige, but more importantly, those people in the same circle who hadn’t yet donated might now be compelled to do so.
Her personality came through, and as she walked through the house with such ease and comfort, she made you feel like you were truly a guest in her home. And every step of the way, her passion for the history and furnishings and artwork was evident.
“I feel so strongly that the White House should have as fine a collection of pictures as possible,” she said after describing some period paintings that had been donated. It’s so important the setting in which the president is presented to the world, to foreign visitors. The American people should be proud of it. We had such a great civilization. So many foreigners don’t realize it.”
They went upstairs to the second floor, where television cameras had never been before—-to the Lincoln bedroom.
She walked over to the massive eight-foot-long carved rosewood Lincoln bed and noted that Mrs. Lincoln had purchased the bed. She smiled and with a glint in her eye added, “She bought a lot of furniture for this house, which made her husband cross because he thought she spent too much money.”
I laughed out loud when she said that. Oh, Mrs. Kennedy. It was no secret amongst the White House staff that President Kennedy gave Mrs. Kennedy a difficult time about her spending habits. She was always trying to find creative ways to trim her budget. She would skimp on food and household items, then turn around and spend thousands on clothing or antiques. Every so often, the president would indeed get “cross” with her. This was her impish way of telling her husband, and the public, See, I’m not the first wife of a president to spend money on fine things.
As the hour-long show ended, I realized Mrs. Kennedy had managed to use the nationally televised program to showcase the White House in an entertaining way that educated the audience about its rich history, and at the same time subtly urge other donors to contribute. It was brilliant. She came across as elegant, witty, charming, and extremely knowledgeable.
If people didn’t love you already, they sure are going to love you now. By the end of it, I didn’t even mind the dress.
The Nielsen ratings company estimated that more people had seen the White House through this program than had visited the White House in its 162-year history. Three out of four television viewers tuned into the program the first night, and after ABC aired the program four days later, the program had been seen by 56 million people. The networks were thrilled, as was President Kennedy.