It was a marriage that made headlines worldwide: the wedding of Jackie Kennedy and Greek shipping millionaire Aristotle Onassis

By Liz McNeil and Maura Hohman
October 20, 2018 09:30 AM
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It was a marriage that made headlines worldwide: the wedding of Jackie Kennedy and Greek shipping millionaire Aristotle Onassis. But behind the scenes, JFK’s widow was “a little bit nervous,” her longtime assistant and nanny Kathy McKeon reveals to PEOPLE on what would have been the couple’s 50th wedding anniversary.

Exactly half a century ago Saturday, on Oct. 20, 1968, Jackie wed Aristotle Onassis, becoming “Jackie O” — and one of the richest and most glamorous women in the world — overnight.

McKeon, whose 2017 memoir Jackie’s Girl recounts her time working for the former first lady and caring for her children, Caroline and John, remembers the little details about the day of Jackie’s second wedding.

Jackie Kennedy
Getty

Jackie told McKeon about the surprise wedding just 72 hours ahead of time. After she helped Caroline and John pack for the trip, McKeon told her boss she didn’t have anything to wear on the trip and Jackie gave her a white coat, which McKeon later recognized as one Jackie had been photographed wearing. Sadly, it didn’t fit well. “I was a little too chubby,” says McKeon, who later donated it.

Jackie Kennedy
RDA/Getty

When the family arrived in Greece, McKeon remembers Onassis clasping some blue worry beads, rubbing them back and forth in his hands, as he greeted them.

McKeon, along with the family, took a private helicopter from Athens, which landed on the deck of the Christina, the opulent yacht owned by Onassis. “I was a little nervous because it was my first time on a helicopter,” she says. “When I saw that we were descending towards the water, John reassured me that everything was going to be fine. And that we were about to land on the yacht and not in the water.”

Jackie Kennedy and JFK
National Archive/Newsmakers

McKeon was in the room as Jackie got dressed for the ceremony. She brought her the requested jewelry and makeup and watched as a hairdresser and makeup artist worked their magic. Still, the former first lady was a little nervous, McKeon says.

Once on the island of Skorpios, which Onassis owned, they took golf carts to the small private church, which was too crowded for McKeon to go inside, so she waited in the hallway with the Secret Service.

Jackie Kennedy and JFK Jr.
Cecil Stoughton/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty

During their marriage, life was largely dictated by Onassis’ busy travel schedule, McKeon says. He would stay in New York for about two weeks at a time, where they’d entertain A-list guests, including Frank Sinatra, before he’d fly off to Paris or another city.

In the end, the marriage only lasted six and a half years. Onassis died in March 1975 of respiratory failure, but the couple had been having trouble in the months leading up to it. Onassis’ son, Alexander, died at 24 years old in 1973 in a plane crash, which deeply affected his father and strained his relationship with his wife.

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Difficulties followed when Jackie’s former brother-in-law Ted Kennedy negotiated for more money for Jackie following Onassis’ death, which caused much tension between Jackie and Christina, Ari’s daughter and surviving heir. Christina died in 1988 of a heart attack at 37 years old.

Jackie Kennedy and Ari Onassis
Ron Gallela/Wireimage

The ending was not a happy one. But, for that moment, on her wedding day to Onassis, Jackie Kennedy finally felt safe and secure after the tragedy of JFK’s assassination.