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Oct 25, 2023 Washington, D.C.

In one of the greatest diplomatic coups of the Cold War era, First Lady Jaqueline Kennedy arranged with French Minister of Culture Andre Malraux to loan the Mona Lisa to the United States at a moment of political estrangement between the two nations.

In December 1962, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa crossed the Atlantic from Paris to the United States where it was exhibited in the first-ever "blockbuster" exhibitions at the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. More than two million people would view the painting during its historic visit to the United States.

The little-known story of the 1963 exhibition that used art in service of diplomacy is engagingly told in Mona Lisa in Camelot: How Jacqueline Kennedy and Da Vinci’s Masterpiece Charmed and Captivated a Nation. Enhanced and expanded with archival images by the White House Historical Association, the book’s fifth printing will also available for the first time as an audiobook and eBook.

In Mona Lisa in Camelot, acclaimed biographer Margaret Leslie Davis tells the fascinating true story of a legend’s celebrated visit to America and the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that made it possible for the first lady to share the most famous painting in the world with the American people. Despite mass protests from French citizens who did not want to risk the loss of the national treasure, the Mona Lisa was packed in a special, fireproof and unsinkable steel case and loaded onto the luxury liner SS France. It made the voyage to the United States in a first-class suite under 24-hour guard.

The timing of the exhibition fell at a stressful moment in American history. In the shadow of the Cuban Missile Crisis, there were unprecedented tensions between the U.S. and France over growing nuclear arsenals in both countries, American dominance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and France’s fading status as a world leader. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy was the driving force behind the exhibition, which was made possible by her friendship with French Cultural Minister André Malraux. Malraux explained that should he be asked why France had loaned the "most famous painting in the world" to the United States, he would answer "because no other nation would have received her like the United States." Addressing President and Mrs. Kennedy he explained, "through you the world's most powerful nation pays today, the most brilliant homage a work of art has ever received." The First Lady astutely calculated that the unveiling of France’s beloved national treasure on American soil would be an unmatched opportunity to burnish America’s image, as well as that of President John F. Kennedy.

Stewart McLaurin, President of the White House Historical Association observes, "In an interview with Theodore H. White on November 28, 1963, only a week after her husband's death, Mrs. Kennedy asked that the nation remember a line from President Kennedy's favorite song from the musical Camelot: 'Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.' Remembering this famous request, the Association is proud to share this special story in print, digital, and audio versions. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy was determined to share the greatest painting in the world with the American people, and just as determined to make the White House a 'living museum' accessible to the nation."

The story of the Mona Lisa’s journey to Washington is a uniquely American saga of art, diplomacy, and culture. Gathering rare archival documents, Davis has woven a tantalizing narrative filled with international intrigue and the irresistible charm of Camelot and its queen.


For more information, please contact press@whha.org.

Author Biography

Margaret Leslie Davis is the author of two acclaimed biographies of important American empire builders: Golden Spur Award-winner Rivers in the Desert and Los Angeles Times bestseller Dark Side of Fortune. Her most recent book, The Lost Gutenberg, published by Penguin Random House, is an Amazon Editors’ Pick for Best Nonfiction. She is a Fellow of the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities at the University of Southern California. She is a California lawyer and graduate of Georgetown University. Visit the author’s website at: MargaretLeslieDavis.com and MonaLisainCamelot.com.

P.D.F. Resources

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About the White House Historical Association

First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy envisioned a restored White House that conveyed a sense of history through its decorative and fine arts. She sought to inspire Americans, especially children, to explore and engage with American history and its presidents. In 1961, the nonprofit, nonpartisan White House Historical Association was established to support her vision to preserve and share the Executive Mansion’s legacy for generations to come. Supported entirely by private resources, the Association’s mission is to assist in the preservation of the state and public rooms, fund acquisitions for the White House permanent collection, and educate the public on the history of the White House. Since its founding, the Association has given more than $115 million to the White House in fulfillment of its mission.

To learn more about the White House Historical Association, please visit WhiteHouseHistory.org.

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