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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

Leonard Bernstein at the Kennedy White House

In November of 1961, two Washington Post columnists hailed President John F. Kennedy as “the best friend culture has had in the White House since Thomas Jefferson.”1 President Kennedy appreciated the arts and demonstrated his dedication to the arts community throughout his administration. He and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy invited the media to cultural events at the White House, highlighting its role in influencing the public’s perception of the arts.2 The Kennedys invited many popular performing arts organizations to entertain at the Executive Mansion, including The Metropolitan Opera, Jerome Robbins Ballet, American Ballet Theater, and American Shakespeare Festival.3 Perhaps one of the most visible relationships was between the Kennedys and composer Leonard Bernstein.

During Kennedy’s rise as a presidential candidate, he and Bernstein were already acquaintances. Both men were born and raised in Massachusetts and attended Harvard University within years of each other.4 However, Kennedy and Bernstein belonged to different social circles. According to Bernstein, “The people he saw at Harvard were not the people I saw—it’s that simple.”5 Bernstein remembered first meeting Kennedy while he was a United States Senator for Massachusetts. Bernstein’s first impressions of the young senator were “informality and stateliness… and a casualness and majesty… that made you feel important, which is an extraordinary thing for a politician.”6

While Bernstein did not publicly support Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign, he was asked to participate in the pre-Inaugural gala by conducting the National Symphony Orchestra to play a special piece, titled Fanfare, which he composed for the occasion.7 He also conducted “Stars and Stripes Forever” and George Frideric Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.”8 Frank Sinatra made plans with Bernstein and his wife, Felicia, for the inauguration. These included pre-inauguration rehearsals, fancy dinners and swanky inauguration balls that were, “Black tie or white tie diamond and emeralds and all that jazz.”9

President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy attending a fundraiser for National Culture Center, now known as the Kennedy Center, on November 29, 1962. Composer Leonard Bernstein was enlisted to conduct the National Symphony Orchestra for the occasion.

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

Placed permanently on the White House Guest List, Bernstein visited on many occasions. Leonard and Felicia dined alone with the President, First Lady, and another couple on November 14, 1961, the day after attending a White House dinner in honor of the great cellist Pablo Casals.10 First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy attended additional performances of Bernstein’s orchestra. Felicia Bernstein and the first lady watched the performances together, and afterwards escorted Mrs. Kennedy backstage. Leonard Bernstein would greet the first lady after the show “like an old friend” according to historian Allen Shawn.11

The Bernsteins cultivated their relationship with the First Family throughout Kennedy’s presidency. In January 1962, Felicia and Leonard attended a White House dinner in honor of the Russian-born composer Igor Stravinsky and his wife Vera.12 President Kennedy also asked Leonard Bernstein to act as the master of ceremonies for the telecast, “An American Pageant of the Arts,” in celebration of National Cultural Center Week.13 By including performers in the telecast such as Marian Anderson, Harry Belafonte, and Robert Frost, the president hoped that the American public would gain interest in additional fundraising for a cultural center on the banks of the Potomac River in the nation’s capital.14 “An American Pageant of the Arts” raised nearly half a million dollars, about a third of President Kennedy’s goal, for the building now known as the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.15

After President Kennedy’s assassination, Leonard Bernstein expressed his sorrow through performance and personal reflection. At “Night of Stars,” a memorial to President Kennedy at Madison Square Garden on November 25, 1963, Bernstein contemplated his recent performance with the New York Philharmonic of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, Resurrection. Bernstein stated they played this piece “not only in terms of resurrection for the soul of one we love, but also for the resurrection of hope in all of us who mourn him.”16 He continued, saying, “We [artists] loved him for the honor in which he held art, in which he held every creative impulse of the human mind, whether it was expressed in words, or notes, or paints, or mathematical symbols.”17

Leonard Bernstein speaking at “An American Pageant of the Arts.”

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

The Kennedy and Bernstein families remained friends after the president’s death. Leonard Bernstein claimed that almost two years of the assassination he still couldn’t visit the White House, saying, “I couldn’t be at that place. It just seems too soon after the event.”18 Jacqueline Kennedy brought her two children, John Jr. and Caroline, to Fairfield for a relaxing trip with the Bernstein family in 1964.19 She later asked Bernstein if he would participate in the funeral of President Kennedy’s brother, Robert F. Kennedy in 1968.20 This time Bernstein performed Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, to which Jacqueline Kennedy wrote, “I thought it was the most beautiful music I had ever heard.”21 As a testament to Bernstein’s close relationship with the Kennedy family, the former first lady proclaimed that this piece was perfect and “much more appropriate for this Kennedy—my Kaleidoscopic brother-in-law.”22 Kennedy also asked Bernstein to participate in the inauguration of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. by conducting Mass: A Theater Piece for singer, Players, and Dancers.23

Bernstein remained a famous and well-respected conductor throughout the rest of his career. He produced ballets and Broadway shows, including Dybbuk and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. He traveled the world and conducted ensembles in various countries, including Israel, Mexico, and the Vatican. He received the Kennedy Center Honors for Lifetime Contributions to American Culture through the Performing Arts in December, 1980. His last concert with the New York Philharmonic took place on October 31, 1989. He remained an activist for social justice and world peace while advocating for public support of the performing arts. Bernstein passed away at his home on October 14, 1990 at the age of 72.