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…”
“…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:
‘..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!)
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.
Sadly, the next act in the small drama was not to be so pleasant — as we will see in Part II