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How Jackie Kennedy Invented Camelot Just One Week after JFK’s Assassination

Updated

What did Jackie really know? Get new details about her complicated marriage to JFK, suicidal despair after his death and how she found the strength to go on. Subscribe now to get instant access to this Kennedy confidential, only in PEOPLE!

First Lady Jackie Kennedy was plunged into shock and despair when her husband, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated at 46 in 1963. But even in the midst of unimaginable tragedy, she had a key focus: to ensure that his legacy endured. And to do that, she spun a fantasy that has only grown in the five decades since.

On Nov. 29, 1963, four days after her husband’s burial, the widowed mother of two invited Life magazine journalist Theodore H. White to the Kennedy family compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. There, Jackie, then just 34, crafted a glittering fairytale about JFK’s 1,000 days in the White House that continues to captivate the nation. The inspiration? JFK’s favorite Broadway musical, Camelot — the story of mythical world, ruled by King Arthur, where goodness reigned supreme.

“Don’t let it be forgot, that for one brief, shining moment there was Camelot,” Jackie told White, quoting from the musical.

In this week’s PEOPLE cover story, those who knew the iconic First Lady offer insight into what she shrewdly viewed as an opportunity to ensure that her husband’s achievements would never be forgotten.

Art Rickerby/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

“She wanted to be sure he was remembered as a great President,” her longtime Secret Service agent Clint Hill, who was present for the interview and shared his memories of the First Lady in his 2012 memoir Mrs. Kennedy and Me, tells PEOPLE.

RELATED VIDEO: Natalie Portman Talks About Becoming Jackie Kennedy 

Now a new movie, Jackie, starring Natalie Portman in the title role, delves into the little-known story behind the Camelot myth and White’s Life interview, which Jackie herself edited in her kitchen.

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“It is astounding to me that a week after JFK’s death, she had the presence of mind to come up with the extraordinary and unexpected reference that has stuck with us for decades,” says the film’s screenwriter, Noah Oppenheim.

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But the first lady’s Vassar College classmate Susan Wilson says dreaming big came naturally for Jackie.

“She always had a sense of destiny about herself,” says Wilson. “She had this sixth sense — of reaching for the stars.”