When she was First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy achieved a life beyond her wildest dreams. She had the love of the most powerful man in the world, a mansion with a staff of servants, a fleet of limousines, airplanes, and helicopters, round the clock security, a wardrobe created by her own couturier, and the adoration of millions of people. Then in a split second in Dallas, she lost it all. She was among the most accomplished, elegant and inspiring of the first American First Ladies. Poet Robert Frost called her one of the greatest First Ladies in American History.
Jacqueline Lee Bouvier, a gallant woman, was born on July 28, 1929. Her early years were spent between New York City and East Hampton, Long Island. When Mrs. Kennedy was 11 years of age she was a national horseback riding champion. Mrs. Kennedy was educated at the best of private schools, and was 18 year old when she was dubbed “the Debutante of the Year” for the 1947-1948 season. While attending Vassar she traveled extensively, spending her junior year in France, before graduating from George Washington University in 1952. Even as a child, and later as a young woman, Mrs. Kennedy showed the qualities that were later to impress the world.
In Washington she took a job as a photographer for a local newspaper, the Washington Times-Herald at the age of 21. Soon after she met Senator John F. Kennedy, who was considered one of the most eligible bachelors in Washington, they were married in 1953. She was 24 years old and it was the outstanding social event of the year. The couple’s first child, Caroline, was born in 1957 and John Jr. was born between the 1960 election and Inauguration Day.
The inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961 brought to the White House a beautiful young wife and the first young children of a President in half a century; not to mention, at the age of Jacqueline Kennedy became the third youngest First Lady to enter the white house. As “First Lady,” Jacqueline Kennedy brought beauty, intelligence, and cultivated taste.
Mrs. Kennedy was to bring her own unusual quality to the White House, a quality of youthful beauty, penetrating intelligence and impeccable taste. She was to bring, too, a fantastic memory, a will to work, and a sense of value which instinctively rejects the meretricious; all traits indispensable to a successful First Lady. Her passionate interest in literature, poetry, and the livelier arts was to encourage the mounting surge of American culture. Through her sense of history and love for beautiful houses, she was to make the White House a true museum. Always an imaginative hostess, Mrs. Kennedy’s knowledge of three languages was to prove an invaluable asset in the entertainment of foreign visitors. On trips abroad she was to make friends everywhere.
Though public interest would follow her every move, the First lady was to retain a core of privacy which would enable both the President and herself to relax and be replenished. In the White House she fulfills to her own satisfaction, her primary roles of wife and mother.
Jackie Kennedy was only 34 years old when Camelot ended in a blaze of gunfire on November 22, 1963. With John F. Kennedy, she had captured the world’s imagination. Without him, she would hold it until her own death three decades later-achieving a kind of global fame that has rarely been known in this century. Billions of words have been written about her, but Jackie guarded her privacy and mystique.
The assassination of John F. Kennedy was one of the most startling events of the twentieth Century. Caught in the spotlight of this tragic moment in American and world history was Jacqueline. How she met her test during these dark days and after truly makes for a memorable portrait in courage that will never be forgotten. Her courage after her husband’s assassination in Dallas in 1963 won Jackie the admiration of the world.
The death of a president is always a shock. It is doubly so when the President is struck down suddenly and savagely by a cowardly, unseen assassin. The death of John F. Kennedy had the impact of a giant earthquake tremor. In an instant-the single flicker of an eyelash-everything had been turned upside down. The nation and the world went numb with horror, dumbfounded with disbelief. More than a president had died with John F. Kennedy. Youth had died–faith– hope–belief–the future. It is a sad thing when an old president dies. But the death of a young President at the peak of his gifts and powers is more sad by far. Never before in history had the whole world, friend and foe alike, stopped what it was doing to weep and grieve for a single man.
During the parade in Dallas, Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy were both riding in the back of a car waving and smiling. Mrs. Kennedy still kept facing to the left, still smiling, still waving, still hot. Then there was a sound like a car or a motorcycle backfiring, no different it seemed from the other noises in a motorcade. A shout of “Oh, no, no, no.” from Governor Connally made Mrs. Kennedy whirl sharply to the right. There sat Mr. Kennedy, slightly slumped over, with an odd, puzzled look on his face. His left hand appeared to be holding his throat. Then there was another barking sound, this time flat and ugly. Without a word, Mr. Kennedy brushed a hand to his forehead and fell over into his wife’s lap.
She turned, in her grief and terror, to seek help-something. There, behind her, she saw a figure starting to climb up the back of the car. Dazed and unseeing, she clambered toward him, up over the seat onto the rear deck, reaching with her hand. The man, Special Agent Clint Hill, pushed her back into the car. When he finally got in himself she was sitting there with the President in her lap, face up, sobbing, “Jack, Jack, what have they done to you?” Hill could also hear the radio in the car crackling, “To the nearest hospital, quick. We have been hit.”
The limousine got to Parkland General Hospital, four miles away in about nothing flat. The shooting had occurred at 12:30 P.M. It was 12:35 P.M. when the sleek Lincoln pulled up at the hospital’s Emergency entrance. Men in white, already alerted, raced out with stretchers, one for the President, another for the Governor. As they carried Mr. Kennedy’s body inside, Mrs. Kennedy followed. Her pink suit, no longer immaculate, was stained with blood. So were her stockings, her shoes, her hands. In the emergency room she stood by watching as the doctors began working feverishly on the President. There was still the barest flicker of life in that valiant body but it was going out fast. Knowing it was all hopeless, like someone awake inside a nightmare, Jacqueline went outside to wait and pray.
Shortly before one o’clock, last rites were administered to the President by Father Huber, a Catholic priest. At one o’clock the President of the United States was pronounced dead. He had been shot twice. The first bullet struck him in the neck, the second in the back of the head. Doctors said he could have recovered from the first wound; the second, however, had proved fatal. Governor Connally had been luckier. His wound, though serious, had not struck any vital organs. He would recover. Alone after Dallas, Mrs. Kennedy summoned the strength, grace, and dignity to go on.
In 1968 Mrs. Kennedy married Aristotle Onassis, a Greek shipping magnate and 23 years her senior. Onassis died in 1975, and from 1978 until her death in 1994, Mrs. Onassis worked as editor for Doubleday in New York City and was a landmark preservationist.
At 10:15 P.M., May 19, 1994, a little more than two months before her sixty-fifth birthday, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis met her untimely death, with her family surrounding her bedside because of her aggressive non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
The next morning, John F. Kennedy Jr., in one of the finest moments of his young life, stood at the door of his mother’s home and in a firm voice said:
“Last night, at around ten fifteen, my mother passed on. She was surrounded by her friends and her family and her books and the people and things that she loved. And she did it in her own way and in her own terms, and we all feel lucky for that, and now she’s in God’s hands. There has been an enormous outpouring of good wishes from everyone, both in New York and beyond. And I speak for all of my family when we say we’re extremely grateful. Everyone’s been very generous. And I hope that, you know, we can just have these next couple of days in relative peace.”
Dareff, Hal. Jacqueline Kennedy: A Portrait In Courage. New York: Parents’ Magazine Press, 1666.
Thayer, Mary Van Rensselaer. Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1961.