The enduring legacy of Jacqueline Kennedy, a master at shaping public appearance

November 20, 2013


President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, arrive at Love Field in Dallas on a campaign tour with Vice President Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird, on Nov. 22, 1963, the day Kennedy was assassinated. (Art Rickerby/Time & Life Pictures via Getty Images)

Image 1: Dallas, Nov. 22, 1963

In the photo, the pink pillbox hat is pushed back and her hair falls in a perfect auburn flip. She is wearing frosted pale pink lipstick and holding a bouquet of red, red roses. The president walks beside her. ¶ So much power resides in that photo taken at Dallas’s Love Field, 50 minutes before everything changed. But it is Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy at whom people stare, as if trying to look past that impenetrable field that would only grow stronger. ¶ On that day, she would become almost mythological. “When the moment turns, [those] images of her in that suit supersede reality and thrust her into a mythological role, which is ironic because she was a person who fully understood mythology,” said Carl Sferrazza Anthony, author of “The Kennedy White House: Family Life and Pictures, 1961-1963.” ¶ “The photographs of her and the assassination itself . . . hit on so many levels and one of those is the most primal. It is the reason for our perpetual fascination.” ¶ Even in the chaos and trauma that followed the shots, she almost instinctively began shaping images, orchestrating movement. She noticed details.

“All the seat was full of blood and red roses,” she would recall later.

When the limo arrived at the hospital, Jacqueline Kennedy sat in shock, but she was still aware enough to protect her husband from indignity. “She would not let go,” Secret Service agent Clint Hill recalled in his book, “Mrs. Kennedy and Me.”

“ ‘Please Mrs. Kennedy,’ ” he pleaded. “Please let us get him into the hospital.’ She looked up at me . . . her eyes were looking, but not seeing. And then I understood: She doesn’t want anyone to see him like this. . . . Nobody should see the president like this.” Hill took off his suit coat and put it over the president’s head and chest. “As soon as my coat was covering the president, she released her grip.”

She famously refused to change from the pink suit. “Everyone kept saying to me to put a cold towel around my head and wipe the blood off,” she later told Theodore H. White, a favorite writer for Life magazine. “I saw myself in the mirror; my whole face spattered with blood and hair. I wiped it off with Kleenex. . . . Then one second later, I thought, ‘Why did I wash the blood off?’ I should have left it there; let them see what they’ve done.”

On Air Force One, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson waited for her and the casket. As Johnson took the oath of office, Jacqueline Kennedy was still in the suit.

“I looked at her. Mrs. Kennedy’s dress was stained with blood,” Lady Bird Johnson wrote in her diary. “One leg was almost entirely covered with it and her right glove was caked, it was caked with blood — her husband’s blood. Somehow that was one of the most poignant sights — that immaculate woman exquisitely dressed, and caked in blood.”


Jacqueline Kennedy, with bloodstains on her clothes, holds hands with her brother-in-law, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, as the coffin carrying the body of John F. Kennedy is placed in an ambulance after arriving at Andrews Air Force Base, Md. (AP/Associated Press)

Image 2: Maryland,
Nov. 22, 1963

Jacqueline Kennedy was still in the suit late that night, arriving at Andrews Air Force Base, holding the hand of Robert Kennedy. Blood still clung to her skirt and stockings. Her face was stoic.

It is in this frame that she will be frozen for years — young, pink suit, tragedy, martyred wife. It is from this image that she will try to move on. But viewers will always go back and watch. She became a figure trapped in the public’s fascination.

“She was present at a scene of martyrdom and an intimate witness, vulnerable to that moment, escaping death herself,” said Wayne Koestenbaum, author of “Jackie Under My Skin: Interpreting An Icon.” “It sealed her fate as part of a tragic, fascinating spectacle that played in millions of minds.

“The worst thing in her life that could possibly happen, happened. And it happened in broad daylight in front of everyone. It was always happening in front of everyone, a ghastly carnival replay of the worst thing that can happen.”

Jacqueline (Jac-que-LEEN, as she pronounced her name) was well-bred, well-read, well-traveled, a Francophile, a woman who spoke in that soft breathy singsong whisper that movie stars used at the time. It was a voice refined in an era in which girls were groomed to hide their intelligence lest they frighten men away.

In first-ladydom, she had begun to assert herself, ushering in an era of social graces, French haute couture and the restoration of a White House that, she said, “looked like it’s been furnished by discount stores.” She hired a curator and restored the mansion with 19th-century furniture, invited cultural giants to elegant state dinners, all the while blossoming into a fashion icon, masterfully reshaping the role of first lady.

No longer a political liability to her husband, she became wildly popular, an asset. Although she did not “adore” politics, she agreed to accompany him on her “first real political trip” to Texas.

There, she would become caught in a film reel from which she would never fully escape, “except to become more radically private,” Koestenbaum said. “It is as if that moment she learns the consequences of being famous, being the object of a stranger’s attention.”

The way she managed it: She took control. Because she coveted privacy for herself and her family, and because of the public’s hunger, she carefully doled out images. “My press relations will be minimum information,” she told her press secretary, Pamela Turnure, “given with maximum politeness.”

“It is a contradiction, but in that contradiction lies the secret of her poise and lure,” Koestenbaum said. “She did not want to be looked at, but she was in a position where she would be looked at. She was very good at being looked at.”


Caroline Kennedy, 5, and John F. Kennedy Jr., 3, with their mother, Jacqueline Kennedy, leaving St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington after the funeral Mass for John F. Kennedy. (AP/Associated Press)

Image 3: Washington, Nov. 25, 1963

Outside St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, she stands in an elegant black suit and long black gloves, with her children. Her face is obscured beneath a thin black veil of Swiss lace. According to written accounts, she had declined to take any medication to ease the grief. She wanted to remain alert to organize the details of the funeral.

“People forget that first and foremost all the people — whether Bush, the Obamas, the Kennedys — they are human beings and respond like we do,” said Anthony. “They go through trauma and shock and loss.

“In the first few days, [Jacqueline] says, ‘We have to get through it,’ the mourning and the process of grieving and recognizing the person who was her husband was also the president.”

Immediately, she began focusing on details of the funeral and shaping her husband’s legacy. She wanted him remembered as a hero, and modeled his funeral procession after that of President Lincoln. She gave instructions to include a riderless horse in the procession and requested that there be an eternal flame at Arlington Cemetery. She seemed the perfect picture of controlled grief as she led the procession. And with perfect timing, she whispered to her son, John Jr. — who turned 3 that day — instructing him to say goodbye to his father and salute the casket.

“In front of the eyes of everyone, she was self-conscious of herself and her appearance,” Anthony said. “She saw herself as part of the ceremonial staging of how she wanted him remembered.”

A week later, she called writer White to Hyannis Port, Mass., and, according to the notes White donated to the Kennedy Presidential Library, she orchestrated an article for Life magazine. It was near deadline, but Life held the presses — at a cost of $30,000 an hour, according to the “Kennedy Assassination Chronicles.”

“The chief memory I have is of her composure; of her beauty (dressed in black trim slacks, beige pullover sweater, her eyes wider than pools); and of her calm voice and total recall,” White wrote in his notes, released after her death. “We began by sitting down on the sofa and she leaned forward and asked . . . ‘What shall I say? What can I do for you?’ ”

White offered a suggestion. But, he would note, she already had clear thoughts of her own of how she wanted the president remembered. This is where she would shape the image of the Kennedy administration as Camelot. (The musical was running on Broadway during most of his time in the White House.)

There’ll be great presidents again, but there’ll never be another Camelot again,” she said. White typed up his story in 45 minutes in the servants’ room, then dictated it to his editors from a telephone in the kitchen. Jacqueline listened and interjected, insisting on keeping some passages that editors wanted to cut. On the typed pages, the 34-year-old widow penciled in: “And all she could think of was tell people there will never be that Camelot again.”


Shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis with Jacqueline Kennedy on Oct. 18, 1968. The couple was wed two days later. (Central Press/Central Press via Getty Images)

Image 4: Oct. 18, 1968

Five years after the assassination of John Kennedy, and four months after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy married Aristotle Onassis, a multimillionaire shipping tycoon, who owned the yacht on which she spent time after the death of her baby son, Patrick.

The tabloids began calling her “Jackie O.” On Onassis’s arm, she traveled Europe in sleek miniskirts and bouffant hair. She had become “the outsider” the public had once accused her of being, and the public was not pleased.

“She had been sacred as a widow,” Koestenbaum said. But after the remarriage, “there was such bad publicity. She had fallen in stature. . . . She moved to an island. She married a pirate.”

For the most part, the American public thought she could have done better.

“It was part xenophobic,” Koestenbaum said. “He was like this short millionaire whose money was earned in disreputable ways. People thought, ‘Why would she be attracted to a man who looked like that?’ ”

She said the move was to protect her children. “If they’re killing Kennedys, then my children are targets,” she said, according to “After Camelot: A Personal History of the Kennedy Family, 1968 to the Present.” “I want to get out of this country.”

Onassis died in 1975. Jacqueline Kennedy’s mystique endured, even as she returned to New York and became a book editor, first at Viking Press, then at Doubleday. She climbed the editorial ladder, closing book deals with celebrities, including Michael Jackson for “Moonwalk.”

“She didn’t have to have a job,” Koestenbaum said. “That the most glamorous woman in America would choose to be a book editor — she did books a huge favor.”

Sightings of her in New York continued to awe crowds.

“There was something inscrutable about Mrs. Kennedy as first lady. There is something unknowable about her,” said Hamish Bowles, Vogue’s international editor at-large, who curated the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit “Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years.”

“That unknowable inscrutability is immensely appealing. That is something Mrs. Kennedy maintained when she was trying to bring up her children in the glare in the events at the end of the administration. I think one can’t help but be fascinated by the unknowable, which is very appealing.”

According to the book “The Eloquent Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis: A Portrait in Her Own Words,” she was once asked by poet Stephen Spender at a 1979 dinner party to name her proudest accomplishment. She told him, “Well, I think my biggest achievement is that, after going through a very difficult time, I consider myself comparatively sane.”

Jacqueline Kennedy died in 1994 in her Fifth Avenue apartment in New York. Outside, crowds mourned her death. Her funeral was private.

Clarification: Hamish Bowles’s title has been changed from an earlier version of this article. Although he is listed on the Vogue Web site as European editor, the magazine says his title is now international editor at large.

READ MORE:

Jacqueline Kennedy’s bloodstained pink suit, preserved but not on view

DeNeen L. Brown is an award-winning staff writer at The Washington Post who has covered night police, education, courts, politics and culture.
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