Jacqueline Kennedy, First Lady, hosts television tour of the White House in 1962.

On the night of 14 February 1962 three out of four television viewers tuned to CBS or NBC to watch a A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy. Four nights later, ABC rebroadcast the program to a sizable national audience before it then moved on to syndication in more than fifty countries around the globe. In all, it was estimated that hundreds of millions of people saw the program, making it the most widely viewed documentary during the genre’s so called golden age. But the White House tour is also notable because it marked a shift in network news strategies, since it was the first primetime documentary to explicitly court a female audience.

Between 1960 and 1962 most network documentaries focused on major public issues such as foreign policy, civil rights, and national politics. These domains were overwhelmingly dominated by men and the programs were exclusively hosted by male journalists. Yet historians of the period have shown that many American women were beginning to express dissatisfaction with their domestic roles and their limited access to public life. Not only did women’s magazine of this period discuss such concerns, but readers seemed fascinated by feature articles about women who played prominent roles in public life. Jacqueline Kennedy was an especially intriguing figure as she accompanied her husband on diplomatic expeditions and was seen chatting with French President De Gaulle, toasting with Khrushchev, and delivering speeches in Spanish to enthusiastic crowds in Latin America. She even jetted off to India on her own for a quasi-official good will visit. Kennedy quickly became a significant public figure in popular media, her every move closely followed by millions of American women.

Consequently, Jacqueline Kennedy’s campaign to redecorate the White House with authentic furnishings and period pieces drew extensive coverage. Taking the lead in fundraising and planning, she achieved her goals in a little over a year and, as the project neared completion, she acceded to requests from the networks for a televised tour of the residence. It was agreed that CBS producer Perry Wolff, Hollywood feature film director Franklin Schaffner, and CBS correspondent Charles Collingwood would play leading roles in organizing the program, but that the three networks would share the costs and each would be allowed to broadcast the finished documentary. The weekend before the videotaping, nine tons of equipment were put in place by 54 technicians and cutaway segments were taped in advance. Jacqueline Kennedy’s parts were recorded during an eight hour session on Monday.

The final product, though awkward in some regards, effectively represents changing attitudes about the public and private roles of American women. For here was Jacqueline Kennedy fulfilling her domestic duty by providing visitors a tour of her home. Yet she also was performing a public duty as the authoritative voice of the documentary: providing details on her renovation efforts, informing the audience about the historical significance of various furnishings, and even assuming the position of voice-over narrator during extended passages of the program. In fact, this was the first prime-time documentary from the period in which a woman narrated large segments of the text. Kennedy’s authoritative status is further accentuated by her position at the center of the screen. This framing is striking in retrospect because correspondent Charles Collingwood who “escorts” Kennedy from room to room repeatedly walks out of the frame leaving her alone to deliver descriptions of White House decor and its national significance. Only at the very end of the program, when President Kennedy “drops in” for a brief interview, is Jacqueline repositioned in a subordinate role as wife and mother. Sitting quietly as the two men talk, she listens attentively while her husband hails her restoration efforts as a significant contribution to public awareness of the nation’s heritage.

The ambiguities at work in this program seem to be linked to widespread ambivalence about the social status of the American woman at the time of this broadcast. Jacqueline Kennedy takes a national audience on a tour of her home, which is at once a private and public space. It is her family’s dwelling, but also a representation of the nation’s home. Furthermore, she is presented both as a mother—indeed, the national symbol of motherhood—and as a modern woman: a patron of the arts, an historical preservationist, and a key figure in producing the nation’s collective memory. In these respects, she might be seen as symbolic of female aspirations to re-enter the public sphere and this may help to explain the documentary’s popularity with with female viewers.

The White House tour was soon joined by a number of similar productions, each of which drew prime-time audiences as large as those for fictional entertainment. For example, The World of Sophia Loren and The World of Jacqueline Kennedy each drew a third of the nightly audience, while Elizabeth Taylor’s London drew close to half. In general, elite television critics reviewed these programs skeptically, noting that entertainment values were privileged at the expense of a more critical assessment of their subject matter. Yet the appeal of these programs may have had less to do with the dichotomy between entertainment and information per se than with the way in which they tapped into women’s fantasies about living a more public life while largely maintaining their conventional feminine attributes. As numerous feminist scholars have argued, one of the fundamental appeals of television programming is the opportunity it affords for the viewer to fantasize about situations and identities which are not part of one’s everyday existence. In the early 1960s, such fantasies may have been important not only for women who chafed at the constraints of domesticity, but also for women who were imagining new possibilities.