Robert Dallek: As Camelot Began ... The Unseen Portraits of the Kennedys by Richard Avedon

Roundup: Talking About History

When President-Elect John F. Kennedy and his family posed for Avedon in January 1961, it sent a message of youth, vitality, and confidence. As a new book by Shannon Thomas Perich chronicles the session, biographer Robert Dallek, in this exclusive assessment for Vanity Fair, gives the historical backdrop to the photos, many of which appear for the first time. To see the Avedon portraits, pick up the November issue.


... To be sure, Kennedy did not discount the importance of words in rallying the nation to meet its foreign and domestic challenges. Winston Churchill's powerful exhortations during World War II set a standard he had long admired. Kennedy was hardly unmindful of how important a great inaugural address could be. He asked Sorensen to gather suggestions from a variety of people, and to make the address as brief as possible. "I don't want people to think I'm a windbag," he said.

But Kennedy intuitively grasped that communicating with the nation visually would be as important as anything he might say. His first televised debate with Richard Nixon had confirmed the importance of physical appearance in a new media age. People who heard the debate on the radio believed that Nixon had bested Kennedy, but, for TV viewers, it was the other way around. Given the well-founded rumors about his health, Kennedy was determined to reassure everyone that he enjoyed the vitality you'd expect from the youngest man (at age 43) ever elected to the White House. It wasn't necessarily going to be easy. Because the steroids he took to control his Addison's disease made him look puffy and overweight, Kennedy was reluctant to take his pills. His secretary Evelyn Lincoln later recalled that, four days before his inauguration, Kennedy said after looking in the mirror, "My God, look at that fat face, if I don't lose five pounds this week we might have to call off the Inauguration."

Little wonder, then, that the Kennedys seized upon a request from Richard Avedon, America's most distinguished photo portraitist and fashion photographer, to capture the president-elect and his family—his wife, Jacqueline; their three-year-old daughter, Caroline; and their infant son, John junior—in the weeks before he took the oath of office. Jackie Kennedy was already well known for her astute fashion sense, and Avedon had photographed her before....

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