I often wondered why historians referred to the JFK’s presidency as ‘Camelot.’
Camelot was Arthur’s capital, and like everything to do with Arthur, its origins are shrouded in mystery. No one is sure where the name came from. There is no consistent spelling in early manuscripts: which is not unusual. Some suggest it might be a British word corrupted as it moved through the Breton language to Medieval French.
They believe it was Camulodunum, the first Roman capital city in Britannia, now modern Colchester. Others plumb for the Roman fort, and later city, Caerleon outside Cardiff in Wales. In 1136 the first person to write about King Arthur, Geoffrey of Monmouth, said his court was at Caerleon. Camelot is first mentioned around 1170 in a French Arthurian Romance by Chrétien de Troyes. Like Geoffrey, many think Chrétien made it all up. People do you know, especially when writing fiction.
Chrétien only mentions Arthur visiting Camelot from his base at Caerleon. Another century was to pass before Camelot became Arthur’s capital. A couple of centuries after that, we find Camelot associated with the Iron Age hillfort Cadbury Castle, near Glastonbury.
Camelot became a by-word for the Kennedy administration, thanks to Jackie Kennedy. A mere week after her husband’s assassination, she summoned Life magazine journalist Theodore White to the Kennedy Family compound at Hyannisport. She actually phoned the Secret Service to drive him down, only to be told as she was no longer First Lady, she didn’t have the authority.
Telling White she did not want her husband forgotten by history and complaining his memory was already being besmirched, Jackie used all her considerable charms to create a myth of her husband as a great liberal peacemaker; spelling out what America lost with his death. She confessed one of Jack’s favourite musicals was Lerner and Lowe’s Camelot, which they listened to every night before bed. Especially, she insisted, the sad finale.
Before the final battle, a young boy Thom of Warwick, approaches King Arthur asking to fight by his side. Arthur turns him away with a greater charge: to never let what they achieved be forgotten…
Each evening from December to December,
Before you drift asleep upon your cot
Think back on all the tales you can remember
Ask ever 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
Don’t let it be forgot,
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment,
That was known as
As White recalls, Jackie repeated it twice to make sure the point got home. Later when the magazine editors threatened to take it out as too mawkish, she insisted it stayed in. This was not the first step Jackie took to make sure Jack was transformed from a minor president into a transcendent Arthurian liberal peacemaker.
Critics argue Kennedy was none of those.
In notes written during his stay in Hannisport in 1961, Jackie’s famous step-brother, Gore Vidal, records Jack lamenting there was no war as ‘no one remembers a peacetime president’. He adds Khrushchev was furious with Kennedy after their Vienna meeting. Khrushchev wanted total nuclear disarmament not Kennedy’s half-hearted ban on nuclear testing. Khrushchev viewed Jack’s Berlin Crisis speech as a preliminary declaration of war.
Charles De Gaulle compared Jack’s political demeanour to an elegant hairdresser combing his way through a lady’s hair, which probably sounds much more withering in French. Jack did not have the political skills to get the Civil Rights Act through Congress. Only a cunning old strategist like Lyndon Jonson was capable of passing such a political hot potato into law, and he only did it on the back of Kennedy’s assassination.
After her husband’s assassination, Jackie washed Jack’s blood off her face. She immediately regretted it and adamantly refused to change out of her blood stained pink suit, claiming ‘I want them to see what they have done.’
After Jack later died in hospital of his head wound, she kept on her blood stained Chanel to stand beside Lyndon Johnson as he took the Oath of Office: her presence seeming to legitimise the transfer of power.
Did Jackie invent the Camelot legend to simply augment the memory of her husband’s presidency?
Or were other factors at play?
Did they even listen to that sentimental song each night before bed?
Jack was a busy man, not only a president but a sexual athlete too: Vidal’s description, not mine. As a practical Catholic political wife Jackie knew and accepted Jack’s serial adultery.
In the same way, Jack’s mother Rose, the daughter of the Mayor of Boston, accepted her own husband’s continuous adultery all through her own married life. Until Joe’s debilitating stroke a few months after Jack’s assassination: from which time on Rose took great pleasure in making her husband pay for all his thoughtless cruelties.
Rose and Jackie cordially detested each other. Jackie thought Rose wasn’t too bright. Rose thought Jack’s son, as a future presidential candidate for the Kennedy dynasty, was too important to be left in the care of a silly girl like Jackie.
Unfortunately for Rose, she was not the first or last person to underestimate Jackie.
Jackie was an intelligent woman from a good social background, but with no money of her own. Jack too was entirely dependent on family money. Jackie would have quickly realised after Jack’s assassination, she and her children were at the mercy of the ruthlessly ambitious patriarch and matriarch of the Kennedy Clan.
Regardless of how much she might have loved and admired Jack, the only way for her to survive being totally at the mercy of the Kennedys was to make Jack and thereby herself, as the mother of the great man’s heirs, not merely famous but legendary. By making her husband a messianic figure, she became the most famous woman in the world. It was a move that surely afforded her some protection when Joe’s stroke left Rose ruling the roost.
Jackie mourned Jack for 5 years. As his faithful widow she was almost beatified by Catholics the world over. At the end of this period, Jackie got her children and herself free of Rose by entering into a marriage of convenience, at least on her part, with Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. Onassis promptly dumped his long term girlfriend the second most famous woman in the world, the diva soprano Maria Callas, for the most famous one.
Onassis was another one to underestimate Jackie. Some even claim Jackie made it clear she would never let him consummate the marriage. Either that or had it written into the pre-nuptial, her sexual favours would be kept on a very tight leash. Onassis got an ornament that left him the envy of every man in the world, and paid through the nose for the privilege.
But Jackie did not get away scot-free. Rose had powerful friends in the Vatican. In 1951 Pope Pious XII had made Rose a ‘Countess’. Jackie, once worshipped by Catholics as Kennedy’s grieving widow, was now roundly condemned as a ‘public sinner.’ Perhaps Rose felt she who laughed last, laughed longest. But perhaps Jackie felt the same.
So why Camelot?
In 1959, Learner and Lowe adapted ‘Once and Future King’ as a stage musical, focusing on how Arthur’s selfless love for his best friend Launcelot, and his adored wife Guinevere, leads him to turn a blind eye to their adultery, until forced to face it by his illegitimate son Mordred who has his eye on the throne.
After a shaky start, (the original production lasted four and a half hours – songs and even entire characters were cut) Camelot became the Broadway smash of the Kennedy era. The initial run lasted 873 performances. The soundtrack topped the charts for 60 weeks.
In 1967 Camelot was made into a film, beginning a lifelong passionate love affair between two of its stars, Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero playing Guinevere and Launcelot. Camelot’s score is irresistible: witty lyrics and catchy tunes. I have chosen two unashamedly romantic ballads sung by the star crossed lovers. Proof, under this gruff exterior, there beats a heart.
Thank you for reading
Bugger! Wrong Tiny Tim!
Ah, that’s better!
See you in the New Year!