Marilyn Monroe sang "Happy Birthday" to him when he turned 45. Andy Warhol memorialized him in bright, silk-screened prints. Cultural critics around the world praised his administration for the artists and musicians it welcomed. These are small moments, tokens, of the cultural legacy President John F. Kennedy forged. Though Kennedy himself was ambivalent at best when it came to the arts, he and those close to him realized that his cultural image was crucial to his legacy."If you look at all the presidents since World War II in terms of pop culture, there's really no rival to John F. Kennedy," says political scientist Larry Sabato, author of the "The Kennedy Half Century."[READ MORE:
JFK: 50 Years Later
]Kennedy's youth (at 43, he was the youngest president to be elected), his apparent vigor and his beautiful family helped cultivate that image. His political rise came with growing ubiquity of television, and it was medium that suited the handsome, tanned New Englander. But Kennedy's pop culture legacy was about more than just being lucky enough to look and sound good on TV."The way the Kennedys looked capture everyone's imagination. It was not only the way they looked, but it was their style," says Sally Bedell Smith, author of "Grace and Power: The Private World of the Kennedy White House."Even before he started his political career, Kennedy looked to emulate the star power of Hollywood celebrities. For two months in 1946 – after he returned from World War II and before he fully jumped into politics – he lived in Hollywood, rooming with actor Robert Stack. While there, he hung out with some of the biggest film stars of the time, including Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable."He was very interested in what made these men not just actors, but movie stars," says Scott Farris, author of "Kennedy and Reagan: Why Their Legacies Endure." "He was a student. He was trying to understand how people developed this kind of attraction to the broader public."Kennedy's ability to do so served him well as he climbed the political ladder. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1946 and to the Senate in 1952, and the glamour of Hollywood was something he and his team sought to promote once he was elected president in 1960. "This administration is going to do for sex what the previous one did for golf," Kennedy speech writer Theodore Sorensen bragged after the election.It was also an image the media was ready to perpetuate, with Norman Mailer's 1960 Democratic Convention dispatch being a prime example:
[N]o one had too much doubt that Kennedy would be nominated, but if elected he would be not only the youngest President ever to be chosen by voters, he would be the most conventionally attractive young man ever to sit in the White House, and his wife -- some would claim it -- might be the most beautiful First Lady in our history. Of necessity the myth would emerge once more, because America's politics would now be also America's favorite movie, America's first soap opera, America's best-seller.Kennedy's inauguration was a star-studded affair organized by none other than Frank Sinatra. It featured a number of well-known performers, many of them African Americans like Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald, making the gala a modern, multiracial event."They really were self-consciously trying to set a new image for change of generational change, of being hip," Farris says.Once in the White House, special assistant and "court historian" Arthur Schlesinger Jr. sought to make arts and culture a priority. A February 1961 memo from Schlesinger encouraged Kennedy to welcome leading writers and scholars into the White House, to bolster his reputation both domestically and abroad, where American culture was dismissed as "materialistic" and "vulgar," as Schlesinger put it. By 1962 the administration had brought on August Heckscher II as the President's Special Consultant on the Arts, the first White House cultural advisor.