Jackie Kennedy epitomized American style and grace during the middle of the 20th century. So it’s no surprise that the movies she watched in the White House would reflect that. From Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita to John Huston’s The Misfits, Jackie screened some true classics during her relatively short time at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
I’ve become obsessed with cataloguing and watching all the movies that every US president has screened while in office. Over the past couple of years I’ve compiled the complete lists for Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and a host of other presidents that I haven’t published yet (look for George W. Bush’s list soon). I’ve even looked at some of the stranger and more notable White House screenings individually, like the time that George H. W. Bush hosted a screening of Hunt For Red October with a bunch of unnamed CIA spies at the end of the Cold War. It’s truly a strange snapshot of the early 1990s.
But I’ve never examined all the movies that any First Lady watched at the White House. Until now.
The films that Jackie Kennedy watched in the White House are a mixture of diplomatic necessity (USIA propaganda movies), familial bonding (cartoons and home movies), and high-class foreign films. Of course, some of the films are perhaps better described as middlebrow and included at least two James Bond movies. But they all give a fascinating peek at a previously unexamined aspect to the life of America’s most famous First Lady.
Some of the films were social events with a dozen or more people in attendance. Other times it was just a couples’ night for John and Jackie, like when the two watched the strange and largely forgotten vampire flick Blood and Roses (1960) or the classic moody jazz film Paris Blues (1961) starring Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, and Sidney Poitier
On rare occasions Jackie would watch a film by herself, like when she sat down for the 1961 French dance film Black Tights on May 24, 1962. Fluent in the language (along with Spanish and Italian), she didn’t even need subtitles. Another film the First Lady watched all by her lonesome: the 1962 movie Freud directed by John Huston and starring Montgomery Clift as Sigmund Freud.
Actor Peter Lawford, best known for roles in films like the original Ocean’s 11 and Advise and Consent, was often in attendance at the White House theater during the Kennedy administration. Lawford joined the Kennedys for screenings of films like Lawford’s own Sergeants Three and the highly stylized French film Last Year of Marienbad.
John reportedly walked out of Marienbad after just 20 minutes. But according to the book Grace & Power: The Private World of the Kennedy White House by Sally Bedell Smith, Jackie loved Marienbad.
“She felt it was a mysterious, stylized movie,” the book quotes family friend and confidant Arthur Schlesinger as saying.
Jackie’s letters to fashion designer Oleg Cassini even mention the film and request that the designer make her a version of a dress that’s featured in the movie. Mrs. Kennedy requested that hers be made in red:
You must see “les Dernieres années a Marienbad”, all chanelish chiffons. I saw a picture of Bardot in one—in Match or Elle in black—but mine could be red, covered up in long sleeves—transparent. That and a drapy dress like jersey would be fun for a change.
Somewhat awkwardly, Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy watched the 1961 film The Misfits together—a movie starring Marilyn Monroe, an actress with whom John would have a longstanding affair.
Peter Lawford, who married into the family through John’s sister Patricia, essentially acted as JFK’s pimp and connection to Hollywood starlets throughout his time in office. So it might not be a coincidence that Lawford falls off the guest list after the President’s first year in office. Lawford reportedly introduced John to Marilyn.
Some screenings with Jackie were diplomatic affairs, like on June 13, 1962 when the Kennedys screened the USIA short films “Invitation to Pakistan” and “Invitation to India” for ambassadors. But Jackie also watched TV specials in the White House Theater, especially when she was the star. On October 15, 1962 she rewatched with some distinguished guests the famous White House tour she gave to NBC News—a full year after it first aired.
Jackie Kennedy also watched screen tests of the Warner Bros. movie PT-109, the film based on John’s experiences during World War II. John F. Kennedy was intimately involved in the production of the film, which would ultimately be a box office flop. John even helped cast the actor who played himself, Cliff Robertson, a strange choice indeed for a young John Kennedy. It’s not clear what kind of advice Jackie might have given as she sat in on the test screenings for the film.
John and Jackie also watched plenty of home movies, including films of their new home in Atoka, Virginia. The kids, John Jr. and Caroline, were almost always in attendance for those. On January 16, 1963 Jackie sat down with the kids to watch Gay Purr-ee, an animated Chuck Jones feature length movie about cats in France, with the lead character voiced by Judy Garland.
The last film that John would watch in the White House was with Jackie and four unnamed guests on November 10, 1963. They watched 55 Days at Peking, directed by Nicholas Ray (best known for films like Rebel Without a Cause) and starring Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner. Gardner was yet another starlet with whom John was rumored to have had an affair.
The First Lady would spend just one more time in the White House Theater on November 29, 1963 for Little John and Caroline’s joint birthday party. The photo below was taken during the previous year’s festivities. The rocking chair pictured below was John’s.
I compiled the list below using the private diaries of Paul Fischer, the White House projectionist who served under every US president from Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s to Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. The source who provided me with the diaries wishes to remain anonymous, as Mr. Fischer, who died in 2007, reportedly never intended for the diaries to become public.