Not wanting the American First Lady to fear the intrusions she had unexpectedly encountered in London and Rome during her vacation in their country, Greek Prime Minister Constantine Karamanlis ordered the highest level of security, exceeding that even provided for Vice President Lyndon Johnson during his trip there, an odd action since the Greek government insisted the trip was “completely personal” and “completely unofficial.”
Nevertheless, no less a person than the Prime Minister and his First Lady Amelia Karamanlis were on hand to greet her. At her Athens airport welcome, it was soon discovered that some 20 percent of the orderly crowd that numbered about 400 people were plainclothes police. Chants of “Jackie! Jackie!” got drowned out by the scripted and clunky cry of “Hooray for Boston!” One reporter estimated that every third person was snapping a camera, but this time Jackie was so amused by the polite attention, she smiled and posed. When a young man broke free and ran towards her to snap a close-up, state police seized and detained him. She meanwhile entered the terminal to greet brightly-garbed U.S. Embassy employee wives who assembled into a stationary line she promenaded along, the same reception format used by the Queen.
The First Lady, her sister and brother-in-law were given use of a magnificent Athens two-story villa on Kavouri Bay owned by Greek shipping magnate Markos Nomikus. Her bedroom on the top floor had pale green walls, modern furniture and a view of the Saronikos Gulf, along the Attic coast. Exchanging her black hair bow, light blue coat and royal blue dress for a bathing suit and ocean swim, she took a light dinner and turned in early. The next day, Jackie would begin an island tour aboard the 123-foot long yacht Northwind, loaned by her host’s Princeton-educated son Peter.
Her appearance, words and deeds, however, gave those who met her and those who simply read about her, an entirely different Jackie than the formal and official one they expected from her time in Paris, Vienna and London. Hair tousled freely in the wind, legs bare of stockings, wearing sandals, cotton head kerchiefs and the sunglasses that would eventually supersede the pillbox as her trademark, the American First Lady showed as much reverence for her host nation’s culture and history as she had done for France when there. Her respect for Greeks of all classes, however, won her not just the nation’s respect but affection.
For all her extensive travels through Europe as a younger woman, Jackie Kennedy had never been to Greece and had longed for this vacation.
A year earlier the film Never On Sunday had swept the Oscars with awards for best director, best costume, best “writing,” and best actress to its star Melina Mercouri.
In later years, by the time Mercouri’s activist on behalf of preserving Greek art and history led to her election as Minister of Culture, she had become an acquaintance with the then-former American First Lady. Yet as a result of Mercouri’s sudden global fame in 1960 and her own preparation for the Greek trip a year later, Jackie had already begun to follow the actress-philosopher’s views in the press and read many of her writings.
As a presidential widow in the mid-60s she would be particularly impressed by what Mercouri believed to be the qualities which delineated the ancient Greeks from the ancient Romans. In disagreeing with her friend and JFK biographer Arthur Schlesinger, who assigned the label of noble Roman on the late president, Jackie Kennedy underlined portions of an article by Mercouri on what it meant to be Greek. To JFK’s widow, her husband had been more of a Greek than a Roman, because he was also “defying the fates.”
Before she had begun attempting to grasp the ironies and philosophies of the culture as explained by Mercouri, Jackie Kennedy had enjoyed her film, as had most of the nation. Never on Sunday helped introduce a bit of Greek into the American pop culture, even showing up in a cha-cha version which the First Lady was reported as dancing to in a nightclub. In any event, the movie, and the actress and song had prompted a sudden new interest in Greece just at the time the First Lady was touring that nation. For a sense of that vibe, here is the clip from the film where Mercouri sings the theme song:
On her first stop, the thyme-scented island of Epidaurus, she took in a Greek National Theater rehearsal of Electra by Sophocles, watching from the ancient stone seating which encircled the open-air stage. While the event and setting couldn’t have been more quintessentially Greek, her appearance there might have been expected, given her love of cultural activities.
Her stop on the island of Hydra, the morning of June 9, however, had this woman who was classified as belonging to the aristocratic class surprisingly and lustily embracing the peasant culture. Originally, she was scheduled to make a brief stop in the village center of this Aegean isle of sun-drenched white terra-cotta buildings and walk through its cobblestone streets.
The moment her foot touched the dock as she stepped from a launch, every single church began pealing its bells and practically the entire population of two thousand residents rushed towards the path she was led down by the mayor, applauding, smiling at, and waving to Jackie. When she learned that local officials had been busily organizing an impromptu festival just to honor her, she sent word back to the yacht that she was cancelling plans for other excursions that day, and staying on Hydra.
In the center of town, long wood tables were set up around the perimeter and local women turned out long trays of regional food delicacies made of fresh-caught fishes, island-raised lamb, feta cheeses, onions, peppers, and spinach. Local tavern owners donated bottles of ouzo liquor, wines and beers. Musicians gathered in small bands and began playing traditional Greek music as well as adapting their bouzouki instruments to popular tunes of the era – including the by-now familiar theme of Never on Sunday.
Jackie Kennedy let go and indulged, sampling the range of food to satisfy both lunch and dinner. In between, she grasped the hands of townspeople and joined in traditional dancing, raising her arms, clapping her hands, kicking her legs and turning her feet as she followed the steps of each dance move. “I want to have a home here someday,” she remarked to Greek reporters at one point. “I want to return and bring my children here.”
The next day, she traveled to the island of Delos, legendary birthplace of the Greek god Apollo, where she took in every ruin and historic site, and paused to water-ski across the azure blue waters of its coast. Then, she was on to the larger island of Mykonos. With a plain red kerchief tied under her neck, she was warmly greeted on the dock by not only the mayor but a beautiful, large and unusually calm pelican bird. A resident then piped up, “Only when you have seen the pelican, will you return to the island.”
The animal immediately captured her curiosity, but she hesitated to approach him. “Is he wild?” she asked the mayor. He was, in fact, Mykonos’s most famous resident. His name was Petros. Although politely accepting the mayor’s gift for her daughter of a native costume, and attentive as he explained how the skirt, blouse, scarf and shoes were hand-made and embroidered by local artisans, Jackie remained intrigued by Petros as the bird listened to the story as well, while watching her. She knelt to gently pet his head, neck and back, asking more about him. Although taken on as the island’s official mascot only seven years earlier, Petros the Pelican was already legendary. In the aftermath of a violent storm which churned the Aegean Sea, a fisherman had spotted him lying injured on the island’s Paranga shoreline and brought it into Mykonos Township where a veterinarian nursed him back to health. The bird forewent his natural migration pattern to make the port his permanent home. If her visible kindness towards the animal endeared her to islanders, her actions twenty-five years later bolstered it. In December of 1986, a drunk driver hit and killed the beloved Petros. Then a publishing editor, Jackie learned of this while at work and immediately began an effort to locate, purchase and donate another pelican for Mykonos, this one dubbed Irini.
After lavishing her love on Petros, the former newspaper columnist waved away the offer of a car to instead walk the steep incline to the grand country home of the nation’s only woman newspaper publisher, Helen Viachos. Along the way, Jackie poked into shops, chatting with merchants and buying a hand-carved wooden boat for her son for 700 drachmas, or about twenty-five American dollars. During her lunch with Viachos, seated amid flowering fruit trees, Jackie remarked that, “this is the greatest trip in the world. I couldn’t be happier.”
The Greek Prime Minister and his wife were on hand to welcome Jackie back to Athens, when her yacht docked at the mainland on June 11. She hiked to the promontory with them to tour the 5th century B.C. Doric temple of Poseidon – where hundreds of Greek and other foreign visitors cheered her. As the sun set, Jackie then went to look at various archeological digs in progress along Cape Sounion. The next day, while touring the nation’s two most famous historic sites, the ruins of the Parthenon temple to the goddess Athena, the American First Lady injected herself directly into an international political controversy.
As she was guided through the sites by the Parthenon’s curator, Jacqueline Kennedy said she would “like to see the Elgin Marbles returned to Greece,” a reference to removed marble sculptures from the site that were taken to England by the Scottish peer Lord Elgin, eventually becoming part of the British Museum’s permanent collection in 1815. Jackie Kennedy’s public voice on the matter came at the dawn of a movement that would soon gain global currency, to return historic artifacts to their original sites from the colonial or invading nations which had plundered them. If her dancing and eating on Hydra, and her affection for Petros on Mykonos had endeared Jackie to the residents of those islands, her unambiguous support of returning the Elgin Marbles to Greece, forever won her the affection of the country she would come to make her second home in 1968, when she married her second husband Aristotle Onassis. The American First Lady’s opinion backed the recently-stated and similar view of a British Labor Party member and, ultimately, proved to be a factor in getting the matter reviewed by British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. Whether she privately urged Macmillan to do so in their subsequent, private talks is unknown. The Elgin Marbles, however, were never returned to Greece.
After a week of relative freedom to be herself, Jackie Kennedy began to transition back to the reality of her public Persona, assuming the formal, official demeanor of First Lady – but not without a defiant, final touch of La Dolce Vita.
On the night of June 13, she’d attended a formal dinner hosted in her honor by the Prime Minister. The next day, her hair once again stiffly coiffed and garbed in a light orange dress suit, she ascended hills some fifteen miles from Athens for a formal luncheon with King Paul, Queen Frederika, Princess Sophia, Princess Irene and Prince Constantine at their Tatoi summer palace. She then joined them on the manicured lawn to pose for reporters and photographers – and pet the Queen’s three grey poodles. There was also a formal exchange of state gifts, she being given a multi-colored Greek carpet and presenting a velvet-lined mahogany case with a portable American compass, made in Maine of sterling silver and gold plate. Her forced smile, however, made her discomfort obvious.
Catching this signal, the 21-year old jet-set heir to the throne, a 1960 Olympic gold medalist in sailing, had a solution. The Prince hopped into his blue sports convertible and suggested she come see his boat. Jackie impulsively took the dare, jumping in to speed away with Constantine around sharp curves down to the Port of Piraeus. It was a last gasp of a semblance of freedom.
Jackie’s 1961 tour of Greece failed to generate the level of global media coverage that her victories in Paris, Vienna and London had in the preceding week for a number of reasons. No longer touring with the President, political news outlets considered it unimportant. Her mixing it up with the peasantry lacked the glamour fashion glossies wanted. Americans and Europeans also had more familiarity with Stereotypes of French, Austrian and British culture were more familiar to Americans and Europeans than the Greek one; coverage couldn’t be as glib and required more background. Touring a series of islands was also a tougher narrative to compact, especially since the trip was billed as unofficial. Nonetheless, Jackie Kennedy’s trip to Greece was an important component in her agenda to promote American goodwill in less accessible points around the world. There is every suggestion that she planned her moves in Greece as carefully as she had in Paris. In light of the obsession with her clothes during her European tour, it’s ironic that only one reporter on the last day of Greek vacation finally noticed the most visibly obvious yet otherwise ignored fact of her entire time there: except for swimming, Jackie never removed her shining, gold pin that even a quick look easily revealed to be a Greek coin.
From dancing to Greek music to supporting the return of purloined Greek treasures to displaying fondness for a beloved Greek mascot, the American First Lady’s genuine respect for the native culture was also her campaign to improve the foreign perception of the U.S. Her entire 1961 tour became the blueprint for further global junkets, to Central and South America in December 1961, Asia in April 1962, Italy in August 1962, and the Middle East and North Africa in October 1963. Within her own country, she simultaneously provoked an effort to lift a sense of its potential by representing an idealized, worldly American.
In the process of importing her Persona, however, Jackie Kennedy unwittingly provoked a personality cult of followers who emulated her cultural pursuits and personal standards less than it did her external identity of hairstyle, clothes, and recipes, a pop culture phenomenon soon widely known simply as “The Jackie Look.”
- Ari and Jackie Onassis: The U.S. First Lady as Greek Wife & Paris Resident (Part 4) (carlanthonyonline.com)
- Greek Culture Minister on Return of Parthenon Marbles (greece.greekreporter.com)