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Shakespeare at the White House

For William Shakespeare's 450th birthday celebration, we're hosting a blog series to highlight the events that took place around the world for the Bard's 400th birthday back in 1964. In this blog, Helen Cook talks about the influence of Shakespeare on First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy.

Helen Cook
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William Shakespeare has had millions of supporters and fans around the globe for centuries, but one of the most iconic during the 1960s must surely have been Jacqueline Kennedy, the First Lady of the United States. Mrs Kennedy was President of the 1964 American Shakespeare Committee which was set up to lead the American celebrations of the 400th anniversary of his birth.

She is known to have brought Shakespeare into the White House, organising an evening of performances by actors from the American Shakespeare Festival Theatre of Stratford, Connecticut to follow a state dinner, and on another occasion asking actor Basil Rathbone to recite the St Crispin’s day speech from Henry V at a dinner for Nobel prize winners.

Mrs Kennedy actually contacted the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (through the Hon. Eugene Black, the American Shakespeare Committee Chairman) and asked if it would be possible to attend the 400th anniversary celebrations in Stratford-upon-Avon. President John F Kennedy (also a Shakespeare fan) approved of the projected visit and in autumn 1963 planning began, to the great excitement of those at the Trust.

But the visit was not to be. On 22nd November 1963 President Kennedy was tragically assassinated while sitting beside his wife in an open top motorcade. His death reverberated around the world and, understandably, Mrs Kennedy wasn’t able to travel to Stratford for her planned trip. Eugene Black sent a telegram explaining that she was not undertaking any public appearances for a period of one year. Eugene himself did attend the Stratford celebrations and officially opened the new Shakespeare Centre in April 1964.

Shakespeare and the White House
Eugene Black's Telegram

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