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.