When Jackie Kennedy decided to restore the White House, she asked her mother’s old friend Henry Francis du Pont to chair the committee. He was her top choice because, as she told Life magazine in 1961, “Without him on the Committee, I didn’t think we would accomplish much—and with him, I knew there would be no criticism.”
The Fine Arts Committee and its various sub-groups did more than restore the historic interiors of the White House. According to Pamela Copeland, a cousin of H. F. du Pont who served on the State Department’s Fine Arts Committee in the 1970s, du Pont and his cohorts advised on all aspects of White House style, from the quality of the ashtrays to the modern furniture placements and from the wall color to room flow. Those assembled in the photo above represent a national amalgamation of money, social standing, and taste as much as, and possibly more than, paintings connoisseurship. Critics pounced on their lack of academic qualifications. This photo was described in September 17, 1962 issue of Newsweek as “a glittering group of wealthy antique and art connoisseurs.” Great umbrage was taken by Jim Fosburgh , the sub-group’s chair (seated next to Jackie Kennedy) who considered the description an insult. He demanded an apology from the Newsweek board chairman, his old friend Phil (known to the less glittering types as Mr. Graham.)
Du Pont’s participation in this glittery group is revealing. Fascinated since boyhood with aesthetics, possessed of what contemporaries called “unlimited wealth,” he was an insider’s insider, seldom appearing in public. His meticulous management of Winterthur—a complex as large, if not larger, than the White House—and his talent for merging private spaces into public ones were qualifications as indispensable to Jackie Kennedy as his legendary good taste and impeccable social credentials.
Du Pont took special pride in his table settings. For those of us who don’t regularly host heads of state, table settings might seem a minor concern. But as Nancy Reagan would attest, an ill-set table could provoke national scandal. In society circles, dinner is the supreme social event. Your standing is higher if you get invited to dinner rather than just cocktails or the society ball. In Vogue’s Book of Etiquette (1948), du Pont’s friend Millicent Fenwick wrote: “The service of a formal dinner provides the most striking example of the differences between formal and other entertaining. The traditions on which it is based are all French in origin, and the philosophy which inspired them is concerned mainly with respect for food and decorum, and only secondarily with such usual considerations as practicality and convenience.”
Du Pont considered table settings essential to his legacy. His 99-page “Letter to Executors,” to be read after his death, devoted 24 pages to the care, future displays, and disposal of items for his table settings
In Henry F. du Pont and Winterthur: A Daughter’s Portrait (1999), Ruth Lord recalled the effort that went into table settings: “My father and the butler would then decide on the combination of china, glass, and linen that would best complement the flowers . . . Guests were not permitted to see the room before 8:30, when—with the butler’s announcement of dinner—the curtain went up.”
For the upcoming Delaware Antiques Show, November 9‒11, 2012, Winterthur’s loan exhibition focuses on du Pont’s table settings.
By Maggie Lidz, Winterthur estate historian