"Can you imagine the gift you gave us to return to the White House privately with my little ones," Jackie Kennedy wrote to Pat Nixon after visiting the White House in 1971
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Jacqueline Kennedy left the White House behind when she moved to New York shortly after her husband John F. Kennedy‘s assassination in 1963. In the years that followed, the former first lady turned down invitations from reporters and confidantes alike, telling them she was “still in mourning.”

But in February 1971, she accepted then-First Lady Pat Nixon’s invitation to visit the White House – in secret – for the official unveiling of portraits of the former first lady and her late husband.

It would be the first time Jackie, along with her children, 13-year-old Caroline and 10-year-old John-John, had been back to the White House since JFK’s death.

Jackie agreed to come – but on her own terms. “I really do not have the courage to go through an official ceremony, and bring the children back to the only home they both knew with their father under such traumatic conditions,” she wrote Pat.

Pat took great pains to keep the viewing – detailed in Kate Andersen Brower’s new book First Women, about first ladies from Jackie to Michelle Obama – a private one. “Jackie is coming,” Pat whispered to her chief of staff and press secretary, Connie Stuart, the day before the former first lady’s visit. “Nobody is to know and I’m only telling a few people; she is coming tomorrow.”

“Jackie had been through so much pain in her life and Pat Nixon understood, telling her that she knew a public unveiling of the portraits would be too emotional. Pat promised that it would be absolutely private,” Brower writes.

And indeed it was. During the top-secret meeting, the White House was on lockdown and the bustling corridors connecting the East and West Wings were empty. Only four staffers knew about the visit and they were pledged to complete secrecy.

Pat welcomed the Kennedy family to the White House and her daughters, Tricia, 24, and Julie, 22, took Caroline and John-John on a tour, stopping to give the Kennedy children a private moment alone inside the Oval Office. “It was the place where their father had spent so many hours, and where 2-year-old John had poked his head out from underneath his father’s desk in one of the most iconic photographs from the Kennedy White House,” Brower writes.

When they came to the new portrait of JFK by Aaron Shikler, “Jackie was quiet and simply thanked Pat for displaying it so prominently.” The Kennedy children told their mother how much they loved it.

The two families later had dinner in the Family Dining Room, where they were joined by President Nixon. There was an “awkward moment” when Jackie pondered aloud, “I always live in a dream world,” but John-John broke the tension by spilling his milk.

The following day, JFK’s only son wrote the Nixons a heartbreaking, handwritten letter in childish scrawl: “I can never thank you more for showing us the White House. I really liked everything about it. You were so nice to show us everything. I don’t think I could remember much about the White House but it was really nice seeing it all again.” He added that when he sat on Lincoln’s bed, where his father had slept, he made a wish that he would do well in school.

“Caroline would recall the dinner years later as an adult, saying the visit helped her mother open up and share more of her White House memories with them,” Brower writes. “I think she really appreciated Mrs. Nixon’s thoughtfulness in the sense that there are family values and a dedication to politics and patriotism that go beyond any disagreement on issues or party,” Caroline said. “One of the things you learn, having lived in the White House, is that there really are these common experiences and what we share is so much larger than what divides us.”

The visit meant the world to Jackie. “Can you imagine the gift you gave us to return to the White House privately with my little ones while they are still young enough to rediscover their childhood,” she wrote to Pat in her signature spidery handwriting on her sky blue stationary. “The day I always dreaded turned out to be one of the most precious ones I have spent with my children. May God bless you all. Most gratefully, Jackie.”