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Jacqueline Onassis: A Profile in Courage

24 minute read
Martha Duffy

She was at her best in the crunch. When disaster struck in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, those who saw her said she was tearless, perhaps spacy, “with a 50-yard stare.” But she knew what she had to do to fulfill her commitment to her husband, her children and her country. Her bright pink suit was soiled with blood and gray matter, but she would not change it or leave John F. Kennedy’s body.

Everyone present tried to get her away from a gory scene, but there was nothing spacy, nothing at a 50-yard remove, about her defiant resolve. When one of several doctors at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas urged her to leave, she said, “Do you think seeing the coffin can upset me, doctor? I’ve seen my husband die, shot in my arms. His blood is all over me. How can I see anything worse than I’ve seen?”

Often described as a mannequin, remote and elegant, she seemed determined to underscore the bloody reality of death by gunshot. At Parkland, where the President was taken by ambulance, every time the Secret Service urged her out, she walked right back in, circling the trauma room. Dr. Marion Jenkins, now 76, remembers that in the minutes after the shooting, “I noticed that she was carrying one hand cupped over the other hand. She nudged me with her left elbow and then with her right hand handed me a good-sized chunk of the President’s brain. She didn’t say a word. I handed it to the nurse. Then they led her out of the room again.”

After Kennedy was officially declared dead, the various tubes and his back corset — all were removed. His wife approached the body, and, as Jenkins recalls, “she started kissing him. She kissed his foot, his leg, thigh, chest, and then his lips. She didn’t say a word.” A wife’s final anointment and farewell.

When her father died, she put a bracelet he had given her into the casket, to be buried with him. In Dallas she had nothing but her wedding ring. She put it in. Then, turning to her husband’s close aide, P. Kenneth O’Donnell, she asked, “The ring. Did I do the right thing?” O’Donnell told her to leave the symbol where it lay.

In the public eye, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ heroism is imprinted through indelible images: at L.B.J.’s side, with a gaze more eloquent than any words, as he took the oath of office; gripping Robert Kennedy’s hand and then her children’s; receiving the flag that had covered J.F.K.’s coffin. But what of the woman beyond the camera’s range? There are no pictures of her heartbreak and bravery at Parkland. Yet that was somehow her way.

Last week she died as she had lived, the most private of public persons, a delicate glow in the harshly lit landscape of American celebrity. Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis radiated courage and restraint, glamour and conspicuous shyness. What she thought about her crowded life no one knows because, with the exception of interviews granted to Theodore White and William Manchester in 1963 and 1964 respectively, she never spoke about her experiences after the assassination or revealed her reactions or opinions. Tapes of these interviews exist; White’s will be released next year, but Manchester’s are embargoed until 2064.

If she set out to weave an elaborate mystery, she could not have used a better tactic. But those who know her deny that that was her aim. A friend since Vassar days says Jackie had no idea how to answer questions and was scared of the press: “People thought she was stuck-up, but she just didn’t have much confidence.” Said author Manchester (The Death of a President): “After Kennedy died, she was exposed to a pitiless spotlight, and she did not know how to handle it.” But another observer from White House days claims that Kennedy himself engineered the Garboesque stance: he knew that if she ever began talking, she would reveal how little she knew or cared about politics or public issues.

In truth she was apolitical. She supported the campaigns of Bobby and other Kennedys, but that kind of ambition was not in her blood. After her second husband, the Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, died, some would-be kingmakers got together in New York and, hoping to advance Democratic Party prospects, came up with a grand plan to have her run for the Senate. Her reply said it all: “If I could do it three days a week.”

Her interests were always arty. During her senior year in college she won Vogue’s Prix de Paris, a contest that awarded the winner a year in Paris and an internship with the magazine. Her essay was on the great Russian ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev, among others. Diaghilev was a shrewd, sophisticated choice, bound to knock the glossy’s one-upping editors back on their heels. Says a Jackie watcher of impeccable credentials: “You could talk with her about Baudelaire, but not about Cromwell.”

Jacqueline Bouvier’s world was far from the wheel-and-deal politics that her future husband cut his teeth on. Hers was a background of manicured lawns, riding lessons and outings at the ballet. The Bouviers were an old Catholic family entrenched in New York society; her father, known as “Black Jack” because of his dark good looks, lived recklessly both in the stock market and in his dashing private life. Several of the men whom Jackie later found attractive — her husband, her father-in-law Joseph Kennedy and, later, Aristotle Onassis — bore some resemblance to her glamorous papa. Her mother Janet was steelier, both more conservative and more ambitious. Black Jack was an exuberant but careless investor; the Wall Street crash of 1929 finished his market ride. His marriage began to falter then, and it ended when Jackie was nine. Janet then married into one of the richer branches of the vast Auchincloss clan.

It is possible that Jackie’s quest for money — probably the reason behind her unhappy marriage to Onassis — is rooted in her father’s financial troubles. But her stepfather, Hugh Auchincloss, was generous; she headed off to Miss Porter’s School, an ultra-posh boarding school, with her own horse. Two years at Vassar followed, but Jackie was too restless to thrive in the leafy confines of a Poughkeepsie, New York, campus. She finished college at George Washington University and, spurning the Prix de Paris offers, began her job as the Inquiring Photographer for the Washington Times-Herald.

At 22, Jackie was in no way a journalist, what with her ineptness at Q&A repartee and her whispery, little-girl voice, but still she made a success of it. Image counted a lot. Who could resist this willowy, wide-eyed girl with her clumsy hold on the camera and her wavy hair pulled back into a businesslike bun?

The next year she met her fate at a dinner party given by Charles Bartlett, a Washington journalist and socialite, and his wife Martha. The Bartletts were in a matchmaking mood and invited their old friend Jack Kennedy, then 34, a handsome, ambitious Congressman from Massachusetts. The introduction took. They dated, and he proposed by telephone to London, where she was snapping the coronation of Elizabeth II. “Jackie fell for him,” says an old friend, “but she was amused by the situation too. After the engagement, she said she never knew she had so many friends.”

From the start, marriage to Jack was not easy for Jackie. There were problems — his wandering eye, her clothing bills — but mostly the trouble was that he was constantly running for President. Jackie got what she wanted in that her husband was wealthy, but she had hoped for a life of comfort and perfection in a private world. Faced with a vast, unruly public, she may have fallen back on her father’s injunction that an attractive woman should be mysterious, always holding something back to keep people guessing. Jack would take her to parties and then leave her alone while he worked the room. In response she developed her famous I’m-here-but-I’m-reall y-not-here approach to the world. More often than not, she answered questions with her dazzling smile — period.

She wanted children, and suffered through a miscarriage and the birth of a stillborn baby. Caroline was born in 1957. John Jr. was born in 1960. When she was later asked which First Lady she admired most, her reply was surprising — Bess Truman. And the reason: her sensible way of bringing up her daughter Margaret in the White House glare.

By 1960 there were visible cracks in the marriage and gossip about J.F.K.’s supposed affairs. At one point Joseph Kennedy offered Jackie a million dollars not to leave Jack, and reportedly she took it. The presidency did not initially improve matters. For one thing, she disliked the White House. “Like a hotel,” she complained to TIME’s Hugh Sidey, “everywhere I look there is somebody standing around or walking down a hall.”

She made peace with the problem by asserting her own aesthetic. She had a stage built and invited performers like cellist Pablo Casals and the American Ballet Theatre — a glamorization of politics that was unprecedented. More important, she redid the place, replacing routine reproductions with authentic period pieces and fabrics. In behalf of her cause, she was able to put aside her shyness and skillfully persuade rich collectors to part with their treasures in the name of history. The redecoration was a triumph celebrated on TV when the First Lady led correspondent Charles Collingwood through the rooms and explained her inspirations. Eighty million people tuned in.

“She had the most remarkable visual memory of anyone that I have ever known,” says Manchester. “When I interviewed her in Georgetown in the spring of ’64, she would describe a scene, and she would even describe the configuration of the clouds in the sky. Later I would look at the photographs of that time, and she would be right.”

The First Lady was also instrumental in propelling the preservation movement. In 1962 everyone, including the President and his advisers, was resigned to the fact that the historic 19th century town houses around Lafayette Square in Washington would be torn down to make room for a large federal office building. “She refused to give up,” said John Carl Warnecke, an architect who helped develop a plan to preserve the 19th century character of the square. “She said this is ‘a last-ditch effort.’ A lot of other people have taken credit for Lafayette Square, but she was the true savior.” After leaving the White House, she would help save New York City’s Grand Central Terminal from the wrecker’s ball.

She came to terms with bringing up Caroline and John in the proverbial fishbowl. In her protectiveness of them can be found early signs of how vigilant and tough she could be when her family and her values were at stake. Still the camera images of the kids are unforgettable, and the President was not above promoting photo ops. One day he brought little John to the Oval Office, and the cameras caught the toddler maneuvering between his father’s legs through the crawl space under the Executive desk. And the nation’s children came to envy Caroline her pony, the redoubtable Macaroni.

In time, Jackie’s marriage grew more stable, though the couple often separated on vacation. Initially appalled by the restrictions of working and living under the same roof, Kennedy settled in. He gained new admiration for his wife just by watching the world’s reaction to her grace and beauty. Jackie had been considered a liability by Massachusetts pols when J.F.K. was a Senator. She was, they said, too remote, too snooty. But as First Lady she came into her own. Charles de Gaulle arrived in the U.S. with his nose in the air; he considered Jackie empty and much too beau monde. But he was attracted to her. What exquisite French! Such sound Gallic genes!

Later the Kennedys visited France, and the welcome was tumultuous. It was a proud and happy hero who said, “I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris.” Talking in French to De Gaulle, the First Lady said, “My grandparents are French.” Replied the great one-up man: “So are mine, madame.”

During the 1,000 days of Kennedy’s presidency, the First Lady’s greatest impact was on style. She revolutionized dress for a female public figure. She loved slacks and shorts and riding habits. What she did not do was overdress — ever. Gone were the klutzy handbags, the fussy hats, the grim shoes, the clashing colors and unphotogenic prints. The young Halston made her the famous pillbox hat. For the rest she looked toward Paris — Jackie was a frank Francophile. The American designer Oleg Cassini made her copies of current couture, and Jackie encouraged people to believe she bought American. But she also shopped quietly at Givenchy and Balenciaga. Because her elegant taste was always restrained, it was very hard to tell the difference.

Her husband sometimes erupted at the bills. Nixonites accused her of spending $100,000 on her wardrobe. She snapped back in a New York Times interview, “I couldn’t spend that much unless I wore sable underwear.” But Jackie was really not just a clotheshorse. She applied the same sense of style to herself as she did to the White House. Says Richard Martin, associate curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute: “Her style was not vanity but a way of living, not simply adorning herself but expressing her vision of beauty in the world.” The museum’s collections contain couture clothing from Onassis, all of it donated anonymously.

In 1963 a third child, Patrick, was born to the Kennedys, but he lived only two days. His father went down to the hospital boiler room and wept. But they were a real family now. After the assassination, Jackie recalled to Theodore White the nights when Jack would turn on the phonograph in their bedroom and play the title song from the Broadway hit Camelot. Perhaps he saw his presidency as a chimera, “that brief shining moment” that must not be forgot. But the song was instead a premonition of tragedy.

The Kennedys went to Dallas on a political fence-mending trip in a state the Democrats had barely won in 1960. The shots rang out as they endured a hot motorcade trip across town. Afterward many people tried to persuade Jackie to change her clothes, but she insisted on wearing the stained pink suit. “I want them to see what they have done,” she said. She also refused to take tranquilizers, fearing they would blunt her reactions and interfere with her planning — because plan the funeral she did. The riderless horse, the eternal flame, the wailing Irish bagpipe — all were her idea. When the hearse rumbled past, she asked little John to salute his father. The nation saw her then as a mother, first and foremost.

The next day she wrote a long letter in her own hand to the new President, thanking him for walking along with the family “behind Jack,” for his kindness to her and even for tolerating the shouts of the children playing in the White House nursery school. It is signed, “Respectfully, Jackie.” It is a letter that commands infinite respect.

She moved to a house in Georgetown, but life there proved impossible. In that quaint, pricey village, houses are close to the street, and tour buses were soon belching smoke in her windows. She then sought out the relative anonymity and familiarity of New York City. She bought an apartment on upper Fifth Avenue across from Central Park. As a child, living two blocks away on Park Avenue, she played in the park. She emerged from her doorman-protected life to help Bobby Kennedy out on his presidential run. His assassination stunned and depressed her. Frank Mankiewicz, Bobby’s press secretary, recalls meeting her the night he was killed. “Jackie told me that some people are acquainted with death and some are not,” Mankiewicz says. Talking of women she had met two months before at the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr., she said, “Those women know a lot about death. They see it all around them. Now, Frank, so do we. And if it weren’t for the children, we’d welcome it.”

Not long after Bobby was assassinated, Jackie shocked the world by marrying Onassis, the Greek shipping tycoon 29 years her senior. How could she stoop so far from American royalty? She was seen in all the trite celebrity camera shots: cruising the Mediterranean behind her trademark shades, sunbathing on a Greek isle, smiling broadly in nightclubs. Onassis had a magnetism that had attracted many women before her, including the great opera singer Maria Callas. But money was probably the largest motivation. Jackie had no intention of not living very well.

The union was not a success. The pair quarreled over her spending. Onassis took to calling his wife “the widow.” After his son died in an air crash, he changed that to “the witch.” Deeply superstitious, he blamed her for the loss that broke his heart.

But there was room in his world for many things, and he and Jackie were sometimes happy and at peace. For one thing, he liked the Kennedys. Jackie had had problems with them, especially Jack’s mother Rose, mostly about life-style and religious upbringing. To the Kennedys, the Hyannis Port fracas was the only way to live. Rose nattered about the church. But despite later gossip, Jackie settled into a friendly relation with her former in-laws. An old friend recalls a dinner in Paris with Onassis and the elder Mrs. Kennedy, when the two ladies gossiped endlessly about White House days. Then Jackie insisted that Ari take them on to a nightclub. “You know,” she told him, “Rose hasn’t been to a nightclub since Joe took her to the Lido in 1936.” Evenings like that kept the marriage going.

There was still an unseemly coda: the financial settlement. Through her lawyers she entered negotiations with her in-laws. Eventually Christina Onassis, the shipper’s daughter and his only major heir, reportedly decided to get her hated stepmother out of her life with a settlement of $20 million.

And so Jackie was back in New York. Instead of endorsing a cause, as many ex-First Ladies and underemployed princesses have done, she took a job. First at Viking, then at Doubleday, she became an editor, working three days a week. Until shortly before she died, she was responsible for a dozen books a year, and she gets straight A’s from anyone who worked with her. Doubleday chief Stephen Rubin says that “she was directly involved in everything — line editing, trim size, jacket design, sales and marketing. She would call up a big book chain to push her books. And she was never grand. She would wait outside your office if you were on the phone.”

She edited memoirs by Gelsey Kirkland and Michael Jackson as well as obscure books she felt deserved attention, such as Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier, the manuscript of which was languishing in a Kansas library until she took an interest. She made something of a crusade for Edvard Radzinsky’s The Last Tsar, getting what Rubin calls her SWAT team of assistants to promote the book. Most days she lunched at her desk on carrot and celery sticks. Says Doubleday associate publisher Marly Russoff: “It was always a shock for the first few times when you’d pass her in the hall. She’s sort of an icon. But she didn’t put a distance between herself and other people.”

Her put-downs were gentle. Says John Loring, design director at Tiffany and author of several books edited by Onassis: “It was always in very nice terms, but the moment she said what was wrong, there wasn’t any doubt. I’d say to myself, ‘Well, silly me, why did I try that one on for size. It clearly wasn’t going to work.’ ” Loring found her an ideal sounding board: “She had an extraordinary ability to be interested in the person she was working with.” He adds with a flourish, “She makes you feel you could do almost anything. Any man married to Jackie probably would have to become President of the United States.”

However, says Charles Daly, director of the Kennedy Library Foundation in Boston, “she was not at all above giving very direct criticism when warranted.” He recalls the day she visited the library building designed by her friend the architect I.M. Pei as it was under construction. She saw an asphalt driveway where lawn and trees should have been. “She called one of I.M. Pei’s guys out and pointed to the asphalt,” says Daly. “She nearly ate the guy for lunch. She could be very tough.”

She was also extremely tough about keeping her private life resolutely just that. And, according to Mankiewicz, when Manchester wanted to renege on the agreement giving her final approval of the manuscript of Death of a President, Jackie fought him. “When my children grow up, I don’t want them to read all the gruesome stuff about his brain and the way he looked,” she said, according to Mankiewicz. “She wanted those passages out, and by God she got them out.”

A few glimpses of the private Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis are available. For one, she was often seen at ballet intermissions eating ice cream, something she loved. For another, she chain-smoked — out of the camera’s range — until 1987, when she told Kitty Dukakis, who had approached her for advice on being a political wife, that she was quitting. She remained devoted to J.F.K.’s memory. Over lunch with friends, she often began remarks with “Jack used to say” or “Jack thought.”

Friends observed that she kept “an ostrich position” with regard to stories of his infidelity in the White House. Indeed, she professed to be shocked by similar allegations by Paula Jones about Bill Clinton. But she had always been prim. Says Manchester: “She was appalled by Lyndon Johnson’s earthiness. At one time he was talking about Adlai Stevenson, and Johnson said, ‘You know, he squats to piss.’ Jackie was horrified. She didn’t know what to say. She was stunned.”

She exulted whenever she met a White House veteran. A few years ago, at a dinner party on Martha’s Vineyard given by Katharine Graham, then publisher of the Washington Post, she chatted animatedly with Nancy Reagan. “They were riveted by each other,” says one of Graham’s guests. “They compared notes on being First Lady, the problems of running the White House. It was like two suburban ladies talking about a good sale on V-8 juice.”

In the last dozen years, Carolina Herrera, who designed Caroline’s wedding dress, was Onassis’ favorite designer. “Once,” says Herrera, “she was in my showroom, and I had some buyers from Neiman Marcus. She was trying on a suit. She came out and she saw all these people sitting there and she turned to them and said, ‘Don’t you think this is lovely?’ And they almost fainted when they saw who was modeling.” Says Herrera: “We used to laugh about it a lot.”

In the last 10 years of her life, Onassis kept company with a married financier and diamond merchant, Maurice Tempelsman, who reportedly multiplied his companion’s wealth. (One source says that in 1991 her holdings included $1.5 million in cash, property — including her $3.5 million apartment — amounting to nearly $8 million, and $15 million to $20 million in stock.) An acquaintance of Jack Kennedy’s, the Belgian-born Tempelsman, 64, eventually moved into her Fifth Avenue flat and shared her life at her $2 million summer spread in Martha’s Vineyard.

Her children are now grown. In 1986, Caroline, a lawyer and author, married Edwin Schlossberg, an artist and entrepreneur, and is now the mother of three: Rose, 5, Tatiana, 4, and John, 1.

John Jr., who has dated the actress Darryl Hannah on and off for more than five years, is also a lawyer, and spent four years working as an assistant district attorney in New York district attorney Robert Morgenthau’s office before quitting last summer. His current projects include looking into starting a nonpartisan magazine about politics. “He was very excited to introduce people at the office to his mom,” says a former colleague at the Manhattan D.A.’s office. “He was like, ‘This is my mom!’ It was cute. I got the impression that he talked to her about things that were going on at the office, things that were going on in his life. This was not a distant relationship.”

With close relations to her children and grandchildren, a history of good health, a job she loved and a congenial companion, she had seemed set for a happy old age. She summered on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, where she had three traditional saltbox houses side by side set on 350 beachfront acres, with two large ponds and a bird sanctuary. There she would quietly entertain old friends like the author William Styron and the influential Washington lawyer Vernon Jordan and Lady Bird Johnson. Each Labor Day weekend, Onassis would have all the Kennedys from Hyannis Port over for a picnic. “It was like the old days at Camelot,” says one who was there. Did Onassis still feel like a Kennedy? Michael Kennedy, the son of Robert, simply says, “She was always open to our family.”

The links were warm but sensitive. Doris Kearns, a Kennedy biographer, remembers long phone conversations with Onassis. “She would talk about what it was like when she first met Joe and Rose Kennedy, how she would listen to classical music on the porch at Hyannis Port with Joe because they both liked classical music, how she didn’t play touch football with everyone else, how difficult it was with Rose in the beginning. The whole Kennedy family drew the married kids away from their wives, but she was determined to create a nuclear family for Jack.” Kearns relates how Onassis felt about large families. “She went through the Kennedy children, one by one, how each one was hurt and overshadowed by the one before. It was all very perceptive. She was not sentimental at all.”

THE END CAME FAST. FRIENDS SAY ONASSIS, who had prided herself on her fitness, was shocked to discover that she had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a treatable but tricky form of cancer that often strikes people in their 60s and 70s. She announced in late February that she was undergoing treatment. For once in her life, a private event was public knowledge, because she still returned to her beloved Central Park, where the photographers could train their lenses on her. With Caroline, her baby John, and Tempelsman, she could be seen walking the paths as best she could, passing the places where she played as a child.

As recently as last month she told a friend that things were going well: “I’m almost glad it happened because it’s given me a second life. I laugh and enjoy things so much more.” However, the cancer had spread to her brain and her liver from her lymph nodes. On Wednesday, after deciding that further medical treatment would be fruitless, she went home. She died the evening after. This week she is to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery beside her husband and her son Patrick.

Talking to reporters, John Kennedy Jr. said his mother had died “surrounded by her friends and her family and her books. She did it in her own way and in her own terms.” Despite a lifelong confrontation with death, that is how she lived and the example she gave to the world.

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