Teddy White was sitting in the dentist’s chair the Friday after Thanksgiving when he was abruptly summoned to return to his New York City apartment. The telephone there was in overdrive: an intense Jacqueline Kennedy had called from the family compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts and the Secret Service had left a snarl of messages.
It had been one week since President John Kennedy had been assassinated; the events in Dallas and the wrenching funeral services that followed had left the country, particularly those with close ties to the White House, in a state of shock.
Teddy White’s ties to the Kennedy administration were extremely close, personally and professionally. While he and JFK were both Harvard alumni (two years apart), the real connection came about when White was completing his ground-breaking, Pulitzer Prize winner, The Making of the President 1960.
The book sold more than 4 million copies, unheard of for political non-fiction. White, now the most famous print journalist in America, remained Life magazine’s go-to reporter for important stories. He had unfettered access to the Kennedy inner circle, including the President himself.
When White finally managed to reach Mrs. Kennedy that Friday, he learned she had a message for the country: she wanted White to interview her and communicate that message in the next issue of Life.
White agreed to meet with the now former First Lady at Cape Cod, and the decision makers at Life agreed to hold the presses — even though the delay was going to cost $30,000 an hour. The problem was getting to the Cape quickly.
The Secret Service would not transport White from New York because Mrs. Kennedy was no longer eligible for that perk. Plane travel was out of the question: a northeaster socked the coast in for the weekend. White was forced to hire a driver to make the six hour plus trek through a severe thunderstorm.
Then fate nearly derailed the entire assignment. White’s mother, Mary, who was visiting for the holidays, suffered a mild heart attack — the stress of the morning, especially the pressing phone calls, took its toll.
White did not depart until his mother was under appropriate medical care, so he arrived quite late at the Kennedy home: he was, in his words, “desperately worried” about his mother, “unstabilized by the assassination,” and very aware that the overtime bill for Life was accelerating by the minute.
He was not prepared for what he found. Mrs. Kennedy, drained by days of public mourning, was eager to talk: she met alone with White for more than three hours.
Her distilled message was that her husband believed history could produce heroes — one willful person could fashion major changes in human events. She did not want historians, “bitter old men,” to describe the magic of Kennedys’ time.
In Life, White wrote:” There was this thought, too, that was always with her. ‘When Jack quoted something, it was always classical…but I am so ashamed of myself — all I keep thinking of is this line from a musical comedy. At night, before we’d go to sleep, Jack liked to play some records; and the song he loved the most came at the very end of this record. The lines he loved to hear were: Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.'”
Mrs. Kennedy added that there would be other great Presidents, but there would never be another Camelot.
At the conclusion of the interview, an exhausted White retired to a spare bedroom, and on a borrowed typewriter, composed a heartfelt portrait of the devastated First Lady. It took 45 minutes to finish the story. By 2 am, he dictated it to Life editors in New York.
History was not written by “bitter old men” — White’s work went viral before it was possible to go viral. Newspapers carried the phrase, national television broadcasts celebrated it, Camelot became, and still is, the epitaph of the Kennedy years.
In his autobiography, White summarized the interview: “Quite inadvertently, I was her instrument in labeling the myth because she was concerned about history and wanted me to help him be remembered…she urged my using the word ‘Camelot,’ to describe it all… her message was his message — that one man, by trying, may change it all. Whether this is myth or truth, I still debate.”
POSTSCRIPT: The lyricist who wrote the words to Camelot, Alan Lerner, was a friend of President Kennedy. They had been co-editors of their prep school yearbook and were later classmates at Harvard. He helped stage fundraisers for the Kennedy campaign.
Lerner, of course, is most remembered as the writing partner of Frederick Loewe, with whom he produced My Fair Lady, Gigi, Paint Your Wagon, and other landmark musicals.
When White’s story hit the newsstand, Camelot had a watershed moment — stories associated with it were everywhere. The most memorable anecdote took place at the Lyric Opera House in Chicago where Camelot was playing. When the verse White quoted was performed, members of the audience began crying — the sobs were so pronounced, the production came to a halt. There was unrestrained weeping, off stage and on. It was more than five minutes before the musical resumed.
Lerner said that after reading the White interview, he could never again attend a performance of Camelot.