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Inside the Day That Turned Jacqueline Kennedy Into ‘Jackie O.’

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While Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy was the one married to President John F. Kennedy, many Americans felt married to the idea of the two of them. Their relationship was central to the concept of the Kennedy “Camelot” that is still the object of so much national nostalgia.

So it was that many took the news hard when, nearly five years later after his assassination, the 39-year-old former First Lady felt ready to move on.

She remarried 50 years ago this Saturday, wedding the flamboyant Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle “Ari” Onassis, who claimed to be 62 but had once had a passport that placed him a few years older than that. “Everything, from sugared almonds to the waiting yacht, was ready to celebrate the new life of Mr. and Mrs. Aristotle Onassis,” TIME noted in its coverage of the secret Greek Orthodox wedding ceremony. “Everything, that is, except what is known as ‘the world,’ which seemed unable to comprehend or accept the match.”

The magazine explained the level of shock in that Oct. 25, 1968, cover story:

Reaction in the U.S. and abroad ranged from dismay to a kind of shocked ribaldry. JACKIE, HOW COULD YOU? headlined Stockholm’s Expressen. “Nixon has a Greek running mate,” cracked Bob Hope, “and now everyone wants one.” Said a former Kennedy aide: “She’s gone from Prince Charming to Caliban.” In a more sober vein, French Political Commentator André Fontaine wrote in Le Monde: “Jackie, whose staunch courage during John’s funeral made such an impression, now chooses to shock by marrying a man who could be her father and whose career contradicts—rather strongly, to say the least—the liberal spirit that animated President Kennedy.”

To most Americans as well, Jackie’s marriage symbolized her goodbye to an era and a hero. “It’s the end of Camelot,” was a common reaction. Many were disturbed that she was marrying out of her church and culture. A certain residual puritanism (and at moments like this its lingering strength becomes most apparent) made many Americans feel that she was entering a frivolous, if not slightly wicked jet-set world. No one could reasonably expect her to remain unmarried, the guardian of the Kennedy legend. But people tend to be fastidious, even ruthless, about their heroes and heroines. The imagination of most Americans would not necessarily have preferred an American but, if a foreigner, something closer to an English aristocrat (many had been rather hopeful about Lord Harlech) or a swinging Prime Minister, like Canada’s Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

Is it anyone’s business? Of course not. The speculation, the gossip, the judgment of new motives may well be seen as rude and a little absurd. They are either too solemn or too shallow. But Jackie Kennedy simply is not a private person who may escape such scrutiny.

To few men or women have Americans accorded the concern, sympathy and affection that they extended to her. Few living Americans, for that matter, have been so fervently admired by foreigners. Even before the assassination of the 35th President in 1963, her beauty and style captivated the world—including Charles de Gaulle and Nikita Khrushchev. In the days after Jack Kennedy’s death, millions grieved for the widow whose poise and lonely courage helped carry the U.S. through one of the century’s worst ordeals.

Jackie took on a mythic quality in the American mind. She seemed to detest the world’s devouring and often cruel interest in her—but she might well have avoided the public gaze, had she wished, by adopting a different style of life. In choosing “Ari” Onassis, a man of 62 or 68, a divorcee, a centimillionaire little known for generosity or wisdom and very well known for his flamboyant mode of life, Jacqueline Kennedy seemed brusquely to abdicate the throne that Americans had made for her.

…Thus, to some degree, the American shock at Jackie’s decision undoubtedly grew from a feeling of rejection. Friends note that she may well feel rejected herself: after Jack’s death, she took strength from Bob Kennedy, only to see him murdered too. “Perhaps she feels she has not been very well treated by America,” says a Kennedyite with poignant understatement.

The nuptials also came as a shock in a more basic sense because of how suddenly the wedding happened.

Even the bride’s mother said it was a surprise, and LIFE magazine quoted her as saying her daughter informed her by calling to ask her if she could get on a plane the very next day. Jackie’s younger sister Lee Radziwill said the engagement was a surprise to her too. She had dated Onassis previously, and the way the news was handled would end up souring their relationship.

However, in the context of the other shocking events of the momentous year that was 1968, covering the wedding, as former Time Inc. publisher James R. Shepley wrote in a note to readers, “offered a pleasant, if hectic, change of pace” for reporters “in a year that has seen more than its share of grim news.”

Jackie Kennedy Onassis talks to her guests at her wedding reception.Bill Ray/Time & Life Pictures—Getty Images

Unsurprisingly, there was a lot of speculation about what exactly drew the two together. Some Kennedy-watchers speculated that she, as a paparazzi target, was attracted to his private security detail. “The idea that he owned a yacht and could just literally sail her away from all of her troubles and take her to this private island, a place where she could just be reclusive, was incredibly appealing,” Tina Cassidy, author of a biography of the former First Lady, Jackie After O, says in the 2017 documentary Jackie: A Tale of Two Sisters. But he also had had his eye on her for a while. Cassidy notes that he was one of the first visitors to the White House after the assassination, arguing, “I think people also believed that Onassis was always looking for an angle with Jackie, and it wasn’t until after Robert Kennedy’s assassination that he felt like he had a window and could put the moves on her.”

after their wedding in Scorpios, Greece on Oct. 20, 1968. Kennedy's son, John Kennedy Jr. is at left, fore.Bill Ray/Time & Life Pictures—Getty Images Jackie Lee Bouvier Kennedy Onassis and husband Aristotle Onassis right

Unfortunately, the pair did not live happily ever after.

As TIME reported in his 1975 obituary, “After the honeymoon, the marriage was filled with what one intimate of Ari’s called ‘the nights of long silences.’ Jackie loved concerts, ballet and theater; Onassis preferred raucous bouzouki music, belly dancers and at times the company of roistering Greek businessmen. Much of the time they lived separate lives.” He was never the same after the sudden death in 1973 of his only son. He expressed the idea that President Kennedy’s death had cursed his wife, and in turn, him, calling her “the witch,” according to TIME’s 1994 obituary for the former First Lady.

But the public, even after the wedding, maintained its soft spot for Jackie. She became “Jackie O.,” a nickname that first appeared in the pages of TIME a few months after the wedding, and the fascination with her life never faded — even when it was impossible to know the exact reason for every little thing going wrong in it. In fact, as a symbol of grace in times of sadness, her personal struggles perhaps in the end made Americans love her even more.

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com