The glossy black-and-white photographs evoke a feeling of “once upon a time.” True, pictures of John and Jacqueline Kennedy were just as at home within the pages of the Diana Vreeland-era Vogue as they were in LIFE magazine. But now the fragrance of fairytale also seems to mist from their images.
The apty-titled “Camelot at Dawn: Jacqueline and John Kennedy in Georgetown, May 1954” features photos of Jack as a senator and Jackie as a recent college graduate, taken at the daybreak of a new era. Among the pictures adorning the walls of the Arts and Industries building of the Smithsonian Institute are stills of Jack and his brother Robert playing football in the streets of Georgetown, before they had to worry about gawkers and media bombardment. Prominently featured, though, are glimpses into the dewy beginnings of Jack and Jackie’s marriage.
Photographer Orlando Suero, at the time primarily a war correspondent for news publications, took the assignment of capturing a week in the life of these first-year newlyweds on film for McCall’s magazine. Suero once said that he relished the opportunity to shoot subjects “who don’t shoot back.”
Still, taking candid pictures of the self-conscious Jackie proved to be its own arduous task. In a letter to Suero, she shyly confessed that his were “the only pictures I’ve ever seen of me where I don’t look like something out of a horror movie. If I’d realized (this would be the result) … I never would have been the jittery subject.”
One snapshot presents Jackie sorting out her and her husband’s record collection, revealing their fondness for the then-popular wistful Broadway musicals. Jack’s favorite song, from the show that shared his legacy’s name, proclaimed, “Don’t let it be forgot that once there is a spot, for one brief, shining moment that was known as Camelot.”
Nearby hangs a pair of handsome images of the couple dressed to go out dancing, he in a black tuxedo with slender lapels, she in a cr?me crinoline gown. The caption underneath includes Jack’s initial observation of Jackie as she floated down the stairs: “You look absolutely gorgeous … but if you stand sideways, you would disappoint half the men in America.” In the photograph, Jackie responds by simply smiling and softly tugging his bow tie.
The photographic display certainly contributes to the impression that the John and Jackie were the nation’s most glamorous first couple. They brought back class and style to the White House, as noted by Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim in the musical “Merrily We Roll Along.” “The decade is starting anew, and maybe the country is, too,” wrote Sondheim, an opinion shared by the young senator from Massachusetts and his wife, who considered possibility to be the ultimate currency.
An especially touching photo shows the pair standing on the balcony of their Washington townhouse, gazing out into the distance, perhaps envisioning what their future might hold. The heartening focal point of Mr. Suero’s portfolio, this picture is a bittersweet preamble to an unfinished journey.
Suero’s work elegantly captures the poise the king and queen of Camelot displayed before the camera. The then-untapped potential they possessed to better the country, and the effect is enough to evoke tears for this, the most romantic presidency in American history.
Camelot at Dawn: Jacqueline and John Kennedy in Georgetown, May 1954 is at the Arts and Industries Building of the Smithsonian Institute until Jan. 4, 2004. The museum, at 900 Jefferson Drive S.W., is open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
This article appeared in the October 2, 2003 issue of the Hatchet.