JACQUELINE KENNEDY ONASSIS
Like the perfect pearls she often wore the presence of Jackie made every occasion complete.
As a true woman of her class, Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy Onassis has always appeared as someone at home in any home, engendering awe and ease in equal doses. She exemplifies a time when one did not parade every emotion in front of the cameras with a tear-stained face for the world to pity. Virtually everything written was almost all speculation or hearsay for she never granted interviews on her past -- the last one was in 1967.
As a student in her Miss Porter’s School 1947 yearbook Jacqueline Bouvier was quoted as saying in the section under 'Ambition', "Not to be a housewife." In 1963, as First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy showed the world how to grieve with majesty and impeccable behavior right at the moment when all needed to be reassured someone was in control. Until her death in 1994, Jackie Onassis as a second-time widow living in New York City showed us one can survive the past and achieve a peace and serenity seldom afforded to someone for whom the limelight never ceased its incessant bleating.
Her break from the gate was auspicious. On the eve of the Depression, July 28, 1929, Jacqueline Lee Bouvier was born in East Hampton, New York to the handsome Wall Streeter John Vernon "Black Jack" Bouvier and the comely Janet Lee. Black Jack was a charming monster of the Southampton set. His large black moustache, matching eyes and flashing wit gave him entrée into the drawing rooms of all the leading ladies. By the time his second daughter, Caroline Lee was born four years later, the monster had successfully devoured all their money from drinking and gambling and managed to lose a patient wife in the process. His devotion to his two daughters, however, was something that would never be diluted. They adored him. He taught the girls how to behave with a gentleman in the battle of the sexes, or what he called, "the gentle war." As Truman Capote once snidely put it about the sisters, "They were raised to be geishas."
Janet Lee, but not of the Virginia Lees as she allowed many to assume, set her sights on better financial stability after Bouvier and found it in Hugh D. Auchincloss. Uncle Hughdie, as he was known to the girls, was rich. A Standard Oil heir, he owned two estates, Hammersmith Farm in Newport and Merrywood in Virginia. Janet had found the wealthy husband she desired and her daughters were assured a secure upbringing. Jackie was able to maintain the horses she learned to ride almost from the moment she could walk and was raised as a proper young lady.
Society scribe of the day Cholly Knickerbocker anointed Jackie's entry into society in 1947 when he named her "Debutante of the Year." Jackie had loftier ambitions than that. She attended Vassar in upstate New York, traveled extensively and graduated from George Washington University in the nation's capitol. To her great relief she was placed a little closer to the action than Vassar's campus in Poughkepskie, New York. During these studies she perfected her love of languages and eventually became fluent in French, Spanish and Italian. After graduation she entered and won Vogue magazines’ Prix de Paris writing award in 1951 where the prize was a year in France training at French Vogue. However, both mother and stepfather felt she had spent too much time in Europe already and insisted she return stateside. She did and took a job as an inquiring photographer with the Washington D.C. Washington Times-Herald. Had she remained in France what followed next may never have happened.
Around 1951 Jackie met New York banker John Husted and was engaged to him until mother Janet caught wind and put the brakes on that. Husted was from a good family but not good enough for the likes of Mrs. Auchincloss. Jackie remained in Washington as an inquiring photographer for the Washington Times Herald and was seen around the Capitol covering inquiring minds. In 1952 Jackie had an interview with a rising young Senator, John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts. The two had been introduced at a dinner party and sparks flew, but privately. Known as Washington’s most eligible bachelor, the young JFK was noted for being seen around town with a lovely lady on his arm, so when Jack and Jackie started dating, it was done quietly. Jackie was not raised to be a mere boldfaced name. As non-committal as one could be, Jack proposed to Jackie over the telephone while she was in London on assignment for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. But even the engagement announcement took a backseat to Kennedy's political rise when the announcement was delayed so as not to interfere with an article on Jack Kennedy as one of the Senate's gay young bachelors.
Secure in her Social Register position Janet Auchincloss was to meet with Jack's father, Joe Kennedy to hammer out the plans for what would be the wedding of the decade. Joe Kennedy, a Boston banker turned movie-maker turned Ambassador to the Court of Saint James presided over a large family. His grandparents were immigrants from Ireland and Joe was determined to rise above the social blockades. Married to the former Rose Fitzgerald, daughter of Boston’s mayor Honey Fitz, Joe Kennedy knew what it took to make a marriage. He was no slouch in getting the best for his family and had a reputation as a hard bargainer. Janet and Jackie arrived at the airport to greet Kennedy as he walked across the tarmac in a beautifully tailored suit with a clubby smile pasted across his face. Jackie turned to her mother and said, "Oh Mummy, you haven’t got a chance." And the couple was married in 1953 at Hammersmith Farm in Newport to nationwide attention but through and through it was a Kennedy affair right down to the Irish priest officiating and the local Boston baker providing the wedding cake. The only glitch in the entire affair was Black Jacks’ failure to walk his eldest daughter down the aisle. He was back in his hotel room dead drunk.
The newlyweds were eager to start a family but after one stillbirth and one miscarriage, it wasn’t until 1957 when daughter Caroline was born. Son John, Jr. was born in 1960. The family moved to a house "Hickory Hill" in Virginia and the Senator ascended into national prominence.
The other Kennedy women misinterpreted Jackie's breathy voice and genteel ways as silly and snobbish, but with her uncommon beauty and intelligent wide-set eyes, Jackie was a figure bred to more rarefied air and outclassed them all. Her choice of couture became the nation's fashion mandate, while her extravagant spending habits were often a source of irritation to her extravagantly roguish spouse. The Kennedy women looked at her with disdain and laughed, but Jackie, knowing the ways of men had the ear of old Joe Kennedy and that's what counted. And the aging former Ambassador saw in Jackie the distinct public relations appeal his son needed to catapult him onto a national audience.
Backed by his rich father, the popular Senator won the Democratic nomination and enlisted the help of his family who went on the road in full force to run successfully against his friend, Republican Vice President Richard M. Nixon. Using the relatively new medium of television as a means to attract voters, America was captivated by the handsome Kennedy and his attractive family to become the first Irish Catholic elected to the White House by the slimmest of margins.
Mrs. Kennedy, as she was known around the White House, instructed the staff not to refer to her as the First Lady, ("It makes me sound like a saddle horse.") took the White House itself to task. Awash in reproductions and lots of "Mamie Eisenhower pink" she oversaw the complete restoration of the Executive Mansion, calling on her wealthy friends to donate or lend art and objects. The result was so magnificent that all three networks televised a tour and a record 52 million viewers got to see for themselves the inside of "their White House." Her enthusiasm for preserving historic structures was already making itself known when during this period Congress declared the White House a national monument. Later that year, she received a special Emmy award for public service.
Jackie Kennedy continued making a name for herself. On a trip to Paris in 1962, President Kennedy, bewildered by all the attention his wife was receiving, introduced himself at a news conference by saying, "I am the man who accompanied Jackie Kennedy to Paris."
For a thousand days, she was the undisputed queen of a country that claims no royalty. Married to a charismatic American president - the youngest and most handsome ever to hold that office - she was the perfect wife for what has been described as a mythical era and helped to overshadow an administration beset with challenges. State dinners were sought-after affairs when she organized intimate settings, with tables of eight, rather than the enormous U-shaped dining table of her predecessors. Guests were the best and the brightest. One dinner in April 1962 hosting over 40 Nobel laureates and the A-list of the arts and letters prompted President Kennedy to remark "the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone…"
But what forever endeared Jackie to the nation was her comportment in those anguished days after her husband's assassination. When the shots rang out on November 22, 1963, Jacqueline drew on her breeding, her training as a woman of refinement, to show courage and hold the country together with a dignity that became her hallmark.
She refused sleeping pills so as to retain control of the funeral arrangements. She would not change out of here blood-stained pink Schiaparelli suit so the world could see what had happened without any softening of the facts. Two days later, the world focused on the grieving widow being led by the riderless horse, the gentle prompting of her young son to salute his father's casket. In mourning for the next year, she closed the door on one life and prepared to open the next.
In 1964 she moved with her children to New York City, leaving behind all the ghosts of the last year. In a city that cherishes anonymity, she purchased an apartment on Fifth Avenue and was able to live close to friends and family with relatively little scrutiny.
She extracted herself from the life of the Kennedy family slowly but surely. She raised her children as New Yorkers not Bostonians. When her brother-in-law Robert F. Kennedy prepared to run for the 1968 presidency, she did lend her support but carefully, so as not to intrude on sister-in-law Ethel's' intended glory.
Fate would intervene once more and on June 5, 1968 a lone assassin took the life of Senator Kennedy in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California after winning that state's primary.
Feeling that she and her children were targets, Jackie stunned the world when it was announced that she and Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis would marry and live abroad. While it appeared the two hardly knew each other this was not the case. Onassis lent Mrs. and Mrs. Kennedy his yacht after the death of their son Patrick in 1963 and had been close since. Not much unlike her mother some speculated, Jackie wanted to be assured of financial security for herself and her children. The late Jack Kennedy was rich but not as rich as the Greek tycoon and she allowed herself this bold move, as unpopular as it was. In October 1968 the two wed on Onassis' private island of Skorpios, each with their children by their side.
It was at this point the media, always respectful of the President's widow dropped their kid gloves and let her have it with both flashbulbs. No longer Mrs. Kennedy she was dubbed "Jackie O!" From that point forward she was fully stalked by paparazzo Ron Galella, a brazen man who documented Jackie each time she left her house. Constantly in her face she finally took him to court in 1972 where he was prevented from coming within 100 yards of her home and fifty yards from her or her children. Eventually that was reduced to 25 yards.
Life with Ari continued. Soon it appeared to those closest to the couple that theirs was a marriage blanc, with him seen around Paris with his old paramour opera diva Maria Callas and Jackie in New York with several suitable escorts.
By 1975 rumors swirled that Ari was going to divorce Jackie for her capricious spending but suddenly he died leaving Jackie a widow for the second time. Before he passed, Onassis changed his will ensuring Jackie would only receive a protracted amount of his enormous fortune. He even petitioned Greek Parliament to pass legislation protecting his enormous fortune. Through a legal battle with his daughter, Christina, Jackie received a legacy of somewhere between 20 and 25 million dollars, which was roughly a quarter of the fortune she was expected to inherit.
Back home in New York, with estates on Martha's Vineyard and Bernardsville, New Jersey, Jackie moved into the final chapter of her life.
Using her literary talents to find work as a book editor, she managed a reasonably private existence, occasionally surfacing to jog in Central Park or to attend a gala for one of her preservationist causes with her companion of over a decade, Belgian financier Maurice Templesman. In one move that brought the preservation cause to the forefront and firmly in the hearts of New Yorkers, she successfully led efforts to save Grand Central Station from demolition. 'If we don't care about our past, we cannot hope for our future."
She was most successful in sheltering her two children, Caroline and John Jr., from the celebrity-mad world. Ensuring her children led normal lives she allowed them to fall and experience life as any other child, even when John Jr. was mugged for his bicycle in Central Park as an adolescent.
In New York City it was a cosmic bonus to see her on the street, jogging around the Reservoir, dining occasionally at the Fours Seasons (favorite meal: a baked potato heaped with caviar and a glass of champagne). Like a modern-day Garbo, she wanted to be alone and New Yorkers, understanding and respectful, kept their awe in check.
Rarely venturing out into the social maelstrom when she did it was a cause célèbre.
On May 19, 1994, at sixty-four, she succumbed to lymphatic cancer. The street outside her Manhattan apartment was thronged with mourners paying tribute to the woman who had taught an entire country how to grieve. When a bereaved nation buried her with full honors next to President Kennedy in Arlington National Cemetery, it was reminded that the woman who had fashioned the mold for an era had, in dying, quietly broken it.
by Blair Schulman
copyright March 2006