By Laura Beach
WINTERTHUR, DEL. – In a fragmented media landscape riven by political rancor, it is hard to imagine an event as unifying as Jacqueline Kennedy’s televised White House tour, broadcast by three major networks in February 1962 and ultimately viewed by 80 million people. The San Francisco Chronicle hailed it as “a splendid patriotic hour,” writing that America had “reason to be proud…of a new First Lady who has revitalized an old house.”
According to Elaine Rice Bachmann, Maryland State Archivist and guest curator of “Jacqueline Kennedy and Henry Francis du Pont: From Winterthur to the White House,” the fashionable First Lady with a finishing-school voice not only stimulated interest in collecting and preservation, but also introduced a wide swathe of the American public to Winterthur Museum and its founder, Henry Francis du Pont, for the first time. The story of their collaboration is told as never before in a colorful new exhibition on view at Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library through January 8.
Surprised that no one had yet mined the museum’s rich archives, Bachmann began researching her topic as a graduate student at Winterthur in the early 1990s. Former Winterthur curator John A.H. Sweeney, who had a ringside view of the restoration, introduced her to fellow graduate student James Archer Abbott, an authority on the French decorating firm Maison Jansen, whose role in the White House project was decisive, if, for political reasons, largely hidden from the public. Merging their expertise, Bachmann and Abbott collaborated on the 1997 book Designing Camelot: The Kennedy White House Restoration, a substantially updated version of which was reissued in 2021 by the White House Historical Association, founded by Jacqueline Kennedy to formalize accessions and collections management.
“In many ways, both private and public, my mother straddled two eras, the one when women stayed home and had few opinions that differed from their husband’s, and the coming age when women broke free and became independent. She lived fully in both,” Caroline Kennedy writes in the book’s foreword, observing with pride that her mother – 31 years old, with a 3-year-old and a newborn baby when her husband took office – “transformed the White House into one of the nation’s most important museums of American art, decorative arts and history, and created a stage for the greatest performing artists of the day.”