Flashback Friday – Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

When trying to think about who I should cover for Flashback Friday posts, it is usually whatever random political individual that happens to be in my head at the moment I sit down to write these posts. I had planned to cover a different individual this week, but then I read an article about this person, and it got me to thinking about her, and I couldn’t resist writing today’s post about her. Jackie Kennedy Onassis is of course the widow of President John F. Kennedy. She was first lady of the United States from 1961, until his death from assassination in November 1963. Jackie is remembered for many things. She was an extremely influential first lady, which the country came to adore. After her husband’s death, the public’s respect for her increased, as they saw her wearing an outfit splattered in her husband’s blood, after he was shot. She later remarried to Aristotle Onassis, a wealthy Greek, and the public was displeased with Jackie’s new, foreign husband. However, upon her death in 1994, she was fondly remembered for her and her husband’s service to the country.

Jacqueline Lee Bouvier was born in New York in 1929. Her family was wealthy, and Jackie had a privileged childhood. One of her major passions was horses, and she was a very accomplished rider, winning many awards before she was even 14. At the age of 10, her Catholic parents divorced, something which was unheard of in that day, especially in the within the Catholic church. Her mother eventually remarried, but Jackie often felt awkward within the blended family. She graduated high school and attended Vasser college. During this time she also travelled abroad to France, studying and visiting family members.

When she graduated from university, she took a job as a photo girl for the Washington Post. In this position, she met and interview many politicians, including Richard Nixon, Dwight Eisenhower and a young Congressman named John Kennedy. The two met in 1952, and started dating. It was a perfect match. Both were wealthy and well educated. Both were Catholic, which was of the utmost important to Kennedy’s parents. And they were both beautiful, which never hurts things. The two dated for over a year, and were married in September 1953.

By this time, Kennedy had been elected to the Senate. He was very busy fulfilling his duties, and making a name for himself. Kennedy’s father, Joseph Kennedy, had big dreams for his son. Joseph had hoped to see his oldest son, Joseph Jr. do something significant in his life. But when Joseph Jr. died in a plane crash in WWII, the burden fell to second oldest son John, to carry on the legacy. Joseph had lots of money, and he was not ashamed to use it to further his son’s political career. Once in the Senate, many in the Kennedy family, Jackie included, knew John would make a run for the White House.

In order to help John’s chances of becoming president, Jackie became a prop. That is not to say that John and Jackie didn’t love each other. In fact they were incredibly loyal to one another (Kennedy’s extramarital affairs aside). But Jackie also helped John’s image. He had been a bachelor for many years, but now with a pretty, young wife by his side, he and his family could put forth the myth of a first family in waiting. The myth that the Kennedys belonged in the White House. Jackie was very involved in John’s politics, and was used frequently during his campaigns. Crowds responded very well to the young woman.

While their public life was going well, their personal life was more tragic. Jackie became pregnant and miscarried in 1955. She then became pregnant again, but gave birth to a stillborn daughter in 1956. Finally in 1957 they welcomed their first child, daughter Caroline. Then in 1960, just weeks after John declared his intention to run for president, Jackie learned she was pregnant again. Since her previous pregnancies had been so difficult, she did not actively participate in the nationwide campaign. Rather she stayed at home, answering letters and taping commercials. She gave birth to son John Jr. in 1960. The family suffered one more tragedy, when a second son, Patrick, died just days after birth in 1963.

When Kennedy was elected president, Jackie set forth to transform the role of First Lady. The previous First Lady, Mamie Eisenhower, had maintained a low profile, and acted as a very traditional First Lady. She was older, and did not hold the same modern values that Jackie did. What the public immediately noticed about Jackie was her sense of fashion. No matter what she wore, it was talked about for days. Her style was copied around the world, and she was much more glamorous than her predecessor. She also proved to be an asset to the president, as she was often a good conversationalist with guests at state dinners and such. She also embarked upon a massive restoration of the White House, preserving much of its historical significance.

Vice President Johnson being sworn in aboard Air Force One. Mrs. Johnson is on the left, Mrs. Kennedy on the right.

Unfortunately, as we all know, Jackie did not remain First Lady for very long. We all know the events on November 22, 1963 that ended the life of her husband. The event was made even more tragic by the fact that John’s body, once shot, slumped into Jackie’s lap as the car sped away. Blood gushed from his head, as they rushed to the hospital. Once there, doctors tried to revive the president, but the damage was too severe. Not long after the president died, his body was loaded onto Air Force One, to be taken back to Washington. That same plane is where Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as president, with Jackie at his side, still wearing the blood spattered suit.

Jackie arriving back in Washington, still wearing the blood stained suit.

While on the plane, Jackie’s assistant laid out clean clothes for her to wear and begged her to change out of the outfit, but she refused. She famously stated that she wanted “them to see what they had done”. When the plane arrived back in Washington, Jackie was met by John’s brother Bobby, who escorted her back to the White House, still in the same outfit. She was then the epitome of grace during the national funeral for her husband, made even more tragic seeing her hold the hands of her two children, just five and two at the time. She reportedly told a mourner during the funeral that she now had “nothing left”.

After leaving the White House, she bought a home with her children and began work on Kennedy’s presidential library. She was only 34, and already a widow. As a former First Lady, she was entitled to a 24/7 security detail, but she never felt safe, and she especially feared for the safety of her children. She appeared at public events from time to time, but tried to maintain as private a life as possible. She was admired around the world for how she had handled her husband’s death. In 1968, John’s brother Bobby was assassinated, while he was running for the Democratic nomination for president. Jackie and Bobby had become very close following John’s death, and Bobby had acted as a surrogate father to Jackie’s children. With Bobby now dead, Jackie was even more paranoid than before. She famously said “if they’re killing Kennedys, then my children are targets…I want to get out of this country”. That same year she married Greek shipping tycoon, Aristotle Onassis. She knew Onassis could provide the kind of security she so desperately wanted for her children.

The American public did not warm to Jackie’s decision to remarry. They did not like the sound of Jackie Onassis, and felt she had betrayed her husband and country. Jackie could care less, as she now felt more secure, and was taken care of for the rest of her life. Her marriage to Onassis was rocky. The two would go weeks without seeing each other, and there was accusations of infidelity on both sides. When Onassis died in 1975, Jackie inherited much of his fortune (to the anger of his children). She was now a widow, for the second time.

After her second husband died, Jackie decided to go back to work. Her children were grown and living their own lives. She had never had a career, beyond her work at the Washington Post. She took a position as an editor, as she had always loved books and reading. She worked with two different companies between 1976 and 1994. In 1993, she was diagnosed with cancer. It was likely a result of Jackie’s smoking, which she had done for decades. She continued working until weeks before her death. She died at home, with her family in May of 1994. She was only 64 years old. After her funeral, Jackie was buried next to John and their two deceased children in Arlington National Cemetery. The woman who had led a private life after John’s assassination, was laid to rest in one of the most public cemeteries in the world.

http://www.jfklibrary.org/JFK/Life-of-Jacqueline-B-Kennedy.aspx (note that on the John F. Kennedy presidential website, they do not refer to her as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, as she was known after her second marriage).


About Chris James

A student of political science at a Canadian University sharing stories of interest on Canadian and American political and social issues.

Posted on March 4, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Joe, Jr. was killed in WWII not WWI and JFK was killed on November 22nd not the 23rd.

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