Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy Onassis

(1929 - 1994)








From Volume 24 Number 11 | cover date 6 June 2002

How to be a wife

Colm Tóibín

Janet & Jackie: The Story of a Mother and Her Daughter, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis by Jan Pottker. | St Martin's, 381pp., US $24.95, 12 October 2001

Mrs Kennedy: The Missing History of the Kennedy Years by Barbara Leaming. | Weidenfeld, 389pp., £20, 31 October 2001



On 29 January 1884 Henry James noted a story which he had heard from Gertrude Tennant. It struck him 'as a dramatic and pretty subject'. Young Lord Stafford, it seemed, was in love with Lady Grosvenor, whom he had known before her marriage, but had now no expectation of being able to marry as her husband was alive and robust. 'Yielding to family pressure,' as James put it, 'he offered his hand to a young, charming, innocent girl, the daughter of Lord Rosslyn.'



The girl, however, came to feel that Lady Grosvenor, although not able to marry young Lord Stafford, 'must be queen of his thoughts and will finally end by becoming his mistress'. In one possibility for his story, James considered that she would agree to the marriage, 'but I don't ask for your affection . . . I leave you free in conduct. Let me be your wife, bear your name, your coronet, enjoy your wealth and splendour; but devote yourself to Lady G. as much as you like - make her your mistress, if you will.'

The daughter of Lord Rosslyn was more compliant than the daughter of Earl Spencer would be, but the feelings of young Lord Stafford and Lady G. were eventually acted out in full view of the tabloids by Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles. James knew a dramatic subject. In some contemporary writing about lone, long-suffering and much-photographed female celebrities who have haunted our dreams, there is an attempt to compare them to figures from Greek tragedy. In many ways, however, they are closer to the heroines and adventuresses who people James's fiction. With all the ambition and greed and betrayal and tribulation that surrounded her, the question about Jacqueline Kennedy is not who she would have been in Greek drama, but who she would have been in Henry James.

She was, to begin with, Maisie in What Maisie Knew. Clearly, she loathed and feared and needed the approval of her snobbish, dull, shrieking and ambitious mother Janet Lee Bouvier as much as Maisie loathed and feared and needed her mother; she flirted with her father, who drank and spent money and flirted in turn with anyone who came his way. Her parents made no secret of their disastrous marriage and the great gap between her mother's rage for order and the charmed chaos which followed Black Jack Bouvier everywhere he went. Thus Jackie knew everything. She knew how to fawn over her father; at the same time she knew that he was a drunken old fool. She learned to live with her mother. Her parents separated when she was seven and divorced three years later.

Janet, her mother, loved horses. In 1934, when Jackie was five, the New York Daily News published an extraordinary photograph. Janet is sitting on a fence admiring some horseflesh while Black Jack behind her surreptitiously holds the hand of another woman. In Janet & Jackie, Jan Pottker manages, in general, to be most respectful about Janet, and tells us a great deal about what she was wearing ('Janet donned sheer silk stockings, fastened to garters, and sensible soft-leather pumps with a moderate heel') and what she was feeling ('Janet was already excited by the time an usher walked her to her pew') and what her habits were ('That year she had perched a French poodle hood ornament on her favourite car') and how much her daughter depended on her ('Janet also stepped in when a particular group bored Jackie, as did the coffee hour at the White House for the wives of the New York Stock Exchange members or the social for the International Council of Women'), but Pottker's most telling sentence concerns that photograph of Jackie's mother looking the other way while her husband cavorted. 'Sometimes,' she writes, 'when Lee or another friend visited the private quarters of the White House, Jackie would pull out that old photo . . . and howl with laughter until tears ran down her cheeks.' When Maisie grew up, she would have understood.

Sir Claude, Maisie's rescuing stepfather, came to Jackie in the guise of Hughdie Auchincloss, whom her mother married in 1942. Hughdie had been married twice before, and was already in possession of three children, one from his first marriage and two from his second. Hughdie's second wife, Nina, came armed with a ten-year-old son, known to us all as Gore Vidal. Vidal would have much to say about his stepfather. Hughdie was, Vidal said, 'a magnum of chloroform'. He also owned an estate in Virginia, a farm and a mansion at Newport and an apartment on Park Avenue. His mother had Standard Oil shares. 'He ejaculated,' Vidal wrote in his memoir Palimpsest, 'normally, but without that precedent erection which women require as, if nothing else, totemic symbol of a man's true love . . . Since Hughdie wanted children, Nina was obliged, in some fashion that she . . . vividly described to me and I would promptly erase from memory. I think she inserted - with a spoon? - what she called "the bugs" in order to create my demi-siblings.' Hughdie's mother, Vidal remembered, attributed all this to Hughdie's excessive masturbation in youth.

Vidal also remembered that his mother, who wanted to move on, had introduced Janet to Hughdie when Janet was 'a financially desperate "social climber" with two small daughters to raise' and 'eager to marry someone . . . just like poor Hughdie'. Thus Jackie moved into the bedroom vacated by Vidal. 'When I first moved in here,' she later told him, 'I found some old shirts of yours. With name tags. I used to wear them riding. Then Jack and I stayed here after our honeymoon. I must say he suffered a lot in this house, from Mother.'

Janet had found sanctuary for herself and her two daughters. She had two more children with Hughdie. Gore Vidal's mother was sure that Janet's last name, Lee, had been shortened from Levy. 'Apparently,' he wrote, 'Janet's father had changed his name in order to be a vice-president of the Morgan bank.' In fact, the Lees were Irish Catholics, even sporting an old crone of a grandmother who came to live with them. She was 'dressed in black with an Irish brogue . . . she stayed hidden when guests were in the house. Only occasionally would a visitor catch a glimpse of an old lady in black, head down, quickly scuttling out of view.' Janet, pace her grandmother, now had the time and energy and position to put it about that she was descended from Robert E. Lee. She became, like Hughdie, an Episcopalian.

Jackie and her sister Lee had two mansions in which to cavort during their teenage years. Their status, however, was precarious. In the summer at Newport, for example, only Hughdie's real offspring had bedrooms with sea views. The Bouvier girls were at the back. And they hadn't a penny. Black Jack Bouvier was busy drinking all his money and Janet's father did not warm to either of them and was, in any case, mean. He was prepared to give them nothing. 'The three stepchildren of Hugh D. Auchincloss,' Vidal wrote, 'Jackie, Lee and I, were brought up in a wealthy manner and yet were penniless, unlike the gentleman's five official children. Of necessity, Jackie married twice for money, with splendid results. Lee married twice far less splendidly. I went to work.'

While Jackie was an unconventional shape and bookish and interested in French and embarrassed by her mother, who spent all day on the phone discussing Newport life with other matrons of the same ilk, Lee, three years younger, managed to get all the best lines in the many books written about the family: 'In college Lee majored in men.' 'Even Lee's affectation of having her maid dash into the bathroom to drop a gardenia into the toilet after it was flushed struck Jackie as amusing.' 'Only recently have I learned that the Secret Service name for Lee Radziwill was "Rancidass".' (The last comes from Vidal.)

Henry James would have understood the delights, the trials, and indeed the vulgarities of the third Mrs Auchincloss and her daughters. He, too, was concerned to keep his Irish ancestry in the background. In 1907 in 'The American Scene', he wrote tenderly and beautifully of the Newport he had known in the 1860s, before the arrival of the very rich, 'when the strange sight might be seen of a considerable company of Americans . . . who confessed brazenly to not being in business . . . a collection of the detached, the slightly disenchanted and casually disqualified'. These people, he wrote, 'appear to have left no seed'. Then he began to rail against the new rich of Newport, who had built their mansions along the coast. Their houses, he said, look queer and conscious and lumpish - some of them, as with an air of the brandished proboscis, really grotesque - while their averted owners, roused from a witless dream, wonder what in the world is to be done with them. The answer to which, I think, can only be that there is absolutely nothing to be done; nothing but to let them stand there always, vast and blank, for reminder to those concerned of the prohibited degrees of witlessness, and the peculiarly awkward vengeances of affronted proportion and discretion.

Into this world of affronted proportion and discretion, in May 1955, strode Joe Kennedy to arrange the wedding of his son the senator to Janet's elder daughter. Although Janet and her husband wanted a quiet, discreet affair, the Kennedys viewed the wedding 'as another political campaign to manage'. Janet moaned to a friend: 'The wedding will be just awful - quite dreadful. There will be one hundred Irish politicians!' Look and Life magazines competed for exclusive coverage. According to Jan Pottker, Jack Kennedy told one of his friends that the Auchinclosses were 'convinced that one of the last strongholds of America's social elite is being invaded by mongrels without pedigrees'. They had been woken from their witless dream.

The Kennedys agreed to pay for the wedding, and the Auchinclosses agreed to host the reception at their mansion in Newport. And all were agreed that Black Jack Bouvier should be dealt out of the deck. He came to Newport anyway, ready to march up the aisle with his daughter, complete with his wedding clothes and his vast thirst. When it became clear that he had been drinking, Janet banned him and insisted that Hughdie walk Jackie up the aisle. Fortunately, however, as Pottker writes, 'the wedding guests had no idea of the dramas playing out behind the scenes. They saw only a 2.9-carat diamond set next to a 2.8 carat engagement ring, an archbishop performing the ceremony, and a fifty-yard silk wedding dress.'

The relationship between Jack and Jackie, as outlined in lurid detail in Barbara Leaming's Mrs Kennedy, takes Jackie from her role as Maisie to the role of Maggie Verver in The Golden Bowl. She had her prince and her life of luxury. When she went every day to classes in American history at Georgetown University she was accompanied on the short walk by her cocker spaniel. 'When she arrived at her building,' Pottker writes, 'she turned the spaniel over to her maid. Both the maid and the dog would wait outside until class ended, when Jackie would come out to walk the dog - and the maid - home.'

Leaming manages to account for every day, and at times every moment, of Jackie's time in the White House. Like Maggie Verver, Jackie discovered soon after her marriage that her prince's attitude towards their marriage vows was lax indeed. Her entire upbringing and education led her to become skilled in the art of self-suppression and pretence. She had pretended she was rich; now she could pretend she was, as the phrase goes, happily married. During her years in the White House she did the second of these with immense style and care and some success, so that her relationship with Kennedy remains as complex and interesting as that of Maggie and her prince.

She made sure that she was absent from the White House two or three days a week, usually at the house they rented in Virginia, to give him space and privacy. 'In Jackie's absence,' Leaming writes, 'the President, whether at lunchtime or after his last appointment in the evening, could often be found in the pool - a favourite locale for sex because of his bad back - or upstairs in the family quarters with one or more women.' He liked them in twos and he also enjoyed getting it all over quickly. He was the Amerigo in The Golden Bowl, but there is also a whiff of an ageing Chad from The Ambassadors about him, an empty vessel, prepared to be influenced by anyone around him, from his father to Harold Macmillan to his brother. Macmillan would later regret that Kennedy had depleted his powers by 'spending half his time thinking about adultery, the other half about second-hand ideas passed on by his advisers'.

What is extraordinary is how little influence Jackie had on his policies and decisions, how little she seemed even to know about the outline of what he was planning, or doing, or thinking. She organised decoration and dinners. She thought constantly about what would interest him and who would amuse him, and she learned to have these ready. They were never alone in the White House in the evening. There was never an evening when he said he was tired and would like just to watch television and go to bed early. There was always a little dinner arranged. Both Kennedys viewed the evidence of the former incumbents' lifestyle with horror. When Jackie went to pay a call on Mrs Eisenhower before the Inauguration, she told Vidal that 'the upstairs room, the oval one, was worth the whole visit. They had two TV sets, his and hers, with little tables in front of them, where they had their TV dinners, he watching his westerns and she her soap operas.'

Thus every evening at 7.30 when Jack Kennedy returned to his private quarters he would, Leaming writes, 'discover that Jackie had a treat ready and waiting. Most of the time she conceived these evenings as a kind of surprise . . . which he only had to sit back and enjoy . . . Virtually every night during the Presidency, Jackie orchestrated some sort of light entertainment for her husband.'

She was skilled also at talking to powerful men, beginning with her father-in-law, who adored her, and including de Gaulle and Khrushchev and Macmillan. 'Seated next to de Gaulle at lunch,' Leaming writes, 'Jackie underwent a miraculous transformation. The nymphet metamorphosed into a highly intelligent woman who engaged the General on recondite matters of French history and culture. She and de Gaulle discussed Louis XVI, exchanged views on the duc d'Angoulême, and reviewed the dynastic intricacies of the later Bourbons. Enjoying herself tremendously, she leaned very close to de Gaulle as they talked.' Leaming has much the same sort of thing to say about her dinner with Khrushchev, who was 'delighted by her nerve and unpredictability. Face to face with the piquant personality that had charmed de Gaulle, he was charmed as well. During the musical entertainment after dinner, Khrushchev, assisted by a translator seated just behind them, whispered funny stories in Jackie's ear and took immense pleasure when, every now and then, she covered her lips with a white-gloved hand, threw back her head and laughed.'

All of this is nonsense of course, but it is the sort of nonsense which was reported at the time and that made her name as a new, young, stylish and Frenchified First Lady who did not spend her evenings like Mamie Eisenhower, eating TV dinners. She could charm the great; or at least her skills at charming the press, and making the story they must tell irresistible, were developed to an astonishing degree.

Working day and night on her guest list while the Bay of Pigs was being invaded, or selecting colour schemes while the Cuban Missile Crisis was going on, could not have made her the most interesting person for ambitious and easily bored foreign visitors. Indira Gandhi, when she visited with her father, 'was full of indignation' at being left with Jackie and 'made no secret of her resentment at being sent off with the President's wife, child and friend . . . when vital matters were being discussed elsewhere. The two women did not hit it off, to say the least.'

Jackie, in her role as Maggie Verver, was presented with her Charlotte Stant in the guise of a woman named Mary Meyer. Mary Meyer was a breed apart from the run of secretaries, starlets and upmarket rentgirls normally favoured by JFK. Her family was wealthy; she had, like Jackie, been to Vassar; she was a sister-in-law of Kennedy's friend Ben Bradlee. She introduced the President to the joys of marijuana and planned, with the help of Timothy Leary, to introduce him to LSD. Leary remembered her as 'amused, arrogant, aristocratic'. She was added to the list of those who came regularly for intimate suppers with the President and his wife, just as Joseph Kennedy's mistresses had done in the old days. She was quite brazen. When Betty Spalding, a family friend, found them sneaking upstairs to have it off in the nursery during a dinner at the White House, Mary and the President remained completely unfazed. 'Up comes Jack and Mary Meyer,' Betty Spalding told Leaming, 'headed for that place where Jackie had a nursery school on the third floor for the kids. I figured they were going in there for a little sexual action.' She figured right. Mary Meyer's 'willingness to show contempt for Jackie by slipping off with her husband had been a kind of love call to Jack,' Leaming writes, 'a signal that, like him, she was a superior person who did as she pleased.'

The President added her to the list even when he himself was going to be absent, thus forcing Jackie to entertain her. 'The grotesque evening that followed,' Leaming writes, 'in the newly redone President's dining room was one that few wives could have forced themselves to endure with dignity. Jackie, with a steeliness that served her well in such circumstances, managed to be pointedly gracious to Mary, as if this were not the woman who had been sleeping with her husband all summer. Shortly after ten, the unmistakable roar of helicopters signalled that Jack was back in time to see his mistress before the evening ended.'

The inclusion of Mary Meyer in his family life did not impede the President in more fleeting sexual pursuits. He continued his pool parties, often beginning within seconds of his wife leaving the White House grounds. After the Profumo affair, he congratulated himself, according to Leaming, on 'his emotion-free, and in his view, danger-free couplings'. These included an East German called Ellen Rometsch, who was also alleged to be having an affair with a Soviet attaché in Washington, all under the beady eye of J. Edgar Hoover. Rometsch became a great favourite of the President; according to his friend Bobby Baker, she gave 'the best oral sex' he ever had.

Between the assassination of Kennedy in November 1963 and her marriage to Aristotle Onassis in October 1968, Jacqueline Kennedy's life had much in common with that of the governess in The Turn of the Screw, constantly frightened by ghosts, apparitions and fresh horrors. She had two beautiful small children in her care, and she took her role as mother immensely seriously, managing to protect them from the worst excesses of their Kennedy cousins, and managing as best she could to protect and promote her husband's memory.

After the assassination, she remained close to Lyndon Johnson; there is an extraordinary tape of her phone calls to him, her voice all breathy and kittenish and sweet, far away from the allure and theatre and mystery of her appearance in photographs in these same years. She advised him to take a nap every day after lunch. 'It changed Jack's whole life,' she told him.

Like the governess in James's story, she found that every time she looked out of the window there was a nightmare or a memory of a nightmare. She regularly mentioned that she had held a piece of her husband's brain in her hands in Dallas that day. She was turfed out of the White House with no idea where or how to live. The world became obsessed with her. Everyone wanted to take a good look at her, from the Pope to Andy Warhol. Her sister Lee offered her support and then gossiped about her to Truman Capote and Cecil Beaton. ('You don't know what it is like being with Jackie,' she told Beaton. 'She can't sleep at night and she can't stop thinking about herself and never feeling anything but sorry for herself.') When Ben Bradlee and his wife suggested that she might marry again, she wrote: 'You were close to us so many times. There is one thing that you must know. I consider that my life is over and I will spend the rest of my life waiting for it to be really over.' She was 34.

She had kept her mother both close and at a distance during her time in the White House. She made sure, for example, that Janet and Hughdie got lousy tickets for the Inauguration while her step-siblings, who travelled with them, got better ones. JFK told a friend that he spent as much time dealing with Janet as he did with Khrushchev. When Jackie discovered that Janet, on the day of the assassination, had taken the children from the White House to her own house, she ordered them back. Yet that day, she also asked Janet and Hughdie to sleep in the President's bed in the room beside hers. In the years after the assassination, Janet did not help by insisting that the event had been plotted by Lyndon Johnson as a way of becoming President.

Over the next few years Jackie made a valiant effort to civilise Bobby Kennedy. 'I suspect,' Vidal wrote, 'that the one person she ever loved, if indeed she was capable of such an emotion, was Bobby Kennedy . . . There was always something oddly intense in her voice when she mentioned him to me.' With his assassination, the screw was turned once more. Jackie had already been planning to marry Aristotle Onassis but had agreed to postpone any announcement until after the November 1968 election so that it would not damage Bobby's chances. Now, with Bobby dead, there was no one to stop her. Pottker calls her chapter on the arrival of Onassis 'From Camelot to Caliban'.

He appeared in Newport affronting both proportion and discretion, 'squat, sallow, wrinkled and 62 years old', as Pottker puts it. Janet's friend Eileen Slocum spotted him at the beach: 'He was the strangest sight. He had long, long arms, with short legs and a chest covered with dark hair.' Pottker continues: 'And the oddest swim trunks that anyone on Narragansett Bay had ever seen. While the Newport men wore Bermuda-shorts-length madras trunks, Ari's were minuscule - barely covering his hirsute loins - and were tightly woven of white wool. As he moved jerkily towards the water, Slocum thought to herself: "He resembles a frog."'

Later, as they gathered for the wedding on Skorpios, Onassis's private island, whenever Janet could find Jackie alone, she would buttonhole her: 'Don't go through with this. Tell him you've changed your mind. It's not right for the children.' As Jackie walked up the aisle, her mother followed close behind. This time there was no Black Jack Bouvier to banish. Instead, as she told Slocum, who told Pottker, she moved as

close behind Jackie as she could - so close that her chin was nearly touching Jackie's earlobe - and began to whisper in Jackie's ear in an urgent yet hypnotic tone: 'It's not too late you don't have to do this.' As Jackie and Hughdie walked towards the altar, she repeated her frantic whispers over and over again: 'Jackie, you don't have to go through with this. It's not too late to stop. You don't have to do this. You can change your mind. We can leave. It's not too late.' Jackie ignored Janet completely and never looked back at her mother . . . Dejected, Janet sat down and watched the priest begin the ceremony. Her worst fears had just been realised.

Neither Leaming nor Pottker goes into the details of what happened next. This privilege has been embraced by others, among them, Sarah Bradford in America's Queen (2000): 'They would have sex in all sorts of unconventional places, aeroplanes, small boats, the beach, regardless of who might be watching or photographing. The brother of one of Jackie's Washington friends was shocked by the way Onassis would drag Jackie suddenly into any one of the cabins on the Christina and make love to her without bothering to shut the door.'

Within a short time Jackie had become Isabel Archer, locked into a marriage with a husband who did not like her, who soon resented her independence and slowly became irritated by her. Just as Isabel gradually discovered that Osmond was a bully who had married her for her money, so Jackie discovered that Onassis was a monster who had married her for the glory. Within a short time of the wedding, Onassis began to see Maria Callas again.

The years after the death of Onassis, when Jacqueline Kennedy returned to live in New York, lack the fierce drama of her years with Kennedy or the sheer brutish languor of her years with Onassis. Jackie worked in publishing; she acted high and mighty in the world of the arts in New York. She looked after her children, now in their late teens and early twenties. She made clear once more that she liked men who were rich and powerful by forming a liaison from 1980 with Maurice Templesman, who was to diamonds what Onassis was to shipping and Kennedy was, when she married him, to politics.

In the later accounts by writers and journalists, there is a strange defining eloquence, as though they are trying to compete with the camera or the silkscreen print. William Manchester, whose book The Death of a President caused her such grief (she believed it had invaded her privacy and compromised her relationship with Johnson), remembered his first meeting with her as he researched the book: 'My first impression - and it never changed - was that I was in the presence of a very great tragic actress. I mean that in the finest sense of the word. There was a weekend in American history when we needed to be united in our sadness by the superb example of a bereaved First Lady, and Jacqueline Kennedy . . . provided us with an unforgettable performance as the nation's First Lady.'

Jackie made contact with the Irish novelist Edna O'Brien when O'Brien's play about Virginia Woolf was in rehearsal in New York. O'Brien wrote about her:

So many of her qualities - that breathless enthusiasm, a certain giddiness late at night, a passionate love of clothes - revealed the perennial child. But the barriers which she built around herself betray a woman who had espoused self-preservation from the start . . . Distance and distancing were central to her, not only from others but from huge parts of herself. It was what gave her that inexplicable aura. Her mystery was that she was a mystery to herself. She was caught in the gap between ingénue and empress, between innocence and worldliness.

Colm Tóibín's Lady Gregory's Toothbrush is published by the Lilliput Press. Picador has brought out Love in a Dark Time, a collection of essays, most of them commissioned by the LRB.


Executive Privileges
A steamy vision of Camelot, just in time for summer.

Reviewed by William E. Leuchtenburg

Sunday, May 23, 2004; Page BW03


The Private World of the Kennedy White House

By Sally Bedell Smith. Random House. 608 pp. $29.95

Sally Bedell Smith has written the nonfiction beach book of the season. Last year Robert Dallek published a thoughtful, well-crafted 815-page biography of John F. Kennedy that created a media sensation because of one brief passage revealing JFK's liaison with a White House intern. In Grace and Power, you need more than a scorecard to keep track of all of the women, some of them nubile staffers, who hopped into bed with the leader of the free world; you need an adding machine.

Some of the revelations are of the sort that usually provide fodder for lurid gazettes at a supermarket checkout counter. A Georgetown University doctor, we are told, tutored Jackie over the phone on foreplay techniques to improve her sex life with Jack who, for all of his frenetic activity, was a lousy lover. In the months after her husband's hideous death, we are further informed, Jackie asked a Jesuit priest, "Do you think God would separate me from my husband if I killed myself? Wouldn't God understand that I just want to be with him?"

It would be altogether unfair to the author, though, to suggest that she has written a slick cut-and-paste exploitation shocker in the style of a London tabloid. She has conducted 140 interviews, consulted 65 oral histories, explored FBI files and ranged widely in archives from the Bodleian Library at Oxford to the University of Wyoming. She takes pains to sift evidence, sometimes casting doubt on salacious gossip, and she is in firm command of the vast Kennedy scholarship.

In more than one respect, however, the narrative is skewed. There is too much on grace, too little on power. At a critical moment in the history of the country, her chief protagonist is not the president, but the first lady: Jackie's choices of decorator fabrics, "her Cassini-designed dresses in shimmering 'sun colors' of pink, azure, yellow, and green," her riding to hounds. When the author does discuss affairs of state, she is lucid and knowledgeable about foreign policy. Domestic matters, though, do not interest her. In the first 300 pages of the volume, the civil rights movement, which reached a crescendo in these years, gets only two paragraphs.

She is aware of Arthur Schlesinger's sage warning that the Camelot myth is "mischievous," but she does not pay it sufficient heed. At the close of her acknowledgments section, in the very last sentence of the book, she writes, "Perhaps Camelot is too much with me." It is. "The Kennedys and their circle set out ambitiously, almost grandiosely, to create an America in their own image and according to their own tastes," she maintains. "To a remarkable degree they succeeded, leaving behind a more assertive nation, infused with a vision and an aesthetic that found its inspiration in Jeffersonian ideals." They "set America on a higher path."

Given that effusive judgment, it is curious how unattractively both of the Kennedys are often portrayed in these pages. Smith depicts Jackie as spoiled, narcissistic and snotty, an insular young woman (only 31 on becoming first lady) who allowed no woman to become close -- and none to join her staff -- who had not gone to Brearley, Chapin or some other posh school. Jack is seen entertaining guests by reading aloud to them the muck in FBI reports on his appointees; betraying Adlai Stevenson by planting a false story in the press; and slinking through underground tunnels, flashlight in hand, in order to carry off assignations undetected at Manhattan's Carlyle Hotel. In one ugly episode, with both his wife and one of his mistresses aboard a cruise, he makes crude advances toward his mistress's sister, then wife of Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee. Nonetheless, the author insists that the Kennedys and their crowd were "special people."

It does not take much to qualify as more "special" than the rest of us. Jayne Wrightsman, we are assured, "had flair -- an example was the 'y' she added to her first name in high school." (Before then, she had been a plain Jane.) Jackie's addiction to nearly a pack of cigarettes a day is characterized as "a badge of sophistication," adorning her since her days at "Farmington" (Miss Porter's School). Cuba Libres, those vile mixes of rum, Coke and lime juice doled out by impecunious graduate students, are "exotic."

The book may turn some readers into raging Jacobins. On a trip to India, the author reports, Jackie and her sister Lee Radziwill traveled with 64 pieces of luggage, and in less than a week Jackie appeared in 20 different outfits. Jackie's close friend Bunny Mellon, who had a trompe l'oeil-style mural of her life painted in a gallery between her Virginia greenhouses, grubbed in the garden in clothes designed by Givenchy. As a birthday present to her husband, Jackie ordered a four-hole golf course with long fairways laid out on their Virginia estate. There is a saving grace, though. Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, pontificated the New York Times, handed down "upper-crust habits" to the "common woman."

Grace and Power will be a runaway bestseller, deservedly so. The book is impressively well researched and smartly written. It is rich in character sketches, anecdotes and accounts of events. But it should carry a warning label: "Not for those with a low tolerance for treacle." •

William E. Leuchtenburg, a professor of history emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has written "In the Shadow of FDR: From Harry Truman to George W. Bush."


Grace and Power: The Private World of the Kennedy White House
Sally Bedell Smith
Aurum, £25, 608 pp

Conjugal relations in Camelot

(Filed: 20/06/2004)

Anne Applebaum reviews Grace and Power by Sally Bedell Smith

A week after her husband's assassination in November, 1963, Jackie Kennedy gave an interview to the writer Theodore White. Passionately declaring that she didn't want John F. Kennedy immortalised by "bitter" journalists who didn't appreciate him, she told White that she had come up with her own metaphor for his presidency. She had chosen it, she said, from a line in a Broadway show song that her husband had loved: "Don't let it be forgot that once there was a spot, from one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot."

That interview, published in Life magazine, was a stroke of myth-making genius. In the years that followed, the first generation of Kennedy biographers and eulogisers picked up the Camelot theme and ran with it again and again. Kennedy was remembered for his youth, his promise, his genius. "Camelot", that "brief shining moment" when the young, the beautiful and the aristocratic worked in the White House, became the symbol of optimism, energy, even of hope itself.

Perhaps inevitably, the next wave of biographers and critics set out to take apart the Camelot legend. In recent years, President Kennedy has been excoriated for his naivete in Cuba and Southeast Asia, attacked for consorting with the Mafia, and pilloried for the constant stream of affairs he conducted while in office. With the passage of time, "Camelot" has come to seem tarnished, hypocritical, tawdry.

Now, however, we have Sally Bedell Smith, part of a third wave of biographers who are interested neither in the Kennedy myth nor in its debunking, but are intent, rather, in finding out what actually happened during the Kennedy presidency. Smith's role in this third wave is openly apolitical: This is not a book for world history buffs, or for anyone who wants to find out what really happened during the Cuban missile crisis.

In describing the private world of Jack and Jackie, it is still possible to be even-handed. Smith doesn't skimp on Jack's girlfriends or on Jackie's snottiness, and this book's most important revelation is of the psychiatrist with whom Jackie discussed, among other things, Jack's sexual inadequacies. And yet what emerges of their lives is still so mesmerisingly attractive that it is hard not to conclude that at least some of the Camelot myth deserved to stick after all.

Here we have, for example, a portrait of a first lady who danced the twist, "wearing a white satin sheath", all night at a White House dinner dance; whose passion for classical decoration inspired a whole generation of Washington women to take up the study of French furniture; who set up a schoolroom in the White House to educate her children and the children of a few select friends; whose famous taste in clothes was actually her own, and not created by a public relations company. To put it bluntly, it is simply impossible to imagine writing any of those things about any of the subsequent first ladies.

Nor is it possible to think of a subsequent president who consorted so easily with the intellectuals and poets of his day. Bill Clinton had Barbra Streisand to dinner, but it wasn't the same. George W. Bush can hardly disguise his loathing for state dinners of any kind, and certainly never dances the twist all night. The Kennedy White House really did possess a spontaneity and genuine good taste that has never been equalled since, and perhaps can't be: what it takes to become president of the United States, nowadays, are qualities that could politely be described as the opposite of spontaneity and good taste.

Smith's book is a perfect summer beach book, and an easy, entertaining read - but it also tells a deeper story about the American presidency, and how profoundly it has changed.

Anne Applebaum is a columnist on the 'Washington Post'.


July 25, 2004

'Grace and Power': Our Royal Family



The Private World of the Kennedy White House.

By Sally Bedell Smith.
608 pp. Random House. $29.95.

WHICH president of the United States would begin taking off his clothes while saying goodbye to his dinner guests? Which made his family and associates watch three newsreels of himself while he applauded his own performance? Which one had his wife entertain and hire his mistresses? If the answers were Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, these stories might serve to confirm assumptions of their having been simply crude. But as each answer is John F. Kennedy, the interpretations are not so simple.

In ''Grace and Power,'' Sally Bedell Smith characterizes Kennedy's removing his clothes, including his trousers, as his guests at unofficial dinner parties took their departure from him in his bedroom as ''not exactly an 18th-century levee, but close enough.'' When he applauds newsreels of himself giving his Berlin speech, she quotes James Reed, his Navy friend and assistant secretary of the Treasury, as saying: ''He was not being egotistical. He was transported outside himself to the movie image.'' When she mentions Jacqueline Kennedy's habit of deliberately surrounding her husband with past, current and possible lovers at parties, she quotes one of them as saying, ''It was very French.''

Style counts. Although those other presidents also had dutiful wives, loyal aides and bedazzled supporters, they got into trouble for using profanity on tape, bawling out journalists and hitting on staff members -- all of which John Kennedy did repeatedly. And none of them is likely to be popularly characterized half a century later as American royalty.

While giving us an exhaustive look at life on what Edith Wharton called the wrong side of the tapestry, with all its unsightly knots, Smith -- and the Kennedy crowd she quotes -- keeps on weaving. The ''grace'' in her title, meaning the Kennedys' glamour and charm, vaguely suggests the royal claim of ruling ''by the grace of God.'' The comparison to a levee (never mind that the levee was when the king got up, not the coucher, when he retired, or that early presidents used the term in regard to receiving people, not to seeing them off) suggests Versailles. Mrs. Kennedy was fond of the Versailles comparison herself. She also compared her husband to Pericles and Shakespeare's Henry V, as well as, famously, to King Arthur, in the Camelot metaphor that has stuck. It is not so far-fetched, using more reliable sources than plays and legends, to compare their world to that of a royal court. We know from the memoirs of the Duc de Saint-Simon and from the modern British press that the courts at Versailles and in current royal houses have not necessarily cavorted in a stately manner when they thought no one who saw them would tell. We know better now, or at least we should. Those Kennedy-era assumptions -- that seduced and abandoned women remain too devoted to kiss and tell, and that journalists feel they gain more glory from protecting the mighty than from exposing them -- seem quaint, in spite of our having seen later cases of the presidential illusion of invulnerability.

Now even the Kennedy loyalists have spoken up. Smith, who has written biographies of Diana, Princess of Wales, Pamela Harriman and William S. Paley, has rounded up an impressive number of them, from inside chroniclers adding to their often-delivered memoirs to a gaggle of mistresses. Professional ethics did not prevent a Georgetown University doctor from repeating conversations in which he suggested that Mrs. Kennedy enlighten her husband about sexual foreplay (apparently not an issue in his philandering), or a Jesuit priest from relaying her suicidal despair after the assassination. We had already heard about the serious illnesses and reckless drugs behind Kennedy's famous aura of youthful vigor and matched them with the blatant lies he told about his health. Now we are told details about the late upstairs drinking parties that broke up so many of his friends' marriages, and the wilder ones when the hostess was out of town.

Does any of this matter? Lacking a theory about how much of his life -- regular or irregular -- a president owes the people, this amounts to an overdose of similarly sordid tales, some of them familiar, interspersed with accounts of the brighter official occasions, which are even better known. ''The American people don't care'' about the president's sex life, Joseph Kennedy is quoted as saying.

At that time, the society still retained some notion of separating public and private life. It was an odd division that considered a politician's wife, although not his mistress, to be a living illumination of his character, but it was not yet today's notion that personal morality and professional morality are inseparable. At times, they clearly were, as when John and Robert Kennedy secretly brokered a deal with J. Edgar Hoover -- one price being permission to wiretap Martin Luther King -- to keep the Federal Bureau of Investigation from exposing the president's dalliances with underworld characters and presumed spies. But a public that was appreciative of the uplifting demeanor of the Kennedys in their official lives was not eager to destroy it through unseemly probing.

And here we are, cynical and psychoanalytic decades later. John Kennedy is even yet venerated as an idealistic and inspiring leader, while Jacqueline Kennedy may have surpassed him with the adulation she receives for personifying the lost art of being ladylike -- protective reticence about her children's personal lives being a major feature of that. Just as Mrs. Kennedy invoked Versailles to stand for the splendor of 18th-century aesthetics, not the petty and scatological aspects of the king and courtiers, the Kennedy era stands for the culture, beauty and sophistication that upgraded American pageantry and public discourse.

Attempting this is not an insignificant part of any presidency. Since the beginning of the Republic, presidents have struggled with the paradoxical situation of being the first among equals, wary of sacrificing their dignity to show humility and of sacrificing the common touch to demonstrate their authority. George Washington, who had to invent a protocol to symbolize both egalitarianism and leadership, was often thought to err on the side of arrogance. Thomas Jefferson, who rewrote protocol to root out any sign of a hierarchical system, however trivial, was taxed with erring on the side of insouciance. And so it continued, with one president after another being judged too formal (which is to say, stuck on himself) or too informal (which is to say, disappointingly ordinary). Few since have achieved a balance that satisfies a critical citizenry, and it only got harder with the age of television exposure, when the ability to entertain and ad-lib became essential.

THE Eisenhowers were thought to be doing a pretty good job until their successors came along and made them look poky. Dwight Eisenhower, with his famously warming smile, was reassuring; John Kennedy, with his dazzling smile and jabbing finger, was challenging. Mamie Eisenhower, who could regularly be found on lists of America's most admired women, was thought to be well dressed and ladylike; Jacqueline Kennedy, who began to be generally admired by Americans only when she triumphed on state visits, upped the qualifications with her shock of chic. And it was through her that we found out that the house had been left a mess.

Symbolism and ceremony, fed by respect for history and the arts, turned out to be what counted, not so much the political, much less the personal. Grace, if you will, rather than power, or perhaps power through grace. The importance of that contribution was reiterated by the crowds showing up for the funeral of Ronald Reagan, another president who mastered that balance between formality and humorous self-deprecation. ''He made me feel proud to be an American,'' many said; or ''He gave us hope''; or just ''He made us feel good about ourselves.'' Failings in his personal life -- in his case, a divorce, periodic estrangement from his children -- were never mentioned.

Delicious as gossip can be, sometimes it is just too much information.

Judith Martin, whose most recent book is ''Star-Spangled Manners,'' is the author of the Miss Manners syndicated columns and books.






the court of the Kennedys


Saturday, Jun 19, 2004

Grace and Power

The Private World of the Kennedy White House

By Sally Bedell Smith

Random House, 608 pages, $39.95

On July 11, 1961, the president of the United States gave a state dinner in honour of the president of Pakistan. It was no ordinary state dinner. The venue was Mount Vernon, the storied plantation of George Washington on the Potomac River. The guests were ferried from Washington in four boats, each with a trio of musicians, and greeted with mint juleps in silver stirrup cups. The Continental Fife and Drum Corps performed military drills; later, the National Symphony Orchestra played Mozart and Gershwin.

The dinner was the most memorable hosted by John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. The point was to impress the Pakistanis. The real impression, though, was made on the American public, which was dazzled by this youthful couple who represented vigour and style after eight years of the somnolence of Dwight David Eisenhower.

Only six months in power, Jack and Jackie were already establishing an aura of elegance and intellect. Jackie bristled when The New York Herald Tribune compared the dinner unfavourably to the "grandeur of the French court at Versailles," but a touch of Versailles was what she wanted that evening. Indeed, during their less than three years in power, a royal court is what the Kennedys effectively created -- in the company they kept, the style they set and the conventions they flouted.

The Kennedy Court is the idea at the heart of Grace and Power: The Private World of the Kennedy White House. The point isn't that John Kennedy was Louis XIV or an absolute monarch. He wasn't. But not since Thomas Jefferson, the great polymath of the early 19th century, was the presidency this elevated and aristocratic. "The Kennedys and their circle set out ambitiously, almost grandiosely, to create an America in their own image and according to their own tastes," writes Sally Bedell Smith, the biographer of William Paley, Pamela Churchill Harriman and Princess Diana. "To a remarkable degree they succeeded, leaving behind a more assertive nation, infused with a vision and an aesthetic . . ."

This is a sensational portrait of the Kennedys in power -- original in concept, exhaustive in research, judicious in approach and lovely in expression. In a field of cheap imitation (author Edward Klein's latest slender book on Jackie borrows shamelessly from his others), Smith has written something lively and original. Mining unpublished letters, diaries and journals, coaxing candour from friends, associates and lovers, some now dead, Smith goes where others have gone, but gets far more. Surprisingly, she finds still more to say about the Kennedys. Such is the range of Grace and Power that it makes many of the memoirs, biographies and histories of the last 40 years now seem incomplete or incorrect.

Why is this book different from the others? It begins with that idea. Smith is writing a social history of the Kennedys, re-creating the White House of Jack and Jackie Kennedy as Doris Kearns Goodwin recreated the White House of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt a few years ago in her magisterial No Ordinary Time.

Smith maintains her focus relentlessly, beginning the story shortly before the inauguration on Jan. 20, 1961 and ending shortly after the assassination on Nov. 22, 1963. She touches on Cuba, Berlin, Laos and Alabama, but they are only part of the narrative. This is fundamentally about personality, which isn't to say it is frivolous. Grace and Power accepts the theory of "the great man of history," which JFK -- who read, wrote and made history -- embraced, believing that people shape events rather than the other way around.

In the White House, the sun revolves around the president and the first lady. The supporting cast includes family (Robert Kennedy, JFK's closest confidant, and Lee Bouvier Radziwill, Jackie's sister); speechwriters (Arthur Schlesinger, Theodore Sorensen); cabinet secretaries (Robert McNamara, Douglas Dillon); friends (LeMoyne Billings, Charles Spalding, Charles Bartlett, Bunny Mellon; the brain trust (John Kenneth Galbraith, McGeorge Bundy); courtiers (Dave Powers, Letitia Baldridge, Nancy Tuckerman). There are also statesmen, diplomats, politicians, journalists, artists and entertainers, as well as mistresses and paramours.

These aren't names drawn from the social register. They are so important to the story that Smith lists her dramatis personae at the beginning and revisits them at the end. In between, she explores the relations between them and the Kennedys, and between each other. She shows how JFK gently manipulated them through creative tension to advance his political agenda. What emerges is a rich portrait of life in Washington on the eve of the sexual revolution, at the dawn of the civil rights movement and at the high noon of the Cold War.

Smith describes a complicated marriage of love, guile and infidelity. Yet she suspends moral judgment, and in all things she weighs the evidence carefully. (For instance, as an illustration of her judiciousness, she finds that JFK didn't make that much-heralded first assignation of his presidency on the night of his inauguration at a Georgetown party.) Jackie knew about her husband's philandering (Smith finds more lovers) and Jack knew that she didn't really care, and may even have had affairs of her own. Both, in a sense, lived as libertines, among libertines.

But Jackie cared enough to call a cardiologist regularly to discuss improving their sex life. And she got back at her husband by refusing to host official functions as first lady, taking four-day weekends foxhunting, sleeping late, vacationing with wealthy Europeans and accepting only roles that interested her, such as restoring the White House, her greatest achievement.

At the age of 31 in 1961, Jackie spoke French, knew French history and literature, understood interior design and the decorative arts. She was inspired by Madame de Maintenon, famous for her salon, and Madame de Recamier, famous for her wit. Jackie had impeccable taste and the White House would come to reflect that.

The Kennedy Court had all the classical elements: residences in Virginia, Palm Beach, Cape Cod and Newport; great wealth and pedigree, drawing others of the same ilk; a retinue of enablers, jesters and retainers; affairs, ambition, ego and intrigue enough to fill Versailles.

Oh, the lives they led in the White House in those years! On a typical day, the scribes craft speeches spiced with wit and historical reference (count them in JFK's acceptance speech to the Democratic National Convention in 1960). The sages (there were 15 Rhodes Scholars) discuss exploring space, establishing the Peace Corps, restoring the grandeur of Washington, curbing the arms race and integrating the University of Mississippi. The journalists report some things and not others (because you didn't then), often compromising themselves. The house couturier designs clothes for Jackie that women everywhere copy. The president swims in his pool with nubile secretaries, listens to the music of Camelot and reads (he and Jackie devour books). He makes love whenever he can to whomever he can. His approach to women, Smith says, is less that of a misogynist than a narcissist; if his advances are refused, he smiles with the confidence of a Lothario who knows satisfaction isn't far away.

At night, there are intimate dinners for six or eight, dances featuring outsized drinks and imported beauties, and banquets for Nobel Laureates. The revelry goes to four o'clock in the morning, the guests dance the Twist, and there is laughter, repartee and flirtation, for humour and conversation are almost as important as sex. The next morning, everyone is at work. On tamer nights, the tribunes of the New Frontier gather for seminars on religion and history, play touch football or take hikes.