Robert Knudsen/courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston Hot seat A fretful Charles Ritchie presents his letters of credence to John F. Kennedy, on May 26, 1962.[/caption]
Down and Out in Camelot
Fifteen months after JFK’s inauguration, Ambassador Charles Ritchie arrived in Washington. As his diaries reveal, his timing could not have been worse
On May 26, 1962, Charles Stewart Almon Ritchie presented his letters of credence to John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Ritchie was the Canadian ambassador to the United States; Kennedy was president. They were observing a hoary diplomatic tradition. On April 27, Ritchie had arrived in Washington, DC, from New York, where since 1958 he had been Canada’s permanent representative to the United Nations. He was anxious about meeting Kennedy, who loathed Prime Minister John Diefenbaker; the Chief felt the same about the young president. Poor Ritchie was caught between them. It was why he had to wait a month for his appointment at the White House. Kennedy was “perfectly civil” if “distinctly cool,” Ritchie noted, as if he “seemed deliberately to be creating ‘a distance.’ ” The conversation “was routine and with longish pauses,” which was unusual for two natural conversationalists who shared an affinity for history, books, women, and England. At one point, the president half-rose from his iconic rocking chair, stretched out his arms, and cried, “Shoo, shoo.” Ritchie froze, worried that he was being shown the door. In fact, Kennedy was warning his four-year-old daughter, Caroline, not to lead her pet pony from the Rose Garden through the French doors of the Oval Office.
This was how Ritchie remembers the meeting in Storm Signals: More Undiplomatic Diaries, 1962–1971, which was published in 1983. In his original diaries, however, he is more revealing. There he shows a troubling insecurity that colours his next nineteen months in Washington. “No, it was not ‘a click’ with the President,” he confesses. “I felt ineffective. I had waited too long for the interview and at the last moment felt nervous. I remember saying to Eliza [Ritchie’s niece] ‘that’s what occasions are for—to rise to them.’ This was one I didn’t rise to.”
Ritchie dislikes his new post immediately. After the buzz of New York, he finds the District of Columbia sleepy and parochial. He is isolated diplomatically (from the State Department) and socially (from the Kennedy crowd). Canada is a pariah—an estrangement that only deepens in the coming months. But readers of Storm Signals learn little about his professional frustration and personal turmoil, never mind his thickly forested interior life. Like Kennedy, he has a compartmentalized existence; friends, colleagues, lovers, and his wife are objects to be placed in the shallow drawers of a lacquered curio cabinet.
By day, Ritchie is a diplomat, plying his trade as he had done since joining the fledgling Department of External Affairs in 1934. At fifty-five, he has served in Ottawa, Washington, London, Paris, Bonn, and New York. By night he is a diarist, recording the passing carnival. He puts diplomacy in the service of his journal, and he leaves a luminous record; when it is finally released over several years, critics hail him as one of the great diarists of his time. With some lapses, he writes from his days as a student in Halifax in the 1920s, to his retirement in the 1970s, and beyond. His first published volume, The Siren Years, wins the Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-fiction in 1974. An Appetite for Life (1977) and Diplomatic Passport (1981) follow.
From these books emerges an enduring image of Ritchie: Loping, hawk-nosed, mustachioed. Witty and wry. Impractical and clumsy. The “beaky” patrician from Halifax—redolent of Oxford and Harvard, the drawing rooms of London, and the salons of Paris. The studied apartness. The shrewd eye. The mid-Atlantic accent. The gifted pen. The aesthete concerned as much with the contour of his sentences as the cut of his suits. The interlocutor of Isaiah Berlin, David Cecil, Diana Cooper, André Malraux, and Nancy Mitford. The plenipotentiary musing on timber and taxation. The seducer lamenting the elusive ballerina during the Blitz. At heart, in his soul, the diarist: the clever documentarian finding “Life”—often capitalized—“so interesting” that he has to record it all.
“We diarists are peculiar people; we may appear harmless, yet we can be dangerous,” he explains in the introduction to Storm Signals. “We write things down, awkward things sometimes, indiscreet things, things better forgotten. We should be banned.” He notes, tellingly, “a temptation to revise the record when one comes across opinions about people and events which have since proved to be wrong. That temptation has to be resisted.”
Yet there has always been a suspicion among colleagues and historians that the published diaries were altered; that Ritchie left out words, phrases, sentences, or passages that might be hurtful to others, or humiliating to himself, as he did in recalling his first meeting with Kennedy. Ritchie encouraged speculation of this kind when he allowed, late in his life, that the published diaries were “sculpted” (he died in 1995, at eighty-eight). It was the mot juste from the master wordsmith, evoking the author as artisan, one who fashioned literary clay. Today, we might say the published chronicles, like digital photographs, have been Photoshopped. Ritchie’s admission implies that whatever his reservations on the diarist’s temptation to correct or clarify, elaborate or explain, he did not always resist it. Until his original volumes were opened, we had no proof. Now we do.
The diaries were in the custody of Charles’s niece, Elizabeth Ritchie, until she died in 2001. She left them to Judith Robertson, the daughter of Norman Robertson, Charles’s old friend, mentor, and stalwart of the Department of External Affairs. For years, they lay in two fireproof boxes in Robertson’s study. In 2011, she donated them to the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto. They are written in a tight, often illegible script, usually in basic lined exercise books. They often start in one place and, interrupted, end in another, which makes them hard to follow. His entries during the Kennedy administration—from his arrival in Washington in April 1962, to the president’s assassination in November 1963—suggest an ambassador who is bored, ignored, and disengaged, and moved most by sex and novels. Washington is the nadir in a diplomatic career of thirty-eight years. Ritchie in Camelot is unmoved, uncharmed, and unloved. He’s miserable.
“Oh, how bored inexpressibly, absolutely bored I am with Washington,” he writes on May 3, 1962. “The thought of spending another week here when I am presumably fated to live here for years. How can people like it? And there is no work. Here is this embassy ticking over and producing nothing or nothing that I can see.” His only visitors are dreary civil servants, such as Canada’s deputy minister of mines, who is unwelcome. Here is Ritchie, less than a week in Washington, and already he has dismissed it as a place where “I can’t make things happen.” Sheepishly, he adds, “I am ashamed of my boredom—as indeed I should be.” Perhaps a war will break out, he muses, or a new government in Ottawa will move him to another post.
None of this appears in Storm Signals. There is no entry for May 3 or 6, when, he laments yet again, his “uphill struggle to focus enough energy to write a sentence or two or pick up the telephone.” Blame the Southern spring with its intoxicating sights, scents, and sounds that sap all power of concentration. Amid the cherry blossoms, magnolia, azaleas, and wisteria, Ritchie yields to the torpor of the capital. “My brain feels drugged and drowned in all this languid sweetness,” he writes, always able to capture the mood. The ambassadorial residence is a grand pile on Rock Creek Drive in northwest Washington. He appreciates the house and the grounds with “its cool vistas, mirrored reflections, and blond carpets which muffle sound.” Popski, his dog, vomits upstairs, but that is not enough to disturb the lassitude. He mentions meeting a visiting Harold Macmillan, the British prime minister, whom he calls Uncle Harold. His “cheeks are pink wax,” while his “moustache is a bit raggedy and affixed askew to the mask…and he drips ‘manner’ like a buttered crumpet.” Such a description is classic Ritchie, the portraitist, but with Macmillan still alive when Storm Signals comes out in 1983, it is too indelicate to publish.
After ten days in town, Ritchie suspects his introductory meeting with JFK is deliberately delayed. Max Freedman, the Washington correspondent for the Winnipeg Free Press and the Manchester Guardian, and a Kennedy confidant, warns Ritchie that American officials “groan when they see a Canadian coming.” If ever there was a special relationship between the neighbouring countries, Ritchie recognizes it is now over; his job seems to be to lodge protests at the State Department. Whatever advantage Canada once had, positioned between the old world and the new, is also gone. “What an absurdity it would be now to claim that Canada is a bridge between the United Kingdom and the United States,” he declares. Canada is “the odd man out”—and that is the country’s own fault.
As he awaits his appointment with the president, Ritchie dutifully makes the rounds. In Storm Signals, he says he has many friends in town, whom he had made in his first posting there as third secretary, between 1936 and 1939. Returning more than two decades later, he reports that he and his wife, Sylvia, have been warmly welcomed. Privately, though, he complains that he has “neither social life nor work. Dullness clogs my initiative.” His dance card is empty. “A somnolent weekend,” he notes in mid-May. “No one has been near the house. The telephone never rings. Neither of us has set foot outside the garden and the house. Thoughts and feelings are at a standstill.”
As usual, Ritchie turns to reading. While he generally prefers English prose and poetry—he devours volumes during his sojourn in Washington—he feels compelled to read The Making of the President, 1960. Published in 1961, the book chronicles Kennedy’s unorthodox rise to power. Written by Theodore H. White, a storied reporter, The Making of the President was a sensation as a mellifluous union of journalism and literature—a bestseller for more than fifty weeks that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1962. The book was the first in a series that would subsequently cover the elections of 1964, 1968, and 1972, and establish White as the postwar interpreter of American democracy. That does not impress Ritchie, who reads White solely out of professional duty. In doing so, he chokes, “filled to the throat with [the book’s] gassy style—so fluent, so fractured, so vivid…the story of an American hero by an American hero worshipper.” Ritchie sees nationalist arrogance in White’s account: “It’s an All-American Miracle. Democracy, Idealism, Efficiency, [and] the Industrial Revolution are all American inventions. There is no ceremony more splendid than the inauguration of an American president.” He asks, “Do you wonder that nous autres sometimes feel inclined to gag? ”
Within a fortnight of his arrival, Ritchie develops a flinty skepticism about Kennedy’s Washington that never leaves him. Camelot’s youth, vigour, adventure, and idealism cut no ice with this incurious, conservative Anglo-Canadian. Nothing that stirs America that spring, including space exploration, stirs him. Going to the moon, he writes, “raises no thrill in my earth-bound quest.” Rare among those along the Potomac, he looks up and down the New Frontier (a phrase Kennedy coined in 1960 to describe America’s challenges, which soon became a moniker for his administration) and finds it wanting.
This may have been distemper born of isolation. Had he been a member of Camelot’s court, as historian Robert Dallek calls it, Ritchie might have been more sympathetic. Had he been invited to those glamorous White House dinner dances, he might have learned the twist. Had he been invited to those tony intellectual seminars at Hickory Hill, Robert F. Kennedy’s home in Virginia, he might have found Teddy White less gassy.
Whatever the reason, his critique of White is not altogether unfounded. Like other journalists, White adored JFK. He influenced how history would see Kennedy before and after his death. The Making of the President celebrates the American political process, and Ritchie—the outsider—doesn’t buy it. But his alienation also says something about himself: Ritchie does not particularly like the United States, which makes him a bad fit as Canada’s ambassador. When he was at the UN, the US didn’t seem to matter. In Washington, it does. And his discomfort shows itself sharply in his lack of interest in the great seismic force remaking America in the 1960s—the struggle for civil rights. If his diary is any indication, he was oblivious to it.
Perhaps he is too busy feeling sorry for himself. On May 21, he says, “I was going to write June, 1962, but I still can’t see that it would have mattered.…I shall become perforce more and more interested in ‘current events’ until finally I am quite fit to end up giving lectures on the subject in my retirement in a college somewhere. In fact, this is all I am fit for.”
The self-deprecation notwithstanding, Ritchie discharges his duties—sending and receiving cables, hosting official visitors from Ottawa, consulting colleagues, giving speeches, travelling the US, meeting officials at the State Department. Revisiting his tepid first meeting with Kennedy, he notes “a power symbol…hard to think of apart from the power he now exercises as it has been to think of Elizabeth Taylor apart from the sex she symbolizes. Even his little individualized rocking chair seems more like a stage prop than personal.…He is a TV man swimming in publicity. Is anything ever uncalculated? There is a calculating live intelligence and a cutting edge of powerful will there.”
By now, fifteen months into Kennedy’s administration, the deterioration of relations between the two countries is pronounced—an accumulation of slights, resentments, jealousies, miscues, and misunderstandings. Kennedy considers Diefenbaker a posturing, self-absorbed windbag reminiscent of Western populists. Diefenbaker considers Kennedy a young, supercilious, high-hat upstart. History is against them both: Conservative prime ministers rarely do well with Democratic presidents, and vice versa. Ritchie, who comes from a Conservative family and is no great admirer of either leader, sees himself as the victim.
In Storm Signals, he puts down that for an embassy to be in disfavour with the White House is “a disconcerting experience.” That is an understatement. He feels the froideur at every level, from the president to desk officers. On one occasion, for example, he finds himself differing with an administration official, who surprises him when he asks whether Ritchie “intended to call the President of the United States a liar.” But Canada’s is not the only envoy in disfavour; so are the ambassadors of France and West Germany. By way of consolation, the New York Times columnist James “Scotty” Reston tells Ritchie that Kennedy has little time for professional diplomats; they are useful to produce facts or memoranda, but they themselves do not face the risks of politics. JFK inherited that opinion from his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, who had been US ambassador to Britain in the late 1930s.
After lunching with Reston, Ritchie’s self-esteem is so low that he wonders why “a columnist of his almost unique position should waste time with a routine ambassador.” Joe Alsop certainly doesn’t.
If there is a grand panjandrum in ’60s Washington, it is Joseph Wright Alsop V. The New England blueblood—schooled at Groton and Harvard, and a veteran of World War II—is a widely syndicated columnist brimming with confident insights. From his elegant home on Dumbarton Avenue in Georgetown, the eighteenth-century quarter of the political elite, he brings diplomats, mandarins, and journalists who matter to his table—the Kennedys among them. His is the capital’s salon, and Ritchie is not among the habitués.
Ritchie bitterly recalls a private dinner attended by Alsop and his wife, the soignée and sophisticated Susan Mary, whom Ritchie has known since his days in Paris. He likes her but not Joe, who ignores him the whole evening. Ritchie seethes: “It’s hard to tell whether this was personal for he seems to live in a perpetual angry argument with events and people—like the cartoon character Donald Duck but not like him because Jo [sic] has teeth and can bite.”
As summer approaches, Ritchie continues to struggle with adjusting to Washington after “the high-pressure excitement of New York.” The capital seems like another country. Still, there are always books, such as Lawrence Durrell’s Mountolive, which recreates the airless world of a diplomat who has a dog that, like Ritchie’s, pees on the carpet. Ritchie finds no joy in Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, another overrated novel. “It’s an all-American product—this book…and also All-American Jewish,” he sniffs. “But these vast unreadable books are like the vast uneatable steaks on the tables of American restaurants.” Evelyn Waugh’s war trilogy does not engage him, either: “I don’t care what happens to any of the characters in the book. Their personal fate does not move me.” Nothing does. As the temperature rises, Ritchie, with particular self-flagellation, imagines his own sad fate—joining his diplomat colleagues playing endless rounds of golf, handing around the collection plate at the National Cathedral with a carnation in his buttonhole, or, worse, as “that joke figure, a dirty old man.”
Meanwhile, relations between Ottawa and Washington continue to deteriorate. Ritchie reports “the coolness toward Canada gets cooler the higher you go.” Americans, he laments, see Canadians “as a small-town bunch who don’t belong in the Big League,” and the administration knows well of the “anti-Americanism now rampant in Canada.” Hostility informs everything he does; when he asks the Smithsonian to lend Canada the Hope Diamond for an exhibition, he is rebuffed. He resents hearing British journalist Henry Brandon boast about his intimacy with JFK, as it only accentuates his own isolation. “Perhaps I am myself out of date—Old Hat in the New Frontier,” he admits on July 27. “Washington has always been like this. The ‘In’ people make the ‘Outs’ feel even ‘Out’-er.”
He begins to question—at least privately—his qualifications for the job; he worries about having to fire his chauffeur, who is often drunk. “Being Ambassador should mean more than just negotiating in the old civil service way with government departments, but I have no ‘imagination’ of that kind and at any rate I am incapable of launching a project of my own.” He even begins to take out his unhappiness on his journal, which he calls “an exercise in attempted self-discipline to prevent me from going to pieces altogether…to the moment I have my morning glass or two of sherry.” The less he has to do, he allows, the less he can do, and that is why he forces himself to put pen to paper.
In late September, he decamps to New York, where he sees Elizabeth Bowen, the Anglo-Irish novelist with whom he has an affair that lasts thirty-two years, until her death in 1973. The visit is refreshing, his return depressing: “Now I am back in loathed Washington, trying to put the best face I can on it but so restless, so bored. And when I read the passages far above I feel something like real despair. But I won’t give in. I must somehow make a life here out of this—if it kills me.”
Ritchie’s self-pity (he calls his story “The Adventures of an Old Hat on the New Frontier”) continues to swell as tensions mount between Ottawa and Washington. In 1958, Canada had agreed to accept nuclear weapons, as a member of the North American Air Defense Command, but four years later the Progressive Conservatives reverse themselves. Canada is against nuclear arms “as one is against sin,” notes Ritchie. Howard Green, Canada’s secretary of state for external affairs, is the anti–nuclear weapons torchbearer. But by the fall of 1962, he is feuding with Douglas Harkness, minister of national defence, who insists that Canada honour its NORAD commitments.
And then comes the Cuban Missile Crisis. Ritchie abandons his diary during the last half of October 1962, which is unfortunate because it is at this moment that Canada-US relations fully rupture. Washington wants Ottawa to join its allies in Europe and South America in demanding the removal of nuclear missiles that the Soviet Union has furtively placed in Cuba, just 160 kilometres off the coast of Florida. Diefenbaker initially refuses, but under pressure at home and abroad he grudgingly offers Canada’s full support on October 24, putting the country on alert. By then the damage is done. “Canada offers all aid short of help,” growls Bobby Kennedy, the president’s brother and attorney general—and there, again, is sad-eyed Ritchie, the tramp in the court of King Jack. On November 8, he laments “feeling more out than ever.”
Ritchie’s distaste for the New Frontier grows, it seems, in proportion to his distance from it. He is not impressed with luminaries such as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who had once run the Ford Motor Company. McNamara, considered the avatar of the administration, later oversees the war in Vietnam, a role that haunts him the rest of his life. His acolytes “like to think of themselves as tough, young, and hard-headed,” Ritchie astutely observes, suspicious of the titans and technocrats at the Pentagon. “McNamara is their hero. I admire them, within limits, but mistrust the application of the business computer to international affairs, particularly when it is allied to power and the love of power.” When Ritchie eventually goes to McNamara’s “ugly house” for dinner, he is little more than a lawn ornament.
With Diefenbaker clinging to power in a minority government (he loses his historic 1958 majority on June 18), the new year brings Ritchie no improvement. In fact, things get worse, and it is not just the fallout from Cuba. On January 3, 1963, Lauris Norstad—the supreme allied commander Europe and the commander-in chief, US European Command—visits Ottawa and declares that Canada would be shirking its obligation to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization if it did not accept nuclear weapons. It is a bombshell. Although Norstad insists that he is speaking as the retiring head of NATO forces—not as a US general—Ritchie thinks this “another American turn of the screw” to destroy the Conservatives. An apoplectic Diefenbaker accuses Washington of interfering in national politics, as Norstad’s musings deepen the divisions in Diefenbaker’s fragile government, now tottering on the tip of the Peace Tower. Harkness soon resigns from cabinet.
Meanwhile, Lester Pearson has reversed the Liberal Party’s long-standing opposition to nuclear weapons on Canadian soil; Nobel laureate that he is, he views the move as a recommitment to NATO—and a useful political stick with which to beat Diefenbaker. It is another reason for Kennedy to support Pearson, whom he has long admired, and to hope for a Liberal restoration. With the Conservatives in free fall, Kennedy will not have to wait long. But it is too long for Ritchie.
“I am back in Washington,” he records on January 24. “And to return to realize how little I like it. How much I like almost anywhere else better.” In March, he notes how divorced his official life is from “the human lot,” amid “this endless process of assessment and denigration of envy and enthusiasm of people in and people out. And the subtle ceaseless business of pushing myself and pulling other people. The sterile fascination of it.” The isolation is so complete, the atmosphere so chilly, that he worries his current assignment will sabotage his entire career. On March 29, he wonders whether Ottawa has “so effectively destroyed my relations with officials that I shall have to recommend that a new ambassador be sent here and then what? Return to obscurity under the sign ‘Failure of a Mission’ and thence a career.” With a surprising defiance, he considers measures to protect himself as he mourns “the low point in my thirty years in the foreign service.” Even entertaining has become a chore: “Our dinner parties get duller and duller—I must resign myself to never laughing again, and what is worse, never making anyone else laugh.”
For consolation, there is reading and sex—at least thoughts of sex, or “auto-eroticism.” They offer temporary relief from the boredom that engulfs him. “Lunch is over,” he writes on July 28. “Shall perhaps we go to a movie? Or shall I lie myself down on the chaise longue to doze over Wordsworth? There don’t seem to be other choices. What about sex in the afternoon, or would it be too humid? ” The summer suffocates. “I can see that I must abandon thoughts of frivolity, amusement, sex, snobbism, and intimate ‘Personal Relations’ and give myself to such questions as lumber exports, interest rates, and levels of North American rivers,” he says on August 29. Two days later, after another unfulfilling day, he sighs, “And so to bed with this useless erection.”
Ritchie may duck out to afternoon movies and other diversions, he may avoid attending national days at embassies around town, but business continues unabated at Canada’s large mission on Massachusetts Avenue NW. The world’s biggest trading relationship, strung out over its longest undefended border, “ticks over.”
While Ritchie may sound like a dilettante and a malcontent, his staff—which includes professionals like Ross Campbell, Basil Robinson, and the newly arrived Michael Shenstone—is loyal. “We worshipped him,” Shenstone says today. “We knew he was an august figure. I had profound respect for his political savvy.” Although Shenstone admits that he rarely saw Ritchie in person—there could be weeks between meetings—he is confident that the ambassador was taking care of business. Ritchie operated more discreetly than his successors, including Allan Gotlieb, who embraced public diplomacy in Ronald Reagan’s Washington in the 1980s. Shenstone found his boss eccentric, yes—the kind of guy who would leave his own cocktail parties. But for all the expressions of ennui that fill Ritchie’s diary, Shenstone did not see it. A touch of affectation, perhaps, and hyperbole, too, but Shenstone views all of this as the art of being Charles Ritchie.
The ambassador berates himself for underperforming at his first meeting with the president in May 1962; a year later, he dreads their second encounter, when he is to accompany Prime Minister Pearson to Kennedy’s compound at Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. It will be the first meeting between the leaders since the Liberals took power on April 8. In Storm Signals, Ritchie’s May 4 entry mentions only that he is going to Hyannis Port. In his diary, he is more frank. “I view this as an ordeal and wish it were over,” he writes, noting that it would have been “a dreary setback in everyone’s eyes” had Pearson not invited him along. “If only I can eliminate my consciousness of having got off on the wrong foot with JFK. If only neither he nor LBP ply me with questions which show up my ignorance of Canadian waterways or minerals or percentages of indeed everything.…If only I don’t lose my nerve or my head but just sit quietly and quietly say, ‘I don’t know,’ as it were hardly to be expected that I should know.”
Later, in Storm Signals, he describes the seaside summit tinged with “euphoria” and marked by progress on ongoing troublesome issues, such as the balance of trade, the Columbia River, and transborder aviation. It is all sweetness and light, to which he makes “no substantial contribution.” After a year on the job, he remains just as insecure.
As a young man, Ritchie declared, “I prefer diaries to memoirs. They are less made up afterwards.” But if his entries during his Washington days are representative of all the rest, he edited not only for length, but for taste and tone, too. Offensive lines (including references—not his—to “niggers”) are deleted, abbreviated, or recast. On August 28, for example, he attends the March on Washington, led by Martin Luther King Jr. Ritchie is joined by the Greek ambassador, who in Storm Signals “takes a very frivolous view of the colour problem.” But in the original entry, Ritchie conveys the Greek’s artless views on race: “He thought the negro problem was a zoological one rooted in the envy of the American male for the negro penis and the sublimation of the desire of the American female for the same penis.”
Unlike his fellow diplomats, who barricade themselves in their chancelleries, Ritchie is interested enough to attend “the civil rights parade.” Strangely, what strikes him most that epochal day is the climate of anxiety among the diplomats. He seems unimpressed by the march itself, called the largest mass protest in the country’s history, and by King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which is one for the ages. On all this, Ritchie is silent.
Meanwhile, he continues to take a dim view of the New Frontier. “The Kennedys are given to inviting groups of philosophers, musicians, actors, and writers to the White House,” he records in Storm Signals. “This is a welcome change but I don’t know how deep this Camelot culture goes…not very far, I fancy.”
Using “Camelot” in September 1963 would have been prophetic. That’s because “Camelot” does not become a byword for the administration until a bereaved Jacqueline Kennedy raises it in a celebrated interview with Theodore White a week after her husband’s assassination in November. While JFK is alive, Camelot was a popular Broadway musical that recreates the Arthurian legend. And, in fact, “Camelot” does not appear in Ritchie’s original September 3 entry. He inserts it when he prepares the diaries for publication twenty years later. Whatever his admonitions, the diarist has become the memoirist.
Camelot or not, time runs out on Kennedy’s short, shimmering season. It is now November. News of the assassination, in Dallas, reaches Ritchie while he is giving a speech in Boston, the seat of the star-crossed family. “What can one find to say? ” he asks. “The adventure is over, ‘brightness falls from the air,’ that probing mind, that restlessness of spirit, are snapped off as if by a camera shutter. We shall no more see that style of his, varying from gay to grim and then to eloquent, but always with a cutting edge.”
Now Ritchie faces the crude, mercurial Lyndon B. Johnson. “We have come from the hills to the plains,” he moans. In eighteen months, relations between Pearson and Johnson sour over the Vietnam War. In 1965, at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland, Ritchie watches an incensed LBJ grab the elfin Pearson by his lapels and berate him for proposing, in a speech in Philadelphia the day before, a pause in the bombing. The next year, Ritchie’s appointment to Washington ends. In 1966, he heads to Paris as Canada’s ambassador to NATO. Then, in 1967, the capstone of his career: high commissioner to London.
When Camelot ends, so do Ritchie’s diaries, for a time; they do not resume for another four years. Ritchie says he doesn’t know why. Perhaps those entries are lost, he suggests, somewhat ambiguously. Or, perhaps, they never existed at all—a “merciful intermission” from his glorious obsession. His season in purgatory closes with a poignant farewell to 1963, saluting “the fascinating, dangerous world on whose fringe I live and whose muddied waters I try to keep my head above.”
This appeared in the November 2014 issue.