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Why Jackie Kennedy Still Matters

(And It Has Little to Do With Her Remarkable Style)

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portrait collage of jackie kennedy
Alice Lagarde
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One week after her husband’s assassination, Jacqueline Kennedy summoned journalist Theodore H. White to her home in Hyannis Port. She had some things she wanted to say.

Jackie was wearing trim black slacks and a beige sweater. “The chief memory I have is of her composure,” White noted. And her beauty — “Her eyes wider than pools.”

What she told him resonates today with the same power it did 60 years ago, particularly if you are a woman of a certain age who has experienced trauma, loss and heartbreak.

They talked from 8:30 p.m. to 2 a.m., and she planted the seed for the Kennedys’ Camelot myth: John F. Kennedy liked to play the album from the Broadway show Camelot, she said, and he especially liked one lyric: Don't let it be forgot … that once there was a spot … for one brief, shining moment … that was known as Camelot.

"There'll be great presidents again,” she told White. “But there'll never be another Camelot."

Write reported this in a short essay for the December 6, 1963, issue of Life magazine titled “For President Kennedy: An Epilogue.”

But he did not report the gut-wrenching part of their conversation, including her description of November 22, 1963, after the shots:

"I knew he was dead … (at the hospital) there was a sheet over Jack, his foot was sticking out of the sheet, whiter than the sheet … I took his foot and kissed it. Then I pulled back the sheet. His mouth was so beautiful. His eyes were open …”

White’s entire interview is online now, typed on pink paper. He donated his notes and transcript to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum with the provision that they not be released until Jackie was gone.

Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis died on May 19, 1994, at 64. So as of this week, she's been gone 30 years, while John F. Kennedy's been dead for 60, and all of us who were sent home from school on that day and saw our parents crying — we’ve grown up with this black-and-white horror seared into our souls. And soon enough, we’ll be gone, too.

But that transcript is forever. And so is our fascination with Jackie, for reasons it has taken decades to decode.

She is entwined in “America’s emotional grid.” Jackie was just 34 when she became a widow, but she was a student of history, as was John F. Kennedy, so she knew the power of legend. She knew history is never clear when it happens. It is shaped in the mind, over time. That’s why she talked of Camelot.

It took until 2023 for a brilliant writer, Oline Eaton, to tell Jackie’s story through the newspaper headlines and tabloid stories that attempted to reveal her. Eaton’s book Finding Jackie explains how the only way to understand the woman, who preferred to be called “Jack-leen,” is to untangle her from “America’s emotional grid."

“The myth is so engrained now that we must almost reimagine or reinvent her if we’re to see anything at all: an adventurer, a wanderer, a woman in whom many Americans, for over half a century, have deeply, fiercely wanted to believe,” Eaton writes.

She includes some of the details from White’s interview. Jackie kept her bloodied pink suit on for the famous photo of Lyndon B. Johnson being sworn in on Air Force One. But she had wiped the blood off her face — and immediately regretted it.

As she relayed:

“I should have left it there, let them see what they’ve done. If I’d just had the blood and caked hair when they took the picture … my whole face splattered with blood and hair … History! I thought, no one really wants me there.”

She came from an era and a social class that valued endurance over emotion — the opposite of today’s “Instagram” age. We didn’t have a name for PTSD in 1963. We called Jackie’s composure “solemn elegance” or “regal restraint.”

But think about this: On November 22, 1963, Jackie wore two rings: her wedding band and a gold band with tiny emerald stones that President Kennedy had given her just three months before, after their newborn son, Patrick, had died. He lived for 39 hours.

“That baby was beautiful,” she told White. She would later tell her friend Arthur Schlesinger Jr. that she “had five children in 10 years.” She counted the miscarriage she had in 1955, and the stillborn daughter, Arabella, she had in 1956, and Caroline in 1957, and John Jr. in 1960 … and Patrick. Five babies. She counted them all.

Think about the heartbreak of all this — plus the weight of a nation’s collective pain. Today, we would talk about this pain more openly, for better or worse. But then, Jackie told White she would do almost anything to not become “the Widow Kennedy,” and to not have tragedy define her. Of course, there was little she could do.

Our Jackie obsession is about us, not her. Grief is always personal, even if we don’t know the person we are grieving. If all this could happen to Jackie — so well-dressed and well-to-do, so beautiful and poised — then what is to become of the rest of us?

As Eaton writes: “It’s a story that goes on and on, beyond her and them and you and me, beyond the past and present … We reach for someone who was something: a story, a star, a ruin of an America in which we wish we lived and still want to believe in, even if it does not yet exist.”

We reach for Jackie because she knew what we need: a brief and shining moment … a Camelot.

What do you remember most about Jacqueline Kennedy? Let us know in the comments below.

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