The Magazine

Pathology of Power

Sally Bedell Smith and the many forms of monarchy.

Oct 8, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 04 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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Sally Bedell Smith has a thing for kings. Or, not kings quite so much as powerful people who form courts around themselves as a function of power or wealth. Her very best books all describe these arrangements: In All His Glory, about the CBS mogul William Paley; Grace and Power, about the Kennedy White House; For Love of Politics, about Bill and Hillary Clinton; even Reflected Glory, about onetime kept woman Pamela Harriman, who, after a lifetime as maîtresse en titre to men of means and/or power, evolved in time into a sort of queen dowager, with retainers and knights of her own.

John F. Kennedy at Santa Monica, 1962

John F. Kennedy at Santa Monica, 1962

AP

Of all these people, the least grandiose was Bill Clinton, who ran his White House much like a campus, allowing male aides to wear long hair and earrings, strew pizza boxes on conference tables, and play loud rock music in the Executive Office Building next door. Yet all of Smith’s subjects enjoyed the illusion and aura of power, exerted in various ways. 

“The image of Jack and Jackie as king and queen surrounded by their court had occurred to many,” Smith writes; Isaiah Berlin saw a resemblance to the court of Napoleon, David Ormsby Gore compared it to the court of the Tudors. “The place is lousy with courtiers and ladies-in-waiting—actual or would-be,” wrote Stewart Alsop. And Richard Neustadt thought that the Kennedy White House resembled apartments one saw at Versailles. Owing to propertied parents and in-laws, the Kennedys enjoyed access to a number of luxurious getaways approximating the lesser holdings of royalty: “As with court life in earlier centuries, the Kennedy entourage made a stately progress from the White House to expensive homes in the Virginia hunt country, to Palm Beach, Hyannis Port, and Newport—all playgrounds for the rich and privileged.”

Left to himself, Kennedy might have run the White House as he ran PT-109; but his wife, an aesthete, had different ideas. “Jackie wanted to do Versailles in America,” said her designer, Oleg Cassini, who also said that she modeled herself on Madame de Maintenon, consort of Louis XIV. Hence the use of her wardrobe as a political statement, the restoration of the White House as a historical landmark, and the relentlessly high-toned classical music evenings, through which her bored husband dutifully sat.

No one lived on the grand scale so much as Paley, described by Smith as “The Prince” and “The King,” who seized what he could of the world and its riches: two beautiful wives, numerous doxies, a splendid collection of antiques and paintings, lavishly beautiful homes. “They lived on a level of luxury I never met in England before the war, and I had been to quite a few great houses like Blenheim,” said an English acquaintance. “They ran it in a way that money didn’t seem to count.” 

A despot by nature, Paley treated his friends like his servants, and his employees very much as his slaves. At CBS in New York, an executive was tapped to walk him home nightly, deposit him at the door of his East Side apartment, and take a cab home. On one trip, an aide was assigned to trail him about with a chair at the ready: “When he paused to sit, he didn’t bother to glance back,” Smith tells us. “[H]e knew the chair would be there.” 

With both Paley and Kennedy, guests were expected to pay their own way. “Jack and Jackie Kennedy would quite literally command their courtiers to sing and dance,” Smith tells us, with Navy friend Paul Fay singing “Hooray for Hollywood” and Cassini doing his Charlie Chaplin walk. 

Kennedy knew he was a potentate, and at a dinner for 150, he would point a finger at you and say, “Talk,” said Cassini. “Was I a performing seal? Yes, and it was a slightly naughty thing. He did it with a lot of people. In Palm Beach, after a heavy lunch, he told everyone to do pushups, and everyone did.”

But the main self-indulgence that bound together Smith’s powerful men was their fondness for droit du seigneur. Paley’s amours ranged from Edwina Mountbatten to secretaries and showgirls. As for the presidents, they carried on in the White House under the eyes of their consorts, Kennedy seducing an intern in Jacqueline’s bedroom, Clinton meeting his in a pantry close to the Oval Office one Easter Sunday, after walking back from church with his wife.