Obituary: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis
Saturday 21 May 1994
SHE APPEARED at the top of the steps pushed up to the door of Air Force One, her pink suit stained with blood, as the body of her husband, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was lowered from the aeroplane's hold in a hoist. In that instant, one of the universally recognised snapshots of the 20th century, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy became an American icon of grief and tragedy. None who was present or even saw her on television will forget the melancholy dignity with which she conducted herself in the aftermath of President Kennedy's assassination in Dallas on 22 November 1963 and during the funeral in Washington.
But even before that supreme ordeal, and again after it, her life was in other respects a tragic one. As a child, she was devastated by the divorce of her mother, Janet, who subsequently married the immensely rich but stiff and remote Hugh D. Auchincloss, and her rakish but beloved father, Jack Bouvier.
Her marriage to Jack Kennedy was never easy and for long periods unmistakably unhappy. She was often humiliated by his obsessive womanising. Even more difficult, perhaps, was the way she found herself emotionally excluded by the clannish rituals of the Kennedy family and by her husband's insistence on putting his political career before his wife.
Besides her husband's assassination and that of his younger brother, Robert, the unexpected death of her father and the death of her second husband, Aristotle Onassis, when she was still a comparatively young woman, she had to endure a miscarriage and the death of a still-born child before the birth, by Caesarean section, of her first child, Caroline. Later another child died in infancy.
She steeled herself early to maintain an icy dignity in the ferocious and often unseemly rows between the Auchincloss and Bouvier sides of her family, and this early training must have contributed to the grace and fortitude with which she met all misfortunes. The emotional power of her image as the national widow gave her a unique aura for the American media for which the overused word glamour was for once appropriate. She was seen as the fairy princess of the Camelot myth of the Kennedy presidency, called after a banal musical of the day about the court of King Arthur, to which her and her husband's don't-look-too-closely White House was embarrassingly compared. She was seen as a survivor and in a way a guarantor of a special moment of splendour in American history. In an age of celebs, she was a genuine celebrity; in a city of celebrities, she was the super-celebrity.
Overdone and even sleazy as the Camelot cult became, it does go a long way to explaining the ferocity of the anger with which many Americans reacted when Jacqueline Kennedy became, five years after Dallas, the wife of the Greek billionaire Aristotle Onassis.
The marriage was not a success. The supreme icon added to his collection of possessions, Onassis returned to other women, including the great love of his life, the diva Maria Callas. When Onassis died in 1973, he was reportedly on the point of divorcing Jacqueline, and it was only after a time, and reportedly after an intervention by her brother-in-law, Senator Edward Kennedy, that the Onassis family were persuaded to make a substantial financial settlement.
Having at long last, at the age of 44, achieved the financial security she had never enjoyed and had pursued all her life, she was able to live, as she had perhaps always wanted to do, the life of a cultivated grande dame in Manhattan and its constellation of resorts, watering places and European colonies. She worked as an editor, first for the Viking Press, then for Doubleday, bringing in a number of important books about the arts to her successive employers.
Shy and vulnerable, yet with an instinct for the grand style and a tough sense of her personal dignity, Jackie Onassis was seen everywhere in New York, at the opera and fund-raising parties for the arts, rather than at the grosser jamborees of the rag trade and the celebrity circus. She was often discreetly accompanied by her close friend Maurice Tempelsman, a Belgian-born diamond dealer.
The Bouviers are descended from a Provencal craftsman and Bonapartist veteran of Waterloo who emigrated to Philadelphia and went to work there for the emperor's brother Joseph Bonaparte. Michel Bouvier made a great fortune in real estate and in coal rights in West Virginia, and his sons set up in New York in great style. Jacqueline Bouvier's grandfather lived in a palatial apartment on Park Avenue and a summer estate at East Hampton on Long Island. Her father, Jack Bouvier, a charming man for whom the adjective debonair might have been invented, was a stockbroker, but he had the misfortune to practise that trade during the worst and most prolonged slump in the market's 20th-century history. Chronically short of money, he sold his seat on the Exchange in 1955 for a mere dollars 90,000, a fraction of what it would have been worth in 1929 or 1970, and lived in retirement on what to him was a pittance of dollars 20,000 a year where his father had enjoyed an income of dollars 500,000 a year in the 1920s.
Jacqueline's mother, the well-known horsewoman Janet Lee before she married first Bouvier and then Auchincloss, was the daughter of a self-made Irish- American financier and real estate investor, James T. Lee. Part of Jacqueline Bouvier's glamour, in a New York where the Irish were only gradually being accepted by high society, was that she was a French Catholic, but she was in fact half-Irish by descent.
As a child, Jacqueline and her younger sister Lee - later married to the New York publisher Cass Canfield Jnr and to Prince 'Stash' Radziwill, and a lover of Aristotle Onassis before her sister married him - were brought up by their mother. Jacqueline adored her father and like him she had a passion for horses. She was sent to Miss Chapin's school in New York, the society girls' school, and to Vassar. She spent a year in Europe and then did graduate studies at George Washington University in Washington DC. Until her marriage she was a quiet, reserved girl, though in 1951, after a third trip to Europe with Lee, she wrote an account of her journey in a book, One Special Summer, in which she fantasised about herself as a 'natural daughter of Charlemagne'.
After that trip, with the help of her Auchincloss connections, she took a typical society girl's job as a gossip writer and photographer for the old Washington Times-Herald. It was in this role that she got to know Jack Kennedy, then a senator from Massachusetts, but it was not until 1953 that she felt she had fallen in love with him.
Whatever the nature of their mutual feelings, in worldly terms each had something vital to offer the other. Jacqueline Bouvier had been brought up from her earliest childhood knowing that it was vital to her survival to marry a rich man. And Kennedy, whose family had already penetrated every world except that of New York high society, in spite of all his achievements, still craved the acceptance of 'Wasp' society. The couple were married at the Auchincloss summer home at Hammersmith Farm, among the Gilded Age palaces of Newport, Rhode Island.
The couple lived in great style in Georgetown, Washington, and when in 1961 they moved into the White House, Jacqueline became an immense political and social asset to the President. She had the White House decorated by the smartest New York designers. She also involved New York and Cambridge intellectuals like Arthur Schlesinger and John Kenneth Galbraith in a social life which had previously rotated around touch football and sailing, and invited great musicians like Pablo Casals to entertain her guests.
When the President went to Europe in 1961 for a tense confrontation with Nikita Khrushchev, the First Lady charmed an unlikely admirer, Charles de Gaulle, by her cultivation and her excellent French. Deftly, her husband turned a phrase: 'I', he introduced himself to a State banquet, 'am the fellow who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris.' President Kennedy appreciated her style and understood what she could do for his image; but he was unwilling or unable to curb his sexual adventuring. There were rumours that the marriage was in serious difficulty. Friends such as the newspaper editor Benjamin Bradlee, however, have testified that in the last few weeks before she accompanied her husband on the fateful trip to Texas, they had become fond of one another again.
After her husband's assassination, she retired from the Washington scene to New York where she lived quietly, seeing only a few old friends. For a time she was escorted in New York by a number of eligible men, including the banker Andre Meyer, Professor Galbraith, the World Bank president Robert McNamara and the former British ambassador Lord Harlech. In the end, she turned elsewhere. She started seeing Onassis, and in the end agreed to marry him. She told friends her main reason was concern for her own safety and for that of her two surviving children, Caroline and John. Others believe she was for a time desperate to get away from the United States.
If so, she was not successful. Jacqueline Onassis did not get on with her stepchildren nor with her husband's family, and before long he was showing her less and less attention. She was pursued everywhere by unfriendly paparazzi, and the huge sun-glasses behind which she tried in vain to hide herself were symbols of the futility of her attempt to hide and of the pathos of her existence.
It was only after Onassis's death and the financial settlement that she was able to reconstruct a pleasant and civilised life. For the last 20 years, that life was spent in an agreeable balance between discreet publicity and opulent privacy, between her apartment on Fifth Avenue and her 400-acre estate on Martha's Vineyard. In later years she spent much time with her grandchildren, perhaps remembering how important it had been to her as a child growing up lonely in the middle of wealth not to lose links with her own family.
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