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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”