Kennedy White House staffers remember the good times at a 50th anniversary luncheon
On the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's inauguration, Letitia Baldrige cast her mind back not to the soaring speeches and glamorous balls -- but rather to "how hard it was to move everything in!"
It seems that the legendary social secretary spent much of Jan. 20, 1961, working like a pack mule. "We were trying to get as much of Jackie Kennedy's things into the White House before the inauguration" -- without, of course, being gauche enough to do so under the gaze of Mamie Eisenhower -- "and when you're carrying a long ball gown over your arm, everyone knows what that is, and they're trying to get a look."
Amid august ceremonies at the Kennedy Center and the Capitol, a different kind of remembrance occurred at Charlie Palmer Steak. In view of the historic swearing-in site, several JFK staffers got together over lunch to talk about what it was like to be there then. Baldrige was the highest-ranking; most had been secretaries or assistants, youngsters in jobs they had bumbled into because they knew someone, because they were from Boston, or "because," said Sue Vogelsinger, an aide to press secretary Pierre Salinger, "I could type."
Stories were shared of memorable brushes with greatness that they enjoyed from their low rung. "Have you talked to Gloria Sitrin?" asked lunch organizer Nancy Dutton, pointing us in the direction of Ted Sorensen's former secretary. "She typed the inaugural speech! Ask not why she's here!"
Stories, anyone? Mary White remembers running into Marlene Dietrich -- "in a white suit and high white heels" -- before the president whisked the visiting movie star into the Oval Office. Then there was the time JFK beckoned White to say hello to a visiting head of state: "I want to introduce you to a real bachelor."
Oh, who was that?
"I better not say," White demurred.
Oh, come on.
"He had a uniform with a lot of medals." She'd go no further.
John Cochran, later a globe-trotting correspondent for NBC and ABC, was an Army Signal Corps guy, arranging communications for the White House -- where he found himself advising the president on whether a speech sounded okay. "It was as if Kennedy had decided if you were in the Oval Office with him, you must be qualified. I wasn't qualified! I was a kid from Alabama!"
Some described an informal vibe. Mary Ann Orlando, an aide to the late Sarge Shriver, was ready to walk off the job, frustrated by bureaucratic resistance to starting the Peace Corps -- when the president stuck his head out of his office: "Hey, kid, where are you going?" (Shriver quickly talked her into returning.)
Did you kids party much? Not really, said Lenny Donnelly, a veteran of the visitors' office. "We were working all the time. But we admired and loved him so much it didn't feel like work. . . We were so lucky, so lucky to be there!"
The Reliable Source
| January 20, 2011; 11:00 PM ET
Categories: Parties, Politics
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