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The epitome of grace, class, and intelligence, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis was, from the time I was very young, my idol. She married John F. Kennedy when I was a baby and she set about having babies too. She was married to JFK a mere 10 years and was pregnant five times, resulting in only 3 live births and two children who lived beyond a few days. Those children were her priority and, by all accounts, she did a marvelous job raising them.

As a person to whom culture and dignity have always mattered, Jackie exemplified those for me. She spoke French fluently and brought culture into the White House. She loved history and set about a historic restoration of our nation’s house, setting up a commission to find the period antiques that had once graced the rooms and went to Congress to pass a law to preserve the work she accomplished. In 1962, she led a nationally broadcast tour of the White House to show the country the work she had done. It was awarded a special Emmy Award, the only one ever awarded a First Lady. That award and the rose-colored suit she wore can be viewed at the Kennedy Library today.

She invited the great artists of the day to perform at the White House, making it a cultural hub. France even lent the “Mona Lisa” to the US. It has never been out on loan since. The national orchestra and ballerinas from my camp performed there in the summer of 1962. It was written up in the Life Magazine issue with Marilyn Monroe on the cover, as she died that week. Though naturally shy, she was a huge political asset to JFK, who asked her to come along on the campaign trail whenever she could, but with her high-risk pregnancies, this was not always possible. She was known to be cheerful and people, even before they were in the White House, were drawn to her. She helped JFK with his speeches, often adding historical references or context.

So she went with him to Dallas in November, 1963. How she retained her dignity and sanity after having her husband’s brains blown out in her lap I will never understand. She then led our nation through four days of mourning, keeping her head up and shoulders back, while caring for her own children. She will forever have my admiration for that; deciding to echo Lincoln’s funeral observances, looking up historical details. How she expressed her grief in private, she kept private; to the end of her life. Aside from the one interview with Theodore White in which she cemented the “Camelot” myth, she never again spoke to the press. She valued her privacy and dignity.

She remained close to her in-laws, while raising her own children as she wished. She leaned on Bobby for support and after he died, she felt she had to leave the US and find privacy and peace elsewhere. She did what she needed to do, always keeping her apartment on 5th Ave in New York City. She remained a New Yorker in her soul.

We caught glimpses of her jetting around the world, wearing couture. Who could blame her? She still was there for her children, always. When the Greek adventure ended, she stood up to Onassis’s heir and got the money that was her due. She bought a large spread on Martha’s Vineyard, at the far end of the island, but, by all accounts, was a good neighbor and would go to the local coffee shop to have a bite of food.

She went to work as an executive editor at a publishing house (then a different one, after the first published a work of fiction in which a figure closely resembling Ted Kennedy is shot) and worked for causes she believed in in New York City. She published some good books. I have the Gelsey Kirkland autobiography, a talented ballerina of the ’70s and ’80s who faltered with eating disorders and private demons. She rode to the hounds, she had a new beau. She enjoyed her children and eventually, her grandchildren, who called her “Grand Jackie”. She was always there for Teddy when he needed her.

Then, in early 1994, a press release said she was being treated for non-Hodgkins’ Lymphoma. The world waited; a photo of her on a park bench, rail thin, clearly wearing a wig, with Maurice Templesman emerged. Could she beat this set-back too? She died on May 19, 1994 at the age of 64, two years younger than I am now.

I didn’t know what to do with my grief. I went to the JFK Library, which she helped to build. She picked I M Pei as the architect, just as he designed the Arlington gravesite where she would be buried beside the president in a few days. I have been a member for close to three decades. I arrived early the day after her death and walked through the familiar exhibits. A memorial book was now open in the lobby when I emerged from the exhibits. I was the first to sign it. The press had arrived, taping people lined up to sign the book. I filled up with tears, wandered out into the sunshine of the parking lot. A local news person put a microphone in my face, asked for my reaction. I couldn’t speak. My grief was profound.

I never saw Jackie in person, though I have encountered each of her children at some point in my life and found them pleasant. But just knowing that I would never have the chance to run into her, perhaps on Martha’s Vineyard, or around the Boston area…well, a light has gone out of the world for me.

 

Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.


Tags: cultured, children, trend-setter, above the "dirt"
Characterizations: moving, well written

Comments

  1. Suzy says:

    Betsy, this story brought tears to my eyes! I was always a fan of Jackie’s too. She was, as you say, the epitome of grace and class. I remember watching her tour of the White House on TV, it was wonderful. A few times I was told that I looked like her – I can’t imagine a greater compliment! Thanks for bringing it all back.

  2. John Zussman says:

    Exquisite writing and a beautiful tribute. What a contrast Jackie must have made with your own fraught home situation. I can see how she was such a beacon you.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Than you, John. I will say that, for all the tumult with my mother, she loved the arts and had good taste, so I learned much from her about that and those qualities were exemplified by Jackie. My mother and I were united about that.

  3. jshutkin says:

    Terrific story, Betsy, and, I must admit, quite a surprise to me. While I don’t know anyone who didn’t admire Jackie, I never thought of her in the “most admired” category before. But maybe that’s just mansplaining by me.

    In any event, you beautifully lay out the case here, as you touch upon Jackie’s immutable class and grace, as well as your own devoted attraction to her and grief over her passing. And also shock us aging boomers by pointing out how relatively young she was when she died.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, John. As you see, I greatly admired her and feel we could benefit by her example of remaining cool and classy even under relentless pressure from the public. The current crop of people who have nothing to say but are all over social media should learn what true class is.

  4. Betsy, such a moving honor to such an amazing woman. I learned a bit about her, and am reminded of how much strength it must have taken to be who she was! I love that the deep sense I get from your piece is of dignity and family focus, were foundations for her whole life! Thanks for this!

  5. A comprehensive, beautifully written paean, Betsy! I especially appreciated that you reminded me of her life after the assassination, when she became her own person… and an admirable person she was! Thanks!

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