Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, The Untold Story.
As we approach the 51st anniversary month of the assassination of John Kennedy, a new biography of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis by Barbara Leaming is released. The subtitle, The Untold Story, is appropriate as it reveals intimate details, conversations, and correspondence which I think the American public has not been privy to earlier. As a devoted fan of Jackie’s like so many of us young women were in the 60’s, I continued to admire her through the years and thought I had read everything written about her. Yet in this biography I felt I was getting to know the real person, not the public figure. I think Ms. Leaming has captured Jackie’s thought processes and motivations for many of her actions following the assassination. Although not always presented in a flattering light, by the end of the book, I found myself admiring her even more, yet with a deep sorrow for what she endured throughout her life that the public was probably not aware of.
It was often difficult reading to discover that the lady we credit with holding the grieving nation together as the “staunch warrior” at President Kennedy’s funeral suffered greatly for most of her life with what we now identify as PSTD. Although the terms shell shock and combat fatigue described soldiers’ from previous wars, it wasn’t until the 80’s and Vietnam that the severity of PSTD was recognized. The description of the assassination was the most graphic I have ever read and perhaps that was intentional so we could understand the full extent of the trauma Jackie experienced that day.
Today advanced PSTD recognizes the terrifying inability to control the responses of body and mind to an ever-expanding network of triggers which traumatizes the sufferer anew. In the days following the funeral she would relate relentlessly the graphic events of Nov. 22,1963, to anyone who would listen as she re-lived the scene repeatedly in her mind. Although she was unable to cry at the funeral, eighteen months later she would cry uncontrollably, not able to stop. Sadly, she did not seek counseling for many years until after the death of Robert Kennedy in June,1968. She flew to his bedside where he died, twenty-six hours after he was shot. The body returning to Andrews Air Force Base, of course, triggered similar sadness and memories of 1963.
Then came Jackie’s fall from grace with the American public when she shocked the nation by marrying Aristotle Onassis in October, 1968. She went, as the author says, from being idealized to being stigmatized. The headlines read “Jackie, Why?” “Jackie How Could You?” “America Has Lost a Saint”. I can personally recall my moment of disillusionment and revulsion to the news, much the same as we remember where we were when Kennedy was shot or when the Twin Towers fell. However, as I entered her thought process of fleeing the states, seeking safety for herself and her children following Robert Kennedy’s death, I sympathized once again. When a close friend, Bunny Mellon, asked her point blank, “Why are you doing this?” Jackie answered, “I have no choice. They’re (assassins) playing Ten Little Indians and I don’t want to be next.”
Although she sought refuge in a foreign country, the marriage encountered problems. When Onassis’ son died in a plane crash shortly after the marriage, his daughter Christina blamed Jackie, saying she had brought the Kennedy curse to their family. Because Jackie was not in Greece when Onassis died and photographers caught her with a rare smile on her face in the airport on the way to the funeral, she was once again depicted as a heartless woman who had married a “blank check”.
The years remaining tell of her trying to re-invent her life in New York by working at Viking Press in 1975 and later Doubleday where she strove to earn the respect of her colleagues by working diligently, to be accepted as a regular person with no special favors. “There had been a time when it had fallen to her to show America that she was the good ordinary wife, ever doting on and deferring to JFK. Now she encountered the rather difficult task of proving herself an independent working woman. As Onassis’ wife she had known great wealth. As his widow she waited in line at the office copy machines, made her own coffee, did much of her own typing.”
This biography is as much about world events as it is about Jackie. I think it is a must read for students of history and politics of the years 1960 until her death in 1994. There is correspondence and conversations with prominent world leaders, especially during the tumultuous sixties and insight into the people who fought for Jackie’s alliance as they pursued her for their own political ambitions. They believed as Jackie went, so would go the nation. A thirty-page bibliography lends much credibility to Ms. Lemmings work.
Jackie’s comments in October, 1980, perhaps best describes how she perceived the arc of her life. At a dinner party, the British poet, Stephen Spender, who had not seen her since before JFK became president, asked her what she considered her greatest achievement. “Notably it was not her fabled tenure as first Lady, nor the conquest of Paris, or the myriad other triumphs of the White House years, nor her demeanor at President Kennedy’s funeral and what it had meant to so many Americans, that Jackie replied without hesitation, ‘I think it is that after going through a rather difficult time, I consider myself comparatively sane. I am proud of that.’”
I think I will always be proud of Jacqueline Kennedy, even more so as this biography reveals her strengths, her weaknesses, her humanness. I wish she had lived longer once she had found a way to be rid of her demons, yet perhaps fate was kind in ending her life before she had to witness the tragic loss of her son. A remarkable biography of a remarkable lady.