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Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

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First official White House portrait.
First official White House portrait.

Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy Onassis (July 28, 1929May 19, 1994) was the wife of President John F. Kennedy, and First Lady of the United States from 1961 to 1963.


Early life, family and education

Jacqueline Lee Bouvier was born into New York society, the eldest daughter of John "Jack" Vernou Bouvier III (1891-1957), a playboy stockbroker of French descent, and his wife, Janet Lee Bouvier (1906-1989), a bank president's daughter. Her maternal great-grandfather, a potato-famine Irish immigrant, was a superintendent of New York City public schools, though Janet Lee Bouvier preferred to tell people that he was a Maryland-born veteran of the United States Civil War. Her parents divorced when she was young and her mother remarried the wealthy Hugh D. Auchincloss, who had previously been married to the mother of novelist Gore Vidal.

She had a younger sister, Lee Radziwill Ross, who was married three times: to publishing executive Michael Canfield, to Polish prince Stanislas Radziwill, and movie director Herbert Ross. Through their father, the Bouvier sisters were descended from the Van Salees, a merchant family of Dutch/African ancestry that settled in New Amsterdam in the 17th century.

As a child, Kennedy Onassis was a well-trained equestrian and loved horses (and always would, even as an adult). She won several trophies and medals for her riding and the ample land in Hammersmith Farm gave her something to appreciate at the home of her stepfather. She loved writing poems and apparently adored her father. Her mother was said to be old-fashioned and strict, instilling in her children a strong sense of etiquette, manners, dress, and upper-class customs. While she and her father had a warm and affectionate relationship, her mother was apparently more controlling.

After being named "Debutante of the Year " for the 1947-48 season, she was educated at Miss Porter's School 1944-1947, Vassar College 1947-1948, and George Washington University, where she earned a degree in art in 1951. In 1949, she spent some time studying at the Sorbonne in Paris, France. Her stay in France was, it seems, one of the most enjoyable of her life: she learned a great deal and developed a deep love for France and its culture, a love that would later be reflected in many aspects of her life, such as the menus she chose for White House state dinners and her taste in clothing. She spoke French and Spanish fluently, and her name was pronounced in French fashion as JACK-leen. She then moved on to her first real job as a photographer (nicknamed "the inquiring camera girl") for The Washington Times-Herald , which is how she came to meet many Washington politicians, including her first husband.

Kennedy marriage

After an engagement to stockbroker John Husted, Jr. (they were to have married in June 1952), she married Senator John F. Kennedy, one of the Democratic Party's rising stars, on September 12, 1953, at Newport, Rhode Island. They had four children: Arabella (stillborn, 1956) Caroline Bouvier Kennedy (b. 1957), John Fitzgerald Kennedy Jr. (19601999), and Patrick Bouvier Kennedy (born and died in August 1963). Their marriage had its difficulties as her husband was allegedly a womanizer and had serious health problems, but she apparently overlooked many of his affairs. They spent their first years of marriage in a Georgetown townhouse.

She was fond of her father-in-law, and the affection, it seems, was returned. He also saw the great PR potential of her as a politician's wife. She was also close to her brother-in-law, Robert (Bobby). Yet she was not fond of the competitive, sporty, and somewhat abrasive nature of the Kennedy clan. She was quieter and more reserved. The Kennedy sisters nicknamed her "the deb," and Kennedy Onassis was always reluctant to join in the traditional touch-football games of the Kennedy clan.

First Lady of the United States

Kennedy narrowly beat Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election, becoming the 35th President of the United States in 1961. Kennedy Onassis became one of the youngest First Ladies in history.

As First Lady (a title she wasn't fond of, saying it sounded like the name of a horse), she was forced into the public spotlight with everything in her life under scrutiny. She had a strong preference for French haute couture designers who were expensive, and wearing their clothes might be perceived as disloyalty to American designers. She often got around such restrictions by having American dressmakers like Chez Ninon in New York copy or adapt contemporary French designs for her. For her state wardrobe, there were many American designers she could have chosen, such as Norman Norell, and she considered the designers at Bergdorf Goodman, but chose the Hollywood designer Oleg Cassini. During her days as First Lady, she would become a fashion icon domestically and internationally.

On February 14, 1962, she took American television viewers on a tour of the White House. The redecoration of the White House was her first major project. What inspired her were her visits to there before she was First Lady and being disappointed by what she saw as the lack of historical sense in the rooms. Being an avid lover of history, she felt that the mansion that represented her nation should represent it well. She hired a special commission and raised funds. They worked hard at finding authentic furniture and art that would fit the original design of the White House. They searched for original portraits of people like Jefferson and Franklin.

As First Lady, she knew her children would be in the public eye, yet she was determined to protect her children from the press and give them a normal childhood.

She and her husband planned many social events that brought them to the forefront of the cultural spotlight. They were not like presidential couples before them; they had an appreciation for art, music, and culture. They invited artists and musicians for dinner parties, hosted a special celebration in honor of Nobel Laureates, invited celebrities over, and transformed White House state dinners.

Kennedy assassination

The Presidential limousine before the assassination. Jacqueline is in the backseat to the President's left.
The Presidential limousine before the assassination. Jacqueline is in the backseat to the President's left.

Kennedy Onassis was sitting next to the President when he was shot and killed on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas. Mrs. Kennedy testified to the Warren Commission that she saw a piece of the President's skull detached, yet as documented in the Zapruder film, her head was not in a position to allow her to see the top of the president's head until almost a second after he was shot. Within seconds she climbed onto the left-center rear of the limousine trunk, behind and left of the president, and quickly picked up a piece of her husband's head, which she gave to a Parkland Hospital doctor.

Her courage in the aftermath of the assassination won her the admiration of the world. She led the mourning for the president, holding her two children's hands, kneeling at the bier along with her daughter in the United States Capitol, walking behind the caisson on foot from the White House to St. Matthew's Cathedral, where the funeral mass was held, and finally, lighting the eternal flame at her husband's grave at Arlington National Cemetery. The London Evening Standard reported: "Jacqueline Kennedy has given the American people ... one thing they have always lacked: majesty."

A week after the assassination, she was interviewed by Theodore H. White of Life magazine. In that interview, she called the Kennedy years the years of "Camelot."

She made no public appearances for one year, and thereafter largely withdrew from public life because of privacy and security concerns.

Onassis marriage and later life

On October 20, 1968, she married Aristotle Onassis, a Greek-shipping tycoon, in Skorpios, Greece, thus losing her Secret Service protection. When her former brother-in-law Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated three months earlier, Kennedy Onassis decided the Kennedys were being "targeted," and that she and her children had to leave the U.S. So marriage to Onassis appeared to make sense: he had the money and power to give her the protection she wanted, while she had the social caché he craved. He ended his affair with opera diva Maria Callas to marry her.

The marriage allegedly was not a love match. The couple rarely spent time together. Though Onassis got along with Caroline and John, Jr. (his son Alexander introduced John to flying; both would die in plane crashes), Kennedy Onassis did not get along with her step-daughter Christina Onassis. She spent most of her time traveling and shopping (a hobby that had exasperated President Kennedy, who once asked a friend "Is there a 'Shoppers Anonymous'?"). Though he was in the early stages of filing for divorce, Onassis died on March 15, 1975, leaving his wife a large inheritance.

When a paparazzo photographed Kennedy Onassis nude on a Greek island, Hustler publisher Larry Flynt bought the photos and published them in the August 1975 issue, much to her and the Kennedy family's embarrassment.

She spent her latter years as an editor at Doubleday, living in New York City and Martha's Vineyard with Maurice Tempelsman, a Belgian-born married industrialist and diamond merchant. In 1994, she was diagnosed with lymphoma, a form of cancer. She died from this at her Fifth Avenue apartment in her sleep on May 19 that year.

Her funeral on May 23 was televised around the nation, even though it was private, the way she wanted it to be. She was buried beside her assassinated husband at Arlington, in a service which too, was private, although it included remarks from President Bill Clinton. During the service, the two Kennedy children laid flowers on her flower-covered mahogany casket, bidding goodbye to a remarkable era in American history.

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