Twenty-Five Key Points 2017-12-27T06:19:24+00:00

Twenty-Five Key Points for Dinner in Camelot

  • The Nobel dinner was held on Sunday, April 29, 1962, nearly midpoint in the Kennedy administration. It was the highpoint of Camelot.
  • There were 175 guests—plus President and Mrs. Kennedy—making it the largest dinner of the Kennedy era.
  • Honored at the dinner were 49 Nobel Prize winners.
  • The non-Nobel Prize winners at the dinner included other distinguished scientists, writers and scholars; overall, the guest list included a “who’s who” of American intellectuals at mid-century.
  • One of the most memorable lines of the Kennedy years was part of President Kennedy’s remarks:  “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
  • The dinner came shortly after Mrs. Kennedy’s well-received televised tour of the White House, which showcased her restoration work in the building.
  • Dr. Linus Pauling, a chemistry laureate, picketed President Kennedy over stalled nuclear talks outside the White House before changing his clothes and heading to the White House for dinner. Kennedy’s response to Pauling in the reception line:  “Dr. Pauling, I hope that you will continue to express your opinions.” Pauling was later awarded a second Nobel Prize, this one for peace.
  • Dr, J. Robert Oppenheimer was the most controversial guest, having lost his security clearance in 1954; the dinner represented the beginning of his redemption in official Washington.
  • James Baldwin’s interaction with Robert Kennedy that night resulted in their meeting the following year, in May 1963, where they and several civil rights leaders argued.  The contentious meeting, however, helped sensitize the attorney general on civil rights issues and may have been responsible for his sole support among President Kennedy’s advisors to go forward with the famous Civil Rights Address 18 days later.
  • William Styron met President Kennedy for the first time at the dinner and began a friendship in which he and his wife, Rose, have continued for more than fifty years with the Kennedy family.
  • John Glenn, who had orbited the earth two months earlier and was the hero of the hour, sat next to Mrs. Kennedy.  Glenn became great friends with the Kennedy family, especially Robert and Ethel Kennedy.
  • Also seated at Mrs. Kennedy’s table was Canadian politician Lester Pearson, who would be elected Prime Minister the following year. He was already a Nobel Peace Prize winner.
  • Robert Frost, who had delivered a poem at the inauguration in 1961, was a prominent guest at the dinner; President Kennedy later asked him to go to Russia on a cultural tour.
  • Katherine Anne Porter’s book A Ship of Fools reached number one that very day on The New York Times bestseller list.
  • Pearl S. Buck was the only female Nobel laureate at the dinner.
  • Dr. Glenn T. Seaborg, the head of the Atomic Energy Commission, was a Nobel laureate and responsible for identifying ten chemical elements.
  • President Kennedy and Mary Welsh Hemingway, Ernest Hemingway’s fourth and last wife, argued over Cuba policy at dinner.
  • Arthur Schlesinger, who helped plan the dinner, argued with Ava Helen Pauling, Linus Pauling’s wife and a peace activist herself, at dinner.
  • Linus and Ava Helen Pauling had a great time at the dinner, leading an unplanned session of after-dinner dancing in which a few other couples joined.
  • After dinner, Frederic March read from works by Nobel laureates Sinclair Lewis, George Marshall and Ernest Hemingway; the bulk of the time was given to an unpublished work by Hemingway, which was part of Islands in the Stream, published later.
  • A select few were invited to the upstairs Yellow Oval Room for an after-party; it was there that Jackie Kennedy ridiculed Lyndon Johnson and the Kennedys and Styrons initiated a summer sailing event.
  • Tish Baldrige was the social secretary who worked with Mrs. Kennedy to organize the dinner while Rene Verdon was the executive chef who executed the meal with beef Wellington as the main course.
  • No such event had ever been held at the White House and none has been held since.
  • It can be argued that this was the most significant dinner at the White House in the 20th century or, even, the dinner of the century.
  • Carl Sandburg, who had to decline the invitation to dinner, called it “an event of a lifetime.”