Fifty years ago, from May 31 to June 16, 1961, a world leader’s wife found herself transformed into a world Icon in her own right. Many attributed the rare status to the night of June 1, when she glided in a cape past the illuminated gardens and fountains at the Palace of Versailles and sailed into the Hall of Mirrors in a glamorous evening gown to assume her seat at the table of history. After her palace premier, growing masses of fans cheered her as she toured in little hats and bright-colored dresses through Vienna and London. By the time she returned home to the U.S., she’d transcended being a mere trend-setter with a trajectory towards Icon along an arc that endures to this day.
Her famous style, however, was but the hardware of an intrinsic substance more visible during her last stop, in Greece, without the press coverage of artificial coiffure or fussy clothes eclipsing it. Her intuitive sensitivity to the range of human emotions was especially overt the day she spontaneously postponed boarding a luxurious yacht to instead join a village festival with gustily celebrating peasants, an episode almost universally excised from her public narrative. Her substance and sensitivity, however, did embed in what she came to symbolize, though expectations of her as an Icon often proved so demanding she herself was overwhelmed by the phenomena known simply as “Jackie.”
As time moves on past a memorable event, it becomes easier for collective memory to believe the narrative which persists with the widest emotional appeal, an especial irony when it centers on a life chronicled almost daily for over thirty years in print and pictures.
Today’s conventional view of Jackie Kennedy Onassis began when she let misperceptions about her go unchallenged and abandoned any further public role, following her reluctant 1980 presidential primary campaign appearances on behalf of her brother-in-law Teddy Kennedy. Her 1994 obituaries widely spread the shorthand that her legacy was her look and collapsed facts to suggest she only achieved Icon status by wearing bright pink in the historic moment more widely seen than any other captured on film, her husband’s 1963 assassination.
Heroic role models distinctly define their public identities by acts of sacrifice or courage, as did the young pilot Charles Lindbergh for flying the Atlantic alone in 1928. Whether it’s a momentous assassination or airplane flight, however, key figures in such seismic events rarely remain familiar across the centuries by mere mention of a single name, be it Napoleon, Cleopatra, Washington, or Charlemagne. Those who keep feeding the emotional needs of the masses, however, are indelibly placed in the public pantheon by singularly evoking their era, as in Caesar of Ancient Rome, Henry VIII of Protestant England, Columbus of the New World, Chaplin of the Movies – or, Jackie of Mid-Century Modern America.
Four months before they made their first state visit, the first Presidential couple born in the 20th century moved into the White House. However rapidly it seemed that automation was spinning everyday life into the Space Age, in 1961, the personal lives of Presidents and First Ladies were still expected to set the loftiest model of virtue and dignity for the nation’s people to strive towards in emulation. For millions of young couples with small children and new homes, this proved especially the case in 1961.
The last five years of the 1940s had seen record numbers of men in their twenties returning from World War II and taking advantage of the G.I. Bill to pursue college educations, often becoming the first in their families to achieve a higher degree. As the economy rebounded in the early 50s and thrived by the mid 50s, millions of tract houses were raised across wide tracts of undeveloped property outside of major cities that were christened “suburbia,” meeting the demand of newlyweds armed with home loans also through the G.I. Bill. By the early 60s, although the cost of raising kids and medical care was a new concern, many young married couples who’d grown up financially insecure during the Great Depression found a bit of confidence in the entirely new concept of “discretionary income.” For the first time, the burgeoning middle-class found it could afford to supplement the clothes made at home on a Singer Sewing Machine and buy a bit of luxury wear at a department store. While Sunday still meant church for the majority, Saturday no longer meant another work day but some leisure time to try golf, go swimming or even go horseback riding in the park. New kitchens promised a dizzying array of time-saving gadgets, even if new wives and moms might fear burning dinner. In the summertime, it was now even possible to take that trip of a lifetime to old Europe. While still relatively expensive, taking a first airplane ride on a modern Jet was affordable to more Americans than crossing the ocean by luxury liner. It was also faster, getting parents back in time before the kids started school. For many of the young suburban couples striving to get traction on upward mobility the only anxious question was how to do it “right.” With diamonds and divorces the lives of young Hollywood couples was alluring but alarming. With grandkids and bridge games in the White House, Ike and Mamie exemplified values but routine. And then, as American consumerism was hitting its pinnacle, Jackie Kennedy went to Europe.
The basic facts of Mrs. John F. Kennedy’s life had already marked her as unusual by the time she’d become First Lady four months earlier, on January 20, 1961. Although at 31 years old she had a decade on Frances Cleveland who’d become First Lady in 1886 by marrying the incumbent President, Jackie was the youngest in the 20thcentury. The most radical difference was that she came with an infant child, a fact that made her unlike any First Lady within memory but won the instant simpatico of millions of young American mothers.
By the Inauguration she was still struggling to recover from the cesarean surgery birth of her son John less than two months earlier. He and three-year old sister Caroline remained at their paternal grandparents’ Palm Beach estate until the White House living quarters were ready for them. Distraction from their absence at the Inauguration, however, was offered by the surprise appearance of a plain, inanimate object. It was on the head of Mrs. Kennedy.
While the most legendary historic figures all remain concepts tethered to their abstract narrative, those with the visual distinction of a trademark achieve the status of Icon: Churchill’s cigar and pocket-watch, Lincoln’s hat and beard, Elizabeth I’s collar. Object or gesture, the trademark begins simply as their preferred color, hat type, routine boutonniere or haircut, the same walking stick or mustache, a raised eyebrow, pointed finger, teeth-baring smile, limp, or head-throwing guffaw. Hundreds of signals can indicate an Icon.
In July 1960, while her husband was the Democratic presidential candidate, Jackie Kennedy planted her first visual trademark in the public mind, startled the press by appearing before them in pink pants and orange sweater. Bright colors immediately identified her in television news reports which were increasingly using new color film technology. It also drew subtle yet flattering publicity by association to the candidate. After his November 1960 election, she began conceptualizing her public look of suits blending sporty movement with squared formality and gowns referencing historical periods from classic Greece to the Empire Age.
At his January 1961 Inaugural ceremony, she pulled a paradoxical trick, wearing bland beige at the very moment she was being transformed into a bona fide public figure. Standing beside Mamie Eisenhower in red, Pat Nixon in blue and Lady Bird Johnson in green, she stood out for her starkness. It also made the Minnie Mouse rounds that sat back on her equally-signature bouffant hairstyle with a long bang sideswiped across her forehead pop out even more. The rest of her was all subtlety, but there was no mistaking that Jackie had blown up and turned upside down a popular accessory of the era to make her own. It was called the pillbox hat.
Bracing for the unrelenting scrutiny and exacting standards she knew she’d confront in Paris the moment she hit the Orly Airport tarmac with President Kennedy, Jackie attended to the details of her appearances, enlisting the services of a renowned Parisian beautician Nathalie and coiffurist Alexandre.
On her first night there, May 31, she dropped the jaws of some 3,000 leading French citizens at a banquet reception by appearing in a “Madonna” hairstyle from a 14th century French painting.
The next night, at Versailles, she wore a gown that resembled those worn by European royalty. She had commissioned it to be crafted by Frenchman Hubert de Givenchy, knowing the pride France took in its fashion industry. During the day, she directed her French Citroen limousine to zigzag her past the most famous Parisian landmarks, as she made her way from a lunch at the historic home of Madame de Pompadour to the country house of Empress Josephine, her car’s black bubbletop keeping her visible to Parisians. After touring the Jeu de Paume Museum with French Cultural Minister André Malraux, she stopped to tell the press that her favorite piece was by Manet. Her only regret was not being able to walk among the chic Parisians on their beautiful boulevards and stop at one of their legendary cafes. The state gifts she chose to be given the de Gaulles were a letter of George Washington to a French commander thanking his people for help in winning the American Revolution and a painting of the Boulevard des Capucines by American artist Maurice Prendergast, proof that at least two Americans beside herself appreciated France, Paris and the French.
Prone to blindness when their culture was so lavishly embraced, the French press hailed Jackie as a goddess of beauty, some going so far as to praise her skin, eyes and arms. As Le Figaro put it, “The First Lady is bursting with youth and beauty.” The widely read France-Soir also went on in this vein, rhapsodizing, “How cute she is – how pretty – how short her dress is…” Chronicling her parade of outfits and slyly suggesting she was really more French, it left even harsh anti-American analysts a little less space to criticize her brash young husband and his arrogant young nation. As columnist Willy Guiboud still managed to snipe, “Pardon me, Mr. Kennedy, but I applauded particularly for Jacqueline.”
Fabric and flesh did not go deep enough, however, to explain the Gallic rapture unleashed on Jackie. Dozens of well-known, wealthy and beautiful young women dressed as well and moved as mannerly, and also spoke French. More obviously, the reaction she got in the first hours of her arrival in Paris couldn’t be credited with what she would later wear there. The 101-gun salute repeatedly fired as the Kennedy motorcade made its way into the city was no match for the new sound rising from the streets. “Vive Jacquie! Vive Jacquie!” thousands of Parisians chanted repeatedly for over an hour.
Provoking that response had not been left to chance.
In the weeks before her arrival, France had been inculcated by the White House Press Office, at the devising of Press Secretary Pierre Salinger, with other facts about Jackie that hadn’t been emphasized in the American press before the Inauguration. Like them, she was a Catholic, the only American First Lady in history of that faith. The majority of Americans knew her as part of the Eastern seaboard elite, with her attendance at private boarding school and then Vassar College. The majority of French seemed more familiar with her, since her love of all things French had been borne during her junior year of college at the Sorbonne. Nothing more about the brunette with Mediterranean looks needed to be spoken on the news, however, than the correct pronunciation of her maiden name – Bouvier. She emphasized this. In fact, when she learned that a very distant Bouvier relative had died in a car crash during her stay, Jackie dashed off a condolence letter and had it released to the press. That she had only one French great-grandparent on her father’s wide while her mother was entirely of Irish ancestry was left unstated. Rather than let these facts serve as introduction, Jackie took one further step that made all the difference. She granted a television interview in flawless French.
Many later believed Jackie sought the media frenzy she claimed to abhor. Without question she sought any privilege that led to material luxury and financial security, but a half-century of data still suggests she didn’t seek fame for personal validation. While his desire for other women was the greatest of John F. Kennedy’s flaws to inflict emotional wounds on her, the attributes and ideals they shared far outweighed them, from broadening education and deepening intelligence, domestically, to raising respect for it and democracy, internationally. When they married in 1953, his political ambitions trumped her budding career as a writer, but few have recognized how it also offered her a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to infuse her own values and vision into one of historic consequence. At least in her initial phase as First Lady, she held the traditional view that a wife’s talents should be fitted into the larger course set by her husband. Her clothing style, entertaining innovations, historic White House preservation project and intention to prompt government support for the arts rose directly from her innate sensibilities, but she viewed its impact through the prism of potential luster and prestige to her husband’s presidency, not to her personal popularity.
While her interest in domestic issues was limited to public education, Jackie Kennedy had a clear handle on the larger context of the Cold War and the necessity of America’s role in the postwar world. Fluent in French and Spanish, conversant in Italian, Polish and German, she pursued her interest in world cultures since her high school years. As proven by questions she’d asked as a newspaper columnist before she’d even met then-Senator Kennedy and then the foreign policy journals she translated for him, Jackie had a serious grasp on the issue of France’s failed Southeast Asian policy and whether the U.S. was taking a similarly doomed course.
She took all the fuss about hats and hair seriously enough, but the larger point of it all was to provide a beguiling context for JFK’s series of five policy meetings with French President Charles De Gaulle. As a student of history and world leaders she understood the role of ego and personality in diplomacy. In fact, a year earlier she’d translated De Gaulle’s memoirs for JFK, and suggested he use its tone and outline to frame his own vision of America in his presidential candidacy announcement speech. Before his meetings began with De Gaulle, the First Lady also wisely urged the President to memorize portions of the book to quote back to De Gaulle. The day after their arrival, she also wisely had him insert into his important speech at Paris City Hall some praise for Frenchman L’Enfant who designed America’s capital city of Washington.
Jackie worked her own offensive with the arrogant mon Generale. He’d declared that she was the only U.S. product he wished to have imported when they’d met a year earlier at a French Embassy event in Washington, impressed by her style.
In Paris, de Gaulle was even more stunned by her substance, in her command of even obscure aspects of French history and her flawless French. He even snidely suggested she couldn’t possibly be American. Reminding him her ancestors were French, he shot back, “Mine were too, madam, mine were too.”
In a series of 1987 written responses to my questions and her 1989 hand-written notes and corrections on my typescript of several chapters about her White House years for my book First Ladies, volume II, Jacqueline Onassis didn’t name De Gaulle or France specifically when she mentioned the post-war resentment of Americans she found in Europe, but perhaps coyly hinted at it with the third word she chose: “I was galled at the patronizing attitude towards America, annoyed by the compliment ‘but no one would think you were American,’ if one showed a knowledge of literature or history.”
Among the international affair topics reviewed by De Gaulle and Kennedy in their meetings was the potential impact of western nations against the rise of communism in Southeast Asia. None of the three principals ever revealed if that topic was being discussed at dinner when suddenly De Gaulle dismissed his translator and asked that Jackie join him and Jack to serve as their translator. At the least, De Gaulle was as impressed by the way Jackie thought as he was by the way she looked. Several of his aides and those reporters who regularly covered him believed that her embracing the French culture had helped to subtlety shift De Gaulle’s view of the new American leadership. It was a conscientious effort, for Jackie was not naturally enamored with De Gaulle as is always suggested. In a later notation she made to explain why she cut an anecdote I’d included in my manuscript about her being defensive of De Gaulle to the President, Mrs. Onassis wrote “untrue – or a joke. JBK shared JFK’s frequent exasperation with De Gaulle.”
If the President and First Lady conveyed concern about America’s evolving Vietnam policy to De Gaulle, Jackie Kennedy alone explored the possibilities of another policy agenda with Cultural Minister Malraux during their rapid tour of the Jeu de Paume Museum, its brevity due to the fact that two of his sons had been killed in a car accidents days earlier. Astounded that he kept his commitment to her, Jackie formed an immediate bond with Malraux not only as a person but for his view of “public art” in France inspiring her own for the U.S. Of his Ministry of Culture, her friend, historian Arthur Schlesinger noted, Jackie “knew precisely how important its impact had been on France.” In a note she later provided for my book First Ladies, volume 2, she admitted to shaping up her own vision of a Cabinet-level department on the arts, “but much groundwork would have to be done before that was possible.”
While still in Paris, she “persuaded” the President to extend an invitation to Malraux to make a future visit to the U.S. and “hoped his visit would call attention to the importance of the arts, which received so little government support in the United States, whereas in other countries they were subsidized by the government.” She went on to stipulate that not only “great museums” but the “experimental” and “contemporary artists – in all the media,” should have some partial support since they “have excited the world.” She also realized “The public had to feel the need for support of the arts.” At that point, just first consulting with Malraux, however, she was only just formulating how she might begin to do this. She also confirmed for me that it was she who successfully urged JFK to name the first arts “consultant” to the executive branch.
Her flattering of France, translations for De Gaulle and lessons from Malraux almost seemed subversive in contrast to the avalanche of press about her clothes, manners, and beauty, which entirely lacked speculation a bout what might lay beneath it all. The newspaper France-Soir called her appearance at the famous dinner, “Apotheosis at Versailles.” Le Monde concluded that “The general opinion is that the student Kennedy has brilliantly passed his Paris examination…With such a partner, discussion becomes easier, more complete and more frank.”
Nobody summarized the French press better than the President did when he addressed them before leaving. “I do not think it altogether inappropriate for me to introduce myself,” he famously quipped, “I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris.”
The surest sign a legend lives on as Icon, however, is when public esteem is driven to desire some proverbial piece of them, whether it be an emblem or embodiment of their image. Be it cheap, satirical, bizarre, offensive or ingenious, a mass-manufactured item is homage to a persona, an unearthly flattery few ever experience. That’s what began to happen with Jackie before she even left Europe. In the years immediately following World War II, a Dresden, Germany company employed political satire in its production of paper-mache liquor bottle stoppers by using caricatured heads of Truman, Stalin, Churchill, Eisenhower, and Adanuer. Recognizing a commodity when they spotted it, the company rushed into production the collection’s first and only woman – a bouffanted Jackie.
Equally eager to adapt uniquely postwar America’s hottest new n symbol was the other former Axis enemy – Japan. Its Pico Novelty Company soon enough turned out a bobblehead Jackie that kissed one of JFK with magnet lips, to be placed in the back window of cars. Not to be outdone, the Italians crafted black bone china wall plaques with Jackie’s cameo in white. Holland came out with Jackie stickpins, Spain with Jackie cigar bands.
Before she had even returned to the U.S., the news departments of both C.B.S. and N.B.C. did serious half-hour documentary reports to assess the “impact of Mrs. John F. Kennedy on the global scene.” There was no consideration of her having any political intelligence, rather it was all through the prism of her “youthful composure and lovely gowns.” Nevertheless, as Edwin Newman concluded, in old Europe, the U.S. was viewed as a “woman’s country” and “young people’s country,” and that “Mrs. Kennedy did represent the American way of life,” and was now “part of the world’s most discussed cast.” A Chicago Daily News analysis reported that her “tact, charm and sweet manners greatly eased her husband’s difficult diplomatic discussions with the austere de Gaulle. This is possibly the first time in American history that a First Lady has taken such an important, if indirect, part in her country’s foreign policy.”
And the tour had only just begun.
The Kennedys left on June 2 for their next stop, Vienna, Austria, where the President would have his first encounter with his short and chubby Cold War rival, the deadly bear of Communism himself, Premier Nikita Khrushchev.
The First Lady would face the wily Soviet leader on her own terms. Unlike her husband whose meetings with him resulted in a stalemate, however, Jackie would tear the Iron Curtain without dropping her seventh veil.
Next, Part II: The Communists and the Queen