From the moment she stepped onto the world stage in 1960 to the day she died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1994 at 64, America’s 35th First Lady never lost her grip on the popular imagination. As she morphed from glamorous, breathy-voiced White House hostess (Jackie Kennedy!) to jet-setting wife of a Greek tycoon (Jackie O!) to Manhattan book editor (Jackie!), the public paring of her name suggested a growing intimacy and familiarity. In reality, Jackie’s privacy was nonnegotiable-and thus a matter of insatiable fascination to a world that hungered to know about her marriages, her style, her two children. “She let us know what she wanted us to know,” says Kenneth Battelle, her longtime hairstylist. “Anything beyond that was hers.”
Now, from the grave, Jackie is letting us know that there is more she wanted to share-but only with the distance of time. Just four months after the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy, a bereaved 34-year-old Jackie sat for seven interviews with historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., after he agreed to seal the tapes for 50 years. Against an audio backdrop of clinking ice cubes, she talks about her White House days (“the happiest time of my life”), her husband’s devotion to their kids, her brushes with world leaders. The resulting Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy, released a few years early by daughter Caroline to mark the 50th anniversary of JFK’s inauguration, has raced to the top of bestseller lists, proving that the fascination endures even 17 years after Jackie’s death. “Today we know everybody’s dark secrets,” says her friend John Perry Barlow, “so nobody can rise to the mythological grandeur of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.”
The tapes leave the grandeur, and not a few mysteries, intact, but combined with memories from those who knew her and fresh perspective from Kennedy historians, they provide us with the clearest picture yet of the extraordinary, multifaceted woman who was Camelot’s queen.
The Good Wife
WHAT MADE THEIR MARRIAGE WORK?
Though she embraced feminism in later years, she was an old-fashioned ’50s wife to her President husband: making sure the children were “in good moods” each evening, as she told Schlesinger; apologizing first after disagreements; taking on Jack’s political views. “It wasn’t a marriage of two policy wonks who discuss health care all day,” says Jackie Style author Pamela Keogh. It wasn’t a physically demonstrative union, either. “I never saw them kiss or cuddle,” says friend Susan Wilson, “but none of us would in those days.” And those who knew the First Couple didn’t doubt their love. “They relied on each other,” says former Secret Service agent Clint Hill. “They were very, very close.”
The ‘Queen of Denial’
DID SHE KNOW ABOUT JACK’S AFFAIRS?
Jackie “knew as much as she needed to know” about the marital infidelities that came to light years after her husband’s death, says Laurence Leamer, author of The Kennedy Women. Was the queen of denial, as Leamer calls her, aware of “the details? No. Did she know the pattern? Of course she did.” She doesn’t mention the betrayals in the Schlesinger interviews, and daughter Caroline isn’t shedding any light. “That was really between them,” she told Diane Sawyer. “I wouldn’t be her daughter if I was going to share all that.”
WHAT MADE HER IRRESISTIBLE?
That breathy voice and wide-eyed stare? Jackie worked it. “I don’t think I’ve met a more accomplished flirt,” says her friend John Perry Barlow. “It was the best I’d ever seen because it was based on genuine interest. She could be talking to five or six guys and have each of them think he was the real object of her focus.” She used her persuasive powers to persuade French government officials to loan the Mona Lisa to the U.S. in 1962, the first time it ever left France. “She used her feminine wiles,” says Clint Hill with a laugh, “to the advantage of the American people.”
The Sharp Critic
WAS JACKIE A MEAN GIRL?
While she claimed “I get all my ideas from my husband,” the First Lady had some views all her own. She called Martin Luther King Jr. “tricky,” Indian leader Indira Gandhi a “real prune” and French President Charles de Gaulle an “egomaniac.” She also disliked Lyndon Johnson’s “enormous ego” and labeled his wife, Lady Bird (at left), “a trained hunting dog” for her habit of taking notes when LBJ spoke. Catty, yes, although, “everything she said was very perceptive,” notes historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. “But it certainly wasn’t cautious.”
The Protective Mother
HOW DID SHE RAISE HER CHILDREN IN PRIVATE?
After John was mugged for his bike, at age 13, the Secret Service agents watching him called Mrs. Kennedy to apologize. But Jackie wasn’t upset. “She wanted them even further back,” says Laurence Leamer. “She wanted him to have the freedom to become a man.” Still, she kept a firm hand as he did so. When her son shared a messy bachelor pad with Rob Littell, Jackie made a suggestion. “Perhaps it would be best if John spent time in a more studious living arrangement,” Littell recalls her telling them. “It was her elegant way of saying it was time to end our fraternity-like lifestyle.” As they grew up, he adds, Jackie “wanted her kids to be normal.” But she also wanted them to know the legacy they carried: Following JFK’s death, Jackie would invite over old friends like his former press secretary Pierre Salinger to give the children “a hint of who their father was,” says Salinger’s widow, Poppy. As for Caroline, “it’s hard to exaggerate how close they were,” says Leamer. At Caroline’s 1986 wedding rehearsal dinner, Doris Kearns Goodwin complimented Jackie on her children’s obvious bond with one another. That, Jackie told her, “is the best thing I’ve ever done.”
THE PILL BOX HAT
(1961) “It was Halston,” says Pamela Keogh. “They had the same size head, and he would try it on his head first.”
(1971) A smoker and a careful eater, “she’d pull out carrot sticks if we were hungry,” says her colleague John Loring. “Then we’d have two.”
(1962) “It was to hide her hands,” says Keogh. “She was self-conscious because she bit her nails.”
(Late ’60s) Behind her Jackie O shades, she said, “‘I can watch other people and they don’t know,'” reports Keogh.
(1963) The look dated to Vassar, when “she came to class in her riding clothes,” says classmate Susan Wilson.
The Style Icon
HOW DID SHE GET HER SIGNATURE LOOKS?
She loved Givenchy and Chanel (and could certainly afford them), but, as it wasn’t political to have an American First Lady in French couture, Kennedy requested similar styles by U.S. designers like Oleg Cassini. “She wore what she wanted,” says Jackie Style author Pamela Keogh, and caused a minor scandal in ’63 by attending Easter Mass in Palm Beach with bare legs.
HOW DID SHE COPE WITH HER UBER-FAME?
Jackie told John Perry Barlow she thought of her public persona as “a weird cartoon strip about somebody with my name, a separate reality. I read that strip for a while, and then I quit.” But she didn’t hide. Tiffany’s Design Director Emeritus John Loring remembers strolling with her down Fifth Avenue. “Jackie said, ‘Don’t worry, people will think it’s a lookalike. Nobody will think it’s really me.’ ”
THE MEN AFTER JACK
She married Aristotle Onassis in ’68 because “she wanted security,” Clint Hill says; her friend Peter Duchin says she also “loved him dearly.” She found deeper companionship with diamond merchant Maurice Tempelsman. “They enjoyed each other on an intellectual level,” says John Jr.’s pal Rob Littell. “To them a good book was like a five-hour rave.” After Jackie’s death, Tempelsman told a friend, “She’s an impossible woman to forget.”