Davis (The Culture Broker, 2007, etc.) chronicles the surpassingly popular 1962–63 exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa in Washington, D.C., and New York.
Not everyone was happy, she notes. The French worried about transporting their treasure across the Atlantic in winter via passenger ship, and indeed the S.S. France was briefly beset by a strong storm, though it and the painting emerged unscathed. National Gallery director John Walker, placed in charge by President Kennedy, worried about security arrangements and feared possible damage to the fragile Renaissance painting. Davis carefully follows the story from the initial idea for the loan, to the negotiations, the arrangements, the transportation, the displays, the return to France and the aftermath. The President and First Lady were popular in France, and Jackie’s patent fondness for all things French endeared her abroad even as it raised eyebrows here. But the Kennedys were nothing if not experts at managing their images, the author ably shows. During their short tenure in the White House they endeavored to elevate the cultural life of the nation—a noble educational attempt that was making some progress when bullets ended it all in Dallas. Charmed by Jackie, French cultural minister André Malraux supported the loan. Madeleine Hours, head of the Louvre’s laboratory, argued against it, but once she knew she had no other choice did all she could to assure the painting’s stability and safety in transit. Davis is careful to provide all the principals’ back stories, humanizing the adventure in a pleasing way. But her prose and attitude are equally hyperbolic: Favored adjectives include stupendous, brilliant and remarkable, and only the most feverish Jackie lovers will be thrilled by the author’s breathless paragraphs about the First Lady’s wardrobe.
An evocation of a time when America’s leaders were proud of their “elitist” cultural tastes and fearless about inviting the citizenry to share them.