Michael Beschloss’s most recent book is “Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy.”
Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, the glamorous wife who was beside John F. Kennedy during his presidency and when he was shot, was for 33 years 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.
1. 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, and 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.
2. 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. When she toured the mansion after JFK’s election in 1960, she was astonished to find that the state rooms looked like the lobby of a prosaic Statler Hotel, which to her meant dreariness. That was not an accident; after the White House was gutted and rebuilt with an interior steel frame during Harry Truman’s second term, Truman had saved money by having the New York department store B. Altman furnish the mansion’s main floor.
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, so 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. During that TV show, she said she was trying to improve the way “the presidency is presented to the world.”
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. As a young woman, Jackie once puckishly wrote that her aim was to be the “art director of the twentieth century.” She succeeded in performing that role for her husband’s presidency.
3. She had little interest in JFK’s political life.
Jacqueline Kennedy was no Eleanor Roosevelt or Hillary Rodham 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.
She was first lady in a time — which has not quite ended — when many Americans were put off if a president’s wife seemed too involved in his political career. In almost every presidential marriage you will find a first lady who, while she serves, insists that all politics is left to the president — but when viewed in history, she turns out to have been a significant influence on that presidency. Jackie is no exception.
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. Although she does not say that explicitly, the historian who reads these comments closely will note that the men and women Jackie praises, such as Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and national security adviser McGeorge Bundy, tended to be promoted or given more power by President Kennedy. And those she disdains, such as Secretary of State Dean Rusk, tended to languish. Had someone else been JFK’s first lady, some of the most important personnel decisions during that presidency might have been different.
4. In the three decades after November 1963, she managed to get beyond the Dallas tragedy.
Alas, it’s more likely that 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 trip with her children in 1971 to what was by then Richard Nixon’s White House to view Aaron Shikler’s portraits of her 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 Rodham 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. After she died, her son John wrote to Clinton: “Since she left Washington I believe she resisted ever connecting with it emotionally — or the institutional demands of being a former First Lady. It had much to do with the memories stirred and her desires to resist being cast in a lifelong role that didn’t quite fit.”
5. She remained a woman of the early-1960s, pre-feminist era.
Sure, in the oral history she gave in 1964, Jackie Kennedy said that women should not go into politics because they are “too emotional” and that in the “best” marriages, wives are subordinate to husbands. But, like millions of American women, she changed emphatically.
After the death of her second husband, Aristotle Onassis, in 1975, she got a job as a New York editor at Viking and then Doubleday, publishing art books, histories and memoirs, and was known to most of her authors as a genuine, hands-on colleague who performed the kind of assiduous line-editing that, even in the 1990s, was growing scarce.
She lived through and reflected a crucial period in US history in which women moved into the mainstream of American professional life and redefined their roles.