Jackie Kennedy: The truth behind the myth
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis continues to fascinate the world, but recently released tapes have revealed a bitchy, indiscreet, paranoid side to the elegant, enigmatic figure. Emily Hourican reflects on the|making of a modern American legend.
There were always two Jackies. The public Jackie was elegant, gracious, demure; content to dazzle in the background and strictly by association, ever putting Jack forward and his needs before her own. But in private, the invariably softly spoken Jackie could be wicked, satirical and cutting in a way that would have appalled her adoring public.
Until now, very few people had seen this side of her. It was reserved for her closest intimates, of whom there were few. She almost never gave interviews, never explained or justified her actions, never collaborated with a biography or documentary.
Like Kate Moss, her silence was her greatest coup, meaning that all the endless speculation about the legend that was Jackie Kennedy in the end simply went to fuelling her myth. She was the cipher onto which America, and the world, could project what it wanted.
This is why the release — to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy presidency — of eight-and-a-half hours of tapes, recorded with friend and former White House aide Arthur Schlesinger just four months after Jack's assassination are such a bombshell. Jackie spoke frankly, sometimes movingly, often cruelly about those who peopled her world during the Camelot years and immediately after.
In a breathy, little-girl voice, quite like Marilyn Monroe, Jackie is indiscreet, funny and sometimes vicious. Lady Bird Johnson, First Lady following Jack's assassination, she describes as “sort of like a trained hunting dog” who whipped out a notebook to record her husband, Lyndon's, every word, no matter how trivial. Clare Boothe Luce, a conservative US congresswoman is dismissed as a lesbian, while the “violently liberal women in politics” who voted for Adlai Stevenson, JFK's balding Democratic rival, did so because they were “scared of sex”.
World leaders — many of whom, introduced to the public Jackie, were smitten by her — get equally short shrift. JFK's hero, Winston Churchill, she considers “really quite ga-ga” while De Gaulle, who was utterly charmed with Jackie's looks, style and faultless French and described her as “looking like a Watteau” at one of their early meetings, is called in return a “spiteful egomaniac”.
That Paris trip was the first time JFK really appreciated the political capital and star quality of his wife — she made headlines in her own right and smoothed the path of diplomacy by her flattering attentiveness to De Gaulle and other senior figures.
From that time on, Jack began to use the ‘Jackie effect’ in quite a calculated manner.
But of all the bitchy, dismissive and paranoid comments made on the Jackie tapes — and remember they were recorded just four months after the assassination that had so brutally changed her life, against a backdrop of terrifying civil unrest in America — none is so controversial, or so quickly dismissed by her daughter Caroline, as the remarks about Martin Luther King. “A terrible man”, “really tricky” and “a phoney” are how she refers to him, saying she could barely look at photographs of him. She claims he mocked the cardinal who conducted JFK's funeral for being drunk, and, according to Bobby Kennedy, then Attorney General, that he tried to organise an orgy before the great Civil Rights march at which he delivered his I Have A Dream speech.
Caroline Kennedy, who released the tapes earlier than the 50 years posthumous that Jackie — with her usual mania for control — specified, has been quick to refute the King comments, insisting that Jackie was not voicing her own opinions, but rather the results of a smear campaign by FBI chief J Edgar Hoover. Jackie, claims Caroline, was proud to attend King's funeral.
Almost as irritating for American liberals, who have always been keen to claim Jackie, with her modern looks and taste, for their own, are her asides on feminism. “I think women should never be in politics. We're just not suited to it,” she coos, to the infuriation of her grandchildren, among others.
Jackie may have been a style icon of her times, but her mentality was entirely shaped by her upbringing in the Fifties, and by her relationship with her charismatic, womanising father, ‘Black’ Jack Bouvier.
Jackie Bouvier was born months before the great Wall Street crash of 1929, which had a serious impact on the previously very comfortable fortunes of her family. She and younger sister Lee imbibed an insecurity surrounding money that was to last their whole lives. Fear of poverty was a powerful motivating force for both of them.
As was a belief that power, for women, came always through a man. Jackie's grasp of sexual politics and the wiles needed to triumph in social life came early, as she learned to play the dominant men of her household — her Clark Gable-look-alike father in particular.
From him she learned the importance of style and looks, the value of image, and an impatience of bores. She was proud of his womanising, even though it caused the break-up of his marriage to her mother, and would point out the mothers of friends at school sports days. “What about her?” she
would say. “Yes, I've had her,” he would reply, or “no, but I think that's pretty imminent”. His relationship with his daughters was more romantic than paternal, in fact, many friends described his closeness to Jackie as “semi-incestuous”. Bad on consistency and moral values, he was fun, demanding and irresponsible.
When the girls started dating, Black Jack's influence was clear. “All men are rats,” was his motto, often repeated and taken to heart by both, neither of whom had high expectations of fidelity or loyalty. And yet he taught them how to beguile and captivate anyway; the importance of seeming utterly absorbed in whatever a man was saying, the irresistible lure of total attention.
By the time she met Jack, Jackie had already begun to set the world alight, just as she wanted. She was Deb of the Year in 1947, then rounded out her New York private school education with a trip to France, where she moved easily in Parisian high society, learning the skills of being a brilliant hostess that were to so transform the previously staid White House; that mixing of movie stars and artists with politicians and thinkers that was to lend such charm to her parties.
She was working in Washington as a kind of columnist-photographer on the Washington Times-Herald, a position she felt would give her the access and opportunity she needed — to find a suitable (handsome, rich, preferably Catholic) husband. Jackie was ambitious, sure, but they were the classic ambitions of the Fifties — to marry well.
Jack Kennedy's friends, by that time, were seriously concerned that his bright chances might be scuppered by the wrong girl, or no steady girl at all. They wanted him settled, married, his mind free to concentrate on politics.
To Charlie Bartlett, a friend of both Jack and Jackie, the match seemed ostensibly perfect. She was the right kind of discreet, energetic and sophisticated for the dashing young congressman. Later, after JFK's compulsive womanising became better known, he said: “I'm not sure I'd have pushed it if I realised that he was ... that he had this, almost, disease.”
Although he had no real desire to marry, JFK was smitten with Jackie almost from the first meeting. For him though, despite the attraction, it wasn't really love, nothing ever was. Shortly before he died, a friend asked him whether he had ever been in love. “No,” was the reply, “but I've been very interested once or twice.” However, he was then 36 and figured that Jackie, with her cool intelligence and wit would be least likely to bore him, and — tellingly — his father, Joe Kennedy, was strongly in favour.
Probably neither of them was really in love but she was determined to make a go of it, and so she began to transform herself into the perfect political wife with the same diligence and perseverance she showed in everything else. And she gradually proved Jack's equal when it came to magnetism and sheer glamour of appeal. The magic they created in combination was, is still, remarkable.
Money certainly helped. Jackie, after the early insecurities of family life, was obsessed with it, and spent it in vast quantities. Her extravagance was legendary, and the source of many rows with Jack, who didn't even know the half of it. Old Joe Kennedy, who had Jackie's measure and could see the asset she represented, had many of her bills directed straight to him so Jack would never know the sums of money spent on clothes, hats, shoes and bags.
Her attitude to Jack's relentless infidelity was the same kind of clever compromise. Where she could, she would banish known rivals, freeze them out or stare them down. And in those areas that she couldn't control, she turned a blind eye, often affecting not to see what was perfectly plain — that Jack cheated constantly and compulsively.
She undoubtedly had a couple of affairs of her own, including with the actor William Holden, probably more out of revenge than passion, but in general was too absorbed — in the business of creating the kind of White House she deemed fit for Jack's presidency, and in bringing up John Jr and Caroline.
Those White House years, the Camelot years, as Jackie christened them, having herself come up with the allegorical allusion, were the validation she needed. “Suddenly, everything that had been a liability before — your hair, that you spoke French ... that you didn't bake bread with flour up to your arms ... had just gone away,” she says rather touchingly on the tapes, of this time.
Jackie was always ready to look to posterity, concerned with the story their years would tell. When JFK was assassinated, after one moment of sheer panic, when she tried to scramble out of the back of the car (she later insisted that she had been trying to rescue a piece of his skull), Jackie almost seamlessly turned her attention to creating his myth.
She refused to change her outfit after the shooting, standing beside Lyndon Johnson as he was sworn in, still in her blood-stained pink Chanel suit and white kid gloves — “let them see what they've done,” she said.
During the days between the assassination and funeral, Jackie led the way in everything. With her extraordinary sang-froid and instinct for drama, she showed a nation how to behave in deep mourning, presenting a picture of dignified grief around the world. While she usually shielded John Jr and Caroline from the press, now she ushered them into the spotlight, knowing that their presence was needed to complete the tragic triptych.
Marrying Aristotle Onassis was Jackie's escape — from the legend she had created, one that expected her to be the dignified widow forever — and from an America that looked increasingly dangerous. After JFK came Bobby's assassination, another terrible blow for Jackie. She and Bobby were very close, probably lovers.
His death deprived her of a much-needed friend, and caused her great fear for her children's safety. She needed out, and Onassis, with his fairytale wealth, could provide that. And, although he was short and ugly, Onassis definitely had sex appeal — Gina Lollobrigida said of him that he was “a great lay”. Initially, at least, the attraction between them was intense and very physical; they made love everywhere — on beaches, boats, planes — often regardless of who was watching. Aboard the Christina, Onassis would simply drag Jackie into the nearest available bedroom, in front of his crew, friends and business associates, barely bothering to close the door. It was all a far cry from the affectionate but rather distant relationship with Jack — the night of his inauguration, for example, Jackie went to bed early and alone, while he committed his first act of adultery as president.
The world was predictably horrified at her latest move. ‘Jackie How Could You?’ screamed one newspaper headline. To most watchers, it was a case of the Princess and the Toad, but Jackie's instincts were right — once she had escaped the prison of her sacred image, and into the protection of Onassis' millions, she became gradually free, so that when the marriage to Onassis broke down, as it inevitably did, she was able to return to New York and a job with publishers Doubleday. There, Jackie was finally able to lead the kind of low-key but distinctive life she wanted, effortlessly re-establishing herself as New York royalty, so that by the time she died, aged 64, she truly was America's Queen.