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Saturday, February 22, 2014

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis: Renaissance "Working Girl"

After a post on Facebook, I was kind of "forced" to defend my choice of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis as a super woman and an incredible human being, not as some believe -- an indifferent, fashionable object of attention. I understand some think her affluent condition supports the view of an "easy life of privilege." I believe this view is both unfair and ill conceived. Jackie was one of a kind, a legend who would have preferred to be "just herself."

Young ladies, I think you would do well to find your model in the life of Jackie Kennedy Onassis. Allow me to tell you a few things about her.

Jackie possessed a fine intellect. She attended Vassar College (freshman and sophomore years, college) 1947-1949; University of Grenoble and Sorbonne, Paris, France (junior year abroad program through Smith College), 1949-1950; George Washington University, Washington, D.C. (senior year, college), B.A. French literature, 1950-951; Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. (American history continuing education classes), 1954.

According to her Selwa Showker Roosevelt, one of her friends at Vassar, "she had a very broad mind… She had incredible beauty, but never pushed herself forefront… She had a great sense of humor. Even then, she had a star quality – you just knew something wonderful was going to happen to her!… She was the most glamorous person I had ever met, and yet the nicest."

In 1951 Jackie beat out more than twelve hundred of the college women in America to take first place in Vogue's Prix de Paris competition, with her essay on "People I Wish I Had Known." Carol Phillips, managing editor of Vogue commented on her essay: "Each paper is excellent – there is no exception. She is a writer… my only worry is that she might marry some day – and go off on one of those horses she speaks about."

Following college graduation, Jacqueline first become a photojournalist for the Washington Times-Herald. She quickly became a leading light of the local social circles attending many high profile social engagements. It was at such dinner parties that she met then senator John F. Kennedy. They shortly became engaged and married in 1953 in Newport, Rhode Island.

Shortly after her marriage, Jacqueline suffered a miscarriage and then her first daughter was born still born. She had another three children, the last of whom died aged just two years old. Her two children who survived into childhood were Caroline Bouvier Kennedy and John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

In 1960, John F. Kennedy ran for presidency. Jacqueline did not play an very active role in his campaign because she was pregnant during the election. But, she did support her husband from her home by answering letters and giving interviews for TV and newspapers.

As the First Lady, Jackie's contributions to the arts and to the preservation of American cultural heritage and historic architecture are enormous. For example -- she was responsible for the historical restoration of the White House. She also initiated a Congressional bill establishing that White House furnishings would be the property of the Smithsonian Institution, rather than available to departing ex-presidents to claim as their own.

Jacqueline wrote an introduction to "The White House: A Historical Guide," and she also developed the idea of a filmed tour of the White House that she would conduct. The tour was broadcast on Valentine's Day 1962, and it was eventually distributed to 106 countries.

In 1962, Jackie was given a special Trustees Award at the 14th Emmy Awards show for her work in producing the exquisitely filmed tour of the White House.

 Mr. K evidently likes this Western Ideal.

Many do not realize how active Jacqueline became in governmental affairs. She was known privately to provide the President with withering assessments of political figures with whom he was negotiating, whether it was Pentagon brass or the Soviet Politburo. Jackie was also known to supply the literary allusions for many of JFK's now-famous speeches.

How can anyone deny her superior communication and negotiation skills? Jacqueline's social charm and grace endeared her to the public and also to visiting leaders. She forged personal friendships with world leaders, including France's Charles DeGaulle, India's Jawaharlal Nehru, Pakistan's Ayub Kahn, England's Harold McMillan, subtly furthering the interests of the President and the U.S. In South American nations.

Jackie even influenced relations during the Cold War. When the Russian Premier, Nikita Khrushchev visited with the Kennedy's in Vienna, he made a point of wanting to shake the hand of Jacqueline before that of her husband, the most powerful man in the Free World. It seems Nikita did not include  one beautiful American in his famous Communist promise: "We will bury you!"

Jacqueline genuinely employed her intelligence and glamor with great aplomb. She made short speeches in Italian, French, Portuguese and Spanish to ethnic constituents for the re-election of JFK. It seemed she was a vital force for American diplomacy. JFK once quipped: "I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris, and I have enjoyed it." 

Jackie also made speeches (some in Spanish) hailing the promise of the Administration's Peace Corps. Believing that her husband's most important accomplishment was his 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, days after his assassination she penned a remarkable letter to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, calling on him to remain committed to nuclear arms reduction and urge smaller nations to do likewise.

Letitia Baldridge, who was Mrs. Kennedy's chief of staff and social secretary in the White House, remembered Jackie's sense of humor. "She had such a wit. She would have been terrible if she hadn't been so funny. She imitated people, heads of state, after everyone had left a White House dinner. Their accents, the way they talked. She was a cutup. Behind the closed doors, she'd dance a jig." 

Jacqueline is widely considered to be the First Lady who transformed the White House and rewrote the role of president’s wife.

Even with the enormous attention focused on JFK, Jackie, and their Camelot existence, she maintained her preference to secure as much privacy as possible for herself and for her children. While she had a deep sense of obligation to her country, her first priorities were to be a good wife to her husband and a good mother to her children, Caroline and John. She once told a reporter that "if you bungle raising your children, I don't think whatever else you do well matters very much."

Caroline was six and John three when their father was murdered. Despite her overwhelming grief, Jackie possessed too much strength of character to let the events ruin her. For the sake of her children she kept their life and upbringing as normal as possible. She explained: "They’ve got to grow up without thinking back to their father’s murder. They’ve got to grow up intelligently, attuned to life in a very important way. And that’s the way I want to live my life, too." 

Washington Post writer DeNeen L. Brown explains the tragic dilemma which Jacqueline lived: 

"It is in this frame that she will be frozen for years — young, pink suit, tragedy, martyred wife. It is from this image that she will try to move on. But viewers will always go back and watch. She became a figure trapped in the public’s fascination.

“'She was present at a scene of martyrdom and an intimate witness, vulnerable to that moment, escaping death herself,' said Wayne Koestenbaum, author of Jackie Under My Skin: Interpreting An Icon. 'It sealed her fate as part of a tragic, fascinating spectacle that played in millions of minds.'"

How did Jackie manage it? She took control with unbelievable poise. Immediately, she began focusing on details of the funeral and shaping her husband’s legacy. She wanted him remembered as a hero, and modeled his funeral procession after that of President Lincoln.

But, in the midst of public insatiable and often crude hunger for unparalleled detail, she coveted privacy for herself and her family, and she carefully doled out images. “My press relations will be minimum information,” she told her press secretary, Pamela Turnure, “given with maximum politeness.”

Jacqueline's steadiness and courage after her husband's assassination and funeral won her admiration around the world: she spent a year in mourning, making few public appearances during this time. Her motherly instincts in mind, Jackie said: "People have too many theories about rearing children. I believe simply in love, security and discipline." She endured her pain while comforting her children with incredible dignity despite being hounded relentlessly by the press. She was among the first to bring much-needed attention to the attacks of paparazzi-style photographers.

Then, in 1968, John's brother Robert was assassinated. Jackie had been very close to Robert, helping with his campaign. This traumatic event caused her to fear even more for the safety of her children in America. With this in mind, she decided to marry the wealthy Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis - despite being 20 years her senior.

“If they’re killing Kennedys, then my children are targets,” Jacqueline said, according to After Camelot: A Personal History of the Kennedy Family, 1968 to the Present. “I want to get out of this country.”

Jacqueline was forced to endure a rare bout of public criticism for her decision to marry. The tabloids began calling her “Jackie O.” On Onassis’s arm, she traveled Europe in sleek miniskirts and bouffant hair. She had become “the outsider” the public had once accused her of being, and the public was not pleased.

While the couple was never divorced, the marriage was widely regarded as over long before Mr. Onassis died in 1975, leaving Jackie a widow for the second time.

In the years following Mr. Onassis's death, Jackie built a 19-room house on 375 acres of ocean-front land on Martha's Vineyard. She spent considerable time there, as well as in Bernardsville, N.J., where she rented a place and rode horses. 

Make no mistake, Jackie, with all her wealth and fame, never quit working. In fact, back in 1979 Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was the only one of America’s fifty wealthiest women who worked. She said, "What is sad for women of my generation is that they weren't supposed to work if they had families. What were they going to do when the children are grown -- watch the raindrops coming down the window pane?"

Jackie resumed her career in the writing profession, but as an editor, first at Viking Press, and then at Doubleday; she often wrote the introduction to the books she edited and also worked on obtaining and laying out the illustrations. She was very productive, editing 10 to 12 books a year on performing arts and other subjects. She climbed the editorial ladder, closing book deals with celebrities, including Michael Jackson for Moonwalk.

At Doubleday, where she was eventually promoted to senior editor, Jacqueline was known as a gracious and unassuming colleague who had to pitch her stories at editorial meetings, just as everyone else did. She avoided the industry's active social scene, probably because she had so little need to expand her network of contacts. She was more likely to be seen visiting the New York Public Library than attending glitzy parties or traditional society events.

Of course, one must consider the outstanding civic involvement and achievement of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Jackie led an historic preservation campaign to save from demolition and renovate Grand Central Terminal. Included among other civic activities in which she was further involved were the revitalization of the Broadway theater district, the Central Park Conservancy, the Literary Lions of the New York Public Library, the Metropolitan Museum's Egyptian wing and the Costume Institute, and the American Ballet Theater at Lincoln Center.

The Municipal Art Society of New York now presents the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Medal to an individual whose work and deeds have made an outstanding contribution to the city of New York.

Also, Jackie was instrumental in the academic direction of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

In December 1999, Jackie was among 18 included in Gallup's List of Widely Admired People of the 20th Century, from a poll conducted of the American people.

Jacqueline almost never granted interviews on her past, and for decades she did not speak publicly about Mr. Kennedy, his Presidency or their marriage. Robert D. McFadden of The New York Times writes:

 "Her silence about her past was always something of a mystery. Her family never spoke of it; out of loyalty or trepidation over her wrath, her closest friends shed no light on it and there was nothing authoritative to be learned beyond her inner circle."

Jackie looked to her grandchildren to add light and joy to her later years and loved to baby-sit once a week for Rose, Tatiana and Jack. "She was so wonderful with them," says her friend Rose Styron, a human-rights activist and the wife of writer William Styron. "She got such a kick out of watching them tumble and play together." On the day she died, she and friends looked at last year's snapshots from Jackie's Labor Day picnic on Martha's Vineyard and reminisced about teaching little Jack to sing "Itsy Bitsy Spider." 

Jacqueline Kennedy, 64, died of a form of cancer of the lymphatic system in 1994 at her Fifth Avenue apartment in New York. Outside, crowds mourned her death. Her funeral was private.

“Well, I think my biggest achievement is that, after going through a very difficult time, I consider myself comparatively sane.”

--Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, A Portrait in Her Own Words

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