Share this article

print logo

Six things Jackie reveals
New book of interviews with the former first lady from 1964 has some insights but is mostly trivial

And so, after 50 years, Jackie speaks.

Should you care?

The short answer: Maybe.

That's not waffling. Because here's the bottom line about the 8 1/2 hours of interviews with the former first lady from 1964 that were released for the first time last week (along with a hardcover book of transcripts and vintage photographs, by Hyperion -- encouraged by Caroline Kennedy and in association with the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum).

Jackie is still Jackie.

That is, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis does here what she did all along: She perpetuates the glamour of Camelot, while offering few deep insights into her own soul or anybody else's -- including that of her husband, the 35th president of the United States.

This should come as no surprise.

The Kennedys have long been something of a cultural prism. Jackie as much as -- maybe more than -- the rest, even though she married into the Hyannis Port clan in 1953.

Those who admire Mrs. John F. Kennedy consider her stoicism at JFK's funeral a badge of honor, and her three decades of silence afterward, until her death in 1994, a touch of grace.

Those who didn't buy the Camelot Queen image -- one Jackie herself helped launch within days of her husband's assassination in 1963 -- consider her affected, even phony, pointing to the later "Jackie O" years as proof.

That long-running debate is not going to be answered in eight hours of interviews, no matter how searching. (And these aren't, for the most part.) The reality is, the Jackie you will find here will depend on what you thought of her before.

A pop-cultural ouroboros? In politics and culture, that's hardly new.

With that in mind, here are a few insights into the woman who wowed Paris and India, wore Oleg Cassini and spoke fluent French.

Whether this lures you into sitting down with all eight CDs? That's up to you.

1) Ready to die at his side: The most moving part of these interviews comes about two-thirds of the way through, when Jackie is recounting the turbulent period of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

When her husband told her of the danger facing the United States, Jackie's response was poignant:

"I don't think he -- but I said, 'Please don't send me away to Camp David' -- you know, me and the children. 'Please don't send me anywhere. If anything happens, we're all going to stay right here with you.' And, you know -- and I said, 'Even if there's not room in the bomb shelter in the White House' -- which I'd seen. I said, 'Please, then I just want to be on the lawn when it happens -- you know -- but I just want to be with you, and I want to die with you, and the children do too -- than live without you.' So he said he -- he wouldn't send me away."

2) Present or past?: These interviews -- recorded in spring 1964, just four months after the assassination in Dallas -- reveal a Jackie still struggling to put her husband's life into the past tense. When speaking about sensitive subjects or bubbling with enthusiasm, she sometimes slips into the present tense when talking about JFK and the couple's life together. It's sweet and sad.

3) The interview environment: As Caroline Kennedy notes in her foreword, the grieving Jackie sat for just three interviews after her husband's death. One was with Theodore H. White in late November 1963, and resulted in a story in Life magazine that began the whole Kennedys-as-Camelot trope. (Jackie told White that the president used to listen to the album of the Broadway musical before bed.) A second interview was with William Manchester, in April 1964, which he used in writing "The Death of a President." Jackie later sued to stop him from using certain material they had discussed.

The third interview was this one, with Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., a former Harvard professor who had been a member of JFK's inner-circle. The interviews were done as part of an oral history project with many members of the Kennedy administration. After Schlesinger recorded the sessions, Jackie's transcripts and tapes were sealed for 50 years.

Schlesinger, who here sounds for all the world like TCM's Robert Osborne, may have been the right man to get Jackie to open up -- but he was hardly the best choice to interview her, from a historical perspective. He sticks almost entirely to softball questions and offers ingratiating, leading statements to draw her out: "Your White House parties -- the best parties I've ever gone to -- were they...?" Or: "We in the White House staff felt very badly ... we felt that we'd served the president badly..." This is not the kind of interview question that's going to yield historical treasure. In Schlesinger's defense, he was interviewing a woman he knew well, one who had been widowed by the assassination of his boss and close friend just months before.

Schlesinger asks Jackie extensively about matters that now seem trivial -- the Massachusetts delegation of the 1950s; obscure Cabinet members; lower-level White House staff -- and avoids delving deep into the rich topics that Jackie hints at, but doesn't probe on her own. (Such as the medicines Jack was taking for back pain and Addison's disease; the time they spent apart during their marriage; and Jack's popularity with women, which caused one foreign leader to jokingly warn Jackie not to send her good-looking husband on state trips alone.)

4) The presidential fog: Jackie refers in a casual manner to certain members of the Kennedys' circle of friends and staffers who suffered from "White-House-itis," a condition of inflated self-worth due to proximity to the first family, as she explains it.

But, a little bit of White-House-itis must have crept into the worldview of Jack and Jackie as well. Otherwise, how to explain Jackie's eyebrow-raising comments in these interviews that the Kennedys were assuming a second term for Jack was a given -- and were having conversations about changing the laws of the country to allow Jack to have a third term and possibly more?

Then again, Jackie and Schlesinger freely toss around the word "interregnum" to describe the transition period between Dwight Eisenhower and JFK. It makes you want to stop the tape and check: What country are we in, again?

5) A woman of her times: The Jackie Kennedy of the early 1960s was, without doubt, a woman of her times, the tapes make clear -- raised with near-geishalike views of men, marriage, and their roles as wives.

She admits that she got all her opinions from her husband, and says that's the only way she could imagine it: "How could I have any political opinions, you know? His were going to be the best." She makes brushoff comments about strong women: one is "sort of a feminist, really ... she was so different from me and just exhausted me so."

And she even calls her marriage to Jack "rather terribly Victorian or Asiatic." At which point Schlesinger chips in: "Yeah, a Japanese wife."

And Jackie responds: "Yeah, which I think's the best."

6) Not always charmed by people: For all the sunny image of the happy family of Camelot, what's striking -- and, in the end, sort of funny -- is how few people they liked, or found impressive.

Such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whom Jackie calls "tricky." She claims he made fun of the president's funeral.

Adlai Stevenson? Jackie thought him weak and sexless.

Mamie Eisenhower? Jackie thought it odd that Mamie called the White House "my" house and referred to objects in it as hers. She dreaded the traditional tour that the outgoing first lady gives her successor.

The Khrushchevs? Didn't like them, including Madame Khrushchev and a daughter who Jackie says "looked like some Wehrmacht blonde who ran a concentration camp."

Even Winston Churchill, Jack's hero as a young man, didn't deliver in person. The couple met Churchill on Aristotle Onassis' yacht -- yes, that Ari -- during the 1950s.

"Jack had always wanted to meet Churchill," Jackie says on the tapes. "Well, the poor man [Churchill] was really quite gaga then and a lot -- you know, we all came on the boat together and he didn't quite know which one Jack was."

"I felt so sorry for Jack that evening because he was meeting his hero, only he met him too late."

As she realized, all those years ago, knowing more about a historical figure doesn't always make them feel as close as knowing less.

email: cvogel@buffnews.com

***

Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy Interviews with Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., 1964 Foreword by Caroline Kennedy

Hyperion; 368-page hardcover book and 8-CD boxed set, $60