On Tour with Jackie Kennedy: London Antiquing to Fellini Scene in Rome (Part 3)

Jackie Kennedy peeks out from the doorway of her sister’s London home, 1961.

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.

The American First Lady heads out for some antique shopping with her sister Lee Radzwill from the latter’s London home in early June 1961.

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.

ackie Kennedy and sister Lee Radziwill go antique shopping in the Chelsea section of London.

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.

In Fellini’s film, the American Actress arrives in Rome; in real life, Fellini’s friend the American First Lady arrives in Rome.

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.”


Categories: First Ladies, On Tour with Jackie Kennedy, The Kennedys

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4 replies »

  1. Hi Carl,

    One of the interesting similarities I’ve always thought that the Queen and Jackie shared was a sort of humility. Neither seemed to quite understand the kind of personal adulation and interest that they inspired. While they both understood the importance of their positions, it was their personal selves that they were not really comfortable offering up. I’m speaking in the past tense but, of course, in the case of the Queen it’s still happening. Where Jackie thought she could/should be able to revert to the role of private citizen, the Queen is always said to be so surprised by the outpouring of love and affection shown on occasions such as her Golden Jubilee a few years ago. Of course, they are in entiredly different positions, but I find it surprising that they are/were able to take their own fame and importance with a grain of salt.

    On that topic, I’d love to know more about the dinner at Buckingham Palace. I’ve read varying accounts, but I find it hard to believe that the Queen was jealous of Jackie, or that Jackie had any really negative feelings toward the Queen. I am thinking about the fact that Prince Philip was one of the few foreign dignitaries Jackie met with personally after JFK’s funeral. I may be reading too much into that. Also, what kind of correspondence did the two have after 1963? Any idea where more info can be found about the visit to Runnymede?

    I enjoyed this piece very much.



    • Regardless of whatever titles or labels are placed on or assumed by famous people, they are human beings first – so I imagine that explains the sense of humility. Also, being around some of the most powerful people in the world – Presidents, Prime Ministers, Premiers – accounts for this. Most world leaders are now elected by the vote to resolve real-life issues and problems. Those who’s public roles are, at least initially, intended only to be symbolic, are smart enough to realize that no matter how powerful a symbol or gesture they might be in moving people, that it is those who regulate domestic legislation and international policy are the more important figures for they directly impact the daily, real lives of human beings, most of whom are naturally more concerned with their own existence than that of the famous. And I think that more than most – because they see and live in these circles, people like Jacqueline Kennedy and Queen Elizabeth know this and know that ultimately, no matter how emotionally stirring their words and deeds may be to the public, they are less important in an immediate and practical way than are those who lead and shape the laws and legislation of a country. I think they are flattered by the attention but uncomfortable and bewildered for being excessively lofted up in the hearts and minds of strangers who don’t really know them as human beings but as Personae. We all know this, I believe, on reflective instinct but the need for distraction, numbness and escapism has been with humans since ancient times. Witness the power of mythological gods and goddesses over people. However, since there is money to be made in “selling” the emotional public figures rather than those who regulate real life, that the media and other related industries have convinced us that “dessert is dinner.”

      I’d imagine from what I know about Jacqueline Kennedy (but not having any real insight or knowledge about the mind and heart of Queen Elizabeth except from those great PBS documentaries that have provided well-edited glimpses into her real daily life) that she might feel hurt over the fact that the Queen had initially rejected the idea of inviting Mrs. Kennedy’s sister and brother-in-law to the dinner, since the couple had both been divorcees. Jackie Kennedy Onassis always held a deep-seated sensitivity about social stigmatization of divorced people, since she felt the ramifications of this as the child of divorced parents.

      I would check the JFK Library regarding any potential correspondence between the two women.

      Thanks for the thoughtful response and glad you liked the piece. There are two more in this series, one coming Monday on JBK in Greece in 1961, and then another on the impact in the US of her impact in Europe.

  2. A great response to a thoughtful question!


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