October 15, 2013

Jackie Kennedy's Enduring Spell

Remembering the First Lady Who Captivated America

When Gallup, the polling organization, looked back in 1999 over its annual top 10 lists of most admired people of the second half of the 20th Century, there was a surprising result. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the wife of President John F. Kennedy, had made the annual list an astounding 27 times—a performance surpassed only by evangelist Billy Graham and Queen Elizabeth II. Indeed, Mrs. Kennedy was more consistently admired than any U.S. President, including her husband, and even beat out seemingly revered figures such as Mother Theresa and Helen Keller.

Though she lived in the White House for just three years, Mrs. Kennedy’s star burned so brightly that she made a lasting impression upon Americans.

One reason, perhaps, was her youth. Eleanor Roosevelt had been 48 when she became First Lady, Bess Truman had been 60, and Mamie Eisenhower was 57. Jackie, the first Presidential wife born in the 20th Century, was just 31, and as a mother with two small children, she was someone that the then-youthful parents of the Baby Boom generation could identify with. As historian Carl Sferrazza Anthony has written, Mrs. Kennedy “became an aspirational figure of that era, one whose privilege might not be easily reached by a majority of Americans but which others could strive to emulate.”

Former First Lady Bess Truman, age 76, stands to the left of then First Lady Jackie Kennedy, age 32. // Photograph by Abbie Rowe, White House Photographs, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

Families who were trying to live the American Dream in newly-erected suburban tract houses across the nation could see Mrs. Kennedy remaking the White House into a somewhat grander version of their own homes, with a swing set and a tree house on the lawn. She turned the sun porch on the third floor into a kindergarten for Caroline and 12 to 15 other children, who arrived at the White House each day for their lessons.

And just as many American wives her age dreamed of turning their homes into decorative showpieces, Mrs. Kennedy dramatically redid the White House’s décor, which she had found disappointingly dreary when Mrs. Eisenhower had hosted her prior to the Inauguration. She wanted the presidential residence to be an historic monument that Americans could identify with, filled with distinctively American furnishings and works of art from around the U.S., and also historic items that had belonged to previous presidents and their families. Not content to leave the work to staffers, she personally searched through storerooms and uncovered forgotten treasures such as a desk made from the timbers of the British sailing ship HMS Resolute, presented by Queen Victoria in 1878 to President Rutherford B. Hayes. (The desk is still in the Oval Office today.) When the restoration and renovation work was completed, she agreed to conduct a televised tour of the White House. An audience of 56 million viewers tuned in, and the program earned Mrs. Kennedy an Emmy Award.

"She really was the one who made over the White House into a living stage—not a museum—but a stage where American history and art were displayed," Hugh Sidey, who was then Time magazine’s White House correspondent, explained years later.

First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy opens the newly refurbished Treaty Room (formerly the Monroe Room) at the White House. // Photograph by Abbie Rowe, White House Photographs, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

But Americans also love style, and Mrs. Kennedy had plenty of that. Slim, graceful and blessed with lustrous dark tresses and elegant visage, she looked more like a Hollywood actress playing a politician’s wife than the real thing. She wore clothes with the panache of a runway model, and had a deft sense of fashion that sent countless American women to the local department store to emulate her wardrobe choices. When she was photographed in 1962 in a simple polka-dot dress designed by her former Chapin School and Miss Porter’s classmate, Lilly Pulitzer, the designer's sales skyrocketed.

The First Lady was stunning at her Inaugural balls in a cape and gown she had made-to-order, based on her own sketches, by Ethel Frankau at Bergdorf Goodman's custom salon. // Photograph by Abbie Rowe, White House Photographs, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

Mrs. Kennedy also helped enhance her husband’s reputation as a hip intellectual with an appreciation for culture. She planned dinners and events at the White House and invited the nation’s creative crème de la crème—artists, writers, poets, musicians and scientists. After being invited to visit, renowned violinist Isaac Stern wrote a thank-you note that seemed more like a fan letter. “It would be difficult to tell you how refreshing, how heartening it is to find such serious attention and respect for the arts in the White House,” he gushed. Mrs. Kennedy also supported creation of a national cultural showcase, which eventually became the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.

First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy speaks to Robert Frost during a dinner honoring Nobel Prize winners in April, 1962. // Photograph by Robert Knudsen, White House Photographs, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

And at a time when airline advertisements were selling Americans on the glamor of vacations to exotic foreign locales, Mrs. Kennedy—who accompanied her husband on international diplomatic trips to France, Austria, Great Britain, Venezuela, Mexico and Columbia, and traveled on her own to Italy, Pakistan and India—embodied that sort of globe-trotting international sophistication. Her fluency in French made her so popular among Parisians when she and the President visited in May 1961 that he later described himself as “the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris, and I have enjoyed it.” She even impressed French President Charles de Gaulle, who told JFK that “your wife knows more French history than any French woman.”

The First Lady delivers remarks in Spanish during a ceremony in Venezuela, December 1961. // Photograph by Cecil Stoughton, White House Photographs, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

One reason that Mrs. Kennedy may have been popular in her time was that she wasn’t overtly political, and at times seemed almost bored with Washington gamesmanship. Behind the scenes, however, she played a subtle but significant role in her husband’s administration, particularly when it came to civil rights. She supported integration by including black children in daughter Caroline’s kindergarten class, and by supporting creation of a memorial to African-American educator Mary McLeod Bethune.

The public fascination with Mrs. Kennedy has continued, even after her death from cancer at age 64 in 1994. When a collection of previously unreleased interviews was released in book form with a set of accompanying CDs in 2011, it quickly shot to the top of the Amazon.com bestseller list, and a TV special in which daughter Caroline Kennedy discussed the recordings with Diane Sawyer drew eight million viewers, ABC’s biggest non-sports audience in 5 years. As former Washington Post executive editor Benjamin C. Bradlee, a friend of the Kennedys, explained in her New York Times obituary, "I think she cast a particular spell over the White House that has not been equaled."

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