A week after President Kennedy's assassination in November 1963, the nation's grief-stricken First Lady gave an interview to Theodore White for the December 6 issue of LIFE Magazine. Jacqueline Kennedy compared her husband's ideals to Arthur, the king of Camelot, as portrayed in the eponymous Broadway musical. And since Camelot became the symbol of the Kennedy years, it's worth repeating how the two became entwined as my new novel, ONE MORE SEAT AT THE ROUND TABLE, makes its way in the publishing world.
As a student, John F. Kennedy attended Choate and Harvard with Alan Jay Lerner, the librettist of Camelot and other Broadway hits, so when Mrs. Kennedy told Theodore White that her husband liked to unwind by listening to Camelot's cast album, she knew of their relationship. Coincidentally, Lerner's show was having its second out-of-town engagement at the Shubert Theatre in Boston when the city's native son (and the state's junior senator) was elected president. Camelot presently left Boston and opened in New York on December 3, 1960.
Though the cast album sold well, the producers—author Alan Lerner, composer Frederick Loewe, and director Moss Hart—knew the show was in trouble long before Kennedy's Inauguration on January 20, 1961. Box office sales slumped despite the talents of its stellar cast (Richard Burton, Julie Andrews, Roddy McDowall and newcomer Robert Goulet), and rumors were rife that Camelot would close by spring. So how did this almost-flop win the affection of President and Mrs. Kennedy, the latter a savvy supporter of the arts?
The answer lies in Alan Lerner's commitment to the peace and justice message of his book, a theme that now seems far ahead of its time. Camelot, based on T.H. White's novel The Once and Future King, was a musical about a visionary monarch who longed to civilize his brutal medieval society. Arthur slowly replaced "might is right" with "might for right" and established a Round Table where knights voted ethical codes of behavior into law. His progress ended when his best friend Sir Lancelot and his queen Guenevere were accused of treason, inciting a war that destroyed his civilization. Yet in Lerner's book, the king believed his achievements would be remembered, and at the finale he sang these iconic words that deeply moved President Kennedy:
Don't let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment
That was known as Camelot.
Though the New York critics were even less excited by Lerner's book than their colleagues in Toronto and Boston, millions of Americans watched scenes from Camelot on the Ed Sullivan Show on March 19, 1961. The next morning there were lines at the aptly named Majestic Theatre and the show, dubbed "Gotterdammerung without laughs" in Canada, became a Broadway hit. It ran 873 performances, closing January 5, 1963.
As John F. Kennedy pursued his reelection campaign that same year, the first touring versions of Camelot made their way across America, allowing millions more theatergoers to see the show. Then on November 22, 1963, the country was forever changed when the president was killed in Dallas. Days later, Mrs. Kennedy explained to Theodore White that her husband had spent his sickly youth reading about the knights of Arthur's Round Table. "For Jack, history was full of heroes," she said. "And if it made him this way, if it made him see the heroes, maybe other little boys will see…Jack had this hero idea of history, the idealistic view." And she repeated those stirring last lines of Camelot to Mr. White.