One of the most memorable events of the Kennedy administration was the state dinner for the president of Pakistan that took place on the east lawn at Mount Vernon.
The event was unprecedented.
Not since George Washington's time had political leaders gathered at the famous presidential estate for such a grand occasion. But on the evening of July 11, 1961, nearly 140 guests joined President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy to honor President Mohammad Ayub Khan of Pakistan and his daughter, Begum Nasir Akhtar Aurangzeb.
According to press reports at the time, Mrs. Kennedy came up with the idea of holding a state dinner at Mount Vernon after a trip to Europe, during which she and the president were entertained at historic sites such as Versailles outside Paris and Schoenbrun Palace in Vienna. Mrs. Kennedy was also a great fan of Mount Vernon and had even ridden horseback on the estate with then Resident Director Charles Cecil Wall.
The planning of the state dinner was unlike anything the White House had ever arranged before, according to Letitia Baldrige, who was Mrs. Kennedy's secretary at the time and is now a well-known etiquette expert and a former member of Mount Vernon's Advisory Committee. "The food had to be brought by special refrigerated and heated army trucks from the White House to Mount Vernon," said Baldrige, "and the White House chef, Rene Verdon, threatened to go back to France after the army started spraying the area with insect repellant -- he was convinced that his food would be poisoned, and I had to assure him that the food was safe by having Secret Service agents eat some."
Another problem was discovered just hours before the dinner. The National Symphony Orchestra was set up to play in front of the Mansion on a special stage built into the slope leading down to the river. When they began to rehearse, the music wafted down behind them and could not be heard from the Mansion area. A horrified Baldrige managed to get the National Park Service to quickly construct an acoustical shell behind the musicians so the music could be heard.
The question of illumination presented another challenge and would require special permission from the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. As one news outlet reported, “Usually banned electrical wiring was strung, buried and insulated to furnish the necessary power for interior lighting of the historic mansion and the dozens of large floodlights arranged on the lawn in strategic spots to bathe the magnificent trees around the mansion in light." The dinner, however, held beneath a tent on the east lawn, was bathed in candlelight — another concession from the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, as open flames were not usually permitted so near the Mansion.
When the special evening finally arrived, the guests were taken down the Potomac by boat from the Washington Navy Yard to Mount Vernon. Four yachts were needed to accommodate all the guests. President Kennedy served as host on the "Honey Fitz," while Mrs. Kennedy accompanied guests aboard the "Sequoia." A smaller presidential yacht, the "Patrick J.," sailed with Vice President Lyndon Johnson, and the remaining guests, hosted by Mrs. Johnson and Secretary of State Dean Rusk, followed in the PT boat "Guardian." Upon arrival at the Mount Vernon wharf, guests were chauffeured up the hill to the Mansion by limousine, although a hardy few, including Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and Defense Secretary Robert McNarnara, chose to walk up the hill.
One of Baldrige's memories is of the fearless Marines who lined the narrow path up to the Mansion. "I heard a strange cracking noise as the cars went up the hill, and I realized that it was the sound of the wheels of the limousines driving over the toes of those poor Marines!"
The funniest moment of the evening came during the military salute in front of the Mansion. According to Baldrige, at the end of the salute by the U.S. Army Old Guard in Revolutionary War attire on the bowling green, the soldiers drew their muskets and fired smoke-filled blanks. "During the rehearsal there was no problem, but during the actual event they fired directly into the group of reporters and photographers who were covering the dinner," recalls Baldrige. "President Ayub turned to President Kennedy and said 'I see you feel about the press exactly the way we do.'" One reporter waved a white handkerchief in mock surrender, and President Ayub reached for his handkerchief to wipe away tears of laughter.
After a tour of the Mansion, the guests gathered under a tent on the east lawn for a French-inspired dinner, followed by a performance by the National Symphony Orchestra. During the toasts, President Kennedy quoted George Washington, who said "I had rather be at Mount Vernon with a friend or two about me than to be attended at the seat of government by the officers of state and the representatives of every power in Europe." Kennedy added, "We have got a friend or two about us here tonight.., and I hope you realize that among both Republicans and Democrats and among all the Americans here tonight, that no one could be a more welcome guest."
Representing the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association at the dinner were Mrs. Francis F. Beirne, Regent of the Association, and her husband; Congresswoman Frances P. Bolton of Ohio, who had served with President Kennedy on Capitol Hill and was also the Association's Vice Regent of Ohio; and Resident Director and Mrs. Wall. Other guests included Senator and Mrs. Everett Dirksen; then-Representative and Mrs. Gerald R. Ford; R. Sargent Shriver, director of the Peace Corps and brother-in-law of the president; and Maurice Templesman, who was Jacqueline Onassis's companion during her final years.
No state dinners have taken place at Mount Vernon since that evening, although in 1992 Mrs. George Bush hosted a luncheon for Mrs. Boris Yeltsin on the Mansion's piazza. Major corporations that provide exceptionally generous support to the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association are also permitted to hold a dinner under a tent on the east lawn, so a handful of prominent American firms have had similar events at Mount Vernon in recent years. But nothing compares to the elegance of that special evening in 1961. "I shall never forget the beauty of the setting," says Baldrige. "There will never be another night like that."