Monday, May 19, 2014

This Day in Presidential History (Death of Jackie Kennedy, First Lady of Camelot)

May 19, 1994—Jacqueline Kennedy, one of her husband’s prime political assets in the White House and chief force behind the post-assassination “Camelot” legend of his administration, passed away at age 64 in her sleep in her Manhattan apartment, five months after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Mrs. Kennedy has often been likened to royalty, a description that applies to more than the youthful allure she brought to the White House when she became First Lady at only age 31. Inherent in the persona of queens and princesses, until Princess Diana exploded the concept, was a carefully maintained distance that nurtured a sense of mystery and fascination. Part of the modus operandi behind this was an ironclad discretion, even when one’s royal husband kept mistresses.

Twelve years after John F. Kennedy’s murder in Dallas, it was revealed that he had a mistress, and, with time, that number passed well beyond the single digits. Yet his widow, no matter how put-upon she might have been in life, offered no rebuttal or even comment. In the talk-show age of oversharing, the necessary precursor to our social-media era of total exposure, her silence and insistence on privacy only heightened the reverence many felt for her.

With all due respect to court historians Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Theodore Sorensen, Mrs. Kennedy was the chief architect of “Camelot.” She not only gave rise to the term in a post-assassination interview with Theodore H. White published in Life Magazine (in which she described JFK’s joy in the Lerner and Loewe musical), but, as a James Piereson post on The Daily Beast notes, she insisted that the quote remain in the piece after the editors had wanted to delete it as too hopelessly sentimental. Thereafter, she acted as keeper of the flame by censoring accounts of her husband’s life (e.g., PT-109 friend Red Fay’s The Pleasure of His Company, and, more controversially, William Manchester’s Death of a President).

She was also responsible for the highly ritualized stoicism that began with images broadcast all over the world, then kept up, by herself and other family members, in the face of shattering grief. She approved plans for her husband’s funeral, based on similar final rites from a century before used for another martyred President, Abraham Lincoln. Her last-minute request for an eternal flame beside her husband's grave at Arlington Cemetery, similar to one she had seen at Gettysburg, led to an indelible image that tourists continue to seek out at the site.

As her brother-in-law Robert continued to struggle with almost disabling grief in the months after Jack's assassination, she urged him to read what became for the younger Kennedy a virtual primer in stoicism—Edith Hamilton’s The Greek Way. In April 1968, only two months before his own murder, RFK would recite lines translated by Hamilton from Aeschylus, on how even in despair, “comes wisdom,/By the awful grace of God.”

Many—including, it seems, Schlesinger--were so deluded by that breathy voice of hers that they did not sufficiently credit her biting wit or steely will. It was Jackie who gave the nickname “the Murphia” to the so-called “Irish Mafia” of Bostonian political operatives of Hibernian descent, a male coterie of unbending toughness and absolute loyalty. In the deeply sexist environment of the early postwar period, she knew that a First Lady who freely offered public opinions could provoke a ferocious reaction. The cause she ultimately embraced—advocacy of the arts—eventually took concrete form in the most visible public memorial to her husband, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Even Mrs. Kennedy’s remarriage to Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis did not noticeably change the public’s view of her. As an early target of the paparazzi (she ended up suing photographer Ron Galella twice), she zealously guarded the privacy of herself and her two children. One result was that relatively little information about her leaked out in her lifetime. (In the period just before her death, most people were not only unaware of her fatal illness, but that she had a longtime companion: diamond merchant and lover of the arts Maurice Tempelsman.)

I believe that the fascination with Jacqueline Kennedy will continue indefinitely. It’s not simply because, as the first occupants of the White House who truly exploited the relatively new medium of television, she and her husband embodied youthful glamor that even death cannot deface. It also has to do with the fact that there is still so much not known about the Kennedys.

For years, the JFK Library has released information on even long-deceased family members with excruciating slowness. Though privacy considerations for those currently living have been the most frequently stated reason for this, that tendency has also conveniently coincided with the continuing political ambitions of the younger generation of Kennedys. New information about Mrs. Kennedy, then, has hardly been exhausted, as indicated by the very interesting collection of letters just released that were written by the First Lady to an Irish priest, Fr. Joseph Leonard, in the 1950s and 1960s.

(The image accompanying this post might be my favorite photo of Mrs. Kennedy. It was taken during the White House years, showing her with her son John--or, as the baby-boom generation came to think of him, "John-John.")

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