Massachusetts

Theodore White Creates the Camelot Myth About John F. Kennedy

One week after John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Theodore White wrote a Life magazine article comparing his administration to Camelot. White thought he was doing a favor for a grieving widow.

Jackie Kennedy thought she was taking control of history.

And she was right.

The Kennedy inauguration

The Kennedy inauguration

Camelot

Theodore White got close to John F. Kennedy in 1960 when he wrote his best-seller, The Making of the President, 1960.

The book changed the way journalists reported on political campaigns. White’s vivid storytelling presented the campaign as a drama involving a large cast of characters including campaign staff and family.

First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy; Prime Minister Nehru; the Prime Minister’s daughter Indira Gandhi; President Kennedy.

After her husband’s assassination, Jackie Kennedy knew the ideal venue for perpetrating the myth of Camelot: a Life magazine article written by White.

Life’s charming photo spreads promoted the Kennedy family’s mystique throughout John F. Kennedy’s years in the Senate and the White House.

White, also a Bostonian, knew the Kennedys well before John F. Kennedy ran for president of the United States.

Born in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston on May 5, 1915, he went to Harvard with Kennedy’s brother, Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr.

Bobby Kennedy, Eunice Shriver, Caroline Kennedy, Jackie Kennedy, John Kennedy, after viewing John F. Kennedy lying in state.

On Nov. 28, 1963, a week after the assassination, the grieving 34-year-old widow summoned White to the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Mass. She then gave him a four-hour interview.

She insisted on portraying her late husband as a “man of magic.” She wanted White to help “rescue” her husband’s legacy by linking his presidency to King Arthur and the Roundtable. And she admitted  her obsession with portraying her late husband as a hero.

At the time, a play called Camelot appeared on Broadway. Jackie focused on the ending lyrics of an Alan Jay Lerner song from the play. She told White, “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’.”

Overwrought

White dictated a thousand-word story later that night to his editors at Life magazine from the servants’ quarters at the Kennedy compound. The editors then objected to some of the Camelot lines as overwrought.

But Jackie objected to the changes, and the Life editors complied with her wishes.

White then donated his papers in 1969 to the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. He stipulated that they remain sealed until one year after Jackie Kennedy’s death.

White died on May 15, 1986.

Then Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, she died on May 19, 1994. White’s manuscript with her handwritten changes then went public in 1995.

After the Camelot quote, she penciled in a line – twice — “and it will never be that way again!”

Read his Life magazine essay here.

This story updated in 2022.

Image: The Kennedys and Nehrus by Robert Knudsen. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. Public Domain. 

 

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