Jackie Kennedy as Icon: How Person Trumped Persona, Part Five

Through the years from 1963 to 1975  while Jackie’s Persona went from Saint to Sinner, as Kennedy’s widow, then Onassis’s wife,  and then, from 1975 to 1979, as Onassis’s widow until the dedication of the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, the media continued to doggedly stir public fantasy about her “real” life.  She called this the “cartoon running beneath one’s real life.”

Jackie looks over model of Kennedy Library traveling exhibit, 1966

Through all those years and beyond, she never lost her commitment and vision to the creation of the JFK Library. The public might respond more to stories about her nightclubbing in mini-skirts and jewelry than about her need for reading glasses to study architectural renderings, but she was comfortable ignoring the gap between what others expected and who she was becoming.

Except for brief remarks at historic preservation rallies and press conferences, the last lengthy audio recording Jackie made was a National Archives promotional film about the presidential library.

For the public, Jackie’s great “moment” may have been the 1961 dinner she attended as First Lady at the Palace of Versailles. For her as a real person, however, the 1979 dedication of the JFK Library and Museum was one of personal fulfillment, the completion of a job she assumed which had usually been done by former presidents themselves. Significantly, she seemingly passed on the task of maintaining the legacy of John F. Kennedy and his Administration to his children. Both spoke at the event. She did not.

Jackie Onassis during the 1980 presidential primaries at a Greek-American fundraiser for Teddy Kennedy's campaign.

The task of Person learning to entirely free herself from the public’s Persona of her, however, was not quite over. Just two weeks after the library dedication, she appeared in Boston before the press in a sign of support for her brother-in-law Senator Edward Kennedy as he announced his candidacy for the 1980 Democratic Presidential nomination against incumbent President Jimmy Carter.  It marked the beginning of her series of highly visible public campaign events, seemingly working towards a goal she never really believed or hoped would come to fruition. The period was one of personal complexity for her. I only learned of it during a 1995 interview Senator Kennedy granted me for As We Remember: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in the Words of Her Friends and Family (1997). Her playing a crucial role in an ironic manner which she conducted with her rather subversive subtlety, the episode is one I intend to someday give its own forum.

The point of it here is that it led the real person Jackie to not only confront her persona, but also recognize she was powerless against the public’s adherence to defining her as the Icon of an era.

Jacklie Onassis at the 1976 Democratic National Convention.

She had encountered a disturbing aspect of this when she decided to attend the 1976 Democratic National Convention. Believing she would be able to attend with minimal fuss, and seek out Chicago Mayor Richard Daley to gain his cooperation on a book project about him, she instead found herself hailed as the aging Queen of Camelot – her 1963 characterization of the Kennedy Administration, which she later told a publishing colleague she regretted using.

Jackie drove herself in her own car, like everyone else.

Jackie's salaried work as a reporter ended in 1953 (far left, above); taking a job as editor in 1975 (below in a meeting) was her first in 22 years.

The real person had long before left all that. She was jogging most mornings, driving herself out of the city on weekends, her new life propelled by the fact that she’d returned to the workforce as a book editor for the first time in 22 years since her days in the Washington Times-Herald newsroom.

Still, her iconization would persist, even with surprising strength after her 1994 death. At least ten more books about her would be published. Sarah Bradford’s was the first biography which documented sources and provides reliability. My book,  As We Remember Her drew on many of her previously unpublished writings, with the hope of broadening public realization of her political sensibilities and range of intellectual talents and pursuits. It sold far less sensationally than gossipy books alleging her love affairs.

Advertisement for the clothes show when it toured to Chicago's Field Museum.

During the recently passed decade of the Uh-Ohs, splashy coffee table books and magazine spreads showed Jackie muted but shiny in the lovely gowns of Camelot. Her value as the Icon of fashion was legitimized by a 2001 Metropolitan Museum of Art-JFK Library touring exhibit on her White House clothes. Erased was her impact on foreign relations, drafting or editing some of JFK’s public remarks, pioneering historic preservation and vision of a presidential Arts Department.

The 1961 "First Lady" cutout dolls remade into 2001 refrigerator magnets.

Forty years had passed since clothes in “the Jackie Look” and  jewelry with her cameo image was sold to the public, but in the 2000s,that same Icon materialized in a collector series of dolls with her White House clothes, and QVC knock-offs of her personal jewelry. The 1961 “First Lady Cut-Out” figures returned in 2001 as refrigerator magnets. The market for Jackie lookalikes lived on too. In 2007, Scandinavian telecommunications conglomerate Telenor held a global talent search for one, and chose former Vogue model Linda Morand, who depicted Jackie, circa early 1960s, in its TV ad campaign:

The real Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis would finally put her substance up front with the posthumously released oral history tape recordings released this week. With many of her remarks quickly taken out of context and many wondering why she would have given permission for their eventual release, what was missing from the immediate public debate was a strong sense of how she viewed her “job” as a widow as fulfilling the work her husband would have done as a former President, had he lived. As they are all heard and analyzed by political historians, a clearer view of the Icon as a person will be realized. That said, to those who know where to look, many direct quotes from the tapes have actually been printed before.

Next, in the last segment of the series, “The Jackie Kennedy Tapes: Finally, Her Political Intelligence.”


Categories: First Ladies, The Kennedys

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2 replies »

  1. I had been eagerly anticipating these tapes; as she is my feminine ideal. I was very surprised Caroline, so zealous of protecting her mother’s privacy after death, allowed as much information as she did. What impressed me most, was how much Jackie seemed to love JFK in contrast to all the speculation that their’s was a loveless marriage. I found myself quite tearful, hearing her voice recalling so much tragedy. I quite frankly “spaced out” watching the program; & now look forward to listening/reading the tapes on my own time.

    I’m amazed at public reaction; people don’t seem to appreciate that we are hearing Jackie as a young widow circa 1962-63 shortly after the traumatic death of her husband. Our values and perceptions as women back then were very different, this was long before ERA & Gloria Steinem.
    It would be wonderful if recordings of Mrs. Kennedy-Onassis as an older woman would pop up. In my readings of her, especially the recoent bks of her publishing yrs, reveal a very bright woman of substance who loved intellectual pursuit even more than she loved couture or antiques. I do agree with you wholeheartedly, Carl, that her life deserves a better rendering.

    Some folks seem disturbed by the “gossipy”side of her nature, ignoring the fact that Jackie did not want these tapes released now, to being with. I can only imagine how mortified the Johnson daughters must feel! While the release of these tapes is a “gift” to those of us who adored her, I can also feel for those whom she did not like. I can better appreciate Jackie wanting to pour her heart out, uninhibited, yet perhaps trying to protect the feelings of entire families, such as the Johnson’s.
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    I am also recalling, your essay, Carl, on Betty Ford. Mrs. Ford did not seem to care for Jackie’s avoidance/disinterest in the wives of Congressmen back in DC of 1950′s/60′s. Jackie was not “one of the girls”. Yet, both Jackie and Betty were avid supporters of ballet/modern dance; they had some common interests. Betty Ford noted Jackie seemed more approachable after she went back to work, post Onassis, a happier woman, but I don’t think Betty & Jackie had much to say to each other. I was shocked by Mrs. Ford’s sharp comments re Mrs. Kennedy because “Betty” seemed to me, the nicest/kindest of first ladies. As you remind us, these are very human women
    in extraordinary circumstances.

    I fervently hope more people will come forward with candid memoirs re Jackie Kennedy, maybe
    Caroline will at last, allow other friends/relatives/co-workers to share their stories of this fascinating lady. Looking forward Carl, to even more of your great research & writing of our First ladies/presidential families.. I would love to know more about how “Ladies” ranging from Mamie to Michelle interact and affect each other. We sometimes get a peak, Barbara Bush is very candid, but that is all, just a peak. We never seem to hear from the first daughters of this period, re their perceptions of each other. I hope that too opens up. These folks do share ceremonial duties that bring them together, they are not strangers.

    • Well, I think that Mrs. Kennedy being a bit distant from the congressional wives was the truth, but I also think if one understands where her priorities in life were at the time, and also a sense that she represented what was then a new generation of women who had completed college and pursued, even briefly, a career in line with their education that one could see how she gave off an alienating vibe to the older more traditional women at the time whose husbands were serving in Congress. I think that even Mrs. Ford’s pursuit of modern dance was sublimated at the time she was a Washington wife and mother. As far as I know the only other primary source material from Jacqueline Kennedy that will someday be publicly released are the William Manchester oral history interviews conducted by him with her. While these were – I believe – to be kept sealed until the mid-21st century, perhaps they will be released early as well. Thanks again for what is always well-considered and interesting commentary.

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