BIOGRAPHY, general biography
Comments 41

JFK, Jackie and the St Crispin Speech

The fiftieth anniversary of the still much questioned and debated assassination of JFK seems like a fitting moment to look at the story of Basil Rathbone’s own brief brush with the Camelot presidency, and the letters written to him by Jackie Kennedy, described as “perhaps the most exciting and touching letters ever penned by a first lady.”

The letters, and Rathbone’s covering description of how the came to be written, are currently held in the Howard Gottlieb collection at Boston University.

March 1963, Rathbone was “awakened by a telephone call from the White House.”

“ … It was a Miss Baldridge, who introduced herself as Mrs. John F. Kennedy’s Social Sec[retary]. … the call was an invitation to attend a State Dinner at The White House in honor of the Grand Duchess of Luxembourg and her son and heir [Prince Jean], and after dinner to perform in the East Room…my good friends Mr and Mrs Sydney Beck and their Consort Players (playing their Elizabethan instruments and singing their Elizabethan songs) were to accompany me in my performance…”
— BASIL RATHBONE

What he was being asked to perform was “a program of Elizabethan poetry and music” which he, together with the Consort Players had first performed the previous fall in the Library of Congress. The above-mentioned Sydney Beck, musicologist, head of the Rare Books and Manuscripts section at the NY Public Library, and leader of the Consort Players, also left a brief account of the events leading up to the White House performance. He claims he and Rathbone had bonded to some extent over a shared love of early music. Basil used to ‘drop in’ for “an occasional Sunday morning chat (he lived around the corner), and now and then attended a rehearsal out of sheer fascination with the music.” Beck did not agree with Basil that his troupe were “accompanying” him. In fact he penned his own description of how things were and sent it to the archive on March 9 1987, explaining that he and the Consort Players were actually center stage in the action and not merely accompanists. But these differences of emphasis aside, the two men’s accounts agree that initially there was no problem in reshaping their program to fit the needs of the White House.

“…It took about two or three weeks to agree upon the programme as both the President and Mrs. Kennedy wished certain pieces included…”
— BASIL RATHBONE

Sydney expands on the same theme:

“… We were both pleased to be able to include a few of the First Lady’s favorite poems without disturbing the delicate balance I had already achieved in hastily compressing the Library of Congress program into thirty minutes of appropriate after-dinner entertainment for an elite audience…”
— SYDNEY BECK

But then they hit a difficulty. Says Sydney:

“…But when the President’s further request for a choice of Shakespeare speeches was tardily relayed to us, Basil was livid with frustration. Not only was his artistic sense violated (he had thought our shortened version a ‘perfect gem’), but also it created concern over the suitability of certain of the dramatic selections suggested, as well as the prospect of his having to prepare ever new readings at such short notice…”
—SYDNEY BECK

And Rathbone:

“…However, a couple of days later a change was made. I use the word “made” rather than “suggested” because the change affected me only, and I was not consulted! It was requested that I add the “Crispin” speech from Henry V; a speech I felt to be unsuited to this occasion, and I so stated these opinions in a letter to Miss Baldridge.”
— BASIL RATHBONE

Rathbone’s problems with the St.Crispin speech, aside from the difficulty with learning it at such short notice, are made clear by Jackie Kennedy’s reply. In essence he feared that, being directed to the English army on the eve of Agincourt (the battle on which half the nobility of France were killed), it might be offensive to the White House guest of honor, Grand Duchess Charlotte (who was half French). He suggested replacing Crispin with a speech from another Shakespeare play, RICHARD II. You can tell from the soothing tone Mrs Kennedy adopts in her first letter to him, that Basil has been pretty forthright in his initial approach:

Jacqueline_Lee_Kennedy_43795

‘..Is it not funny how things become over complicated? I am sorry you thought the President “would accept no other” speech but St. Crispin. It is just one of his favorites for whatever lovely dreams of leading or being led on to victory lurk in his soul! He also knows it by heart and I suppose wanted it for the same selfish reasons I asked for so much Donne and other things I love. He also loves Henry V (and he reminds me of him – though I don’t think he knows that!)

However I agree completely with all your reasons for thinking the speech inappropriate – they had never occurred to me – nor had the ones for the Richard II “farewell king” speech being so ideal. I have not got it beside me. I just hope it has no line about Kings being despots that will make the poor Grand Duchess think everyone wants to push her off her throne!) If there is some insidious line you could leave it out….’
— JACQUELINE KENNEDY

So it seemed Basil had got his way and would be spared having to glorify English victory in front of the half-French Duchess. But then, the next day, Jackie wrote again:

“I write to you a day later—completely changing my mind—which I suppose is a prerogative—but I want you to understand and feel I am right for the reasons I do. Since I wrote you yesterday I have reread St. Crispin & Richard II—the two great speeches—Act III & Act IV—To me they seem inappropriate to address to a reigning monarch. It is all about doing away with kings, other sad and beautiful things in it, but still—

I know you are against St. Crispin …It is because of delicacy of feeling. You are an Englishman. That was Agincourt. There are difficulties now between England and the continent. You are giving this speech as an Englishman at the White House before a European head of state. I think it is very sensitive of you to think of such things. But I made my husband read the speech aloud to me last night and told him of your reservations.

Shall I tell you why I think it is so appropriate …he thinks so too but I cannot quote him adequately. Of all the speeches—that make you care and want to make the extra effort—sacrifice, fight, or die, for whatever cause, that is the one. The only person I would not wish you to say it in front of was Khrushchev, as we are not united in purpose, but tiny Luxembourg, Benelux, etc. we are all striving for the same brave things today. … I promise I will not change my mind again if you will promise to do St. Crispin and forget about all the hidden meanings in it (of which Richard II has many worse ones—considering our guest!)
–JACQUELINE KENNEDY

Rathbone’s covering note, written a few years after the event, very humbly acknowledges Jackie’s better judgement.

“…Letter no. 2…gently but firmly made me aware of the absurdity I had been guilty of in suggesting the “Hollow Crown” speech from Richard II in place of the “Crispin” speech from Henry V… Immediately realizing my tactless blunder I replied to Mrs. Kennedy at once apologizing for my stupidity and agreeing, without further ado, to perform the Crispin Speech from Henry V, as an encore…”
— Basil Rathbone

So, on April 30 1963, The St Crispin speech was delivered by Rathbone at the White House, as an encore to the evening, in front of President and Mrs Kennedy and their guest of honor. None of them could have known the extent to which its sentiments of death and honor seemed to portend coming horror, or how soon one of the listeners would meet his own violent end. For them, right then, it was simply a pleasant evening, described by Beck as a “stirring close to our offerings.” Mrs Kennedy wrote a final note to Basil thanking him for his “magnificent performance.”

Everyone was superb but I especially enjoyed it when you were saying all the poetry I love…
As for Henry V—which you were so apologetic about beforehand—it was so stirring. I had to hold my breath—and the entire room would have followed you onto the field at Agincourt. A little touch of Basil in the night…
The President and I both wish to thank you for all the trouble you took to make it so perfect.
Sincerely,
Jacqueline Kennedy

Sadly, the next act in the small drama was not to be so pleasant — as we will see in Part II

The St. Crispin Speech…

The text of the Kennedy letters is taken from AUCTION MADNESS by Charles Hamilton, and from the archives of the Howard Gottlieb collection
Thanks to Marcia Jessen and Nanette B for doing most of the research
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41 Comments

  1. Ellen Foley says

    Just my 2 cents,but love St Crispin speech,1st heard in We Were Soldiers Once and really impressed me.Then had to watch Kenneth Branaugh recite it,and uy the play so can read the speech whenever I want.It must’ve.Also for anyone who’s gone thru hell & back in their personal life,I like to think the speech meant a great deal to Baz,too as well as JFK and others having the courage to meet adversity headon and win against said adversity.That speech and Harper Lee’s speech on courage by Atticus Finch in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD are my all-time favs.

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    • KB’s version is amazing. Gives me goosebumps. And listen to Mark Rylance from the Globe production for a very different interpretation. I think you can find it on Youtube.

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  2. rosebette says

    I went to a production of Camelot last night by the New Repertory Theater, and found this story in the program, which I think is apropos of the JFK memorial theme. This is an account by Alan J. Lerner of a performance of the play in Chicago two weeks after JFK’s death: “Louis Hayward was playing King Arthur when he came to those lines ‘Don’t let it be forgot/That once there was a spot/For one brief shining moment/That was known as Camelot’; there was a sudden wail from the audience. It was not a muffled sob; it was a loud, almost primitive cry of pain. The play stopped, and for almost five minute everyone in the theater–on stage, in the wings, in the pit, and in the audience–wept without restraint. Then the play continued.”

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    • Mikufan says

      I would have just got up and said:
      “On second thought let’s not go to Camelot, tis a silly place.” Then gone off using coconuts as a horse.
      (Sorry, I’m slightly Monty Python obsessed :D)

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      • Mikufan says

        But now on a more serious note, it’s a really sad/sweet story.
        The fact that everybody loved (And still do love!) JFK so much really shows, doesn’t it?

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      • rosebette says

        I’ve never seen Spamalot, but after seeing the fully staged Camelot, which is somewhat different from the movie, I think I do need to see it! The stage version does have the woman rising from the lake (Nimue or Morgan, I think).

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        • I saw the original Broadway cast in 2005. David Hyde Pierce, Hank Azaria, Tim Curry. Brilliant. DHP is too talented to exist.

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          • Hally says

            I have a DHP blog! Does anyone remember that website that had a fic about David about six years ago? I was really young at the time but my cousin was a fan of his and read it and told me it was way explicit. I can’t find it now.

            http://davidhpierce.tumblr.com/

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    • Ellen Foley says

      I’m sure whomever played the role would’ve elicited such a reaction,but the fact you related it was Louis Hayward makes him even more special in my eyes.Still find the stories of JFK/Jackie?Baz at White House fascinating.

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  3. “A little touch of Basil in the night” – I’ll have to remember that. My Basil (kitty) passed away the Sunday before Thanksgiving, a loss with which I have been struggling. Little things like this phrase by Jacqueline Kennedy make me smile.

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  4. I wasn’t born until ten years after but I feel as if I was there, if you know what I mean. Thanks for this lovely article.Those letters are truly beautiful things.

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  5. Margaret G says

    Jackie comes across as so sensitive and cultured. How many First Ladies in recent times would even know about John Donne let alone love his poetry? Sadly, very few I suspect.

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  6. Thomas Dekker says

    Very fascinating. I wonder if Rathbone was being subversive in suggesting the Hollow Crown speech, hard to see how anyone could think that one more appropriate for the Duchess tan Crispin!

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  7. the countess says

    Happy B.Day Rosebette! A tad late. I rember sitting on my Dads lap watching the funeral. He was very moved by the riderless horse.And explained the signifince to me of the backwards boots.When they showed Caroline and John John at the grave he held me realy close and kissed me on the top of the head.Not that i rember it well but I was told that Daddy took me down to see Kennedy when he made a whistle stop speech in the next town.[Daddy worked from that town]Daddy said he thought he would become president quote”even though he was a Catholic”[ dont stone me.]and he wanted me to be able to say i had seen a president.[even if i barely rember it.]
    About the speech..imagen arguing with Jackie ..even by letter.And her very polight reply.Basil def got them thinking.Yea Basil! And him actuly worring about hurting the feelings of a lady he didnt even know.Sweet. But oddly he didnt seem to be worried about hurting John F.’s feelings?

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  8. rosebette says

    My birthday was 2 days ago, Nov. 20. I was 5 when Kennedy was assassinated. I remember my birthday dinner, when my godparents came over and my parents had boiled lobsters (which I had never seen before). Then a couple of days later, all that was on TV was the funeral procession, the sight of the coffin with the flag over and over, and my mother explained to me about the President’s death and the two children, Caroline and John-John. Caroline was about the same age as I was.

    I found a letter/essay among my father’s things (he was an English teacher) about Kennedy’s death. I guess I’ll need to look for it again and read it.

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    • GRETCHEN says

      I was 5 when John Lennon was murdered (Dec. 8, 1980). 😦

      The evening news that night was suddenly interrupted by a “breaking news story”. My family and I watched a still-photo (of John’s face, singing) on the TV screen, while we listened to the chaos of people in the background as the newsman spoke of the horrible scene all around him. It had only just happened within the past hour or so, and they were doing a live report, but without a camera. That’s understandable, since it was probably pretty gruesome. I asked my brothers who this “John Lennon” guy was, and they couldn’t believe I’d never heard of him. They told me: “He’s one of The Beatles”—I loved their music, and knew who they were (but not their individual names, or exactly what they looked like), so I said: “Oh…okay”. I felt very sad for this poor man that was shot and killed, whoever he was.

      The next day in kindergarten, our teacher told us that John had a son who was 5, like we were. (That would be his second son, Sean, who’s a few months younger than me. He was born on his dad’s 35th B-day—what a wonderful gift!) She wanted us to make Sean some drawings and messages of comfort in memory of his father, to help cheer him up. We used those large pieces of recycled paper with the blank tops and the lined bottoms for writing on—you know the kind. I drew a hill, some flowers, a sun, and a rainbow…at the bottom, I wrote: “I’m sorry your dad died”, and signed my name.

      The teacher gathered together all our crayon-drawings, and put them into a manila envelope (along with a letter she’d written, explaining who they were from) to send to Sean and his mom, Yoko Ono. A few weeks later, Yoko sent us a reply, thanking our class for the art, and letting us know how much it was appreciated by her and Sean (our teacher read it to us the day it arrived). It turns out that kids in schools all over the country (and the world) had sent them drawings and letters…she probably had copies made of her typed “letter of thanks”, and sent them to everybody who’d given them stuff.

      In 2010, my boyfriend and I went to see Roger Waters and “The Wall” Tour, when it came to San Jose (only a few hours’ drive from our house). The day we went happened to be the 30th anniversary of John Lennon’s murder. I knew that Roger was most likely good friends with John, and I had a feeling he would remember to honor his friend during the show. Just before the concert began, the “incidental music” that was playing as we entered the stadium and took our seats, changed to the song “Imagine”…everyone began cheering and clapping, in memory of John—I began tearing-up. Then, when Roger came out on stage to start the program, he asked all of us to take a “moment of silence” for his friend. I felt such love filling that room; and, I believed that John’s spirit was there that night with Roger, helping him through the sadness, and to do the best he could to perform this masterpiece of music for those who cared so much.

      I know Roger is an atheist, and I respect that—after all, he’s probably the most loving person I can think of, and has the dearest, kindest heart for others. His dad and grandpa served (and died) in WWI and WWII. He never got the chance to know them, as he was only a baby when his dad died. I can empathize with his profound, deep grief, which still torments him to this day, and has shaped him into the person (and the great musician) he’s become; this is because my dad and grandpa were also in the 2 World Wars—only they came back—with PTSD. I hope Roger will someday know his father and grandfather, when it’s his time to “go home”. Then, he’ll realize how very proud they both are of him, and he’ll be truly happy, at last! 🙂

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    • Mikufan says

      Woah!
      Yeah, you should find that thing!

      And thankyou guys! *Faceplants cake* Nom Nom Nom Nom

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    • Margaret G says

      I was 14. I remember every moment of it. Walter Kronkite’s voice. The terrible silence that settled over the neighborhood. My mother crying in the kitchen.

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  9. Mikufan says

    ‘A little touch of Basil in the night’ ʘ‿ʘ

    Today’s my birthday, my neighbour’s given me a Basil shirt >ww<

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    • GRETCHEN says

      Yay—A BASIL SHIRT!!! 🙂

      Did they make it using a photo off their computer and one of those “iron-on” printer papers, or did they have it made by an online shirt place, or was it handmade/painted? I’m guessing you can’t just go to the store and BUY one, since Baz isn’t as popular as Marilyn or Elvis.

      (BTW…I’d like “A little touch of Basil in the night”, myself; hee-hee!) 😉

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      • Mikufan says

        Oh ho ho, it says Basil and then has a picture of a minion from despicable me on it. :3
        So saying it out loud would be ‘Basil minion’
        I am one of Basils minions, so that explains it. 🙂

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      • the countess says

        I got a Basil shirt for my b.day[back in June] my sis..[who always know what to get me] Got it off of Amazon..it has the poster from Terror By Night on the front and came with the DVD of it. So there out there check around.

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