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January 21, 2011

JFK Golden Anniversary

Roy Meachum

Washington’s Camelot started 50 years ago Thursday when John F. and Jacqueline Kennedy moved into the White House.


The late president was exceptionally literate; won a Pulitzer Prize for his book “Profiles in Courage.” Working with splendid writers, his speeches in less than four years were brilliant, deserving of publication all by themselves; it was a best-seller. But Jack Kennedy was a very pragmatic politician. Many of his pronounced ideals were achieved after the assassination; successor Lyndon B. Johnson succeeded by pushing through legislation in the name of “the martyred president.”


Jackie Kennedy largely created the “Camelot,” the national flowering of culture. At her instigation, Roger L. Stevens was brought in as special assistant to the president, chiefly to build the performing arts center.


The crusade was started to replace The Daughters of the American Revolution’s Constitution Hall as Washington premier place for concerts at least 14 years before. I saw the table model in the office of former U.S. Ambassador to Norway Corrine Strong during the first term of the Republican retired five star general. It was designated to be named the Dwight D. Eisenhower Performing Arts Center.


My friend Roger made it happen, contributing from his wealth acquired as an astute real estate investor; he headed a trust that bought New York’s Empire State Building, in his middle thirties. He was also a champion fundraiser from private resources and in the halls of Congress.


Waiting for the money to accumulate, Arkansas-born, famous architect Edward Durrell Stone to design the marble arts palace on the Potomac and for contracts to be let, Roger Stevens made reality of Ms. Kennedy’s dream to enrich the entire country through what became the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities. Before coming to the White House’s Executive Office Building, my friend gained the record of the man who produced the most shows in the history of the American theatre; he continued after moving to Washington, frequently in association with Canadian Robert Whitehead.


At a Georgetown reception the day the U.S. Senate passed the bill for the national endowments, recognizing me from television reviews, Alaska’s late Ernest Gruening rushed up and announced: “None of this could happen without Roger Stevens.”


New Jersey Rep. Frank Thompson’s leadership in the House was mentioned frequently by the first head of the National Endowment for the Arts, who was immediately replaced by new President Richard M. Nixon, to Roger’s regrets and pain.


Forty years ago this coming September, Jackie Kennedy proceeded the dazzling audience – on Chairman Stevens’ arm – for Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass” that debuted the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. I enjoyed post-performance conversations with actor Gregory Peck, composer-lyricist Alan Lerner and others.


Enduring a stroke and unable to hold a book, my friend patiently sat through my readings for virtually all Saturdays over four years until his death on February 2, 1998. As an avowed agnostic, wife Christine Stevens honored me by asking I conduct private funeral services in the Georgetown cemetery, in front of Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham. Two of my sons joined me in carrying his casket to the grave.


In all the celebrations of the Kennedys’ Golden Camelot Age, Roger L. Stevens should not suffer the same fate as Hamlet’s father; my friend’s name I remember very well. And so should you.


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