2016-09-01 / Front Page

Authentic Kennedys in Appealing 'Return to Camelot'

By Betsy Sherman Walker


The couple, Jackie, 24, and JFK, 36, stood in their receiving line for three hours. Her gown was made of 54 yards of silk taffeta. "Joe Kennedy was appreciative of the young people throughout Newport who had worked for the event. He saw to it that if they came to the reception at Hammersmith, they would be given a meal," said Father Kris. (Photo courtesy of returntocamelot.org. ) The couple, Jackie, 24, and JFK, 36, stood in their receiving line for three hours. Her gown was made of 54 yards of silk taffeta. "Joe Kennedy was appreciative of the young people throughout Newport who had worked for the event. He saw to it that if they came to the reception at Hammersmith, they would be given a meal," said Father Kris. (Photo courtesy of returntocamelot.org. ) It’s not so much a return to Camelot as it is, for a brief shining moment, a total embrace.

On the day Jacqueline Lee Bouvier and John Fitzgerald Kennedy were married in Newport’s St. Mary’s Church – on Saturday, Sept. 12, 1953 – well over 1,000 guests filled the pews of the historic church. The line of traffic, 500 cars en masse bearing ambassadors, celebrities, and local and national politicians to the reception at Hammersmith Farm, caused a backup along Harrison Avenue a half-mile long.

These are among the basic facts dispensed in “Return to Camelot,” a presentation that runs through the summer at the historic church at Memorial Boulevard and Spring Street. The 30 or so visitors who fill the front rows of the pews with each presentation (at 3 p.m. on Tuesdays and 1 p.m. on Sundays) have paid $15 each to take in an anecdotal and well-presented link to the Kennedy’s brief tenure in the White House. Proceeds from the ticket sales – or suggested donations – go towards supporting the St. Mary’s soup kitchen and the capital campaign to rebuild the church’s organ.

But the facts get more compelling, and one unwittingly gets drawn into the Kennedy web.

According to Rev. Kris von Maluski, pastor of St. Mary’s and the unofficial host of “Return,” the president’s father, a master manipulator, had a heavy hand in the event. “Joe Kennedy was a perfectionist,” the pastor explains, as if he knew the man personally. “He wanted the whole world to see the [event] as a Romeo and Juliet wedding.”

The rehearsal dinner was held at the Clambake Club on Tuckerman Avenue in Middletown. Every time the bride and groom to be were toasted, club tradition dictated that the crystal champagne glasses be tossed against the hearth of the clubhouse’s huge fireplace. After the second toast the club ran out of glasses, and the tradition died a quiet death that night. Maluski also commented on the fact that then-Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) sent engraved martini glasses, “and that was the cheapest gift they got.”

That personal touch is what makes the presentation about the Kennedy wedding – full of facts, insights, and well-preserved home movie footage – a far more intimate experience than one might expect. Maluski, known to all as Father Kris, is not only deeply connected to the church and its parishioners, but also to its history and its place in the Catholic community of Newport. He greets the group in front of the altar and a screen upon which the video version of the presentation plays out. He begins the narrative with a brief history of St. Mary’s: It was the first Roman Catholic church in Rhode Island, built in the 1840s by Irish immigrants; 570 men dug the foundation in seven days.

When music is appropriate, as in a rendition of Alan Jay Lerner’s “Camelot” (Lerner was a classmate of Kennedy’s at Harvard) or the traditional wedding march, church organist Cody Mead brings the power of his live organ music right into the room.

The Camelot title, he explains, came from Jacqueline Kennedy, in a comment made to journalist Theodore White a week after Kennedy's funeral for an article in Life magazine. “There will be great presidents again,” she was quoted as saying, “but there will never be another Camelot.”

There are other stories that go a long way toward fleshing out the Camelot tableau, not all of them centering around the 1953 wedding. The video around which Father Kris bases his narrative is dominated by chatty personal reflections from Yusha Auchincloss II, Jacqueline’s “beloved stepbrother and confidant,” who lived in a house on the grounds of Hammersmith Farm until his death in 2015. Beloved to all who knew him, the twinkle in Auchincloss’ eye and the smile on his face as he reflects with an off-camera interviewer go a long way in adding depth to the complex brush strokes of the Kennedys' relationship.

For Auchincloss, a protective big brother and best friend, Jackie could do no wrong. He repeatedly told her that the dashing young senator was “not good enough” for her. Not only that, he would tell people, “Jackie was brilliant,” and that “John would have been nothing without [her].”

Off the record, Father Kris said, Yusha said he knew that they were very much in love.

Age-wise, the people who gathered on a recent day in the front pews of this historic church, deemed a National Historic Landmark in 1968, could all answer the iconic “Where were you?” question about Nov. 22, 1963. They came from near and far. Agnes and Ann Rudolph, a mother and daughter visiting from Pequannock, New Jersey, came across the program on a tourist website. Agnes “loved it,” saying she hadn’t expected the live music. And she loved JFK. “I did vote for him,” she said.

Phyllis Abedi and Catherine Murray, two friends from Wakefield, come to Mass at St. Mary’s from time to time. “The film made me want more,” said Abedi. “Now I want to know all about them.” For Murray, “It was a very open look at the Kennedys.” They agreed that part of the appeal was that, in Washington’s first power couple, they saw none of the overwrought celebrity behavior of today. They especially loved Father Kris’ story about pew 10, where the Kennedys would always sit when they visited Newport. “They were very humble,” Murray said. “Their humility was very apparent.”

And finally, Paula Raymond, from Peterborough, New Hampshire, said she had come with no real expectations, although she is a “huge Kennedy fan.” Walking away, she added that she was going to make sure to “sit in pew 10, and see if I can kneel on the kneeler.”

“Return to Camelot” has two remaining shows, on Thursday, Sept. 1, and Sunday, Sept. 4.

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