Jackie Kennedy as Icon: Lost In Translation (Part 3)

How Jackie Spoke eclipsed What she Said

One way in which “The Jackie Tapes” will absolutely impact the posthumous Jackie Kennedy as Icon is by providing eight and a half hours of her voice without any attachment to it being judged in conjunction with yet another piece of clothing. Finally, the content of her words, not read, but spoken, can be assessed. It was not something Americans had much of a chance to do when she was in the White House.

Jackie Kennedy speaking Spanish in La Morita, Venezuela, December 1961.

In the last weeks of 1961, an isolated block of perhaps no more than 200 citizens of Venezuela and Colombia got a clearer sense of what that quality might be.  Joining the President in visiting both nations, she acquiesced to his urging that she make a short speech in each. During the Kennedy family‘s holiday vacation at his parents’ Florida home she also addressed the Cuban freedom fighters who had returned to the U.S. from the failed “Bay of Pigs” invasion of communist Cuba. All three speeches, however, were in Spanish. Apart from the fact that most Americans didn’t speak Spanish and would have thus failed to understand what she said, domestic news outlets hadn’t broadcasted them. If she was a hit in Caracas, she would be hailed as “Durga, goddess of power”  in Karachi.

Jackie Kennedy made a spontaneous gift to a Muslim woman in Pakistan.

During her trip to India and Pakistan in March and April of 1962, Jackie went without the President and the hordes of staff, security and media which always prevented sustained and direct contact with the everyday people who turned out to see them. Making an impulsive gift of a scarf she’d just bought to a Pakistani woman covered in a burqua when she learned the woman wore colorful clothes beneath it, or wearing a fingerprinted Indian tilak on her forehead, her respect for everyday people she encountered and the cultures in which she was immersed cemented the affection those nations felt towards her but while hundreds of thousands of foreigners gained a better sense of all this through a United States Information Agency documentary about her trip, Americans were prevented from ever seeing and hearing her speak. Republicans claiming that its distribution to commercial movie audiences created unfair partisan advantage for the Administration, blocked it from being screened.

A color snapshot made of Jackie Kennedy’s black-and-white television tour of the White House

Not until nearly halfway through the Kennedy Administration, onl Valentine’s Day 1962, did Americans finally get their first sustained exposure to her intellect, when CBS aired “A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy.” Viewers didn’t mind seeing the Red, Green and Blue Rooms in the new technology of black-and-white videotape which also ironically prevented her bright red dress from becoming a distraction.  For many, however,  a comprehension of her scholarship and effortless command of American history and art was overridden by the sensation of  how she spoke in a largely unfamiliar old-school accent. “I remember listening and watching Mrs. Kennedy more than thinking about the White House,” later confessed a certain Houston housewife named Barbara Bush.

The First Family (1962), which won a Grammy Award for Best Selling Record in 1963.

For a time, it seemed as if that inimitable voice would primarily identify her. Just in time for Christmas sales, the single most influential item to exploit it was recorded before a live audience on the first day of what became the Cuban Missile Crisis. The First Family was a comedy album parody  which itself made history as the fastest selling album in the history of the recording industry, selling a million copies each of the seven weeks after its release, and went on to win the Grammy Award for Album of the Year. Much of its success was due to the intonations, dramatic pauses and accent of the Jackie caricature, by Naomi Brossart, actress on the popular weekly variety show “Hootenany.” The most memorable track was “The Tour,” a close-to-real guiding of “Charles Collingsworth” by the “First Lady” through the White House, where she even pointed out the historical dust.

One reason why this audio parody proved so successful was that the nation’s visual memory of Jackie during her real television tour as she walked through the rooms and spoke about important objects in various rooms was already strongly embedded. It is heard here at second 48:

Another comedy ensemble released an album, Folk Songs for the New Frontier, including a song by “JFK” to the tune of “Jimmy Crack’d Corn” in which he begrudgingly accepts Jackie’s globetrotting and fame, the refrain going, “Jackie’s not home but I don’t care! Jackie’s not home but I don’t care! Jackie’s not home but I don’t care…I see her on TV!”

Hoping to ride the crest of big sales from Christmas 1962, a second album, First Family, Volume 2 was produced with hopes of equal success in the 1963 holiday season. Suddenly, the week before Thanksgiving it was yanked from stores and destroyed. It remains among the rarest of Kennedy Pop Culture items.

Perceiving Jackie Kennedy by what she said rather than how she looked would forever be trumped by the most powerful visual impressions of her to embed in the public imagination.

Next: Jackie Kennedy as Icon: Status of A Saint


Categories: Advertising & Marketing, Americana, Barbara Bush, First Ladies, Jackie Kennedy as Icon, The Kennedys

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2 replies »

  1. Yet another really informative observation. Thank you. BTW, you can now purchase BOTH of the “First Family” albums on CD — they come together in one set. I think I purchased mine through Amazon.


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