How Camelot Got Designed: Jackie Kennedy’s Visit to Winterthur

Maggie Lidz is Winterthur’s estate historian and curator of garden objects. She collects 1950s and ’60s interior design books and is especially interested in 20th-century flower arranging.

Jackie Kennedy and John Sweeney at Winterthur

May 8, 1961, was a historic day at Winterthur. The museum’s founder, Henry Francis du Pont, had been tapped earlier by First Lady Jackie Kennedy to chair her committee to refurnish the White House, and she had come to the museum for lunch and a tour.

Among du Pont’s first acts as chair had been to appoint Winterthur curator John Sweeney to the committee. Sweeney’s fascinating memories of his role were recorded at Winterthur before his death in 2007. Among his most vivid recollections was leading Mrs. Kennedy on the tour of Winterthur that day in May.

The first lady’s visit was ostensibly private, but du Pont had a specific purpose in mind when he invited her. Sweeney remembered him saying, “I don’t know Mrs. Kennedy very well. Of course I have known her mother all her life, but I have a feeling that her real interest is in French things, and she does not believe that you can have a really swell house with American furniture. I wanted her to see that you can.”

Du Pont tried to limit the hoopla around the occasion and forbade photographers from accompanying them around Winterthur. Sweeney recalled one staffer lamenting, “Isn’t this something! A Public Relations person’s dream to have the most famous woman in the world coming to Winterthur, and I can’t do anything about it!”

Jackie Kennedy, H. F. du Pont, and chauffeur Dana Taylor

Sweeney was a wide-eyed participant throughout the day. “[Mrs. Kennedy] came with an entourage, with the wife of a Senator from Oklahoma [Florence Mahoney], Jayne Wrightsman, and Mary Lasker, who was a sweetheart of a lady,” he said. “They arrived at the airport at New Castle, and H. F. went down to pick her up. They came back for lunch, and we had a little cocktail party first at the Pavilion (newly opened), and the Museum Trustees were all invited to meet her. H. F. felt he had to be polite to the Trustees. His general attitude was that she was coming for lunch, and he didn’t see any reason for there to be publicity about it or any excitement. You know the whole world was standing outside waiting to see her.

“We had a very nice lunch, and after lunch we went through the house and gardens, and then she stayed on for an early dinner with the du Ponts. They went right back to Washington after dinner. All sorts of stories about that day. I was 31 years old and she was 32. I mean we were kids playing house so to speak!”

Lunch (cold stuffed eggs, squab guinea, hot asparagus in butter, carrots, apple pie a la mode) began as an ordeal. “I was seated right next to Mrs. Kennedy, on her right,” said Sweeney. “I was quite shocked to know that I was going to be seated next to her. I thought, what in the world would I talk to her about? But Mr. du Pont said, ‘She is going to be on the committee with us, and you should get to know her.’ I remember talking a lot about her dog. I wouldn’t say it was a relaxed lunch for me, because, after all, [on my left was] Mrs. Copeland, the wife of the Chairman of the Board, so there I was squeezed between these two powerful ladies. We all survived.”

The White House Blue Room by Stephane Boudin, courtesy of the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library.

After lunch, Sweeney led a two-and-a-half-hour tour of the museum, hoping to counterbalance his guest’s overt Francophilia: “It was the way she looked at the world. She studied in Paris. She was at the Sorbonne when she was college age. That was generally her taste. She was definitely influenced by Mrs. Wrightsman who was a great collector of French furniture, and it was Mrs. Wrightsman who recommended [Stéphane] Boudin to her when she was working on her house in Georgetown before they ever were in the White House. I do remember she used French terms. She said ‘cheminee’ instead of ‘andirons’—thinking of French forms rather than American. Of course, the clue to the furnishings of the White House was the Monroe furniture, which was ordered in Paris by President Monroe and [was] the key to furnishings in the Blue Room.”

Jackie Kennedy’s Francophile tendencies and Stéphane Boudin’s role in the White House redecoration are just one of the many topics that will be addressed at Winterthur’s Chic It Up conference on 1960s interior design, to be held October 9 and 10.

Designing Camelot by James A. Abbott and Elaine M. Rice

James Archer Abbott, director and curator of Johns Hopkins University’s Evergreen Museum & Library in Baltimore—and co-author with Elaine M. Rice of the landmark book Designing Camelot: The Kennedy White House Restoration—is one of the featured speakers at the conference. Author of a number of other books, including JANSEN Furniture and JANSEN, Abbott will present a lecture entitled, “In a Perfect World: Maison Jansen, Monarchical Finery, and the Modern Century,” discussing Kennedy as an icon of 20th-century style.

Now in its fifth year, the Chic It Up conference explores 20th-century interior design, and with its focus on the 1960s, this year’s conference covers topics as intercontinental as the jet set.

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