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The Kennedys' Camelot Culture

Hear about the historic night Pablo Casals forgave the U.S. for its support of Franco — and charmed Jackie

Pablo Casal at Kennedy Center

Cellist Pablo Casals kisses first lady Jacqueline Kennedy's hand after a concert given in the White House in November 1961. — Robert Knudsen/The White House

Historians have called it Camelot on the Potomac, equating the arrival of Jack and Jackie Kennedy to Washington, D.C., with the hit Broadway musical about the legendary rule of King Arthur and Guinevere. It has become a near-mythic time when a handsome young president took on the nation’s problems with vigor, and his glamorous first lady welcomed artists and musicians into a White House filled with culture and high fashion.

For the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy inauguration this year, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington is celebrating the cultural legacy of the Kennedy White House. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma was among those commemorating perhaps the most famous concert of the Kennedy years: the performance given by Spanish cellist Pablo Casals in 1961.

In addition to his exceptional artistry, Casals was a respected figure for his impassioned stand on human rights. For several years, he expressed his anger against the government of Spain by not performing at all, and he went so far as to boycott countries, such as the United States, that he believed propped up the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco.

During the presidential campaign of 1960, Casals became aware of the young candidate John Kennedy, and in 1961 he accepted an invitation to perform at the White House as a symbol of his agreement with President Kennedy's views that "we must regard artistic achievement and action as an integral part of our free society."

The story of this concert can be heard in the audio excerpt on this page from a podcast about culture in the Kennedy years, produced by Richard Paul for ArtsEdge, the Kennedy Center's free digital media platform for teaching and learning in the arts. Richard Dreyfuss is the narrator. ArtsEdge resources include lesson plans, guides, audio, video and games. They are "designed to support active engagement with the arts in the classroom, at home and beyond."

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