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Jackie Started The Legend of JFK 'Camelot'
Ben Zimmer
Nov. 22, 2013

In the remembrances of John F. Kennedy's presidency this week as the 50th anniversary of his assassination passes, one word continues to resonate above all: Camelot.

The name of King Arthur's mythical court city has its roots in medieval romantic literature, but thanks to skillful media manipulation by Jacqueline Kennedy after her husband's death, "Camelot" remains a potent mythmaking metaphor for the Kennedy administration.

The name first appeared as "Camaalot" in a 12th-century French poem about Lancelot written by Chrétien de Troyes, but etymologists are unsure if that was intended to refer to a real-life British location, such as Colchester (known in Latin as Camuladonum) or Cadbury (situated near the River Cam).

Later writers such as Sir Thomas Malory and Alfred, Lord Tennyson transformed Camelot into a dreamy utopia. By the time Mark Twain wrote "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," "Camelot" was intimately known to American readers, even if Twain's time-traveling protagonist doesn't recognize the name. ("Name of the asylum, likely," he surmises.) In the 20th century, "Camelot" increasingly began to work its way into American popular culture, serving as the name for a popular 1930s board game.

But the immediate inspiration for the Kennedys' Camelot was Lerner and Loewe's musical of that name, based on T.H. White's popular novel, "The Once and Future King." While the musical opened on Broadway in 1960, it wasn't until after Kennedy's death that anyone thought to connect "Camelot" to the idealistic young president.

As James Piereson, author of "Camelot and the Cultural Revolution," wrote recently in The Daily Beast, Jacqueline Kennedy single-handedly invented the Camelot myth in an interview she conducted with Theodore White (no relation to the novelist) for Life Magazine a week after the assassination. She told White that she and her husband enjoyed listening to the cast recording at bedtime, particularly the title song, in which Richard Burton as Arthur sings: "Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief, shining moment, that was known as Camelot."

Jacqueline quoted the line and concluded, "There will be great presidents again, but there will never be another Camelot." Her observations found their way into newspapers around the country.

Nothing did more to cement the nostalgic Kennedy mythos than that one word. It was, as Liz Nickles writes in the book "Brandstorm," "one of the most significant examples of the power of storytelling to build a brand in modern history." Despite all the less-than-flattering revelations that have emerged about the Kennedy presidency, 50 years later the Camelot metaphor still seems unassailable.

—Mr. Zimmer, a lexicographer, is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com


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