Onassis, Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy

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Onassis, Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy

(b. 28 July 1929 in Southampton, New York; d. 19 May 1994 in New York City), first lady of the United States from 1961 to 1963, style-setter, and editor.

The woman eventually known to millions simply as “Jackie” was the daughter of the wealthy and socially prominent Janet Lee and John (”Jack”) Vernou Bouvier III, a stockbroker. After her parents divorced in 1940, Jacqueline and her younger sister, Lee, resided with their mother but continued to see and be influenced by their father, who made no secret of his preference for glamorous women with a touch of mystery about them. After graduation from Miss Porter’s School in Connecticut in 1947, Jacqueline completed two years at Vassar College, in Poughkeepsie, New York, took her junior year in Paris, and graduated from the George Washington University, in Washington, D.C., in 1951. Months later she had her own byline (”Inquiring Photographer”) at the Washington Times-Herald, where she earned $42.50 a week.

In May 1952 she met John F. Kennedy, a Massachusetts congressman who was preparing to run for the U.S. Senate. They married on 12 September 1953 in St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Newport, Rhode Island. The bride, who had grown up in a family that prized personal reserve, began a long apprenticeship in adapting to the high-energy lifestyle for which the Kennedy clan was already known. The interests she had nurtured since childhood—writing poetry, drawing, horseback riding—contrasted dramatically with the strenuous contact sports and hearty noise levels of the Kennedys. After many disappointments in the early years of her marriage (pregnancies that ended in miscarriage or stillbirth; the spinal surgeries of her husband and his failure to win the vice-presidential nomination in 1956), her luck turned: a daughter, Caroline, was born on 27 November 1957.

In 1960 Jacqueline Kennedy got her first taste of a national campaign. She had never shown much interest in politics, and after announcing in July that she was pregnant, she made few public appearances but contributed to her husband’s presidential victory by writing a column, “Campaign Wife,” for the Democratic National Committee’s newspaper and hosting a “television listening party” to watch the debates between her husband and his opponent, Vice President Richard Nixon. Her greatest value in the campaign resulted from her own personal popularity. As the youngest wife of a presidential nominee in many decades, she attracted much attention, and her glamour, her elegant and expensive clothes, and her witty way with words added to her mysterious allure.

Well before the November 1960 presidential victory, Jackie Kennedy began assembling a staff to assist her as first lady. Soon after the birth of John, Jr., on 25 November of that year, her social secretary, Letitia Baldrige, announced that the incoming first lady would work to restore the White House to its original splendor and make it a “showcase” for American artists and talent. To quell fears that this meant adding abstract art or altering the mansion’s familiar appearance, the first lady’s staff emphasized that contemporary culture would be represented by performing artists but that the public rooms would retain their Early American style. Some people speculated that such a project might add to the already elitist image of the wealthy Kennedys. Nevertheless, she persisted in her plan, although she was, she admitted, “warned, begged, and practically threatened” to leave it alone.

With the help of experts, she arranged to borrow paintings from the nation’s outstanding museums. To raise money for other acquisitions and for refurbishing the interior, she established the White House Historical Association, a nonprofit historical and educational organization that published and sold guidebooks. To protect the holdings of the White House and to encourage Americans to donate precious possessions, she encouraged Congress to pass legislation making furnishings of “artistic or historic importance” the “inalienable property” of the White House. A part-time curator from the Smithsonian began cataloging White House holdings, and valuable pieces once reserved for the pleasure of a few guests went on view for all tourists to see.

Despite some criticism that the changes were too “Frenchified” or costly, Kennedy earned wide praise. In early 1962 she conducted a televised tour of the White House, and when the program aired on 14 February, more than 46 million Americans watched, thus underlining the building’s prominence as a national monument and the first lady’s responsibility for overseeing its condition and use. The association of her popularity with historic preservation—a topic formerly deemed stodgy—helped change Americans’ attitudes. The number of visitors to the White House mushroomed.

Not all changes in the White House were limited to the public areas. Intent on providing more comfortable quarters for her family, Kennedy installed a kitchen and dining room on the second floor so that her two young children could enjoy more privacy. Upstairs, she arranged for a schoolroom so that young Caroline did not have to leave the premises. A new playground on the South Lawn was shielded from easy public view.

The first president’s wife born in the twentieth century, Jacqueline Kennedy approached the job of first lady in traditional terms but with an interesting public-relations twist. When questioned, she emphasized that her most important responsibility was ensuring her husband’s comfort and their children’s happiness—much as her nineteenth-century predecessors had done—but she showed a savvy respect for the value of good publicity. As a former reporter, she understood that people were curious about the presidential family, but, as her father’s daughter, she cherished privacy and understood its value in adding to her image. After appointing her own press secretary (the first president’s wife to do so), she relied heavily on Pierre Salinger, the president’s press secretary, to keep reporters away from her and her children.

In her social role as first lady, Kennedy made headlines. She arranged an elegant dinner at George Washington’s estate, Mount Vernon, and scheduled other parties to honor outstanding American performers and writers. She employed a French-born chef, Rene Verdon, who produced menus more representative of his home country than of hers. By abolishing the formal reception line and replacing the large banquet tables with tables for ten, she made evenings at the White House less formal. Despite her reputation as a big spender, she did not order new White House china, and she noted that her choice of inexpensive glassware from a West Virginia factory helped put people to work.

Popular both at home and abroad, Kennedy became a fashion icon, and millions of women copied her bouffant hairstyle, low-heeled pumps, and sleeveless sheath dresses. The “Jackie look” gained admirers across Europe and South America, and when she accompanied the president on trips outside the United States, she sometimes attracted more attention than he. In the spring of 1961, when she reportedly impressed Prime Minister Charles de Gaulle with her style and knowledge of French, John Kennedy introduced himself as “the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris.”

The first lady also traveled on her own, without the president, making forays with her children or her sister to parts of the world that she visited for her own pleasure. She thus helped accustom Americans to the idea that a president’s wife had a life of her own, apart from the responsibilities of political spouse. In October 1963 she went to Greece to recover from the death of her infant son, Patrick Bouvier, born on 7 August of that year.

Soon after returning, Jackie agreed to accompany the president on a political trip to Texas. She had frequently not participated in public appearances, asking others to substitute for her and thus keeping much of her time for herself. But she made an exception in this case, and she was seated beside her husband in an open limousine when he was shot to death in Dallas on 22 November 1963. Less than two hours later, still wearing her bloodstained suit, she stood beside Lyndon B. Johnson as he took the inaugural oath. The presence of a presidential widow at such an event was unprecedented, but the photograph taken on that occasion (and widely reproduced) helped calm fears of Americans regarding the assassination of a president and the legitimate passing of power to his successor.

On the flight back to Washington, Mrs. Kennedy began planning the details of her husband’s funeral, using many of the trappings that had made the funeral of Abraham Lincoln so dramatic. She specified that the catafalque upon which the coffin lay in the East Room duplicate that of Lincoln and that the funeral take place at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, which was close enough so that the cortege could reach it on foot. Afterward, the young widow met privately with world leaders who had come to show their respect. Millions of people who watched the funeral on television could never forget the poignant image of her with her two young children.

Intent on assuring that her husband’s short presidency would not be forgotten, she ordered that a plaque—inscribed with the number of days that “John Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline” lived there—be placed over the mantel in their White House bedroom. Only a week after the funeral, she spoke with the writer Theodore White and encouraged him to write about the Kennedy administration as “Camelot,” a description that stuck, although several members of the Kennedy staff, including special assistant Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., insisted that it was inaccurate.

By early December, Jackie and her two children had left the White House (although Caroline continued her classes there until the end of the semester) and moved into a house in Georgetown owned by the wealthy and distinguished diplomat and New York governor Averell Harriman. Just months later, she purchased an apartment at 1040 Fifth Avenue in New York City, and she moved her family there in September 1964.

At age thirty-four, Jacqueline Kennedy faced a much longer widowhood than any of her predecessors, and she became the second (after Frances Cleveland) to remarry. Following the assassination of her brother-in-law Robert Kennedy in June 1968, she became more concerned about her own safety and that of her children. On 20 October 1968 she married the Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis, whose enormous wealth provided the means to give them a safe haven outside the United States. Despite her safety concerns, she continued to keep her children in New York City schools and to live much of the year there. Many Americans objected to her remarriage on the grounds that Onassis’s Greek citizenship, advanced age (he was twenty-three years her senior), and reputation for womanizing and aggressive business dealings made him unworthy of a woman widely viewed as a national icon. When he died in Paris on 15 March 1975, she was in New York City but issued a statement about how he had “meant a lot to her” and had “rescued” her at a time when her life “was engulfed with shadows.” She inherited more than $20 million from his estate while the bulk went to his daughter, Christina.

Later that year Jacqueline Onassis started working at Viking Press in New York City but moved to Doubleday in 1978. Beginning as an associate editor, she eventually became a senior editor responsible for about a dozen books each year by authors that included Bill Moyers, Michael Jackson, and the Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz. She also served as a board member of the American Ballet Theatre and worked to save historic buildings, most notably New York City’s Grand Central Station. She continued to nurture her first husband’s legacy with her support for the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston.

Wherever she went, Onassis continued to attract attention. Escorted at first by a variety of prominent men, she had as her constant companion for the last twelve years of her life the Belgian-born diamond dealer Maurice Tempelsman. On walks in Central Park she was sometimes photographed with her young granddaughters, the children of Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg.

In early 1994 Onassis was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and she died at her Fifth Avenue apartment on 19 May. Although she had been a member of the nearby St. Thomas More Church, her funeral service took place at the larger St. Ignatius. Her son, John, Jr., who spoke at the service, noted that he and his sister had searched for the themes that shaped her life, and in the end they had selected three: love of words, emphasis on family, and desire for adventure. Burial followed at Arlington National Cemetery, in Arlington, Virginia, where her first husband and the two children who had predeceased them (infant Patrick and an unnamed stillborn daughter) were also buried.

The four-day auction of Onassis’s personal effects at Sotheby’s in New York in April 1996 resulted in “insane” buying and reaped more than $34 million, far more than predicted. But it was hardly unexpected, since she had fascinated Americans for nearly four decades with her signature style.

The John F. Kennedy Library is the chief repository of Onassis’s papers, including several hundred boxes of White House social files and 200 oral-history transcripts containing references to her. On her early years, see John H. Davis, The Bouviers: Portrait of an American Family (1969). On the White House years, see Letitia Baldrige, Of Diamonds and Diplomats (1968); Carl Sferrazza Anthony, First Ladies, vol. 2 (1991); and James A. Abbott and Elaine M. Rice, Designing Camelot (1998). Following her death, authors interviewed people who knew her and now spoke more openly about her and about the Kennedy marriage; see Edward Klein, All Too Human (1996), and Christopher P. Andersen, Jack and jackie: Portrait of an American Marriage (1996). A frontpage obituary is in the New York Times (20 May 1994).

Betty Boyd Caroli

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