Jackie Kennedy as Icon: Will the “Jackie Tapes” Change it? (Part 1)

Jackie Kennedy became that rarest of celebrity, a Living Icon.

In an attention-addled age of up-popping ads, when a natural disaster, unstable economy or even authentic Hollywood talent are lucky to get thirty seconds of media and even less from the public, the focus anticipating the September 13 release of “The Jackie Tapes,” taped interviews with former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy is shocking.

It went viral on August 8 with a news story put out not in her native country but by British paper, The Daily Mail, making no pretense of adhering to that archaic, time-consuming process of first obtaining three corroborative sources for each claim.

Eclipsed by its conspiratorial and lurid reports of what Jackie discloses on the tapes is the more authentically stunning fact that, despite a half century of societal evolution, the media continues to market myths about her as wildly imaginative as those manufactured in her lifetime, and the more stupendously ridiculous the claim, the greater the consumer base.

When such stories appeared during her tenure as First Lady (1961-1963), the White House press office would speedily correct misrepresentations and deny untruths. Following President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination until her own death full decades later, however, only the most outrageous stories might provoke a denial or clarification from her lifetime confidante and aide Nancy Tuckerman. Whether it was a story carried by CBS or Photoplay that she was moving to Hawaii (1967), marrying former British diplomat Lord Harlech (1968), applied judo on a reporter after exiting a movie theater screening of x-rated I Am Curious Yellow (1969), divorcing her second husband Aristotle Onassis (1973), running for the U.S. Senate (1976), or getting a face-lift (1989), Jackie never denied the claim.

No matter what the magazine cover said about her, Jackie Kennedy never answered.

Her policy stemmed from a dogged insistence that despite her global fame she was, in fact, a person of no official rank with full right to live as a private citizen. Unwittingly, however, the lack of denial only seemed to encourage people to  believe that whatever the scandalous charge might be, it must be true. It also fueled what began as curiosity into a full-blown obsession, inducing wilder speculation that forever eroded any barrier between truth and myth. Furthermore, the combination of her complete muteness yet often-weekly visual presence at supermarket checkout racks and sidewalk newsstands as the familiar face on the cover of magazines from Good Housekeeping to Time to The National Enquirer so deeply embedded her image into the minds of millions that she became that rarest of beings, a living Icon. In the rush to profit off the Icon by offering increasingly bolder claims, the media dropped and lost recognition of the single quality which already answered the question they perpetually promised to reveal, “What’s she really like?”

Piles of documentation prove that beneath all that glittered was a brilliant mind. If it was obvious and interesting for some, it seemed too tedious for deciphering for most. Certainly Jackie adhered to the early 60s maxim that, “Brains are an asset to the woman smart enough to hide them.”  Not only as a cautious political wife but a person who sustained herself with both physical and emotional privacy, only those she came to trust over time were exposed to her wit, wisdom, wide-ranging knowledge, spot-on instincts and constant thirst for knowledge. As the wife of a President, it was her “ruthless judgement,” where her potential to consequentially influence history was greatest. Historian Arthur Schlesinger detected this under what he called her, “lovely veil of inconsequence.”

These are not the taped interviews with Jackie done by William Manchester for his official book about the assassination, The Death of the President, which are being released this week. Rather, these audio tapes and transcription, Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy,  are the oral history interviews Schlesinger conducted with Jackie. 

The author (far right) after first meeting Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; she later edited his material on her role as First Lady.

The material may prove to be the closest form of memoir drawn from her own direct thoughts. To my knowledge, Jackie only worked on two book projects about her life as First Lady. The first was Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years (1968) by a friend of her mother, Molly Thayer. It is a solid source, drawn from many documents and memoes. Although Thayer wrote it, Jackie rewrote it. Later, as Jackie Onassis the Doubelday Editor she cut, rewrote and even redrafted aspects as small as a single word to as large as a full topic about Jackie Kennedy the First Lady in the first several chapters of the second of my two-volume book, First Ladies (1991) She did this “unofficially,” as a friend and colleague of my official editor.

The tapes will also prove unique on another level, the rare chance to hear Jacqueline Kennedy’s unique voice. Campaign commercials, her television tour of the White House, her address to the nation as a widow were all carefully prepared and rehearsed by a woman known for a lifetime of stage fright.

Finally, the tapes will reflect her entire tenure as First Lady, being recorded in the period just following the assassination, in the spring of 1964.  Many specialists and historians are likely anticipating her reflections on various and specifc aspects of the Kennedy Administration.  I, for one, am curious about whether she elaborates on a subtle aspect of survivor’s guilt she poignantly and  explicitly expressed, in verbal and written form to people ranging from Richard Nixon to Kitty Carlisle Hart, and a curious aside about her sunglasses. From what was leaked over the weekend, one kernal of what she discusses does confirm my inklings in conjunction with a cryptic 1989 handwritten addition she made about the Vietnam War on a page of the typed manuscript of First Ladies.

Such tiny points of interest about what will be disclosed illustrate the different reasons that different people will listen closely to what Jackie finally says. While the content may challenge some factual misperceptions about her husband, dismantling the familiar Icon that became her primary public venue of identification for half a century may prove impossible.

How the real person born “Jacqueline Lee Bouvier” in 1929, first known by the public persona of “Jackie Kennedy” with her husband’s election as President in 1960, became ingrained in the world’s imagination as an Icon and been sustained even after her 1994 death is a phenomena of Cold War politics, Hollywood film techniques, feminism, marketing, advertising, mythology, globalization, communications technology, and even the mysteries of the human senses all converging.

Next: Jackie Kennedy as Icon: A Pop Culture Big Bang


Categories: Advertising & Marketing, Books, First Ladies, Jackie Kennedy as Icon, The Kennedys

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2 replies »

  1. This is an intelligent and dispassionate commentary on what may be a kind of media feeding frenzy, just starting up.

    The one tiny tidbit I have to offer is that Jackie did (for about 24 hours) consider a Senate run c 1976. The evidence is in her correspondence with the owner of the New York Post in the papers of the New York Public Library. The funny thing is that Jackie asked whether she could do the job of Senator in 3 days a week, roughly the same number of office days she typically spent at Doubleday. She pretty quickly decided it was not for her.

    Bill Kuhn

    ps I worked with Nancy Tuckerman on my book about Jackie’s editorial career, Reading Jackie (NY: Nan Talese, 2010). She remembered Carl Anthony fondly.

    • Well I greatly appreciate the assessment, thank you. I do recall in my research papers something of a snarky New York magazine – can’t recall which one off the top of my head – sort of skewering gently the idea of the former First Lady as the U.S. Senator from New York. Ironically enough, she did go on to do that….only it was a different former First Lady! I think actually, however, that Jackie was married to JFK for his entire Senate term minus the first nine months of it during which they were already engaged. I think there was quite a bit of her skills would have suited her for some aspects of that career but certainly not public speaking, which made her especially self-conscious. Also enjoyed your work which I had to put off reading for quite a bit of time but recently completed. And none of anything i have ever done on Jacqueline Onassis would have been possible without the great leap of trust and ongoing support of Nancy Tuckerman. She helped many people in many ways and assiduously avoided seeking credit, so I will stop there. But thank you again William. Appreciate it!


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