Whispers of Jackie O

Whispers of Jackie O

The former first lady speaks from beyond the grave—and shows how far we’ve come (and haven’t).


Here’s a time capsule for you: in March 1964, just four months after her husband was murdered, Jacqueline Kennedy sat down with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. for eight and a half hours of taped conversation as part of an oral history project on the Kennedy administration. Forty-seven years later, we finally get to read what she had to say, in Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life With John F. Kennedy. (You can even listen to that strange, breathy, little-girl voice on the eight CDs included with the book.) Much of the publicity surrounding the book has centered on her vivid and candid remarks about great figures of the day: de Gaulle was an “egomaniac,” “just consumed with grudges.” Indira Gandhi was “a real prune…. it always looks like she’s been sucking a lemon.” Khrushchev was hilarious: “It’s like sitting next to Abbott and Costello.” lleras Camargo of Colombia was “Nordic in his sadness.”

It’s all quite entertaining, and moving too: one forgets how young she was, only 31 when she moved into the White House, and how much she accomplished: she made the White House a museum-quality showplace of American history and design, kicked off the movement for historical preservation (if only it had happened sooner!), rescued the temple of Abu Simbel, persuaded French minister of culture André Malraux to send the Mona Lisa to the United States (the only time it’s been out of the Louvre), charmed voters and foreign dignitaries alike with her shy but piquant personality, her considerable knowledge of art, architecture and literature, and, of course, her beauty and French-inflected stylishness. In prosperous but stodgy America, she was to fashion and femininity what her near-contemporary Julia Child was to food. My mother, a leftist, had no use for JFK—the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban missile crisis, to say nothing of Joe Kennedy’s fondness for Hitler and RFK’s work on the McCarthy committee—but when people told her she looked like Jackie Kennedy (she did), she beamed.

Where the tapes really date themselves, though, is in Jackie’s views of men and women. It’s like channeling the early episodes of Mad Men. Most of the people she admired were men—especially powerful and brilliant ones like Malraux and Joe Kennedy (whom she always called Mr. Kennedy) and her husband. She even liked Pakistanis more than Indians because they were “more manly.” Occasionally she feels sorry for the women dragged along in their wake; Madame de Gaulle “just looked so long-suffering, poor woman, so tired. You know, they have more state visits than anyone.” But powerful or would-be powerful women, like Indira Gandhi, she loathed. She was appalled that Clare Boothe Luce wanted to horn in on a “male lunch” at the White House and talk politics with JFK; she recounts conversations with JFK in which he speculates that Luce and Madame Nhu (now there’s a pair!) hated men because they got their power through them (she whispers, “I wouldn’t be surprised if they were lesbians”). She thought the “violently liberal” women who supported Adlai Stevenson instead of JFK were afraid of sex. It’s all a bit D.H. Lawrentian. Again and again she emphasizes that her role as wife was to provide warmth, amusement, relaxation, “good food, and the children in good moods….” “How could I have any political opinions, you know? His were going to be the best…. I mean, it was really a rather terribly Victorian or Asiatic relationship we had…which I think’s the best.”

Some of this must surely have been for show. Jackie was clearly no little wifey, and nobody’s fool either. But the sense that comes through is of someone who lived in a bubble, protected from the big, brawling world by her class, her marriage, her wealth, her gender. When she talks about campaigning in Wisconsin and West Virginia, it’s as if she’s describing remote African villages.

The limits of her highly personal approach to politics show most clearly in her remarks on Martin Luther King Jr. She was shocked when JFK told her that FBI tapes showed that King had girlfriends—even what she calls “orgies.” What a “phony”! (“Jack said, ‘Oh, well’—you know, he would never judge anyone in any sort of way.” But of course he had good reasons.) Even worse, King “made fun of Jack’s funeral,” joking that Cardinal Cushing was drunk, and that the pallbearers almost dropped the coffin. “I just can’t see a picture of Martin Luther King without thinking, you know, that man’s terrible.” A little sex, some crude humor never meant for her ears—and there goes the leader of the greatest social justice movement of her day.

Jackie grew considerably in the years following these tapes. She went to King’s funeral in 1968, by which time, according to her daughter, Caroline, she had come to admire him. Despite her second marriage to the fabulously wealthy shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis (and why anyone would want to marry him except for his money is a mystery to me), she even became something of a feminist. After Onassis died she became a book editor in Manhattan, and in 1979 she gave an interview to Ms. magazine in which she spoke warmly of working women. Right on, sister!

Fifty years ago we had an adored first lady who basically saw no interesting role for women outside a hero-worshiping marriage and who believed “women should never be in politics. We’re just not suited to it.” Now our first lady is Michelle Obama, another style icon, and a very successful lawyer to boot, whose husband first defeated, barely, a former first lady, and then the first Republican ticket to have a woman vice presidential candidate. The upcoming race features would-be candidate Michele Bachmann, who combines professions of biblical submission to her husband with presidential ambitions.

I wonder what Jackie would have made of that.

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