Remembering Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

By HELEN THOMAS  |  May 19, 1994
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WASHINGTON, May 19 -- Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis became enshrined as a national heroine by her courage during the terrible day in Dallas when her husband was assassinated, but she first captured the nation's imagination as perhaps the most glamorous first lady ever to grace the White House.

Born Jacqueline Bouvier in 1929 to a socially prominent family, she grew into a great beauty and became a style-setter. Her wardrobe, bouffant hairdo and pillbox hats were copied throughout the country.

In contrast to the ambitious clan she joined when she married John F. Kennedy, she disdained politics, preferring the more cultural aspects of American life. After she moved to Washington, her friends were from fashionable Georgetown and the jet set.

Basically shy, she was very protective of her privacy and especially the privacy of her children. She resented the intrusion of reporters and photographers, but at the same time, she loved some of the photos of her children and would ask journalists for copies.

Politics was not her cup of tea but in 1960, after her husband was elected president, she did try to play the game. She gave teas and interviews and planned ahead for the day when she would live in the Executive Mansion.

Early on she decided that she would make as her 'first lady project' the restoration of the White House to its Colonial-era elegance. She felt that the furnishings then in place and the lack of objects of art were not worthy of the country's first residence.

She also coralled donations from her multimillionaire friends to purchase the antique furnishings and art works that made the White House a magnificent showcase.

When it was completed, she made her first major televised appearance as first lady, giving a tour of the White House and going from room to room to explain what had been done.

She extended her restoration project to other parts of Washington and the country in urging that the nation's historic homes, buildings and landmarks be preserved. Results of those efforts include the Executive Office Building next to the White House and the Federal-style homes on Jackson Place that border Lafayette Park, across the street from the Executive Mansion.

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis brought culture to the White House. One of the highlights of her time there was was the East Room performance of world-renowned cellist Pablo Casals, which raised the standards for future White House entertainments. She also persuaded French Cultural Minister Andre Malraux to allow Leonardo da Vinci's famed 'Mona Lisa' to be brought to the United States for a showing.

She did many of the things that were expected of her but at times she would rebel, fleeing to the hunt country and the Kennedys' rented home at Middleburg, Va., where she later built a weekend home for her family.

She was devoted to her children and strove to protect them from the public spotlight. She set up a kindergarten class for daughter Caroline and her playmates in the solarium of the White House and gave her a pony, Macaroni, to ride on the White House lawn.

She had high bushes planted to hide the White House grounds from prying photographers.

Although she often shunned media attention, she shone when obliged to take the public stage. In June 1961, when the Kennedys made their first trip to Europe, Jackie became the toast of France.

At a state dinner at Versailles, JFK delivered the memorable line: 'I'm the man who came to dinner with Jackie Kennedy.'

Both the Kennedys suffered greatly when their son, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, died a few days after birth. Afterward, Jackie went off to the Greek Isles with her sister, Lee Radziwill. They toured the islands aboard Aristotle Onassis' yacht, the Christina. Kennedy became upset over the headlines concerning the partying aboard the yacht and summoned his wife home.

He was preparing to make a campaign trip to Texas, and although she rarely traveled with her husband on such occasions, she wanted to make it up to him and to help him politically. So she went with him to Texas on that fateful trip.

When the president was assassinated, the world grieved with her. But although stricken, she was not shattered. When the new widow returned to the White House at 3 a.m. on Nov. 23, 1963, White House curator Clement Conger said to her: 'Mrs. Kennedy is there anything I can do for you?'

'Yes,' she said. 'Find out how Lincoln was buried.'

When leaving the funeral services at St. Matthew's Cathedral, it was she who bent down and indicated to her 3-year-old son, John Jr., that he should salute the casket that proceeded them as they were walking down the steps.

After leaving the White House, she lived in the fashionable Georgetown home of Ambassador Averell Harriman. Later she moved to New York, only to return on the rarest occasions.

Once, she and her children returned to the Nixon White House quietly and without fanfare for the unveiling of her first lady portrait.

But her visits from then on were few and far between. She kept her mystique throughout her lifetime but curiosity about her never died.

She rejected the idea of writing her memoirs, although her autobiogaphy undoubtedly would have sold millions of copies.

Instead she embarked on a career in publishing. At Doubleday, she became a highly respected editor known for choosing works that turned into best-sellers.

She was a private person and a public person, but she will always be one of the standout first ladies in White House history.

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