Forty-five years ago today, Sunday, October 20, 1968, former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy married Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis.
Many people still speculate about why she did.
Often overlooked in the pondering is the fact that the wedding took place less than five months after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy during his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. As his sister-in-law Jackie Kennedy had not merely supported his candidacy out of family loyalty but had encouraged him personally as they struggled in the aftermath of President Kennedy’s assassination.
In the early months of 1964, shortly after her husband was been killed, Jackie had convinced, even pushed Bobby to remain in national politics and “finish what Jack wanted to do,” including withdrawal of the U.S. military presence in Vietnam.
The June 5, 1968 assassination of Bobby Kennedy was not only a personal loss for his sister-in-law, but the death of her cautious optimism about the nation’s future. She saw aspects of the culture collapsing into one obsessed with violence and danger.
She began experiencing anxiety attacks about her own safety and that of her children, provoked by the spike in new death threats towards male members of the family and suggested that her seven-year old son, the late President’s namesake, was a logical target. As she had just realized for a second time, even the Secret Service agents provided to escort and watch her young children in their routine lives were no guarantee of protection.
The huddle of screaming, scrambling paparazzi who stalked Jackie Kennedy and her children might appear to be an amusing novelty to onlookers who randomly encountered it on the streets of New York, but the former First Lady felt it had made her a “freak.” There was nothing flattering or honorific about turning a corner in personal thought or laughter with a friend after lunch to be unpredictably besieged with gnashing cameras and blinded by dozens of rapid camera flashes.
Having every part of her physicality scrutinized to search out the most superficial detail about what she was wearing (one publication even strove to determine the inch length of her every-shortening mini-skirts) and then widely reported in the gossip columns made her even more self-conscious. Walking out of church or a storefront knowing that strangers had gathered to wait and stare at her as a sort of living specimen of historic tragedy would make anyone paranoid.
Marrying someone who had an intimidating private security force at his command and heavily-guarded island in another country, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis explained, was “A release, freedom from the oppressive obsession with me and the children.”
So she hoped.
For the first year of her second marriage, the new Mrs. Onassis did indeed spend almost as much time in her husband’s Greek or Paris homes or the London one of her sister, as she did in her own home in New York..
She did encounter paparazzi in Europe but especially those who were Greek treated her with a degree of polite respect, asking her to pose for a picture to which she usually acquiesced. When she was in New York during the first year of her marriage it was for such brief lengths of time that she would be leaving by the time word spread through the regular paparazzi pack who’d had no time to determine her daily patterns and whereabouts.
The first serious problems came when she returned to New York in the fall of 1969 to see her children established back in school for the term.
That’s when Jackie Onassis had two memorably disturbing confrontations with aggressive paparazzi.
On October 6, 1969, Ari and Jackie Onassis arrived by private car at the Cinema Rendezvous Theatre on West 57th Street. The manager later admitted that he had called several paparazzi, including Mel Finklestein of the New York Daily News, to garner publicity for the theater and let them know the couple was there. Leaving her seat to get snacks at the concession stand and noticing photographers milling in the lobby, Jackie ordered the manager to get them out of there. They left the lobby to simply stand about six feet from the entrance, on the sidewalk.
What made the potential of being photographed in front of a movie poster in the lobby or beneath the theater marquee especially alarming to the former First Lady was the particular film she and Ari had gone to see. It was the highly controversial erotic ,Swedish movie I Am Curious Yellow. Rated X it had been banned from being screened in the U.S. for several years.
Perhaps panicking and certainly furious over the presence of photographers, Jackie Onassis oddly followed them out to flee from the screening. As she exited the theater, sure enough Finkelstein snapped her picture dead-on, although without the film’s name in the background. Jackie nervously reacted by pulling a “judo trick” on him. “She grabbed my right wrist put her other hand on my left elbow, put out her left leg and flipped me over her thigh,” he recalled. “That girl can handle herself.” And indeed another photographer snapped Finkelstein fallen on the sidewalk as a woman in a leather mini-skirt, her head wrapped in a printed scarf marched away from him.
Jackie Onassis denied that she was the woman in the picture.
Then, Finkelstein produced his one picture, which managed to snap her face before she’d covered it with the scarf.
In one felt swoop, the former First Lady was humiliated by news of her attacking a photographer, seeing an X-rated movie and then lying about it.
Not until the unconcerned Onassis security guards, sitting in the limo, saw her dash past them and then run into the theater to tell Ari did he learn why she never returned from the concession stand. Angry at being interrupted, he shrugged off the incident, making no effort to leave the movie before it was over to console or check with her.
Jackie Onassis may have reacted rashly because she was still agitated about an incident which had occurred just the previous week.
Although paparazzi Ron Gallela has since depicted his unrelentingly stalking of Jackie as some sort of an oddly affectionate relationship between them, his tactics proved dangerous.
By this point, the moment she saw Gallela, Jackie usually swiveled her head away from his camera, obscured her face or just bolted into a full-fledged run (which he photographed – from behind) but her thwarting efforts only made him more unrelentingly invasive, conspiring with naive service personnel for tips on her schedule and once slipping into a Chinese restaurant to snap her eating with chopsticks while he hid in a coat rack.
At the end of September 1969, however, he ambushed her and her son as they were bike riding and in surprised reaction, they swerved into ongoing traffic. Instead of the tight smile she usually met him with, this time Jackie told her son’s Secret Service agents to stop Gallela cold. He would claim that she ordered them to “Smash his camera.”
Nothing, however, stopped Gallela who knew full well that Jackie Onassis was no longer the subject of legal protection by the Secret Service. It got so obsessive that she finally took him to court for violation of privacy in the winter of 1972.
Although she won the case and Gallela was ordered to remain a distance away from her at all times, he flagrantly violated the ruling – until she took him to court again.
Aristotle Onassis was displeased about the court case, not just because of the massive legal fees which he considered a waste of money but the fact that it only seemed to draw other, even more aggressive paparazzi wherever she went.
Making the rounds at exclusive nightclubs in his double-breasted suits and sunglasses, often joined in a stroll with a famous friend, Onassis had always invited publicity snapshots of himself. He viewed them as a way to raise the glamor quotient of his business profile. When he wanted to retreat into complete privacy and walk around in his robe – or nothing at all – he had his private island.
Except Jackie was now on it.
Onassis took pride in the fact that Skorpios was impenetrable, being regularly encircled by security agents on motorized launches. No photographers ever gained access or dared to violate the private property warnings posted at the docks.
He thought Jackie was being ridiculously paranoid when she once reported to him feeling that she was somehow being watched while dining at the open-air “taverna” cottage on the island. He insisted that he never detected any photographers were watching him on the island.
And they weren’t. When he was there alone.
However remote the island might be, it was a finite space and when the one person whose pictures commanded the highest prices at publications was in residence there, paparazzi knew the half-dozen places along the shoreline where she would eventually appear.
A further menacing intrusion came in the latter part of 1969.
That year, European paparazzi were ecstatic about the latest version of the “Novoflex Super-Telephoto lens,” which had a mount but could focus clearly on figures at a great distance, far enough away, for instance, to avoid trespassing on Skorpios.
Over the holiday season and into 1970, including the summer vacation of the family and their guests, slightly grainy but otherwise distinct images of them boating, strolling the island, swimming and lunching began appearing throughout the world’s newspapers and magazines, carried by wire services in Europe and the U.S.
The privacy violation increasingly irritated Onassis, who nevertheless recognized he had no control over the situation since the paparazzi had not technically been trespassing.
And then there was the summer of 1971.
There being none of her friends or family members as guests one particular day, Jackie Kennedy Onassis did what millions of people do when they want to swim. She changed into a bathing suit. And while she was there alone and natural, she also did a bit of sunbathing and yoga exercises.
Except that she was not alone.
Ironically, it was not an intrusive stranger but rather an apparent staff member on Scorpios who photographed a series of images with a telephoto lens which captured the former Mrs. John F. Kennedy in the nude.
At least, he had seemed to be a staff member.
Photographer Settimio Garritano had won the confidence of a local resident of a nearby village who then helped him gain access to the island by disguising himself as a gardener.
Garritano docked a small rowboat beneath some overgrowth which kept him entirely hidden from the nearby beach area the Onassis family used. And his telephoto lens was affixed to his camera and ready just as Jackie appeared alone and readied for her swim
“It didn’t seem possible,” he recalled in 2009. “She knew she’d been photographed before on Scorpios so why would she display herself? Then suddenly she appeared and wandered around the patio area. I concentrated on just taking the pictures, not composing them. It was a matter of moments, not even minutes.”
Initially, Garritano was unable to find any publication that would print the images of the woman who had a public image which still placed her in wool suits and pillbox hats, and who never went to formal events without wearing white gloves.
In fact, the friendly Garritano proved to be one of the few familiar photographers whom Mrs. Onassis often offered a smile towards while sitting in cafes and strolling the streets of Capri. It seems she never learned that he had been the one to take the nude pictures.
A year later, however, in 1972 the nude photos of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis were printed in Playmen, an Italian magazines. Three years later, they appeared in the American publication Hustler.
Jackie was mortified but took the philosophical view that the images were not pornographic and revealed no more than did ancient Greek sculpture. She would even sign one of the images for her friend, the artist Andy Warhol. Ari Onassis adopted a similar view, shrugging it off by saying, “Sometimes I take my clothes off to put on a bathing suit. So does my wife.”
In fact, he did take off his clothes to put on a bathing suit and soon enough there were even more explicit naked photographs of him hitting the magazines and hitting a nerve with him.
Aristotle Onassis was humiliated, but rather than focus on his nude pictures he suddenly began to bicker to Jackie about her nude pictures, even in front of her friends.
“I don’t like seeing pictures of my wife’s behind in magazines!” he yelled at her repeatedly and loudly over dinner one night in a chic New York restaurant.
Her patience tried but her politeness still intact, Jackie Onassis finally purred at him, “Oh don’t worry ‘Goldfinger,’ they’re saving yours for the Christmas issues.”
Not long after her nude pictures had been published in 1972, Jackie Onassis told her husband that she would not be coming to Scorpios until the middle of June, later than previously scheduled.
Again Ari blew a gasket. It may, however, have been the reason why she would be delayed which angered him.
She was going to attend a June 9 memorial service on the fourth anniversary of Robert Kennedy’s assassination, thus making her first return to Arlington National Cemetery since she had married Onassis.
After joining the Kennedy family at the gravesite of Robert Kennedy, however, Jackie Onassis then made an unscheduled visit to the grave of her first husband, which she had meticulously planned following the President’s assassination.
Ignoring the photographers who snapped away at her, she finally broke down in tears, openly weeping in a way she never had at the time of the President’s funeral and burial nine years earlier.
The photograph appeared around the world with captions which suggested it was proof that she still grieved more for her first husband than she loved her second husband.
That picture’s affect, however, was mitigated by another equally startling one which showed the former First Lady receiving holy communion during the Catholic mass at the cemetery.
As thousands of news reports at the time of her second marriage had pointed out, according to Vatican law, a Catholic who married someone who been divorced was to be denied any further sacraments of the religion, such as communion.
There was a degree of criticism from some Catholic leaders for her defiance of the ruling as well as of the priest who administered it. Generally, however, it had the unwelcome affect of reminding the public all over again about the great differences between Ari and Jackie Onassis.
The renewed criticism of the marriage in the press suggested that despite the fact that she was the legal wife of Aristotle Onassis, the public never stopped perceiving Jackie Bouvier as the widow of John F. Kennedy.
If the press and public didn’t need to remind Onassis of this, Jackie did.
In 1971, she had made her first and only visit back to the White House, accepting the invitation of President Richard Nixon and First Lady Pat Nixon to join them and their daughters with her own two children, for a private dinner and viewing of the portraits of herself and President Kennedy which would be put on public view the following day. While certainly Ari had not voiced an expectation that he also be invited, neither did she seek to invite him.
On their third wedding anniversary, Onassis looked at his breakfast tray to find a jeweled 14K gold watch, along with a note which carried a quote from his favorite Greek philosopher Theophrastus:
Each November, almost always during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, Jackie Onassis also took her two children to a Catholic mass, in remembrance of the President on the day he was assassinated. Each year, newspapers carried pictures of the trio leaving the masses, yet another reminded to Ari of whose wife he had married.
As the initial glory of his sudden global fame which resulted from his 1968 wedding to Jackie wore off, Ari was forced to face the truth that no matter how wealthy he was or how fabled his island or yacht, marriage to the world’s most famous woman was less about Jackie Kennedy being the wife of Onassis and more about Onassis being the husband of Jackie Kennedy.
Whether it was an act of passive aggression or a reflection of his genuine political leanings, the press soon learned a startling fact about the couple around Election Day in 1972. While Jackie Onassis loyally contributed to the campaign of Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern, Ari Onassis made a sizable contribution to Republican President Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign.
Onassis was also beginning to face some unpleasant business realities, as his overall assets were showing losses for the year 1973 ahead. Rather than face it by explaining the complexities of a shifting global economy and his own investment decisions, he fixated on a more spiteful excuse for the tumble. From the very start of their marriage, Ari had been repeatedly and extravagantly plying Jackie with eye-popping jewelry that she’d never asked for. Yet now he began to complain that by indulging her expensive tastes in art and clothing, she was depleting his fortune. The high cost of the winning auction bid on an 18th Century French landscape painting was more readily comprehended than the spike in airline fuel caused by an oil embargo.
Whereas Ari had been flamboyantly generous towards any matter of personal importance to Jackie, now he was passing judgement on the value of her concerns. After embarrassing news stories about the deplorable living conditions of Jackie’s paternal aunt and first cousin “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” Beale, for example, Onassis eagerly underwrote the costs of bringing their home up to code.
An apparently sharp argument broke out between them, however, when she asked him to make a donation to a fledgling clinic in Vietnam, established by her close friend, journalist Gloria Emerson, which treated children maimed by the war.
When Onassis flat-out refused to do so, belittling the effort, Jackie went “berserk,” especially stunned at how he could so summarily deny aiding such a relatively modest humanitarian effort.
The incident triggered an act of defiance that echoed some of her determined tactics as First Lady when she conceived of creative methods to fund the purchase of especially rare but unaffordable antiques for her historical restoration of the White House.
Although her living expenses were appropriated monthly by Onassis, at some point in 1972 or 1973 he limited her discretionary funds. He had not, however, closed the credit accounts he had always maintained for the women of his family at numerous clothier’s in Paris.
Onassis became bewildered by a particular set of charges that came in for a series of couture gowns charged by Jackie in Paris but which she never once wore. Why did she buy these expensive clothes, he complained, when he knew for a fact that she had been wearing tee-shirts, jeans and sportswear for weeks on end and then appeared shortly thereafter at a formal event in a gown she had already worn publicly on several past occasions.
It is unclear whether or not Onassis ever found out that, in fact, his wife had the new, unworn couture sent to New York and discreetly sold at a high-end outlet for practically its full value, less the cost of customs tax.
To Gloria Emerson, however, Mrs. Onassis made a whopping donation to help her hospital for Vietnamese children – in cash, and on the condition that her seemingly Robin Hoodesque transaction not be revealed in Emerson’s forthcoming McCall’s Magazine profile about her, a strategic piece of public relations with which Jackie was fully cooperating..
If this sort of subversive shopping was providing Jackie Onassis a creative outlet amid the growing frustrations and tension of her marriage, Ari Onassis found it by renewing not so much a romance but a romantic friendship with his former lover, opera singer Maria Callas.
He was also going out more frequently to nightclubs and staying until the wee hours of the morning as he had done before marrying Jackie. On occasion, she joined him but she found the repetitive outings to be tedious. It was also a gross understatement to say that she didn’t quite enjoy the belly-dancing on tables that he loved, particularly during trips they made to Iran and Egypt together.
By 1973, lunching and shopping seemed to have become a numbing distraction for Jackie Onassis. That year she spent more time in New York, apart from her husband, than she had at any previous time in their marriage.
Gloria Emerson had once successfully encouraged Jackie in 1951 to see through to complete the rigorous submission of an entire mock issue of Vogue magazine for a contest sponsored by the magazine.
Now, Emerson began an unrelenting campaign to convince Jackie she would only find genuine happiness by returning to some form of journalistic work, convinced that her skill with words was going to waste.
In 1973, NBC approached the former First Lady with an exciting offer to narrate a documentary on threatened world landmarks like those in Cambodia and Mexico she had inspected. Jackie was eager to accept. Ari angrily forbade her from doing so.
“They’ll say Onassis is broke, sending his wife out to work and earn her own money!” he griped.
Still, Jackie Onassis once again found a way around her husband.
It was not until Gloria Emerson’s magazine profile on her revealed it that even members of Jackie’s family first discovered that rather than disappearing downtown on certain weekdays to, they assumed, lunch, shop, take in shows or museum exhibits, the former First Lady had been slipping uptown to Spanish Harlem to volunteer as a reading teacher for children living in a shelter.
As 1973 began, the marriage of Ari and Jackie Onassis was strained but not broken.
In the following year, she would even successfully prod her husband off his yacht and out of his offices for a leisurely tour of Egypt, a place both had expressed a desire to explore if they could find the time.
Unfortunately, the 1974 Egyptian trip did little to relax Aristotle Onassis. At that point, it was already too late.
On January 23, 1973 another unexpected tragedy had hit this clan that had been cobbled together by a divorce and an assassination..
This time, however, it wasn’t on Jackie’s side of the family.
- Ari and Jackie Onassis: The U.S. First Lady as Greek Wife & Paris Resident (Part 4) (carlanthonyonline.com)
- Gogo Girls (farfetch.com)
- Day in History: “Saturday Night Massacre”; MacArthur; ‘Jackie’; Gadhafi; “Six Million Dollar Man”; Lynyrd Skynyrd (wtvy.com)
- Newly Discovered Kennedy Family Memorabilia To Be Auctioned Off (buzzfeed.com)
- Jacques Lowe: the JFK photographer who lost his life’s work on 9/11 (theguardian.com)