- Historic Sites
The Johnsons and the Kennedys are popularly thought to have shared a strong mutual dislike, but stacks of letters and a remarkable tape of Jacqueline Kennedy reminiscing show something very different —and more interesting
September 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 5
She was particularly upset about specific references in Manchester’s galleys to attacks on the Johnsons by the Kennedy loyalists for the way the swearing-in ceremony immediately followed the assassination. Word of her being upset about the negative passages regarding the Johnsons appeared in the papers, and the President immediately wrote her on December 16, 1966: “Lady Bird and I have been distressed to read the press accounts of your unhappiness about the Manchester book. Some of these accounts attribute your concern to passages in the book which are critical or defamatory of us. If this is so, I want you to know while we deeply appreciate your characteristic kindness and sensitivity, we hope you will not subject yourself to any discomfort or distress on our account… your own tranquility is important to both of us, and … We are both grateful to you for your constant and unfailing thoughtfulness and friendship.”
A month earlier, on the third anniversary of the assassination, LBJ had written to Jackie. She responded, “I know it was painful for you to write it—as recalling that day will be painful always for us all.” When he wrote to both of her children, she thanked him. “I was so touched at your taking the trouble—
“You are a marvelous child psychologist—saying just the right thing to a boy and to a girl—.”
In her role as First Lady, Mrs. Johnson continued the restoration of the White House begun by Mrs. Kennedy and again extended an invitation to her, even though, she wrote in an undated 1966 letter, “I certainly understand your feelings about coming back to the White House.”
Although the two women shared a belief in the importance of furthering the White House restoration, they had very different styles. Mrs. Kennedy recommended a European firm to make a china in an antique pattern. Mrs. Johnson eventually had an American firm make it, featuring native wildflowers instead. The question of where to place a portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt, whom Lady Bird deeply admired and sought to emulate, also reflects their different approaches. Mrs. Kennedy feared that the portrait of a modern figure simply wasn’t appropriate for the eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century State Floor. In the end Mrs. Johnson agreed and moved the portrait to the East Wing, as Mrs. Kennedy had recommended.
In a long 1966 memo on legal-size yellow paper, Jackie mixed business with the personal:
… You were sweet to write to me about the Fine Arts meeting—I am sure that whatever you do will be perfect—I saw the prettiest picture of you by a campfire—I hope you have some carefree times like that…
I was trying to think of any thoughts for the meeting. … I know that the 3 things that were vaguely in the works—just waiting for enough money to do them, were the State Dining Room, a state china service, oc really good copies of the Green & Red Room rugs. …
The State china service could be so beautiful—an Empire design that would go with all the magnificent Monroe gilt centerpieces—a simple design that wouldn’t clash with the flowers at different times of [the] year. … Just a word of warning—DON’T let the American china companies do it —I had them trying to copy plates of the Monroe period in the China Room for our first days in the White House. The results always looked more like hotel china … so Jansen [a French firm] is the one to do it with—as they are in everything I am afraid—Everyone else is too decoratorish—they are the only firm in the world with a library of historical documents & the artisans to execute them- luckily they have an N.Y. office—so one avoids the buying it abroad problem! …
[Jackie goes on to say that Jansen should also be chosen to copy the decrepit rugs in the Green and Red rooms.] The Puerto Rican 6c Portuguese & all the other copies always have the wrong colors—not subtle enough for period rooms—I saw the Green Room one—and it just made me sad.
So that’s a thought if you have lots of guidebook money to burn!
The only other thing I can think of is trying to keep the public rooms—ground & 1st floor—as 18th & 19th century as possible—so … it will remain always a glimpse for Americans back into the days of our country’s beginning- I was just wondering if Mrs. Roosevelt’s portrait outside the East Room didn’t bring the 20th century in so much- that it really jars the unity of that whole floor. …
The problem … is always this—one admires and reveres Mrs. Roosevelt—so she should have a place of honor- Why not there? But then later people of different administrations will start according places of honor to their heroes, and the whole harmony of the early years of the White House will be lost.
I think it would be wonderful if you could establish the precedent that that floor would never change. …
I visualize [Mrs. Roosevelt’s] portrait where the portraits of John Barry—the founder of the American Navy was—which makes me think—did Mr. Ryan (who was a temperamental creature) take back those 4 or 5 marvelous early paintings he lent us. … If so—the Fine Arts Committee should threaten, persuade, seduce, coerce him to leave them permanently to the White House! even in his will —Historically—they are important next to the Jefferson & Jackson portraits Bunny Mellon gave to the Blue Room.
These are just thoughts dear Lady Bird—whatever you do will be perfect—I send you much love—and my love to the President—in these always trying days for him.