On St. Valentine’s Day 1962, one out of every three Americans saw A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy. The worldwide audience was over one hundred million.
She didn’t want to do the broadcast, and neither did I. Her press secretary later told me that Mrs. Kennedy preferred a book rather than a television show.
Jackie wanted to re-do the interior of the White House. She asked the photographer David Douglas Duncan to publish an elegant art volume. Duncan was eager to do it, but he required that the building be shut down for two days so he would have freedom of movement.
President Kennedy said, “The last time the White House was closed was when the British burned it down in 1812.”
Television was a second choice.
For my part I told Dick Salant, the head of CBS News, the tour sounded like something I would read about in the National Geographic while waiting for the doctor. I wanted to go to Vietnam. Dick said, “Please do it for me, and Blair Clark”.
I had done Blair small favors when he was the second man in our Paris news bureau. He had a rapid rise from correspondent to executive vice president of CBS News because he had gone to Harvard with the president and knew him well.
I once asked about his relationship with Kennedy. He told me he had written a great part of While England Slept, supposedly authored by John F. Kennedy. Blair had kept quiet about the ghosting. Jack had returned the favor in part by allowing CBS to do the show—in black and white. The network had not yet converted to color.
Jacqueline had an ironic sense of humor, masked as innocence. She knew her husband had made the deal, but she asked us: “Can’t CBS photograph this in color? NBC has color.”
Blair knew the deal was done, and he knew she knew. Nevertheless honor must be preserved. He frowned. “Jackie, do you know how much those color cameras weigh?”
“No, I don’t, Blair.”
He nodded grimly. She mimicked his nod.
Nobody knew how much a color camera weighed, but the quid had been quod.
I was silent that first meeting. She wore a green dress that matched the largest emerald ring I have ever seen. I learned later that Joe Kennedy had given it to her when she agreed to stay with her unfaithful husband. She saw me and didn’t see me. It was the same look Helen May Thatcher projected in eighth grade when I asked if I could walk her home. So did Blossom Stein, and so did Lois Wisch. Men learn rejection early and get used to it. Women learn rejection later and are hurt more by it.
Her dismissal is why I didn’t direct. I asked Franklin Schaffner to work with Mrs. Kennedy. He was as handsome as Gregory Peck and a lot younger. (He went on to make Patton, The Planet of the Apes, and Papillion.) During the taping she admired and trusted him.
I didn’t see her again until the day of the recording. In the meantime, I recruited a research staff in Washington and New York.
Refurnishing the White House had been a goal of Harry Truman, but Congress only gave him enough money to rebuild the cracked interior structure. There were no government funds for redecorating. (When the interior was razed, President Truman sent one of the Adam mantelpieces to his home in Missouri. Jackie wanted it back. President Truman paid no attention to her request.)
After Truman, when the Eisenhowers had moved into the president’s house, a Republican Congress voted funds to refurbish the building. Most of the old furniture came back from storage. One of the permanent staff told me that Mrs. Eisenhower went to a leading department store in New York and asked their decorators to finish the job.
Mamie was an Army wife. She had lived in many homes, from Ike’s captaincy, through his five stars and his presidency. When questions about colors and paints came to her, she’d say, “Paint it pink.” The only sign of the Eisenhower restoration was the men’s room—which obviously Jackie did not visit. The walls of the toilet were still pink, even through the Johnson Presidency when I last saw it.
Mrs. Kennedy was not seeking government funds. She wanted financing from private sources.
By the time we were ready to tape, my researchers had the provenance and location of every artifact in the public rooms. The curatorial staff of the White House cooperated fully.
I thought Mrs. Kennedy might want to discuss her plans with Blair or me but the press and social secretaries could not make an appointment. I asked that the correspondent, Charles Collingwood, meet with her. Another refusal.
On the morning the shooting commenced, fifty-two men in the technical crew were waiting. We were to begin at nine in the morning.
Mrs. Kennedy was late.
I had three scripts prepared, all color coded. Pink, if she appeared and would just walk through the rooms while Collingwood narrated. Green, if the first lady wanted to do the interview seated. If she arrived with the green script in hand, we would photograph her and at the end of the interview, we would tape the objects she discussed. The third was the white script, and it was based on a conversation while she walked through the rooms. I wrote the narrator’s questions and her suggested answers.
I sent all three scripts to her press secretary and heard nothing.
Mrs. Kennedy was late because she had her hairdresser come from New York, and the shuttle was delayed. She entered with a white script in hand. She had marked it up and corrected it considerably. She knew exactly what she wanted to say, and almost everything she said was factually correct.
She and Collingwood and Schaffner talked off-camera before each segment, and then they walked through the room under discussion. It took about five minutes to block the movements. Then Frank would roll the cameras and the first take was the last take. She was amazing.
The first floor entrance room, the curatorial rooms, stories about Abigail Adams and Jefferson; upstairs to the public room. The State Dining room, the Red Room, the Green Room, (and a dig at the Winterthur Museum because they had only sent replicas of the Ulysses Grant chairs.). The public rooms on the first floor.
During the small technical breaks, I joined Mrs. Kennedy and Charles Collingwood. I overheard him trying to persuade her to come to his hotel after the shooting for relaxing champagne with him and his wife. He did it two times when I was within earshot. I knew Louise Collingwood was in New York. When Jackie looked away, I grimaced and said, “Charlie!” He glared at me. “Why not try?”
The formal entrance to the White House is on the north side. Just inside the foyer were two benches covered in heavy silk. She was smoking unfiltered Pall Malls. On the bench was an ashtray. I realized how nervous she was when she missed the ashtray and put out the cigarette on the expensive French silk covering. She didn’t notice her mistake, despite the odor.
The last room we photographed was next to the Lincoln Bedroom. It was unfinished. Swatches of decorating clothes were pinned to the wall. Old furniture had been shoved into the room. It was the perfect place for Jackie to pitch for support through her committee.
Then the President entered. After Charles Collingwood asked him what he thought of the first lady’s efforts, Kennedy pulled a sheet of paper from an inner pocket and scanned it quickly. “I’m ready.”
He asked Americans to see what his wife had done and invited the children especially to visit the White House the next time they were in Washington
We broke the camera crew. I offered Jackie a chance to view some of the taped rushes in the evening. At eight o’clock that evening, the President and his guests came to the White House screening room. The editing crew had made a rough cut of the shooting. I sat directly behind the presidential couple. When the projection was finished I saw him turn, put his arm around her and look at her with admiration and pride. What I saw in that fleeting moment was the look of love—or at least great admiration—from husband to wife.
Then President Kennedy turned to me.
“Mr. Wolff, Jackie was wonderful and well photographed. I was terrible. I had just come from a briefing at the State Department and my tone was all wrong. Could I possibly do it again tomorrow morning?”
It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. The remote crew and equipment was due in Akron, Ohio late the following day for The Pillsbury Bake-off Contest.
The next morning, Mrs. Kennedy wasn’t there for the retake. She had gone riding instead.
When JFK arrived he wore a different suit. The long shot shows the two of them. He wears a blue suit with no pattern. But when he is alone on camera he’s wearing a striped pattern. Similarly, a woman had to sit where Jackie’s chair so he could make eye contact. My wife was the understudy.
The crew scrambled, but they were a half-day late for The Pillsbury Bake-off Contest and overtime had to be paid.
It took us several weeks to edit the primitive two-inch tape. There are ninety-nine edits in the finished broadcast and no commercials. Because the broadcast was short by a minute and a half we needed filler. I called Jackie’s press secretary. We arranged a voice-over section on the paintings already donated and a request for money to buy those she wanted.
I came to the White House with sound equipment. She read the voice-over copy in a whisper that did not overcome the background noise. I asked her to speak up.
She flashed, “This is my normal speaking voice. You will just have to adjust to it.”
“Mrs. Kennedy, the voice you are using now is not the voice you used in the recording.”
“Oh? I only have one voice, Mr. Wolff.”
I saw then what the world would see after the assassination. A steel will enclosed in a velvet glove.
She spoke more loudly on the next take.
What astonished me was that her press secretary was one of the President’s known long-time mistresses. Jackie’s steel had had to be tempered well to stand for the sexual betrayal. Yet wife and mistress conferred easily, head-to-head.
The secretary was also carrying on an affair with a handsome young CBS correspondent who had worked for me. He was afraid that the president would be angry if he learned his mistress had still another lover.
All three networks carried the tour on the weekend of Valentine’s Day 1963. It made news in every major medium. It also made a profit for CBS, which sold re-broadcast rights to ABC and NBC.
The salesmen from CBS marketing came to me before the broadcast aired. I was asked to make a coffee-table book. I wrote it in a month, using the final text and stills taken during the broadcast. It was favorably reviewed and even touched the best seller lists. I added some essays of mine, including one entitled, “Queen Fever:”
Martha Washington had decided not to copy British Royalty. She would not receive guests while seated as Queens did. Every First Lady since then has had to stand during formal receptions. Mrs. Washington would not wear a crown or a tiara, and that custom exasperated some First Ladies—one of whom, Van Buren’s beautiful niece wore an Indian headband with three feathers stuck in the back.
Mrs. Kennedy read the book and liked my inserted essays. It became her gift to foreign dignitaries.
When the President was killed the following November, Mrs. Kennedy went into mourning. She received so many messages of condolence that it was impossible for her to write answers. Blair Clark came to me the following spring. “Jackie wants to use television to thank the people who sent sympathy notes to her. She asked me to ask you to do it.”
“Who’s the contact? Her press secretary?”
“She’s out now. Way out. Call Bobby Kennedy’s office. He’s Jackie’s protector.”
I went to Washington and met the Attorney General. When I came into the room, he didn’t look up. He fumbled with papers on his table for too long a period. He told me what Mrs. Kennedy wanted. But as he listed the requirements, it was more likely they were what the Kennedy clan wanted the widow to say. They wanted money.
Teddy would speak, Bobby would speak, Jacqueline would speak (but her material would be written this time by Richard Goodwin). Bobby demanded the program be scheduled for an hour when Telstar, one of the first satellites between Europe and America, would be available for twenty two minutes. Robert Kennedy would arrange for the heads of Germany, Ireland and England to appear during that short time.
I asked whether the present president of the United States, Lyndon Johnson, should also be included.
I said one of the reasons the White House Tour had been successful was that Mrs. Kennedy had no script. Why burden her with one?
Goodwin would write her spontaneous remarks, I was told sharply.” Thank you, Mr. Wolff, and all the rest of your contacts will go through Goodwin. Don‘t call here.”
A month later, the crew and I arrived at the Hyannis port compound. I was introduced to the patriarch, Joseph Kennedy. Because of a stroke, he could neither speak nor walk. His nurse told us that he expected us to clean up after ourselves, and not mar any of the walls or furniture. He raised a bony finger and pointed it at me. I assured him that we had placed drop-cloths on the porch and in the single room from which Jackie would speak. We’d be careful. We were.
Word was sent from Bobby Kennedy’s house that the staff had prepared a sandwich and Coke lunch for all. We were grateful.
Before she did her speech, we sat on the stairs of her house. She was much warmer and praised the book. She particularly liked the essay on Queen Fever. At the time I was flattered, but thought it politeness. But then she added, “Mr. Wolff, you write very well. Very well.”
It was the second “very well” that went beyond politeness.
She made an unexpected friendly gesture. She squeezed my upper arm and looked into my eyes. Warmth. Almost affection.
The broadcast was a mess. Telstar failed. We could not get a consistent image from Europe, just the voices of the heads of state. The BBC director on the other side of the Atlantic wanted the show to be shifted to him, so Jackie would be reduced to just sound. He screamed into my headphone. I turned him off.
Jackie was not spontaneous. It was obvious that she was reading her copy from the teleprompter and was stilted in delivery. She knew it.
The other Kennedys spoke about the Kennedy Library they wanted to build at Harvard. What was supposed to be a response to millions of condolences became a fundraising event.
A month later their accountants billed CBS. The cost of the free lunch from Bobby’s compound was mailed to us. So was a bill for repainting and plastering the walls—some $5,000 as I recall. Nevertheless, we paid.
There had been several hints at CBS that “we ought to find another vehicle for Jackie.” As we were packing up the equipment I asked her if she wanted to do another subject—her interest in Thomas Jefferson, for example.
“Nothing I do later can be as important as the White House tour,” she replied. “You made it easier than I expected.”
I made another visit to the White House years later. I don’t remember who sent me to see Lady Bird Johnson and I forget the amenities, but the new First Lady came to the point right away.
“Are you one of the Kennedy people?”
“What I mean is you did the White House Tour, and did you get close to them afterwards?”
“I don’t see them.”
She led me to the projection room. “Lyndon called in the Signal Corps and made me talk about the changes I had made since Jacqueline Kennedy re-did the Red Room.”
She started the film. The Signal Corps had saved money by shooting the Red Room in black and white. Mrs. Johnson was certainly not Jackie. That’s what I told her. Lady Bird was a successful business woman whose public agenda was to clean up the ugly advertising on the American highways. Why imitate Jackie? I told her to burn the film and the negative and get a note from the Signal Corps saying no material had been retained.
She thanked me. “That’s exactly what I told Lyndon.”
Now that I was on her side, she could abandon the project. She invited me upstairs to have lunch with her. I expected elegance. I got a lean hamburger on a bun, black coffee and Sucaryl, a sugar substitute.
Mrs. Johnson was so emotionally grateful that she said (and I have never forgotten these words), “I said to Lyndon, ‘when you were a Representative, you didn’t listen to the military. When you were a Senator, you didn’t listen to those Generals. How come you are listening to them now?’
The relationship between Frank Stanton, president of CBS and Lyndon Johnson, president of the United States was often too close for comfort.
On the days after John Kennedy was killed, television fulfilled its noblest function: it purged a fearful nation. For four days in November, from of the assassination to the funeral Frank Stanton cancelled all commercials. The president of NBC, Robert Kintner, was furious at the loss of revenue. The other networks had to follow.
Meanwhile, inch by inch, report by report, hour by hour, America moved from panic to tears and tragedy. War had been declared. The Soviets had ordered the assassin (who had lived in Russia) to commit the deed. A bomb had been placed in the Capitol. The federal government had placed foodstuffs in the New York subway, and a shadow cabinet had been appointed. (That was true, but dated from the Eisenhower era.) When there was nothing new to report, and the recapitulations needed rest, CBS broadcast classical music.
I was assigned a review of other assassinations. Eric Sevareid and I used old graphics that marked time to show the other killings: Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William Mc Kinley and the Chicago shooter who missed Franklin Roosevelt and slew the Mayor of Chicago, Anton Cermak.
The man to watch was Lyndon Baines Johnson, the vice president sworn into the Presidency on Air Force 1. Nobody in the media was closer to him than Frank Stanton, the man who made Johnson rich. In the 1930s, Johnson was a representative from Texas whose wife owned a small radio station in Austin, Stanton was a sociologist-scientist at CBS who persuaded the network to give affiliation to KTBC, guaranteeing the station a larger income. When television began, Johnson took a loan to buy the equipment, and CBS aided him. The net income to the Johnsons was estimated at $5,000 a week. Lyndon and Lady Bird were intensely grateful. (I learned all this when I conducted many hours of oral interviews with Frank Stanton for Columbia University.)
During the Vietnam War, Johnson often found fault with the CBS Evening News.
Stanton told me, “Every night at 7:01 pm the phone would ring when Ruth and I were at dinner. It would be the President complaining about our coverage. One night Ruth had enough, and said, ‘Frank I want my dessert. Just don’t answer. Make him call you at the office.’”
Frank drew a fireproof curtain between Lyndon Johnson and CBS News, and Johnson knew it. I was in the Washington bureau when the president decided to send 30,000 more troops to Vietnam. Instead of calling Stanton, Johnson personally asked the bureau chief to switch live to the White House at 9pm that night. It was not a new request, and the bureau chief refused. Lyndon called a half hour later and said, “If I escalate to 50,000 more troops can I get prime time?”
The answer was again no.
A Tour of the White House won all sorts of awards, including an Emmy, a Peabody and a duPont. I was sent to Washington for the ceremony. The Emmy bureaucracy wanted an award winner in the capital to balance the presentations in New York and Hollywood. Lady Bird Johnson accepted for Mrs. Kennedy. I accepted for CBS News and was called to the stage to receive an award certificate.
“The statue didn’t arrive on time,” the Emmy representative whispered.
An Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of United States, William Douglas, who was quite drunk, gave the certificate to me. It wasn’t exactly a certificate. It was the seating plan everybody received on entrance. But on camera and from a distance it certainly looked like a certificate.
After the success of Jackie’s tour I was urged to make a series of tours, preferably with Mrs. Kennedy. My superiors prodded me because their superiors pushed them.
As a colleague said, “Wolff, what they want is young broads and old stones.”
Bill Paley passed down an idea: Because Mrs. Kennedy had charmed France and particularly Andre Malraux; a tour of Versailles might be new and good.
Jacqueline Kennedy and Perry Wolff during filming of A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy: courtesy of Perry Wolff.