It was 50 years ago this week that the American people were taken inside the White House and given a first-of-its-kind televised tour of the executive mansion.
The tour guide that day was none other than the first lady herself, Jacqueline Kennedy. In honor of the 50th anniversary of the broadcasts, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum has released the first portion of Jacqueline Kennedy’s personal papers.
The historical documents not only show how the first lady prepared for the broadcast but also her desire to restore the White House shortly after her husband took office.
“These new documents demonstrate her work as first lady, her legendary attention to detail and the incredible range of her understanding of art, history and public diplomacy,” said Tom Putnam, the director of the Kennedy library, in a statement.
It started in November 1961, when the first lady decided that, as a national symbol, the White House needed to be restored in a way that reflected its historical and cultural significance to the country.
In an interview with Hugh Sidey of Life magazine in September of that year, Jacqueline Kennedy said, “All these people come to see the White House, and they see practically nothing that dates back before 1948. Everything in the White House must have a reason for being there. It would be sacrilege merely to ‘redecorate’ it – a word I hate. It must be restored – and that has nothing to do with decoration. That is a question of scholarship.”
The documents reveal how such sentiments motivated the first lady to form the White House Historical Association and Fine Arts Committee, whose task was to restore the interior of the White House to evoke the style of past presidents and first families while keeping mindful of the future generations that would occupy America’s most popular structure.
“No first lady had taken on a project like that in the era of television,” said ABC News’ Cokie Roberts. “Dolly Madison was really the first person to furnish the White House, and it was an enormous undertaking.”
The documents, which Caroline Kennedy and John F. Kennedy Jr. donated by to the Kennedy Library, reveal the first lady’s dedication to all aspects of the project. From the artwork to the furniture to the fabric for the curtains in the Oval Office.
She set a precedent for all future first ladies to come. “They feel very, very strongly that they are the custodians of a historic monument. And they are privileged to be there, even though as difficult as it is,” said ABC’s Roberts.
After a year of restoration, the first lady’s hard work would be displayed to the nation. Jacquelilne Kennedy invited a television crew into the White House for a tour of the newly renovated executive mansion. The show the first lady’s hands-on approach to the restoration and the TV project: She sent notes to the show’s producers, commenting on the script and highlighting details she wanted to talk about on TV.
On Feb. 14, 1962, the televised tour aired and Jacqueline Kennedy welcomed the world into her home. The show was syndicated across the globe and delivered a record audience of 80 million viewers.
As she had countless times before, Jacqueline Kennedy captivated, and the White House was changed forever. “It became the museum of beautiful furniture and art that it is today and will forever be,” said Roberts.
The broadcast even earned Jacqueline Kennedy an honorary Emmy. It is on display at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, along with the newly released historical documents that give a brief but intimate look into the idealized world of Camelot.