Portrayed by Leslie Goddard
One of the most photographed women of the 20th century, Jackie Kennedy mesmerized foreign leaders and the American people with her style and sophistication, creating a White House renowned for its beauty and culture. At the same time her youth, privileged upbringing and highly public marriages made her instant tabloid fodder.
In her whirlwind ten-year marriage in the public eye, she gave birth to two children, miscarried, and bore a stillborn daughter and a two-day-old son who died just three months before her husband was assassinated. Her husband’s murder left her soaked in his blood and brains. At JFK’s funeral she held us all together, and her widow’s weeds became a symbol of our own pain.
There is something mysterious and private about this very public person. Was she mythmaker of her husband’s legacy or shell shock PTSD survivor? How did America survive a decade of unprecedented political assassination and unpopular war? How did democracy survive the Revolutionary ‘60s?
- 1929 – Born in Southampton, Long Island
- 1951 – Starts first job as the Inquiring Camera Girl for the Washington Times-Herald
- 1953 – Marries John F. Kennedy in Newport, Rhode Island
- 1957 – Gives birth to Caroline Bouvier Kennedy
- 1960 – Gives birth to John F. Kennedy Jr.
- 1961 – Becomes First Lady (age 31)
- 1963 (Nov 22) – John F. Kennedy assassinated
- 1968 (Jun 5) – Robert Kennedy assassinated
- 1968 – Marries Aristotle Onassis
- 1975 – Begins work at Viking Press following Onassis’ death, later moves to Doubleday
- 1994 – Dies from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer
- I’d get out of bed at night and play [an old Victrola] for him. There was a song he loved, he loved ‘Camelot.’ It was the song he loved most at the end. – Jackie Kennedy in LIFE magazine, November 1963.
- Somehow she put steel in our backbones. We [couldn’t] go to pieces because she didn’t. – Lynda Byrd Johnson Robb about the weekend after JFK’s assassination
- Let the skeptics snort about Camelot, but there was something during the Kennedy years that was magic. Jackie was more of that than anyone admitted for a long time. As much as anyone in those heady days, she grasped the epic dimensions of the adventure. – Hugh Sidey, Time Magazine
- I think my biggest achievement is that after going through a rather difficult time, I consider myself comparatively sane. – Jackie Kennedy
- Nothing in the latter part of ‘the American century’ defined an era as profoundly as the rifle shots that split the warm Dallas air on Nov. 22, 1963, and the sudden death of the 46-year-old president. – Ben Cosgrove, Time Magazine
- It’s the last side of “‘Camelot,” … “don’t let it be forgot that for one brief shining moment there was Camelot. – Jackie Kennedy
- Everyone thought I was a snob from Newport, who had bouffant hair and had French clothes and hated politics. Jackie Kennedy to historian Arthur Schlesinger
- What is sad for women of my generation is that they weren’t supposed to work if they had families. What were they going to do when the children are grown – watch the raindrops coming down the windowpane? — Jackie Kennedy
- Grace and Power by Sally Bedell-Smith (2005)
Interweaves the story of Jack and Jackie with the political history of the Kennedy White House. Insightful, readable account of the milieu they shaped together.
- Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis: The Untold Story by Barbara Leaming (2014)
Well-researched biography, the first to explore Jackie’s struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder
- America’s Queen: The Life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis by Sarah Bradford (2000)
Painstakingly detailed biography, great for devoted fans of Jackie. Does not shy away from flaws but also explores what made her so astonishingly charismatic.
- Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years: Selections from the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum by Hamish Bowles, etc. (2001)
A stunning catalog written for the 2001 Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition. Reveals her perceptive grasp of the symbolism of clothing.
- Jackie: Her Life in Pictures by James Spada (2000)
Brief and entertaining pictorial biography with more than 250 photographs and text that puts the images in context. Brief. Reveals Jackie’s savvy in using visual imagery
- Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis: The Untold Story by Barbara Leaming (2014) Well-researched biography, the first to explore Jackie’s struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder
Leslie Goddard, Ph.D., is an award-winning actress and scholar who has been presenting history lectures and portraying famous women in history for more than ten years. Each year, she presents more than 250 programs, appearing at public libraries, museums and historic homes, professional associations, colleges and universities, and corporations.
Leslie has previously performed in Greenville Chautauqua as Amelia Earhart, Bette Davis and Mary Pickford. A resident of the Chicago area, she holds both a master’s degree in theater and a doctorate in American studies and women’s history. A former museum director, she is the author of two books on Chicago history and currently works full-time as a public speaker, living-history presenter, and author. www.lesliegoddard.info
On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.
People around the country stopped in their tracks, unable to believe that this vigorous young president, just forty-six years old, was suddenly dead. It shocked the nation to its core and shook the faith of many Americans in their institutions and way of life.
The wave of grief that swept across America was one measure of how his death seemed to signal a revolution in our understanding of ourselves and our place in the world. It felt like the annihilation of the New Frontier, the soaring modern agenda J.K.F. had laid out to eradicate poverty, take Americans into space, and solve the problems of world peace.
In the weeks following the assassination, many grief-stricken Americans embraced the myths and legends that grew up around John F. Kennedy. And of these myths, none has endured as powerfully as that created by his widow.
One week after the death, Jackie Kennedy asked a trusted journalist to visit her in Massachusetts. She wanted him, she said, to help her tell the world that her husband was someone special, that his presidency marked a distinctive era, “one brief shining moment known as Camelot.”
The writer, Theodore H. White, recognized her words as a political spin act but went along, writing up a brief “Epilogue” that laid out forever the myth of the Kennedy era as Camelot.
The young widow, just 34 years old at the time, knew White because he had written sympathetically about her husband for LIFE Magazine. She also knew that “Camelot” would resonate deeply with Americans, and that LIFE could be counted on to help her shape her husband’s legacy. And she was right. Our image of him to this day tends to reflect more her image of J.F.K. as a consummate liberal idealist than as the more hardheaded, pragmatic politician he was.
Although she used the word “Camelot” only after the assassination, Jackie had been working to shape the image of her husband’s administration from the moment he was elected. In her historic preservation efforts, her support for the arts, her fashion, and her entertaining, she worked hand-in-hand with the New Frontier politicians, using thoughtfully considered imagery to shape public opinion.
For her husband’s inauguration in January 1961, Jackie wore a beige coat with a matching pillbox hat that contrasted starkly with the heavy furs worn by the women around her. Compared to them, she looked strikingly youthful and glowing. She and her husband, who wore no overcoat during his inaugural address, gave visual proof of the new generation assuming leadership.
Widely reproduced photographs of the Kennedys show them playing with their children. Although they look candid, the photos were often carefully staged, with professional lighting and styling. Even so, those photos, more than fifty years later, retain their allure.
Jackie’s most visible undertaking as First Lady was her restoration of the White House, aimed at showcasing its historical legacy. The project captivated the nation. Her televised tour of the White House in February 1962 drew a staggering 56 million viewers.
Unquestionably, much of Jackie’s appeal was due to her youth (she was 31 at the time of JFK’s inauguration) and her modernity. She waterskied, danced the twist, and traveled on her own to India and Pakistan. But much of it also sprang from her flair for capturing the soaring, optimistic energy of her husband’s administration.
Yet Jackie’s most powerful mythmaking happened following her husband’s death. After leaving the hospital where he died, she refused to take off her pink Chanel-style suit. “Let them see what they’ve done,” she said.
She wore the suit, visibly splattered with blood, through Lyndon B. Johnson’s swearing-in ceremony, on the flight home, and back to the White House. (That suit, never cleaned and preserved today in the National Archives, retains its emotional power as an emblem of that day’s trauma.)
Over the next three days, Jackie oversaw every detail of her husband’s funeral, from the lying-in at the U.S. Capitol to the black riderless horse in the official funeral procession.
She insisted on walking in the procession herself, despite Secret Service fears that other world leaders would feel compelled to walk as well, creating a massive security risk. “I don’t care what all the others do, I’m walking,” she replied.
Glued to their televisions, millions watched as Jackie emerged from the White House, wearing a long black veil, and walked in regal dignity to the funeral.
As Jackie Kennedy intended, that funeral revolutionized our understanding of her husband’s death.
The image of the proud Kennedys, marching together in shared grief with the nation, transformed the meaning of his assassination. It no longer symbolized just wrenching trauma but also deep abiding pride. Overlaid with the symbolism of Camelot, the funeral became an acknowledgment of John F. Kennedy’s accomplishments and a commitment to ensure that the high hopes he embodied would endure into the future.
It was her final act of myth-making for her husband, and its power endures to this day.