Stay Connected


Advertise With Us

Learn More

Skip to content


Behind the Icon of Grace

Posted on

In the early morning hours of Nov. 23, after Jackie Kennedy returned to the White House with her husband’s body, she retreated to her private quarters and wept. “Why did someone have to kill my husband?” she asked Providencia F. Paredes, her personal assistant, who stood at her side by her pale blue bed. Paredes had last seen her just before the trip; together they had selected the pink suit she wore in Dallas. Then Jackie added, “I thought they might kill me too.”

But the First Lady tucked away her fears when Caroline and John came to greet her in the morning. “She didn’t want to cry in front of her children,” says Paredes, 89. Jackie shielded them from her grief and insisted they maintain a routine, taking them to Hyannis Port for Thanksgiving and Palm Beach for Christmas, as they had done with their father. “She said, ‘I want to do what the President wanted me to,’ ” says Paredes, who had worked for the family from 1959, traveled with Jackie on every official trip except for Dallas and later went on to work for Robert Kennedy. “She wanted to do things as if nothing had changed.”

Of course, everything had. The country lost its leader; Jackie lost the love of her life. “They were great together,” Paredes says. “Very funny, talked about many things. He always wanted to be sure she was happy.”

Even in grief, Jackie’s first thought was of her husband’s legacy. With a firm hand she planned a funeral modeled on Lincoln’s and soon summoned LIFE writer Theodore White to Hyannis Port. In a four-hour conversation, she put forth the narrative of JFK as a doting father, a man who loved history and heroes. At night, she said, they would play the finale of the musical Camelot, in which the king asks a boy to keep his story alive for the next generation. “Jackie understood that much of politics is theater,” says Helen O’Donnell, daughter of one of JFK’s closest advisers. That meant keeping her tears hidden. They had an understanding, she says, “that you can fall apart in private, but when the gate opens, it’s got to be some sort of Camelot.”

After that, she tried her best to stay out of public view. But the horror of what had happened was never far away. Soon after they moved to Georgetown, a photographer spotted John at the playground. Secret Service agent Tom Wells recalls John asking the photographer, “Why do you want my picture? My daddy is dead.”

Soon the gawkers proved too much, and Jackie moved to New York City, where she found a sprawling Fifth Avenue apartment and the privacy she craved. There, she insisted they lead a normal life, even if it meant John throwing water balloons out the window. Sometimes she would express regret that her children’s father wasn’t around to enjoy them. When Caroline graduated from Concord Academy, she said to Paredes, “He would have been so proud.” He missed so much: Caroline’s wedding, John founding a magazine about politics, three grandchildren whom “she adored.”

After a year of mourning, Jackie slowly began to make public appearances. She dedicated a memorial in England and a street in Cambodia, both in her husband’s name. Often on their trips, recalls Paredes, Jackie would say, “This is something my husband used to like.”

In 1968 she created a new life by marrying Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis. After his death in 1975, she launched a career as a book editor, a woman on her own terms, hiding in plain sight in oversize dark glasses. She later found love with diamond merchant Maurice Tempelsman but never rewed. The memory of John Kennedy and how he had died in her arms never left her. Says Paredes: “Even as an Onassis, she never forgot her husband.”