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Remembering Jackie O, 30 years on. By Mark McGinness

Blog | By Mark McGinness | May 25, 2024


Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis died thirty years ago in Manhattan, aged only 64. For forty years, she had been a source of fascination, admiration, inspiration and envy.

She was born on 28 July 1929, the elder daughter of Janet Lee and John Vernou Bouvier III, both of whom were children of prosperous fathers but from modest, mainly Irish, stock. Claims that Janet was a Lee from Virginia and Bouvier was a scion of French nobility, were fabrications by one of her grandfathers; but never rebutted.

They were an arrestingly good-looking couple, relentlessly social but utterly ill-suited. Bouvier’s drinking mortified his insecure, highly-strung wife and his dwindling fortune troubled her. Always immaculately dressed, matinee-idol-like with a pencil moustache, Jack Bouvier enjoyed being mistaken for Clark Gable. But his philandering and drinking mortified his insecure, highly-strung wife and his dwindling fortune troubled her.

The marriage collapsed and Janet wed the dull, decent, rich (his mother was a Standard Oil heiress) and socially august Hugh Auchincloss (Hughdie). He had just ended his second marriage to Gore Vidal’s mother. Vidal described poor Hughdie as ‘a magnum of chloroform’. Vidal would also claim that Jacqueline and her sister, Lee, were raised by their mother to be Geishas.

When Jacqueline was 12, mother and daughters moved from a duplex on Park Avenue and an estate in East Hampton to Merrywood, Hughdie’s huge Georgian mansion in northern Virginia, to Hammersmith Farm at Newport, and an apartment on Park Avenue. Jacqueline inherited Gore’s bedroom. Lee claimed her bedroom overlooked a field and two cows named Jacqueline and Lee in their honour.

Although Catholics, the girls received a WASPish education: Jacqueline at Miss Chapin’s and Miss Porter’s School, Farmington, where she shone - an accomplished equestrienne, favoured by her teachers, envied by her classmates. Her entry in her graduation year-book entry read under Ambition: ‘Never to be a housewife’. And then Vassar.

After school, the sisters toured the Continent, including a visit to the legendary art historian, Bernard Berenson, at I Tatti, his villa outside Florence – this was the first of many friendships with famous figures of the 20th century and the beginning of a lifelong love of France. The trip also inspired her only autobiography, One Special Summer, co-authored with Lee.

She disliked the isolation of Vassar at Poughkeepsie and often escaped to Manhattan. When she made her debut there, Igor Cassini declared her ‘Debutante of the Year’. She soon left Vassar and enrolled at George Washington University, studying French Literature. She won a junior editorship at Vogue in New York but, after a day, her managing editor persuaded her to return to Washington, as she was 22 and should find a husband. She joined the Washington Times-Herald as a receptionist but was soon promoted to Inquiring Camera Girl. In that role, she was sent to cover the Coronation of Elizabeth II. She reported, “All the deposed monarchs are staying at Claridge’s” and asked spectators outside Buckingham Palace, “Do you think Elizabeth will be England’s last queen?” As she told a cousin, that Coronation visit was “the last time I was truly free to be me.”

Three weeks later, at home, she became engaged to John F Kennedy, whom she had met in May 1952. He was running for the Senate. She had called off a three-month engagement to a New York stockbroker, John Husted, a few months earlier.

The groom’s father, Joe Kennedy, dazzled by the bride, saw the wedding, which he orchestrated and paid for, as an extension of an election campaign. The Auchinclosses had hoped for a quiet, discreet affair. The mother of the bride lamented to a friend, “The wedding will be just awful; quite dreadful. there will be 100 Irish politicians.” Poor Jack Bouvier proved too drunk to give his daughter away – so Hughdie did the honours. As one biographer, Jan Pottker, put it, “the wedding guests had no idea of the dramas playing out behind the scenes. They saw only a 2.9-carat diamond set next to a 2.8 carat engagement ring, an archbishop performing the ceremony, and a fifty-yard silk wedding dress.”

With her husband in the Senate, Jacqueline enrolled in American history at Georgetown. Pottker painted the picture of the young student wife being accompanied to her classes by her maid and her spaniel. Jacqueline would hand the dog over and both would wait outside until the class was over – then all three would walk home.

She suffered a miscarriage in 1955 and in August 1956 gave birth to a stillborn daughter, Arabella. Finally, Caroline was born in November 1957 when JFK was campaigning for re-election to the Senate. It soon became clear, despite her lack of interest in politics, that Jacqueline was a campaign star. On 2 January 1960, JFK announced his candidacy for President and narrowly defeated Richard Nixon on 8 November. On 25 November their son, John F Kennedy Junior, was born.

At the Capitol on 20 January 1961, with the First Couple were no less than four former First Ladies - Edith Wilson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Bess Truman and Mamie Eisenhower and three future Firsts - Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon and Betty Ford.

It was -22 degrees; there had been 20-mile-an-hour winds and snow - so blinding that poor 86-year-old Robert Frost could not read his preamble. Marian Anderson sang ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’.

His speech, the most stirring of the century, was great from the moment he delivered it. As he said “Ask not what your country can do for you...” Alistair Cooke observed “Mrs Kennedy's smooth throat twitch as ‘the unbearable office’ passed from the oldest President to the youngest.”

On occupying the White House in January 1961, the First Lady declared her first priority was her husband and children and she took great care to shield them from an increasingly enthusiastic press. But a second emerged. With advice from Henry du Pont, Sister Parish and Bunny Mellon and funds from some wealthy benefactors, she restored the White House and its garden.

On 14 February 1962, some 56 million Americans tuned in to watch the results of her labours as she toured the White House. It was a tour de force - recreated brilliantly in a mesmerizing performance by Natalie Portman in the film, Jackie (2016), but the original can still be seen on You Tube.

One of the few to disapprove was Norman Mailer, writing for Esquire. “As the eye followed Mrs. Kennedy …through the Blue Room, the Green Room, the East Room, the State Dining Room, the Red Room; as the listeners were offered a reference to Dolly Madison’s favorite sofa, or President Monroe’s Minerva clock, Nellie Custis’s sofa, Mrs Lincoln’s later poverty, Daniel Webster’s sofa…the presentation began to take on the undernourished, overdone air of a charity show, a telethon for a new disease.”

Mailer received no more invitations to visit the Kennedys. When reading an account of the piece in his morning paper, J. Edgar Hoover made a note so that he wouldn’t forget: “Let me have memo on Norman Mailer.” In any case, Mrs Kennedy was awarded a Trustees’ Award for her efforts at the 1962 Emmys.

With advice from Igor Cassini’s brother, Oleg, the First Lady promoted American fashion (a ‘philosophy of quiet, sober elegance’) - with the odd Continental indulgence – to become the most copied, admired and envied woman of her time.

Interest in her swelled as she travelled abroad. The State Visit to France in June 1961 was nothing less than a triomphe. As JFK quipped to the press, “I do not think it altogether inappropriate for me to introduce myself. I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris." As one of her best biographers, Barbara Leaming, wrote, Seated next to de Gaulle at lunch, Jackie underwent a miraculous transformation. The nymphet metamorphosed into a highly intelligent woman who engaged the General on recondite matters of French history and culture. She and de Gaulle discussed Louis XVI, exchanged views on the duc d’Angoulême, and reviewed the dynastic intricacies of the later Bourbons.”

After meeting her the previous year on a visit to the US., le grand Charles had apparently said, “"If there were anything I could take back to France with me, it would be Mrs. Kennedy."

Khrushchev was similarly smitten when he met her next - in Vienna. He was delighted by “her nerve and unpredictability.” As she and Mrs Khrushchev lunched at the Pallavicini Palace, the crowd outside chanted, “Jacqueline, Jacqueline, Jacqueline.”

Not everyone was charmed. Indira Ghandi, visiting Washington with her father, Prime Minister Nehru, was annoyed at being handed over to the President’s “wife child and a friend.” Nehru hosted a visit to India by Jacqueline in 1962. They arrived with 64 pieces of luggage and wowed the Subcontinent.

The restored and treasure-filled Executive Mansion became something of a Versailles on the Potomac. The First Lady frequently invited writers, painters, poets, and musicians to perform at various White House events during the Kennedy era. Some of the more famous artists included Bernstein, Casals, Stravinsky, and Isaac Stern. The American Ballet Theatre, the Metropolitan Opera Studio, Opera Society of Washington, Interlochen Arts Academy, and American Shakespeare Festival were invited to perform. She also created ‘Concerts for Young People’ for the next generation.

These proved to be other-worldly distractions, as the President faced racial tensions, the Cuban Missile Crisis and War in Vietnam.

Another personal tragedy struck in August 1963, when the first family’s second son, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, was born prematurely and died within two days. This death brought the couple closer together. To help her recuperate, Aristotle Onassis invited Jacqueline to join him on his yacht. She later regretted having been away for so long but she had been “so melancholy after the death of my baby.”

Barely a month later, she joined the President on a political trip to Texas.

That motorcade through Dallas on 22 November 1963 is probably the most wretched replayed journey ever filmed. The horror of it must never have deserted his widow but the thought of not being there would have haunted her for ever. It was Jacqueline’s first appearance on a purely political trip. It was a beautiful day in Dallas - but hot – the sun so blinding that she put on her sunglasses (they would be her trademark). Her husband, waving to the right, implored her, as she waved to the crowds on the left, ‘Take off the glasses, Jackie’. They were the last words he ever spoke to her.

After Oswald’s second shot hit the President’s skull, she had no recollection of what she was doing but it seemed as if she was trying to hold his head together. As one of her biographers, Sarah Bradford, noted, ‘She knew he was dead. A man had died. A legend was about to be born.’

Waiting outside the Trauma Room at Parkland Hospital, as the doctors tried to save the President’s life - in reality he had died when the second shot hit him in the car – Mrs Kennedy would not remove her gloves as they had on them all she had left of her husband.

When his death was officially confirmed, she went into the room. His head was bandaged and his face unmarked. She kissed her husband’s feet (protruding from the trolley) and she kissed his lips (his mouth looked beautiful, she recalled). She then slipped her wedding ring onto his little finger. A priest rendered the Last Rites.

Lady Bird Johnson, within minutes to become First Lady as her husband was sworn in, came to Mrs Kennedy. ‘She was quite alone. I don’t think I ever saw anyone so alone in my life. I went up to her, put my arms around her, and said something like ‘God, help us all.''

As she left the hospital, she was implored to change her pink suit. “No”, she said fiercely, “Let them see what they’ve done.”

The day after the assassination, still wearing the bloodstained pink suit, she insisted that she should be driven by the man who had driven her and JFK in Dallas to show that she did not blame him for the tragedy.

Within just a week of Dallas, Jacqueline summoned the presidential chronicler, Theodore H. White, to Cape Cod and for four hours set out her vision of the Kennedy White House as Camelot.

“There will be great presidents again; but there will never be another Camelot.” Jacqueline repeated to White the concluding couplet of the title song from Alan Jay Lerner’s musical, which she and her husband would listen to before they slept, “Don’t ever let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was Camelot.”

The assassination in June 1968 of her brother-in-law, Bobby Kennedy, with whom she had developed a deep attachment, was nearly as devastating as that of husband’s and she was determined to find security for herself and her children.

Four months later, after Ted Kennedy negotiated a 173-clause marriage contract, Jacqueline, the most famous widow in the world, wed Onassis. This prompted the only known joke of Mao Zedung, “If Khrushchev had died, I doubt if Mr Onassis would have married Mrs Khrushchev.” A heartbroken Maria Callas quipped, “First, I lost weight, then I lost my voice, now I lost Onassis. Jackie was smart to give a grandfather to her children.” As another biographer, Sarah Bradford (America’s Queen, 2000), put it, the years of her marriage to Onassis provided escape and protection, but they were offered by a man who saw his wife as a golden trophy. Pottker’s entitled his chapter on their union ‘From Camelot to Caliban.’

A very physical, free-spending few years followed but Onassis’s last years were blighted by the death of his son, Alexander, in 1973. He was, in the words of Peter Evans, a “wreck, this husk of a man; I felt such pity.” By his death in March 1975, the couple were estranged and living apart.

At the funeral, Ted Kennedy again came to the rescue and secured a $25 million settlement from Christina Onassis for his former sister-in-law, giving Jacqueline the security and sort of wealth she had always craved.

For the next wo decades she lived between Manhattan, Martha’s Vineyard and the Kennedy compound at Hyannis Port and took a job as a consulting editor at Viking and two years later, until her death, as a respected associate editor at Doubleday, where she proved to be an inspired and persuasive commissioner.

She lived long enough to see John become an Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan and to see Caroline marry and to be a grandmother. After a brief battle with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, she died on 20 May 1994. She was 64.

When Caroline released her mother's Historic Conversations on Life With John F Kennedy (2011 but recorded the year after his death), The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd referred to “the most mysterious, fascinating — and feline — woman in American political history…‘Who else would read War and Peace during the Wisconsin primary and recommend the Memoirs of Duc de Saint-Simon as the best preparation for life in the White House? ‘Who else could persuade the Egyptians to hand over the Temple of Dendur and the French to lend the’ Mona Lisa’, and rediscover the sidelined HMS Resolute desk for the Oval Office?..... Who else could argue that J.F.K. should be seen as a Whig and as a Greek, not a Roman…..”

The Spectator’s Taki summed her up best, ‘I think her greatest accomplishment was to have been a perfect mother, & in the goldfish bowl in which she chose to live, this is high praise indeed.”

Peggy Noonan, writing on her death, saw her life not really as one of glamour but a life of splendour, forever remembered as "a patriot, who all by herself one terrible weekend lifted and braced the heart of a nation."