Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the glamorous wife of the leader of the free world, who was shot and lay dying in her arms, was for 33 years almost certainly the most famous woman on Earth. Yet after 1964, she never wrote or spoke publicly about her 10-year marriage to JFK, let alone the rest of her life. An avalanche of books, written without her cooperation or access to her papers, have reduced some of the mystery surrounding her but have inevitably left us with myths about Jackie Kennedy that are widely believed to this day.
• She grew up an heiress.
Certainly she was born to a wealthy family and had a privileged upbringing. Her father, John V. Bouvier III, was an investment banking scion, and her mother, Janet Lee, was the daughter of a construction tycoon who built some of the most distinguished apartment houses on Park Avenue in New York. But her father lost most of his money in the Great Depression, her parents divorced bitterly. She later said that when she was in boarding school, she was sometimes nervous that her father would not be able to pay her tuition bills.
When her mother married the Standard Oil heir Hugh D. Auchincloss Jr., his largesse did not extend to Jacqueline and her sister. So when, after graduating from George Washington University in 1951, Jackie took a job as the “Inquiring Camera Girl” for the Washington Times-Herald, she did it because she needed the salary.
• As first lady, she was a stranger to hard work.
As Lady Bird Johnson, the wife of JFK’s vice president, said: Jackie “was a worker, which I don’t think was always quite recognized.” Her restoration of the White House was not some minor exercise in redecoration. Jackie was appalled that there were so few artifacts, paintings or pieces of furniture rooted in American history. She took it upon herself to raise private money, recruit scholars and search for such objects that would constitute a permanent White House collection. Within a year, this was sufficiently underway that in February 1962, she was able to stage her famous televised tour of the state floor of the mansion in its new incarnation, which, for the most part, was similar to how it looks today.
At the same time, she had Air Force One’s exterior redesigned, turned the Oval Office into something more resembling a living room and transformed the rituals for South Lawn arrival ceremonies and state dinners, all of which survive almost intact 50 years later.
• She had little interest in JFK’s political life.
Jacqueline Kennedy was no Eleanor Roosevelt or Hillary Clinton in terms of advising her husband on policy. Before JFK’s election, she startled reporters by confessing that she did not know the date of the presidential inauguration, and when asked what might be a suitable venue for the next Democratic convention, she said, “Acapulco.” But she wasn’t clueless about her husband’s line of work.
The first lady’s oral history for the Kennedy Library, sealed until 2011, reveals her opinions on virtually every major figure of JFK’s administration and makes it quite clear that she shared them with her husband. The historian who reads these comments closely will note that the people Jackie praises, such as Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and national security adviser McGeorge Bundy, tended to be promoted or given more power by her husband. Those she disdains, such as Secretary of State Dean Rusk, tended to languish.
• After November 1963, she managed to get beyond the Dallas tragedy.
It’s more likely she never did. After she left the White House, a fortnight after the assassination, she asked her Secret Service drivers to avoid routes that might cause her to glimpse the mansion, even at a distance. She visited again only once after 1963: She agreed to a secret, unphotographed visit with her children in 1971 to what was by then Richard Nixon’s White House to view Aaron Shikler’s portraits of herself and her husband. She later wrote Nixon with thanks, saying, “A day I had always dreaded turned out to be one of the most precious ones I have spent with my children.”
When Hillary Clinton became first lady in 1993, she and Jackie were friends, and she urged JFK’s widow to revisit the White House. Jackie declined but appreciated the gesture.
Beschloss’s most recent book is “Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy.”
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