On 1 June 1961, the Palace of Versailles received two prestigious guests: John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 35th President of the USA, and his wife, Jacqueline "Jackie" Kennedy.
The day of 1st June 1961
André Malraux, then Minister for Cultural Affairs, was asked by General de Gaulle to receive the American presidential couple on 1 June 1961 and take charge of the cultural part of their trip. After a visit to the Château of Malmaison, André Malraux took the couple to the Grand Trianon where they received a tour of the palace.
In addition to the traditional dinner at the Elysée Palace, General de Gaulle decided to showcase French heritage during the diplomatic visit. It was the first time since Woodrow Wilson in 1919 that an American head of state had come to the palace on an official visit.
On 1 June, a magnificent evening event was prepared at the Palace of Versailles...
At 8pm, a dinner was held in the Hall of Mirrors for a large number of guests including the American couple and the President of the Republic.
For the occasion, the Hall of Mirrors was hooked up with electricity and photos from the event testify to the magnificence of the decoration, with Baccarat crystal, Sèvres tableware and pieces from the Grand Vermeil once belonging to Napoleon adorning the sumptuously laid table.
In the Opera House, a performance was given for the guests, the first major event since the restoration of the Royal Opera House and the visit of Queen Elizabeth II in 1957.
After this exceptional evening in the royal apartments, the de Gaulle couple accompanied John and Jacqueline Kennedy through the palace gardens, where the fountains were in operation and which had been lit for the occasion.
The “Le Monde” newspaper of 2 June recorded part of the speech made by the French head of state: “I raise my glass in honour of Mr John Kennedy, President of the United States of America, in honour of Mrs Kennedy, in honour of the United States, of which France has been, is, and will remain, the convinced and resolute friend and ally.”
A few metres from the Hall of Mirrors, out of sight of the guests, there was a hive of backstage activity for this unique reception. The State Apartment was filled with baskets, chests, tableware and decorations, as shown in the photos from the Palace of Versailles archives.
The dinner served to the guests in the Hall of Mirrors was prepared just a few metres away, hidden from view. A temporary kitchen was installed in the Stag Courtyard, located just below the Council Chamber which itself leads off the Hall of Mirrors. A staircase linked the kitchen to the reception room to allow the staff to go up and down discretely.
Diplomacy at Versailles after 1961
The American presidential couple’s visit to Paris led to broader reflection on the need to find a residence in Paris or the surrounding area to host foreign guests of the French Republic.
In 1963, on the advice of André Malraux, General de Gaulle ordered the full restoration of the Grand Trianon. For nearly four years, major restoration work was carried out to turn Trianon into a building fit to host the Republic’s guests. The President said to Malraux: “Versailles, it took some doing; let’s not compromise on the grandeur”.
In his book titled Le Versailles des Présidents, Fabien Oppermann wrote, on the subject of diplomatic receptions: “Receptions at the Palace of Versailles only include a small aspect of heritage (...) One comes to Versailles above all for the magnificence of what is organised there (...): the objective is above all to amaze the guests of the Republic”.
Under President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the Grand Trianon was no longer a visitor’s site but a residence for hosting foreign guests. Works were carried out to this end, such as the creation of an en-suite for the Empress’s bedchamber, Louis XIV’s former bedchamber.
After being frequently used in the 1960s and 1970s, the Grand Trianon was gradually abandoned as an official reception venue. While President François Mitterrand used it for the G7 summit in 1982, President Jacques Chirac decided to open Trianon-sous-Bois to the public in 1999 and, in 2009, President Nicolas Sarkozy returned these spaces to the estate of Versailles, which is now in charge of their management.
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