The queen of Camelot fascinated millions, but few really knew her
The queen of Camelot fascinated millions, but few really knew her
She was, for many Americans, the ultimate First Lady: a paragon of grace and style, a model of courage in the face of unimaginable tragedy. But Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis was also one of the world’s most enigmatic celebrities, a staple of sleazy supermarket tabloids and a favorite target of prying paparazzi, who often went to outlandish lengths to invade the privacy she tried—for the most part successfully—to maintain. And when she died in Manhattan last week at the age of 64, after a four-month battle with cancer, millions of people around the world mourned the passing of a woman they idolized, yet barely knew.
In characteristic style, Onassis—known latterly around the world as “Jackie 0.”—kept the gravity of her illness a secret. After complaining of flu-like symptoms in January, she was diagnosed with nonHodgkin’s lymphoma. But with radiation treatment and chemotherapy, doctors stressed, her prognosis appeared promising. For that reason, it came as a shock to most Americans last week when Onassis, hospitalized since early May, checked herself out and returned to her Park Avenue apartment because, in the words of representative Nancy Tuckerman, there was “nothing more” the physicians could do. The next night, with daughter Caroline, 36, son John Jr., 33, and longtime companion Maurice Tempelsman, 64, at her bedside, Onassis slipped into a coma and died. “She did it in her own way and on her own terms,” John Jr. said of her passing. “Now she’s in God’s hands.”
Three decades earlier, the world had shared Jackie Kennedy’s grief after the assassination of her first husband, president John F. Kennedy, in Dallas. Last week, the tributes to the former first lady—whose wish was to be buried next to the slain president in Arlington National Cemetery— were equally heartfelt. President Bill Clinton called her “a model of courage and dignity for all the world.” Added his wife, Hillary: “Her great gift of grace and style and dignity and heroism is an example that will live for the ages.”
Jacqueline Lee Bouvier was bom in the Long Island, N.Y., resort community of Southampton on July 28,1929, the first child of a hard-drinking millionaire stockbroker, John (Blackjack) Bouvier, and his socialite wife,
Janet. Life in the Bouvier home was far from happy, and the couple divorced when Jackie was 11. According to biographer Stephen Birmingham, Jack Bouvier impressed upon Jackie and her younger sister, Lee, that to attract men, they should “create an aura of reserve or inaccessibility.” Jackie apparently took that strategy to heart.
After graduating from an exclusive high school in 1947, she studied at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and at the Sorbonne in Paris, before completing an undergraduate degree in French literature at George
Washington University in Washington in 1951. That same year, Jackie became en gaged to stockbroker John Husted, but the nuptials were cancelled "by mutua' consent." She then took a $42.50-a-week job at the Washington Times-Herald as the paper's "Inquiring Photographer," ran domly stopping people on the street, ask ing them questions and running their re sponses along with their pictures. Sample query: "If you had been declared legally dead and returned to find your spouse re married, what would you do?"
It was during that period that Jackie attended a dinner party at which she met the dashing Massachusetts congressman John Kennedy, a playboy bachelor 13 years her senior. After a brief courtship, they married in September, 1953, in what the society pages called “the wedding of the year.”
The newlyweds were anxious to start a family. But in 1955, Jackie suffered a miscarriage—the first of many tragedies that befell her. The next year, she delivered a stillborn child by caesarian section. Daughter Caroline was bom in 1957, followed by John Jr. in
1960. (Another son, Patrick, died 39 hours after his premature birth in 1963.)
Although she hated politics, she performed brilliantly in the public spotlight—particularly after Kennedy became president in 1961. Even before the inauguration, Jackie’s secretary announced that the 31-year-old First Fady intended to make the White House “a showcase of American art and history.” She brought style and flair to her new home, hiring a French chef and playing host to musicians and writers such as Igor Stravinsky, Feonard Bernstein, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. The period became known as America’s Camelot—a description first suggested by Jackie herself.
Even though she refused most interview requests and shunned reporters, the First Fady’s popularity soared. Her face graced the covers of hundreds of magazines; her trademark pillbox hats, dark sunglasses and designer suits were s all the rage. Her appeal transcended nai tional borders. During a visit to France in §
1961, mobs shouted “Vive Jackie!” At one | point, the President jokingly introduced ~ himself to reporters as “the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris.”
Still, the image that remains most powerfully fixed in the minds of many Americans is that of the young widow, her face shrouded by a black veil, bravely leading a nation in mourning during her husband’s state funeral—which she orchestrated down to the smallest detail. Years later, referring to Kennedy’s philandering, JFK biographer Nigel Hamilton wrote: “Unable to tame her husband’s rampant sexual appetite in his lifetime, she was determined to shape his memory in death.”
Thereafter, public affection for the former first lady waxed and waned. In 1968, within months of brother-in-law Robert Kennedy’s assassination, she married Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis. Many Americans were outraged, viewing her as a gold digger. “How could you?” demanded one newspaper headline. Stories circulated about her lavish shopping sprees and her stormy relationship with her second husband.
But her reputation rebounded after Onassis’s death in 1975 when she took a $10,000-
a-year position as a book editor in New York City. She continued to work three days a week until her recent illness, devoting much of the rest of her time to her two grandchildren and her mate of 17 years, Belgian-born diamond merchant Tempelsman. The couple shared a 15room apartment overlooking Central Park. “In many respects,” a cousin of Tempelsman once observed, “it is a far better relationship than any Jackie has experienced.” After a lifetime of tragedy and heartache, the former first lady seemed finally to have found contentment.
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