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Mapping First Lady Blues (and Pinks)

Jacqueline Kennedy bore a huge reserve of calm.

Molly Hankwitz Cox

Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy Onassis’ spectacular public image possessed a mystique which reached deep into the psyche of her generation. To the public eye, she exuded taste, youth, beauty, and breeding unparalleled in American society; a modern queen. She was a politician’s wife; a President's wife, an exact replica in female form of JFK's desire to lead. Jackie was passionate, involved, well-dressed, always careful in the eye of the camera, yet, sincerely, reclusively, attractively...private. With her particular energy and birthright, Jackie exuded classic, well-educated, aristocratic good looks and values, and an elegant confidence; what Kennedy himself signified with his Harvard education and possessed as member of the Kennedy "clan."

Jackie Kennedy was a product of both the snooty Miss Porter's girls preparatory and Vassar College where qualities of intellectual confidence and the best breeding are routinely pounded into graduates. Her facial expressions embodied these values. Her strange, broad, calm smile and wide-eyed starry grin; straight ahead stare and coiffured hair, all spoke to a history of wealth, social skill and glamor. Of course much of what we know about her has come from popular culture: newspapers, magazines, official photographs, and TV, much of which was a series of posed opportunities representing brief glimpses of the Presidential couple as they would have  been arriving or departing in a limo. The use of the limo is a favored shot sequence for news crews intent upon capturing the essence of power against the backdrop of the crowds. 

Auras of Exclusion and the Feminine Mystique

Perhaps it is the aura of exclusivity which Jackie so fully embodied, radiated, contrived, which lends a classicism to her mystique, both as a President's wife and later (though to a less pageant-like degree) in marriage to Greek shipping magnate, Aristotle Onassis. Her family owned the aura, her husband violated it, and at the same time, during their brief Presidency, the couple was also made by it. They were a youthful sensation, a promise of prosperity and fairness, a coveted idea of wealth and power, the image of success, the absolute essence of a positive, innovative upward mobility, bottled and signed. They were smart. Jackie was fluent in French and Spanish. Moreover, her version of "First Lady" had strong parallels to the lives of American women who had married and done motherhood and who now found themselves fending off what Betty Friedan called, the "feminine mystique" in her 1963 tome on housewife discontent.

American women were pushed by postwar capitalism to carry a specific national torch. They were to live and breathe an idealized womanhood in which they weathered housework with fresh can-do energy, owned all manner of new appliances with a pseudo-scientific glee, gushed enthusiasm, and were to appear always in fashionable good taste when it came to home decorating and clothing. "Mrs. Kennedy" was no exception, although major interior decorating replaced an obsession with housework. Her duty to the nation was to rethink White House style, appear in large, colorful magazine spreads celebrating the transformation of the White House from a bleak, pared back interior—where little fit and history was lacking—to rooms robust with heritage, American craft and colors. And, Jackie did.

Her gracious smile and lithe carriage, like the latest technology, seemed to whisk her airily from one life event to another. "Mrs. Kennedy" was the modern mother, calm and collected, a woman for whom wealth, fame, power, and technological convenience in every aspect of her existence allowed her to avoid what regularly frazzled American women.

In one moment Jackie could carry out strategic destruction of oppositional ego (when every possibly frumpy Texas Republican's wife witnessed her that fateful day in Dallas as a high class fashion plate) in the strawberry pink Chanel wool suit with navy blue collar and piping, gold buttons and famous matching pink pill box hat, carrying a Navy blue leather clutch bag with gold details, an outfit Jack apparently chose for her. And, in the next set of events, witness the brutal assassination of her husband, screaming (although it's not readily visible on Zapruder's film), "My God, they will kill us all!" and, in what has to be one of the most tragic images ever in modern history of a well-known and revered woman, Jackie is viewed - over and over in the play back - crawling across the limo on all fours, in search of President Kennedy's brain, which by force of impact from the rifle bullet which had shattered the front of his skull, was blown across the Lincoln Continental's trunk, in pieces. Jackie, with rounded bottom in pink wool skirt high in the air, crawls back across the car,stretchin to grab what she can, before resuming a place near the President. That sequence is simply tragic in ways that no person of grace or substance ever wants to be known.

A few hours later, Mrs. Kennedy would be photographed once again in a photo opp, aboard Air Force One.

What is so powerful about this series of events and ideas as a document, is that these pictures were caught only on one piece of film by one lone filmmaker, Abraham Zapruder, who happened to be there on the grassy knoll with his 8mm camera. Secondly, they are powerful from a media studies perspective because most domestic television sets were black and white in 1963. Color TV was still expensive and relatively rare, therefore, despite color film, the general public would have seen the footage in black and white. The absence of color, retrospectively, plays a curious role in the eventual remembrance and perhaps importance of the historic record and cultural memory itself.

It was not until publication of the Warren Commission's report in 1964 that the pink color of the Chanel suit was widely known. Between traveling that day with the President, and returning to the television screen later on, the major event of the President's assassination and death had already intervened in whatever other news regarding the President and his beautiful wife would have been tracked by TV crews.

Yes, another motorcade took place, a second motorcade, this one more spectacularly powerful, more tragic, more dignified and stately, It was modeled after the funeral of Abraham Lincoln, and it too passed the panoptical public eye between event one and event two. In this motorcade, Jackie was seen again, with their two beautiful children, and she was in another outfit, more powerful, more dutiful, more tragic, more iconic and expressive which filled our memory: the funereal dress of a thirty-one year widow.

Time Lapse

Fifty years later, recalling Mrs. Kennedy's image in the media spotlight, suggests other important aspects of her role as model for women in the American history of the '60s. She resonates with deeper issues of The Feminine Mystique and what it represented as a way to be and as a governing concept for American women. It was eleven years later that The Total Woman was published, Marabel Morgan's book about how to please your husband and your wifely duty. Within a trajectory of publishing on womens' lives, we move from Friedan, who's work is a sincere foray into the problems confronting women, to another major best seller which merely caricatures the daily existence of wives.

The Feminine Mystique as outlined by Friedan was the profoundly oversimplified, market-driven version of what American women should do with their time: spend money on commercial products including beauty, diet, household, fashion, baby and motherhood; an exaggerated status. Editors of the leading womens' magazines, predominantly white and male, made clear that the most correct and desirable destination for an educated, middle class woman, was home and family. It was her place in the nation and in the capitalist conspiracy to sell soap, manners, and sex appeal. By the end of the 1950s, however, the mystique was beginning to disintegrate as women marched against the War in Vietnam, turned towards careers, and liberated their talents. Friedan cites dozens and dozens of letters from housewives, in which boredom and unhappiness merges with wanting "something more."

Where Does Jackie Fit In?

The role of the First Lady, because she is so public, so much the sidekick and wife to the President, is on some level a model of behavior and truth for the rest of America's women. First Ladies have had an extraordinary legacy as speakers, activists, ardent supporters, and champions of rights. Each woman has brought her individual mark to the role and Jackie's mark was to be First (and most beautiful, most stylish, and most intelligent) to one of the most powerful men, John F. Kennedy. In her own physical way, she fit his stature, his myth. which was about prominent family, good looks, a Harvard degree, and successful immigrant history. He was about the Space Age and the republic, about the future of technologies putting men on the moon. He was about freedom, be it "equality" or freedom from the rhetorical threat of Communism. And Jackie was his trophy bride, young mother to his two adorable children. If they had not lived in the White House, they would have lived in a smaller house somewhere in a posh suburb. Like the rest of the upper middle class, they would have governed their domain. Instead they governed the nation, made appearances. Made speeches, laws, declarations. Made news in the age of radio and television.

First Lady Mystique

There is no role for women in this country which so validates the divisions of labor associated with the nuclear family. The First Lady is to know her place at the side of her more powerful husband. She is to select china patterns and write letters at small desks in private studies tucked away in White House wings, while the Oval Office is "command central" and the President makes calls and signs laws with long pens at public desks surrounded by staff as white-wigged founding fathers did years ago.

Jackie as First Lady was fit into an historically prescribed position to fulfill duties, while also bringing New England heritage and upbringing, and an easy, educated, modernist spin to the role. Indeed, Jackie set a distinctive style to being First Lady, with her model beauty and brightly lit smile. From high forehead and fine cheek bones to variations on the bouffant hairdo and hemline, Jackie was pure chic. The Chanel suit she wore to Dallas was upper middle class smartness. She had a great repertoire, so much so that the press often remarked more on what she wore than on anything she did or said. Needless to say, she later became more of a person when married to her reclusive second husband Aristotle Onassis, or in having a job.

Something is unsettling about Jackie's public face. Her mystique is the calm, benign grin and emphasis on fashion, but obviously, this historic face was masking domestic unhappiness. The Presidential marriage, after all, was not as perfect as it would seem. The First Couple who seemed so unreally marvelous in their public image had tragic and unhappy personal lives. They were human, capable of feeling, living, and dying, but Jackie rarely if ever cracked. So immaculate was their public face that its power pervaded, and left us basking in its limelight, made us feel worthy and serene. Failure to show anything was the sign of good breeding; that weird capacity of aristocratic people to remain controlled due to their well-earned privilege. Jackie Kennedy was pushed to endure her First Lady place, to endure her husband's bad habits, to mask her private life for sake of duty. Just as ordinary housewives also lived in silence.

The Times Changed

President Kennedy's speech on the equality of "race, color and creed" was delivered in June 1963. His articulate wording and deep Boston accent rang out. New laws to prevent discrimination in hiring based on sex and the Equal Pay Act were signed. The officially sanctioned domination of privileged white men over people of color and over all women was hopefully, gladly, on the way out. In 1963 the National Organization for Women was founded, with Betty Friedan as its first President. The civil rights movement gathered increasing steadfastness under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King. In this context, Jackie's blithe modernity as a liberated, educated woman, as a true upper class woman shown forth. Her even composure can be read as the mark of self-assurance in the new age of American democracy, of what her educated husband stood for, of what she—in picture after picture—represented amidst the growing climate of American social unrest.

New Money, Old Money: Inextricable Ties

New England families the Vanderbilts and Wannemakers lived amidst a heritage of "blue money" (old money) and the stock exchange. But unlike these old relic families of America's industrial age and rising retail conglomerates, the Kennedys and the Bouviers were "new money. For relatively new money, picturesque New England towns were home to their extended families, especially during summer, when colonies of the rich and famous would be drawn to the coastline, the privacy, and the social circles. Many summer colonies are privately gated with delicate, architect-designed houses, sprawling roofs, verandas, landscaping, and private beaches. Summer colonies were where one owned one's second houses. This was the space of leisure and privacy, much like Onassis' yacht, only fixed.

In a sampling, from Baltimore to Maine, Nonquitt, Massachusetts stands out. A Wampanoag name, from the local indigenous tribe, meaning "dry or landing place," Nonquitt is a notorious set of grey shingled summer houses, post office, zip code, golf course, yacht club and pier; an early gated community. Nonquitt has been a summer colony since the turn of the century. Names such as Wannemaker, Sheridan, and Smythe; writers and famous artists are occasionally seen. Queen Elizabeth reportedly visited Nonquitt in the twenties, parking her yacht in the tiny Padanarum Harbor. The place epitomizes something about East Coast wealth that lingers in the physical fact of Jackie Kennedy Onassis despite her never owning a house there. It is something about the ultra-exclusive habits of people who "summer" and who enjoy considerable access to the coastline, that Nonquitt and Jackie have in common.

Jackie's family home is Newport, Rhode Island, American Aristocracy Central. With its Ten Mile Drive of overblown castles and mansions, and yachts visible from all vistas, grand events such as the America's Cup Races and the very pricey Newport Jazz Festival happen there. The Bouvier home is perched overlooking the harbor. From Newport and Nonquitt, the list of aristocratic families, private locales, and first and second homes goes on, somehow enabling a nearly inextricable relationship between the arts of politics, property ownership, status and social climbing, called "summering." Hence, later images of Jackie caught by paparazzi on Onassis' yacht have special meaning for the degree to which her private habits of summering were still pried into, still desired.

The famous LIFE magazine photo of President Jack's younger brother Robert Kennedy running on the beach to get away from his busy life, is quintessentially "summering." This time it's in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, where the Kennedy Compound is located, and where frugal, salt box homes and a post office sit beside it. In and around Cape Cod, and Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, are some of the most famous spots in Massachusetts, the state where the Kennedy brothers cut their political teeth, where they learned to rub elbows with the men and women who run America. Few circulating in these places were capable of establishing, as did the Kennedys, and Jackie Bouvier marrying in to them, a history so spectacular. The Kennedy name carried the attractive Irish immigrant rags-to-riches story, and fabulous accumulated profits, carrying them to Harvard, Vassar, a military and political career, and all the way to the White House.

End of Story: Air Force One Visit

The images of youth, virility, power, wealth and breeding for which the Kennedy Presidency was known, and which captivated American imaginations in the early 1960s rested upon a moment in modern life when technological advances and the visionary sensibility was somehow coalescing. Kennedy himself epitomized this integration.

The elite of postwar America enjoyed air travel. Given the high cost for ordinary people, it was an exclusive and elite activity, done by elite people. The spectacle of a private Presidential jet, paid for with American tax dollars, to ferry around the First Couple, was an ultimate status symbol. With Air Force One, however, the Kennedys arrived and deplaned in transcontinental style, faster, better, more securely. They exited the interior of the airplane, and waved to the people, before descending from it. Television crews, excluded from the interior, would await their arrival all over the nation. Such is what John Hartley calls the "arrival of leadership" and the arrival of a new mode of address and photographic opportunity for the modern President. It was a look, a power, something to do with mobility. Kennedy himself monitored the plane's exterior appearance, first designed to be painted in red and gold. He settled for a stripe of a more popular/populist blue, and in a shade less military and somber than "navy".

Air Force One is on exhibition in Seattle’s Museum of Flight. It sits next to a Concorde jet. The same stairs which President Kennedy and his wife climbed to fly to Texas stand, admitting people to the cabin and back out. It takes a small turn of the body, from the hatch door to the tarmac, to understand how miraculous, mobile, and powerful, the First Couple would have felt, and how completely odd it is to step from the cabin where they were once seen to have stood. To see people walking below also conjures memories of the Beatles' first trip to America, Johann Grimonprez's cult film Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, and numerous other media memories of the famous planing and deplaning as witnessed on the news. But inside the plane, is an even greater, mind blowing trip. The woody, beige paneling, and soft leather interior design of the cabin is preserved exactly as it would have looked for the Kennedys. The visitor's eyes become those of the President's. In the main cabin, completely sealed in half inch clear Plexiglas, is a centrally-located telephone console and desk. The console is bread box-sized, covered in large, square, now yellowed buttons. There is a red button, too. Opposite the console is a single, swivel chair, taller than any other seating. It is the Presidents' chair.

Mrs. Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and their entourage of Secret Service, used this plane to bring JFK's body back to Washington, DC. In that main cabin, directly in front of the chair, Lyndon Johnson swore his oath of office as 36th President of the United States, a radically informal formality, due to the emergency circumstance. It was there that Jackie stood engaged in yet another act of propriety, brunette hair, minus the pink pill box hat, curled closely around her face, eyes averted, as witness.

Molly Hankwitz Cox, holds a Ph.D. in Media and communications. She lives in San Francisco with her family and writes.
"Sixteen Jackies" by Andy Warhol, 1964. Photo from the JFK Library.

Copyright © Molly Hankwitz Cox. All rights reserved.