The Gentle Side of Jackie
If you were asked to remember a moment in the life of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis that most touched you, what would it be?
Perhaps it was a photograph—a young Mrs. Kennedy, her two small children, Caroline and John, beside her, gleefully circling the snow-covered South Lawn of the White House in a horse-drawn sleigh, to the delight of passersby and photographers.
Was it the televised “Tour of The White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy” on Valentine’s Day, 1962? To millions of Americans, it became the first time they were able to study her aristocratic gestures, her walk, and to hear her “finishing school” voice.
For many, it was the sight of an exhausted, drained woman being led to a gray Pontiac ambulance, where the dark red-bronze coffin of her assassinated husband had just been placed. She stood there, shaken, and we were startled by the sight of her strawberry-pink Chanel suit stained with blood.
I remember the moment Jacqueline Kennedy appeared on the North Portico of the White House, awaiting the procession to the Capitol, a black lace mantilla framing a face carved in grief. She lightly adjusted the black silk tassel frog closings of her perfectly constructed Givenchy black suit, a child in each hand. Caroline and John, clad in pale, crisp Rowes of Bond Street coats, brought a certain softness to the sea of stark black around them.
Her surprise marriage to Aristotle Onassis? Were you amazed and shocked, or were you secretly happy for Jackie? An acquaintance of Mrs. Onassis’ from that time put it most succinctly: “He offered something refreshing to her.”
Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis was perhaps the most photographed and written about woman of the last century, far outweighing the celebrity of Diana, Princess of Wales. What could I possibly write in a profile of her that you don’t already know? That you haven’t already read in everything from National Geographic to The National Enquirer?
I got lucky.
The name and image of Jacqueline Onassis can invoke admiration, respect and perhaps a small bit of derision. In his 1974 memoir Billy Baldwin Remembers, the late “Dean of Decorators” writes of a meeting in the early 1960s with a high-powered, glamorous Los Angeles couple, who were interviewing him about a design commission for a new house they were building. One day, during a late-afternoon lunch, their daughter appeared “thickly made up and dressed dirtily in the hippie clothes of the disenchanted young.” At the sight of her, the cultivated, soft voice of the girl’s mother turned to hardened steel. “Wash your face and take off those damn eyelashes. Are you trying to look like Jackie Kennedy?”
She was a Leo, born on July 28, 1929, at the height of the season in fashionable Southampton, Long Island. She was regal, yet also vibrant—a celebrity among celebrities. The many gifts bestowed upon her were fame, renown, a nobility of sorts, and innate grace and gentleness—to name just a few.
As a young woman growing up in New York, Chicagoan Elizabeth Greene has many fond memories of Jacqueline Onassis. “Her daughter and I both attended the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Manhattan. While we each had our own ‘best friend’ we became friends probably because we were a lot alike: competitive, athletic, and confident,” she said. At the end of the school day, their mothers were often waiting in the convent’s magnificent marble vestibule, with their dogs. “Mrs. Onassis was very beautiful, tall, and thin. She dressed very simply and elegantly,” Elizabeth told me. “The most outstanding characteristic I remember from the vantage point of a child is that Mrs. Onassis really listened. She stood out among the other mothers in that she was a legendary listener. I remember her being that to me when I was just a child.”
Letitia Baldrige, a well-known authority on manners, and the author of 16 books on entertaining, design and style was Jacqueline Kennedy’s White House chief-of-staff and social secretary. She is a gregarious woman with a warm, delightful voice. It was fun listening to her remembrances in a phone interview.
“Mrs. Kennedy had an incredible relationship with children,” she said. “Her voice would change; it was all done in whispers. An instant attraction to children was an important part of her gentleness.” Ms. Baldrige remembered an afternoon when a choral group of 15 timid Korean children visited the White House. “Mrs. Kennedy came across the children by accident. She saw them, and they ran off; they looked so terrified. She simply stood still against the white marble wall, smiling, and immediately they walked toward her, talking and shrieking in Korean. They couldn’t resist her.”
Her compassion for others extended to the White House maid. In an early note scribbled to J.B. West, Chief Usher of the White House, she wrote:
“I just saw a new maid named Gloria—apparently she has been here 6 months & isn’t allowed to come to the 2nd floor (she didn’t tell me that-don’t blame her.) She seems bright and willing. Let her come to 2nd floor—she can help Provy and Cordinia—they are the only ones who would be nice to her—she will be a trained ladies maid in no time.”
Her style was timeless, her grace under pressure incredible. In the weeks before her untimely death from lymphoma cancer on May 19, 1994, Jacqueline Onassis upheld her work as a book editor for Doubleday. She also continued to see friends, and family, including her grandchildren, and still spent some weekends at her estate near Peapack, New Jersey. “Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis was the last great private public figure in this county,” Anna Quindlen wrote in The New York Times. “She was perpetually associated with that thing so difficult to describe yet so simple to recognize, the apotheosis of dignity.”
And a sense of gentleness.
A life that went far beyond a pillbox hat.
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