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