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The White House Tour Seen in Jackie, as Described in 1962

4 minute read

When Natalie Portman stepped into the role of Jacqueline Kennedy in the new movie Jackie, out Friday, the actress did not lack for historical references on which to base her performance. That record included one very important piece of video footage: the First Lady’s televised tour of the White House, which aired in early 1962.

Ever since the White House had been rebuilt after the War of 1812, Presidents and First Ladies had used the home’s decor to reflect the grandeur of leadership, whatever that meant in their own eras. Accordingly, as styles changed, so did the furniture. Older items were sold off; as explored in Inside the White House from TIME Books, President Chester A. Arthur presided over the sale of two dozen wagons full of historic furniture from the executive mansion. Jackie Kennedy, however, wanted something different: under her watch, the White House would become a showcase for American history. As TIME put it in 1961, “Jackie formed a Fine Arts Committee to help her transform the White House into a ‘museum of our country’s heritage.'”

And in 1962, a televised tour was a way to show her work to the nation, and prove that it was worth the effort. (As the New York Times has reported, shooting the tour scenes for Jackie was a matter of meticulous care—it even required making the First Lady’s outfit in two colors, one that matched the red she wore on that day and one that would appear the correct shade of gray when shot in black and white.)

The week the tour aired, TIME noted with some amusement that it was an “impressive” display of the First Lady’s knowledge:

…Jackie Kennedy, along with some 45 million other Americans, settled down to watch herself in action as guide to CBS’s Charles Collingwood on an hour-long White House tour that had been taped a month before. She had refused the services of a CBS makeup artist, wore a wireless microphone around her neck with the pack and battery concealed in the small of her back. Pamela Turnure, her press secretary, had been instructed how to adjust the mike if anything went wrong. Explained Collingwood later: “We couldn’t have a technician fiddling with the First Lady‘s person.”

From her first whispery words, Jackie put on an expert performance in telling how she and her advisory committee have redecorated the White House. Without notes or prompting, she showed a connoisseur’s knowledge of every antique and objet d’art that came into view (only one scene had to be refilmed; Jackie momentarily confused a Dolley Madison sofa with one of Nelly Custis’). She easily rattled off the names of bygone artists and cabinetmakers, displayed an impressive knowledge of intimate White House history. The Green Room, she noted, “used to be the dining room, and here Jefferson gave his famous dinners and introduced such exotic foods as macaroni, waffles and ice cream to the United States.” Woodrow Wilson so detested the stuffed animal heads with which Theodore Roosevelt had adorned the state dining room that he always “seated himself in such a manner that he would not see them while dining.”

Showing off the Lincoln bed, Jackie remarked dryly: “Every President seemed to love it.” Said she in the Red Room: “One thing that’s interesting—President Hayes was sworn in here as President secretly at night, cause his was the closest election there ever was and they didn’t want the United States to be without a President for even one day, so while everyone was having dinner they swore him in here.” Moving from the Red Room to the Blue Room, Collingwood said as a sort of conversation opener: “Oh, this has a very different feeling from the Red Room.” Replied Jackie crisply: “Yes. It’s blue.”

All in all, it was a pleasurable event in a fascinating week.

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While TIME’s reporter may have viewed the event as merely pleasant, the tour would in fact turn out to be part of one of the Kennedy family’s most lasting impacts on the American presidency. The First Lady’s efforts led to the creation of the White House Historical Association, and redefined what a new administration could and could not do to their home. Ever since, even as tastes have changed, the connection between American heritage and the look of the White House has remained.

Read the full story, here in the TIME Vault: Simply Everywhere

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com