She has never been fully credited with the lifetime of devoted friendship and trust she provided for her friend, who happened to be the world’s most famous woman, but public acclaim was always the last thing which Nancy Tuckerman sought.
Serving as the confidante of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis through the best and worst times of her tumultuous life and sharing more laughter than sorrow with her was ample reward enough.
Even so, when Nancy was turning the big 3-5, Jackie thought it was high time that she was celebrated as the center of attention – with a surprise birthday party.
The duo had first met as toddlers in New York City, while attending the same kindergarten. From a Connecticut family which included a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Nancy Tuckerman also saw her in summertime where both their families spent vacations on Long Island.
In their yearbook, Bouvier’s profile said she could be “most often found laughing with Tucky.” They pulled some pranks, like getting a friend in the infirmary to come see them at the window – who then had her cold turn into the flu as a result.
Once Jackie got her horse up to Farmington she would hitch it to a sleigh and ride through the snow, but she could never turn the reluctant Nancy into the brash girl on the horse that she was.
Like Jackie, Nancy also went through her social debut, photographed for Life Magazine with several other debs by the famous society photographer Horst.
Several years later, while Jackie Bouvier was working as a newspaper columnist and photographer, Nancy Tuckerman started her own travel business. She also went on to become her friend’s bridesmaid in the 1953 Bouvier-Kennedy wedding.
It was two years and six months into her tenure as First Lady that Jacqueline Kennedy, then pregnant with her child Patrick, felt she had established a strong system for running her operations in the East Wing and replaced her often domineering Social Secretary Letitia Baldrige with her trusted friend.
In June of 1963, Nancy Tuckerman relocated from New York to Washington and began working with Jackie in an official capacity.
She not only executed the social events and ceremonies of the White House but also ran the East Wing, with directives by memo from the First Lady from the presidential summer residence in Hyannis on Cape Cod.
More than perhaps any one quality the two friends shared a “sense of the ridiculous,” a humor based on the absurdities of life.
One of the crazier incidents involved Nancy arranging for the First Lady to take her children on a balloon ride, offered by Goodyear. All went well until the man operating the balloon made it suddenly fly faster and further, sending the Secret Service on the ground into a panic when they couldn’t keep track of it.
Among those she quickly befriended was “Mr. West,” the White House Chief Usher J.B. West, a man who also shared a similar sense of humor with her and the First Lady.
Two months into Nancy Tuckerman’s tenure, a sudden pall descended on the First Family and all those who worked with them when Mrs. Kennedy gave birth prematurely to her son Patrick. The baby lived barely two days.
Nancy kept a vigilant and protective watch over the recovering Jackie at Otis Air Force Hospital near the Hyannis home of the Kennedys, the medical compound being surrounded by the press while inside she found it disturbingly silent.
Shaken and depressed, the First Lady left for a European vacation with her sister, confident not only of Nancy’s executive ability to run the entertaining operations at the White House in her absence but also of her discretion, judgement and sensibilities on entertaining decisions.
When Jackie Kennedy returned in October of 1963, there was no greater sign that she had recovered than the gags and mirth she staged for Nancy Tuckerman’s surprise birthday party.
Borrowing the plus-size white uniform of a White House maid and taking one of her own wigs, the First Lady managed to get the Chief Usher of the White House to dress up in both as “Miss Ward,” the old-school housemother who’d run the dormitory where Jackie and Nancy had lived at Miss Porter’s.
He was there to welcome Nancy as everyone shouted “surprise” at her as she entered the White House movie theater, pad and pen in hand. lured there on the premise it was an important meeting.
Jackie then staged some more comedic entertainment, making fun of herself and even her White House historic restoration project.
She got the young White House Curator she’d hired, Jim Ketchum, to impersonate the particular French decorator Stephan Boudin, and Ketchum’s assistant Nancy Hough, to impersonate her.
The duo performed a skit that Mrs. Kennedy wrote, a ridiculous scenario about the First Lady and her French decorator now engaged in the high and mighty task of restoring the movie theater with rare antiques.
Throughout the performance, the real Jackie sat near her impersonator, who had been known to leave White House staff members shaking in their boots by making phone calls in a spot-on voice impression of the First Lady with impossible and seemingly insane requests.
After the little show, there was cake and then all the guests linked into a circle to sing the Miss Porter’s school song.
Little could anyone realize the sorrow that would engulf them all in less than a month.
There she began to oversee a volunteer staff tasked with the often overwhelming job of responding to upwards of 40,000 daily sympathy notes, cards, letters, tributes, poems and gifts that began to flood in on the president’s widow and children.
When Jackie Kennedy decided to leave Washington and move to New York, Nancy Tuckerman returned there too, barely a year after leaving, running the former First Lady’s operations from an office suite on Park Avenue.
During the Sixties, she not only continued to handle the heavy volume of correspondence but also came to serve as Mrs. Kennedy’s spokesperson, sometimes accompanying her on trips and becoming even more of a confidante than ever before.
It was Nancy Tuckerman who also announced to the world that her friend was remarrying in 1968 to Aristotle Onassis.
No longer afforded the franking privilege or a federally-salaried staff as a presidential widow, the now Jackie Onassis helped her friend further her career.
She talked to her husband about hiring Miss Tuckerman in a position of greater responsibility, in the publicity department of Olympic Airlines, the Greek national carrier which he owned. So began another series of incidents in a new period of relative levity for the two friends.
Both were excited, for example, when Nancy Tuckerman had worked with clothing designer Pierre Cardin in updating the Olympic Airlines stewardess uniform with a sleek sleeveless dress. That is, until the day they flew and a stewardess went to close some luggage in an overhead bin. Then and there they realized that many Greek women at that time did not shave their underarms.
On another occasion, when Ari Onassis finally agreed to give Tuckerman a raise he did so by handing her a wad of several hundred dollar bills under a table.
Although she continued to work part-time handling the correspondence, business matters and calendar of Mrs. Onassis, Nancy Tuckerman soon branched off into media relations for Doubleday, the book publisher.
A year later, after the death of Onassis, Jackie now followed Nancy’s path, going to work as an associate editor at Viking Press, a different book publisher.
Both in a professional capacity and as a frequent companion, Nancy Tuckerman was still often called upon to literally protect her friend.
Exasperated one too many times, for example, by paparazzi Ron Gallela marring what would be for anyone else an intimate family moment (not to mention his repeated violation of a court order restraining him from approaching Onassis at a certain distance), she far more assertively halted the photographer from continuing to snap away than the more resigned former First Lady ever did.
Following a firestorm of controversy when Viking Press decided to publish a novel, the premise of which was the assassination plot of a future President Edward Kennedy, Mrs. Onassis quit Viking Press in 1977.
Unsure about her ability to ever function as a regular employee in a professional setting without her fame getting in the way, she finally decided to try again, this time going to Doubleday.
There she had the protective assurance and discretion of Nancy Tuckerman, and even took an office just a few doors down from her.
Beginning then in 1978, both Nancy and Jackie were working together as colleagues and it marked perhaps the happiest and most professionally rewarding period of their friendship.
They also came to jointly befriend many others in the publishing industry, encouraging the careers of young literary aides who went on to great success and particularly enjoying another friend, senior editor Lisa Drew who, like Mr. West, shared their particular sense of the ridiculous.
This productive, busy, exciting time which even further intensified their bond lasted fifteen years, until the February day in 1994 when Nancy Tuckerman had to again make an announcement to the world about a turning point in the life of her friend.
Jackie Onassis had non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
In the several press statements which Nancy Tuckerman would make over the next three months, she always stuck to the honest facts yet also sounded a sense of hope about the situation, optimistic yet realistic.
In the end, it was again Nancy Tuckerman who told the world that “nothing more could be done,” and that her lifelong friend and confidante was going home to die.
It was Nancy Tuckerman who, recognizing the swift passage of time and larger value of preserving the accurate record of just how much her friend had accomplished as First Lady, also served as a facilitator for her and this author, myself. Although Mrs. Onassis would not break her policy of granting a recorded interview, she did agree to answer my questions in writing, particularly assured of the book project’s intentions by my editor Lisa Drew, her friend and former Doubleday colleague.
Throughout the 1980s, however, I had also come to know Nancy Tuckerman, largely through correspondence, sharing with her information I’d uncovered and copies of Mrs. Kennedy’s letters that were then just beginning to show up in public archives, fact-checking conflicting data and in the process, I believed, earning her trust.
When the clearance finally came for me to send along the lists of questions, Nancy not only transcribed the answers but also some unexpected but highly appreciated additional material I was shocked to receive.
It was the clarification notes, word changes, and amplification by Jackie Onassis the editor on the five or so chapters about Jackie Kennedy the First Lady that were part of my manuscript.
I was never specifically given a reason for why Jackie decided to contribute so much new information. I had met and spoken to Mrs. Onassis sometime before this. And Lisa had shared with Nancy the drafts of my chapters which now integrated the initial answers to my questions provided by Mrs. Onassis.
Yet I sensed that the further step of not merely reading but contributing her memories to what ultimately became First Ladies, volume 2, would not have happened were it not for an assurance of trust about me being made by one of the very few people who never betrayed the world’s most famous woman, who never crossed her purposes, and who never wrote a million-dollar best-seller about Jackie even long years after she was gone, rather than continue to work.
And Nancy Tuckerman never would perhaps expect or welcome such an article like this. Yet in considering the larger perspective of how much integrity that was behind her lifelong commitment of discretion and loyalty to a friend who, by happenstance, also turned into an iconic legend in her own time, one finds no better example of the very meaning of “friendship.”
Nancy Tuckerman’s integrity is a timeless value.
It is one which is not the prerogative of the privileged but can be learned or renewed by any person at any age and in any era, even when many assume that “friending” is simply about clicking “accept” on a keyboard.
And revealing some aspects of this particular friendship may show that the most famous among us are not the only individuals worth emulating.
So, perhaps, as she marks her birthday at the end of October, Nancy Tuckerman will permit some acknowledgement of her own work as a person, a half-century after that surprise party organized and executed by a friend who was also loyal to her, hosted in the house she just happened to be living in at the time.
- Letters From Camelot’s Historian (theatlantic.com)