Once her husband the President returned to the U.S. on an evening flight following their Buckingham Palace dinner, Jackie Kennedy the First Lady presumed she could slip out of her Persona and resume some of her life as a private person with relative ease, given she was less recognizable in a foreign country and no longer ringed by the large security detail of the presidency. She was mistaken.
In a letter she wrote her sister-in-law Joan Kennedy in the late 1970s, Jackie delineated the pros and cons of being married to the highly political and highly visible Kennedy brothers. While Teddy Kennedy’s adultery was the issue she specifically addressed, Jackie’s larger point was how she and Joan gained access to some of the world’s greatest minds and talents, among other perks, in return for the trying aspects of having married into the famous family. It was, in fact, an aspect of her life she loved – unlike the global curiosity she continued to generate. Jackie always believed that the degree of interest in her was neither justified nor commensurate with whatever blip on the screen of history she felt she would prove to be and that it was the President who deserved praise or scorn, and was the legitimate subject of scrutiny and fascination. Jackie always maintained that whatever she did was to help him, whether as his personal representative or as a symbol of their country, always an adjunct, and never the principal.
So, when Jackie Kennedy was suddenly on her own in Europe, not in place beside her husband the head of state, she genuinely believed she might be largely left alone simply because she didn’t rate as important compared to the President. However cogent her rationale or even ambivalent about being famous in her own right, it was an argument that fell on deaf ears. During the day she spent with her sister in London before they left for a nine-day Greek vacation, she was forced to face the fact that however she might technically be a private citizen, she was becoming the world’s biggest celebrity.
Her sister Lee, a longtime London resident who used the technically-defunct title of “Princess Radziwill” because she was married to a genuinely titled but deposed Polish prince, shared the First Lady’s love of exquisite antiques. Riding in a Rolls Royce provided by the American Embassy, the duo were driven through the arts and antiques district of Chelsea, stopping first at the shop of Vernon Skulls which she was eager to explore. It was closed. But word was out in Chelsea that Jackie was poking around the neighborhood. By the time they got to the shop of Frank Partridge on Bond Street – who cleared it of other customers so the Bouvier sisters could poke around in private, there was a crowd of about 150 Jackie-watchers clogging the sidewalk in front of it,. They squeezed through it and headed back to Skulls in their Rolls – only to find the store still closed. Earlier in the week, the organizers of the Grosvenor House Antiques Fair found out Jackie was likely to lurk about for old furniture, and they worked overtime to open the show a day ahead of schedule just in case she wanted to peek in. She did. At the fair, Jackie eyed a $420,000 diamond and emerald tiara once owned by the Bourbon Queen of Naples Marie Christine – but didn’t buy anything.
Someone had finally roused old Vernon Skulls and he hustled off to open his shop; sure enough, the third try was a charm for Jackie and she bought a picture and some small porcelain as gifts. He declared she had excellent tastes “when it comes to antiques.” Like everyone else in the world, it seemed, Skulls the antique store owner had an opinion on what she wore. For the record, he told the press she had on a “pale blue straight coat and cream accessories” to the antique stores. That night, reporters scanned her intensely in the brief seconds of time between her exiting a car and entrance into a townhouse to provide the crucial facts that she was wearing a “short, black-ribbed dress with a bateau neckline and a bloused top and a bow at the waist…sleeveless… [with] a flared skirt and over it she wore a matching black brocade coat.”
A later friend of legendary filmmaker Federico Fellini, Jackie sometimes listed his iconic classic La Dolce Vita (1960) as her all-time favorite film. The cinematography, music, and certainly the storyline about a hot, young reporter torn between an exciting jet-set life or a tense and conventional relationship reflected pieces from Jackie’s own life. The moment that merged fantasy and reality, however, came during a short layover at the Rome airport when Jackie descended the runway stairs only to be engulfed on the tarmac by over four dozen Italian photographers of the sort first depicted and named “paparazzi” (irritating, buzzing insects) in Fellini’s movie. “Smile, Jackie! Smile!” they yelled from behind their sunglasses at her, wildly waving to get a facial reaction out of her. Initially complying, she was unaccustomed to being shoved about and shouted at; by the time she reached the waiting room, her smile was a grimace. The paparazzi were told to wait outside on the tarmac.
Finally, an Italian airport representative returned to read the paparazzi a statement that summarized Jackie’s reaction to their demands not only for that day but for the rest of her life: “Mrs. Kennedy does not want to be disturbed and will not meet with any members of the press.”