With President Kennedy’s November 22, 1963 assassination and her seated beside him in pink suit and hat being perpetually replayed in still and moving color images and the subsequent black-and-white video footage of her as a veiled widow throughout the three days of ceremonial funeral and burial services, Jackie Kennedy as Icon was forever altered.
Although news photographs in both newspapers and television broadcasts were still almost entirely in black and white, the color film footage made by Dallas resident Abraham Zapruder which captured the actual moment of the murder was obtained by news sources and then the government and almost immediately seen by the world through cover stories of Life magazine and other publications.
Others taken that day – for example, the rare image of her wearing sunglasses in the car as they drove through Dallas, which she put on occasionally since the glaring sun blinded her – have even been forgotten compared to those taken of her during the few seconds when it all changed.
None of the other iconic images of Jackie Kennedy would live on as did the image of her in the pink hat and suit she had on in the open car that fateful episode. It became a symbol larger than herself; it came to symbolize what many, by both emotional and rational reasoning, believed to be the first point down a darker path for the world in general, and the United States specifically.
With the vast majority of the current U.S. population having no personal memory of the assassination and even a cavalier irreverence for those who do, regardless of age, the Icon of Jackie in the Pink Suit has become so mainstreamed, it has lost its tragic association, perhaps an insensitive yet healthy evolution to a nation’s psyche. In 2005, Minneapolis artist Mark Balma painted a stirring image of a scene imagined but never photographed which struck observers as referencing the famous Pieta statue by Michelangelo. When it was later displayed in a local Catholic Church, many commented on how it struck an authentic chord with them, without being tasteless since it also did not include the realistic results of the shooting.
One single mass-market manifestation of Jackie’s Icon in recent years, however, best symbolizes the disconnect to reality about her, an appropriation from the worst day of her existence for use as that vessel of childhood joy. By removing the pink pillbox hat from a ceramic Jackie smiling Jackie under a layer of glaze, then reaching into her head, you too can steal a cookie.
Although it is impossible to estimate an exact figure, this one woman was the single focus of more human beings around in the world in a collective moment than at any other time in civilization, the funeral being simulcast around the world, mostly in real-time. They remain so powerful they virtually block out memories of a notable broadcast of her voice.
Not quite two months after the assassination, the widowed Mrs. Kennedy addressed the nation. Despite her obvious grief, she spoke steadily in acknowledging the overwhelming number of cards and letters the public sent in sympathy and support to her. Much like her White House years, however, her words seemed less a point of reference in the press than did observation about her strong appearance.
Some manufacturers didn’t wait long to make good on the new market of Jackie’s new Icon, as a widow. Within a week of Kennedy’s burial, a new but smaller industry cropped up, not just memorializing the late President, but turning Jackie into a secular saint and mythic martyr. A delicate bone china flower planer was manufactured by the Inarco pottery company, using her veiled head as its model. A tin cocktail tray, declaring in gold lettering against a black mourning border that, “With a Shining Sense of History, She Also Served her Country,” proved sturdy and large enough to hold a dozen highballs. In the most literal possible sense, however, Jackie Kennedy was converted into Icon through the medium not of the most familiar format of gold-painted and framed Russian saints but that of a silk-screen painting made from photographs of her in Dallas and the President’s funeral, representative of that her by artist Andy Warhol, later one of her a friends.
It remains one that widely disseminated commercially, appearing on coffee mugs, tee-shirts, glass paperweights and other ordinary items sanctioned by the late artist’s estate.
Having not only endured the horror of JFK’s murder but then having planned and conducted the state funeral, she was hailed as a heroine for her courage and dignity. No superlative was too much to describe her and one naive artist quite literally beautified her in his depiction of Jackie as an angel of peace.
If the real Jackie Kennedy was raising her children and working to make the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum a reality, the persona of Jackie Kennedy continued to color the collective imagination of the world public, a result not only of legitimate news publications and gossip magazines coverage alike, but also her trips to other countries. Whether it was Ireland, England, Spain, Italy, Cambodia, Thailand, Argentina, Mexico, France, Switzerland, and Yugoslavia, Jackie may have insisted she was now a legitimate private citizen (the notable exception being her official trips to England and Cambodia to dedicate a memorial and an avenue, respectively, in memory of the President) ,but wherever she went the camera would follow and the curious would cluster. If her Icon had alighted even higher as Presidential Widow than it had been as First Lady, it rapidly deflated with the reason for her trip to Greece in October 1968 – her wedding to Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis.
With the controversial marriage came a new and different Pop Culture exploitation of Jackie. The producers of The First Family came out with the comedy album, Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts. A photo book, It’s Greek to Me,offered sarcastic quotes beneath each image of the newlyweds, in contrast to a similar book of photos with witty remarks by her first husband, reflecting the widespread sense of anger and betrayal that millions of people around the world felt towards her, as if she were a genuine member of their family. Of course, they had led themselves into that belief. When a friend told Jackie that marrying Onassis meant she would “fall off your pedestal,” the former First Lady remarked, “Better than freezing there.”
While she kept steadfastly mute about constant speculation about the reason for her marriage, the fixed Icon of her as a Saint had now morphed into that of a Sinner, more frequently appearing in images that seemed to push the societal buttons, like partying into the wee hours of the morning and wearing mini-skirts. At one point she was photographed on the private Onassis island of Skorpios by paparazzi with telephoto lenses as she practiced yoga in her bikini and then some with no bikini at all.
Whether it was some form of armor against the burdensome reality that she could no longer do anything considered private without the sneaking suspicion it was being photographed and then be distributed for the world to see, “Jackie O” as she was now dubbed had added one identifiable element to her Icon.
The pillbox hat had been permanently replaced. By the sunglasses.
Next: Jackie Kennedy as Icon: How the “Jackie Tapes” Help the Person Trump Persona