Later this week, the where-were-you-when-you-first-heard crowd will be putting on a full court press for the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F Kennedy. As the years go by I grow less and less interested in grassy knolls and all the rest, but I am struck by one genuine, non-conspiracy-theorist feature of the event: It's the only assassination with a musical score. Garfield doesn't have one, nor does Lincoln, although he was shot at a theatre. I twice had the misfortune of sitting through tryouts for something called JFK The Musical. Aside from any other problems, the concept suffered from the fact that JFK had already been given the Broadway treatment, by his own widow, in the days after his death. The source material was a chap called T H White, a British novelist born in Bombay in 1906. His name has faded a little since his death in 1964, but his Arthurian series The Once And Future King was for many years the most accessible telling of the Camelot story for children and grown-ups alike. And the Broadway musical Lerner & Loewe made from Terence White's work was responsible for one of the most unlikely yet enduring intersections of life and art. Camelot opened in New York in 1960 and, in truth, it's not L&L at their best, not when compared with My Fair Lady and Gigi or even Brigadoon and Paint Your Wagon. Fritz Loewe never really warmed up to the play, regarding King Arthur as an unsympathetic cuckold, and Alan Jay Lerner never quite got on top of the book, settling for lazy anachronistic gags about "knight school" and the like. But, with Julie Andrews as Guinevere, Richard Burton as Arthur and Robert Goulet as Lancelot, there was never any question that it would do well enough. Miss Andrews suffered when the songs got parceled out â€“ the big ballad went to Goulet, "If Ever I Would Leave You", and Burton got to introduce the title song, as King Arthur sells his young betrothed on the charms of his kingdom:
A law was made a distant moon ago here
July and August cannot be too hot
And there's a legal limit to the snow here
The winter is forbidden till December
And exits March the second on the dot
By order, summer lingers through September
It's not the liveliest work from the team. Loewe's music sounds dutiful rather than inspired, and, aside from the weather report, Lerner doesn't have much to say. Certainly, as title songs go, it's not in the same league as "Gigi". But it was undeniably a hit. And afterwards Loewe retired to the gaming tables and Lerner looked around for a new writing partner.
And then on November 22nd 1963 John F Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas. Upon learning the identity of her husband's killer, Mrs Kennedy complained: "He didn't even have the satisfaction of being killed for civil rights. It had to be some silly little Communist. It even robs his death of any meaning." Not necessarily true: He was a Cold War warrior killed by a guy who supported the other side. But that meaning was insufficient to the myth-makers' needs. A few days later, the President's widow gave an interview to Life magazine, to another T H White â€“ Theodore White, the political analyst. This is what she said:
When Jack quoted something, it was usually classical. But I'm so ashamed of myselfâ€” all I keep thinking of is this line from a musical comedy. At night, before we'd go to sleep, Jack liked to play some records; and the song he loved most came at the very end of this record. The lines he loved to hear were:
Don't let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.
Once, the more I read of history the more bitter I got. For a while I thought history was something that bitter old men wrote. But then I realized history made Jack what he was. You must think of him as this little boy, sick so much of the time, reading in bed, reading history, reading the Knights of the Round Table. For Jack, history was full of heroes. And if it made him this way â€” if it made him see the heroes â€” maybe other little boys will see. Men are such a combination of good and bad. Jack had this hero idea of history, the idealistic view:
Don't let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.
There'll be great Presidents again â€” and the Johnsons are wonderful, they've been wonderful to me â€” but there'll never be another Camelot.
T H White went to a telephone in the sitting room, called the offices of Life, who were holding the presses and eagerly awaiting his copy, and began dictating. When he got to the Broadway stuff, the editors wanted to cut it, as sentimental and unbecoming. Mrs Kennedy insisted it remain.
Life came out on Tuesday. On Wednesday afternoon, Alan Jay Lerner, Kennedy's classmate at Harvard, was crossing the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria, past the news stand. In headline letters above the masthead of The Journal-American were those lines from his title song. As he recalled it, "The tragedy of the hour, the astonishment of seeing a lyric I had written in headlines, and the shock of recognition of a relationship between the two that extended far beyond the covers of one magazine, overloaded me with confused emotions. I was so dazed that I did not even buy the newspaper." At the time, Alan lived on 71st Street. He started to walk home, and was at 83rd Street before he realized he'd passed his block.
In November 1963, Camelot was on the road. That night, it was at the Chicago Opera House, a huge barn playing to a capacity crowd of over three thousand. "When it came to those lines," said Lerner, "there was a sudden wail from the audience. It was not a muffled sob; it was a loud, almost primitive cry of pain. The play stopped, and for almost five minutes everyone in the theatre â€” on the stage, in the wings, in the pit and in the audience â€” wept without restraint. Camelot had suddenly become the symbol of those thousand days when people the world over saw a bright new light of hope shining from the White House. God knows, I would have preferred that history had not become my collaborator."
Ask ev'ry 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
The newspapers immediately dubbed those thousand days "Camelot"; one of the first books on the subject was called A Fleeting Wisp Of Glory; and Kennedy's official biographer, William Manchester, chose the title, One Brief Shining Moment. To the further bemusement of Alan Jay Lerner, the next edition of The Oxford History of the American People concluded with the printed lyric of the song. It's not so much that the comparison is inapt â€” as Loewe complained, Lerner's King Arthur is a wimpy cuckold, which hardly fits Kennedy â€” but that the national tragedy of a prematurely terminated presidency in the world's most powerful nation should be symbolized by a musical comedy.
Camelot's cynical courtiers eventually rendered the myth threadbare, although I confess that what I miss most about Dan Rather is not the windcheatered hurricane shtick wrapped around a lamppost but the way, come each portentous anniversary observance or upon the occasion of some new addition to the "Kennedy curse" (JFK Jr, etc), he would sonorously intone great slabs of lyric. Given the way most of the song's been ransacked for one book title or another, it seems curious that no one's appropriated what would seem to be the most apposite lyric for the Kennedy menfolk: "How To Handle A Woman".
Alan Lerner, a classic limousine liberal, told me that the death of Kennedy opened up "the chamber of horrors called the Sixties" â€“ a chamber of horrors politically and, as far as he was concerned, musically. A few years ago, my New Criterion comrade James Piereson published a fascinating essay (subsequently expanded into book form) that suggests, a propos the opening of that "chamber of horrors", that Jacqueline Kennedy's Camelot construct was false at its dawning:
White's short essay in Life contained a number of Mrs. Kennedy's wistful remembrances, one of which was the President's fondness for the title tune from the Lerner & Loewe Broadway hit, Camelot. His favorite lines, she told White, were these: "Don't let it be forgot,/that once there was a spot,/for one brief shining moment/that was Camelot." "There will be great Presidents again," she continued, "but there will never be another Camelot again." According to Mrs. Kennedy, her husband was an idealist who saw history as the work of heroes, and she wished to have his memory preserved in the form of appropriate symbols rather than in the dry and dusty books written by historians. Camelot was one such symbol; the eternal flame that she had placed on his grave was another.
Significantly, Mrs. Kennedy's notion of Arthurian heroism derived not from Sir Thomas Mallory's 15th-century classic Le Morte d'Arthur but from The Once and Future King (1958) by T.H. White (no relation to the journalist), on which the musical was based. White's telling of the saga pokes fun at the pretensions of knighthood, pointedly criticizes militarism and nationalism, and portrays Arthur as a new kind of hero: an idealistic peacemaker seeking to tame the bellicose passions of his age. This may be one reason why Mrs. Kennedy's effort to frame her husband's legacy in this way was widely regarded as a distorted caricature of the real Kennedy and something he himself would have laughed at. Aides and associates reported that they had never heard Kennedy speak either about Camelot the musical or about its theme song. Some of Mrs. Kennedy's friends said they had never even heard her speak about King Arthur or the play prior to the assassination.
According to Schlesinger, Mrs. Kennedy later thought she may have overdone this theme. Be that as it may, one has to give her credit for quick thinking in the midst of tragedy and griefâ€”and also for injecting a set of ideas into the cultural atmosphere that would have large consequences. For not only did the Camelot reading of heroic public service cut liberalism off from its once-vigorous nationalist impulses but, if one accepted the image of a utopian Kennedy Camelotâ€”and many didâ€”then the best times were now in the past and would not soon be recovered. Life would go on, but America's future could never match the magical chapter that had been brought to a premature end. Such thinking drew into question the no less canonical liberal assumption of steady historical progress, and compromised the liberal faith in the future.
Jim Piereson argues that Mrs Kennedy's decision - conscious or unwitting - to frame her husband's Presidency in terms of utopian liberalism played a central role in unhinging the Democratic Party and severing it from the FDR-Truman-JFK legacy, especially on foreign policy. In other words, yoking Kennedy to Camelot played a large part in what Lerner called the "chamber of horrors" of the Sixties. That's a mighty big burden to place on one showtune. But, whatever calculations lay behind the creation and promotion of the myth and whatever the subsequent tarnishing of it, it's hard to deny that for millions of Americans a grieving Presidential widow's quotation of a Broadway cast album created a synthesis of politics and music that they understood instantly and responded to sincerely.
Alas, for the author and old classmate of the murdered leader, it freighted the show with far too much pain. "For myself," said Alan Jay Lerner, "I have never been able to see a performance of Camelot again."