Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis received enormous amounts of publicity because of her youthful beauty and great sense of style. People everywhere were captivated by her. In Paris, France such huge crowds turned out to see her that her husband, John F. Kennedy, told a group of international leaders "I don't think it altogether inappropriate to introduce myself. I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris."1 Jackie, as the world called her, might almost have been a movie star. Her picture appeared on countless magazine covers, and the "Jackie look" was widely imitated. But in spite of all this, she remained a very private person.
This first lady's background could hardly have been more glamorous. Her father was a rich and handsome New York stockbroker named John Vernon Bouvier. Her mother, Janet Lee Bouvier, was a skilled horsewoman who frequently won prizes at society horse shows.
Born in the fashionable Long Island resort of East Hampton on July 28, 1929, Jacqueline Lee Bouvier had a seemingly perfect childhood. By her second birthday she already had her own pony to ride. Her parents accustomed her to elegant living on the family estate at East Hampton, Long Island in the summer and in their Park Avenue apartment in Manhattan during the winter. They saw to it that she was treated like a princess by maids, butlers, nurses, and chauffeurs. "Jackie," her father once told her, "you never have to worry about keeping up with the Joneses, because we are the Joneses. Everybody has to keep up with us." 2
Jackie developed a great deal of self-confidence. Once when she was 4, while playing in Central Park she looked around and couldn't see a familiar face. She walked up to the nearest policeman and said firmly, "My nurse is lost."3
Jackie's parents quarreled constantly over money and over her father's infidelities, and in 1936, to the eight year old girl's distress, they separated, and she found herself with divided loyalties. Jackie adored her father. He was full of fun, generous with money, and deeply devoted to her. She couldn't help preferring his company over her mother who was rather sedate and thrifty.4 In time as her parents vied for her affection, she learned to play them against each other when she wanted money for clothes, trips, and pets. Later on, when her mother divorced her father and married Hugh D. Auchincloss, wealthy Washington lawyer and stockbroker, she started playing her father and "Uncle Hugh," as she called her stepfather, against each other. By doing this she ended up enjoying the best of both worlds.
Jackie's girl friends thought she was different. She was very independent-minded, at times withdrawn, and a bit rebellious. "Sometimes," they complained, "you have the feeling she isn't really there."5 At New York's fashionable Chapin School, which she attended for a time, her mischievous manner won her the reputation of being "the very worst girl in the school" and forced the head-mistress, Ethel Stringfellow, to call her on the carpet every day.6 Mrs. Stringfellow eventually won Jackie over by talking to her about horses, which at the time she seemed to prefer over humans, and convincing her that even thoroughbreds have to be schooled before they can perform.
Jackie got her first taste of fame during the summer of 1946. "Queen Deb of the Year is Jacqueline Bouvier," the writer Cholly Knickerbocker proclaimed in the New York Journal-American. He called her "a regal brunette who has classic features and daintiness of Dresden porcelain," then added: "She has poise, is soft-spoken and intelligent, everything the leading debutante should be."7
Jackie enrolled at Vassar College to major in art history. After her freshman year she toured Europe with some of her classmates, and she enjoyed this first exposure to Old World culture so much that she arranged to spend her entire junior year studying at the Sorbonne in France. Upon returning to the United States she attended George Washington University at Washington. At age twenty-one she entered a writing contest sponsored by Vogue magazine. Competing with more than a thousand other hopeful graduates, she won first prize, which was the opportunity to work for the magazine's Paris edition. But she turned it down.
Yet her success in the contest turned her thought's toward journalism, and with the help of a family friend she got a job at the Washington Times-Herald. She became the newspaper's "Inquiring Camera Girl," wandering around the capital interviewing people and taking their pictures, then preparing a daily column giving their answers to questions she asked them.
At a dinner party some newspaper friends introduced her to a young congressman from Massachusetts who was regarded as the capital's most eligible bachelor. He was tall and good-looking, with a keen mind and a wonderfully dry wit, and also had a very rich father. This man was John F. Kennedy. But it wasn't until he advanced into the Senate and started aiming for the presidency, that he seriously began courting Jackie. Politics had never appealed to her, and everybody in Washington knew that Senator Kennedy had been involved with many other women. Even so, she told a friend who warned her about him, "What I want more than anything else in the world is to be married to him."8
Their marriage took place on September 12, 1953, when Jackie was twenty-four and Jack thirty-six. Thousands of reporters and spectators gathered outside St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church in Newport where Boston's Archbishop Richard Cushing conducted the ceremony. Then came a festive reception at the Auchincloss estate, Hammersmith Farm, which was attended by 1,700 invited guests.
Despite her dislike of politics, she did try to play the part of a political wife by the accepted rules of the game. When asked for her views about her role in her husband's career, she gave conventional answers such as "I'm am old-fashioned wife, and I'll do anything my husband asks me to do."9 Quitting her job, she saw to it that Jack stopped skipping meals, got stylish haircuts, developed more polished manners.
Jackie also wanted to become a mother. After several miscarriages, in 1957 she gave birth to a little girl, and three years later to a baby son they named John F. Kennedy, Jr.
When Jackie moved into the White House in 1961 she discovered her first mission. Her goal, she said, was to make the White House "the most beautiful house in America".10 That called for a full scale renovation. Jackie formed the White House Historical Association and launched a campaign for private donations to fund the restoration. These efforts, coupled with her work on behalf of the arts, helped her become one of the most admired women in America. Her television special, A Tour of the White House, was viewed by 80 million Americans, distributed to 106 countries, and, although the Cold War was at its height, shown in six Iron Curtain countries.
Across the country, women basked in the fact that their first lady could be three things at once: a devoted mother, an elegant wife, and a cultured woman. They couldn't be Jackie, but they could be like her. Clothing manufacturers worked overtime to bring them her A-line shift dress, low-heeled pumps, one-shoulder evening dress, bouffant hairdo, and her famous pillbox hat.
Her appearance proved to be only part of her attraction. She had a multifaceted personality. She could be enigmatic and contradictory. She could discuss Greek and Roman history, and dance the twist. She spoke in a patrician little girl voice and wore elegant clothes, but she would also appear at church in a casual sleeveless dress, sunglasses, and bare legs. And although she projected glamour, she was quite clear that her first duty was to her husband and her children.
Late in November 1963 she flew to Texas with her husband for some preliminary campaigning. Wearing a stylish pink suit, she was sitting next to him as the presidential motorcade drove through the streets of Dallas and an assassin's bullet killed him. At the hospital and on the flight back to Washington she refused to change her bloodstained dress, even for the swearing-in of Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson as President. She said, "I want them to see what they have done to Jack."11
At the age of 34, she held together a wounded nation with her transcendent dignity and grace. Without uttering a word in public, she lifted up the nation by not breaking down herself. The hands she held at the funeral were her children's, but they might as well have been those of the hundreds of millions who grieved with her. The widow followed this extraordinary feat with one of the greatest public relations triumphs of all time. Days after her husband was buried, she sat down with author Theodore White and set about defining what her husband's legacy should be. The results were published in the next issue of Life magazine. White revealed that Jackie had come to think of the Kennedy years in the White House in terms of the mythical kingdom of Camelot. She told White that when her husband was a boy he dreamed of performing valiant deeds like one of King Arthur's knights, and as President his favorite music was from the Broadway musical Camelot.12 She recited, "Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot." Then she concluded, "And it will never be that was again."13
Late in 1964, she moved to New York City, where the rich and famous to relatively unbothered. Then in 1968, when Jackie was forty, she shocked millions of people by announcing her engagement to marry sixty year old Aristotle Onassis, the rich Greek shipping magnate. She believed that in addition to financial security, this marriage would give her more privacy. After becoming Mrs. Onassis, she remained at her apartment on New York's Fifth Avenue while her children went to school, although she flew to Greece frequently with her new husband. At first she enjoyed being the wife of one of the richest men in the world, but vastly different backgrounds brought many strains to the marriage, which ended with his death in 1975.14
Jackie began to settle into the life of a middle-aged woman. She rose early, speed-walked around the Central Park reservoir, walked most of the three miles to her office at Doubleday, stayed home most evenings, had dinner and went to bed early. She wept at her daughter Caroline's wedding to Edwin Schlossberg in June 1986. She spent time with her three grandchildren: Rose, Tatiana, and John, and the man she loves, Maurice Templesman, the wealthy international diamond dealer.
Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy Onassis died on Thursday, May 19, 1994 of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, at age 64, in her Manhattan home. Her funeral was a private affair, though hundreds of mourners gathered outside the church where the service was held and millions more all over the world watched tributes to her on television. She was the most famous and most mysterious woman in the world. But her meaning to Americans far exceeds that. Lady Bird Johnson said' "In times of hope, she captured our hearts. In tragedy, her courage helped save a nation's grief. She was an image of beauty and romance and leaves an empty place in the world as I know it."15