Saturday, November 2, 2013

JFK and Camelot

It's nearly a half century since President Kennedy was assassinated.  Only about 4 Americans in every ten was even alive in 1963, so most people have memories shaped by words and images from long ago. One of the most durable metaphors was promoted by Jackie Kennedy just days after her husband's death. She wanted JFK to be remembered as a hero, a "man of magic." In her first interview with a journalist after November 22, she told Life magazine writer Theodore White that she and JFK often listened to a recording of Lerner and Loewe's Broadway musical "Camelot," based on the legend of King Arthur, before going to bed. 

I've been trying to determine whether the Kennedys ever saw the stage production, which opened in December, 1960, just after his election, and closed in January 1963. There were no references to their attendance in the New York Times, and the JFK library database doesn't show a theater visit. But I don't doubt that the music was liked and heard in the White House.

The metaphor caught on -- despite no public discussion of JFK as a modern Arthur during his presidency -- because of some wonderful phrases in the title song.

Lerner wrote of a "fleeting wisp of glory:"
Ask ev'ry person if he's heard the story,
And tell it strong and clear if he has not,
That once there was a fleeting wisp of glory
Called Camelot.
And he ended the show asking us to remember that "one brief shining moment:"
Don't let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment that was known
As Camelot.
Thinking back today, the Kennedy presidency looks much less glamorous and successful than it seemed at the time, and even the impressions then were shaped by a worshipful and unchallenged media. But there was a palpable sense of loss, of a dashing leader struck down before his time, of opportunities missed and now unattainable. I was a naive young person at the time, caught up in the excitement of the Kennedy presidency, well attuned to Broadway musicals and the emotions they could stir, and thus quite willing to believe that we had had a glimpse of "Camelot."

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