Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis: How she became a legend

She is considered a great American female figure of the 20th century – not only because Jacqueline Kennedy set new standards as First Lady.

Icon, glamour star, fairy in the White House, trophy wife. There is hardly a term from the dream and fairytale world of legend-making that has not been applied to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (1929-1994). Compared to the wild fighting and stabbing in the political America of Donald Trump (77), her life is still transfigured into a monumental fate.

“What remains is the feeling of loss, a kind of cultural phantom pain,” wrote the “Stern” magazine on the tenth anniversary of her death. “In times when the White House is brimming with conservativeness, some people long for the cosmopolitan flair that the elegant Jacqueline once provided.”

This “phantom pain” has not disappeared, but rather has become even stronger. Although Jacqueline Kennedy was not First Lady of the USA for three years, many Americans who never experienced her consciously mourn her. On May 19, she will have been dead for 30 years – but the myth of Jackie is apparently immortal.

The great American female figure of the 20th century

The legend of Jackie K., or Jackie O., depending on the stage of her life, lives on because not only writers like the author Sally Bedell Smith (in her book “Grace and Power”) rave about the “grandeur, wisdom, beauty and humanity” of this woman, but an ancient-looking tragedy has contributed significantly to her transfiguration and at times disturbing breaks and awkward, even bitchy idiosyncrasies have set the tone for her uniqueness. Jacqueline Lee Bouvier, born in 1923, has become the great American female figure of the 20th century.

She was not made exceptional by her marriage to a shining hero, the later US President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963), but by birth she was already exceptional as the noble daughter of the French-born banker John Vernou Bouvier III (1891-1957). She grew up in East Hampton on Long Island in a Roman Catholic family, in a discreet retreat of the New York financial and business elite.

Young Jacqueline learned French from childhood, her father's native language, but she was also fluent in Italian and Spanish and studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, in Grenoble and Washington, graduating with two degrees in French literature and American history.

A member of the American aristocracy

Her father, a charming light-hearted man who had, however, lost a large part of his fortune during the great American economic crisis, and her class-conscious mother Janet Norton Lee (1907-1989) separated in 1940, and her new stepfather was the New York stockbroker Hugh Dudley Auchincloss Jr. This meant that the young Jacqueline finally rose into the American aristocracy. Incidentally, her younger sister Caroline Lee (1933-2019) was later elevated to princess status through a marriage of her status to Prince Stanislaw Albrecht Radziwill (1914-1976) from a Polish noble family.

These were the social conditions when Jacqueline met the young John F. Kennedy, the wealthy son of the entrepreneur and American ambassador to London, Joseph P. Kennedy (1888-1969), at a dinner party in May 1951.

It was a meeting, well, on equal terms: two good-looking people, a young congressman with whom his father still had big plans, a beautiful woman with intellectual ambitions who worked as a journalist and was engaged to a stockbroker, but this was no obstacle. The couple married just two years later in June 1953.

She felt unfamiliar with the rough manners of the Kennedys

Actually, Jackie, as he called her in good American style, was socially superior to her Jack, as he was called. The Kennedys, who were of Irish descent and therefore also staunchly Catholic, were rich and influential, but they were not as distinguished as the Bouviers. She felt alienated by the sporting ambition and rough manners of the New England clan, who liked to make fun of Jackie as a “debutante,” which she must have hated.

Her sister-in-law Ethel (96), wife of the younger Kennedy brother Robert Kennedy (1925-1968), is said to have laughed loudly when Jackie told her about her ballet ambitions: “What are you doing with your square shoes?!” Conversely, Jackie could also be bitchy and mock the Kennedys' rustic manners and laugh above all at Ethel, who was someone “who puts a slipcover over a Louis Quinze sofa” and pronounces it “Lü Kans”.

The new glamour couple of American society reached a high point when the charismatic John F. Kennedy became the 35th US President in 1961 and Jackie became the First Lady. As the best-dressed woman in the world in 1960, she not only popularised elegant, simply cut suits and pillbox hats, she also advised her husband on his speeches, for which she provided the historical background.

She designed the interior of the White House as a place of US history and took TV audiences through the center of power in US politics, which was seen by 50 million viewers. She introduced French cuisine and organized a meeting of 49 Nobel Prize winners in the White House. People should see that she had “something under the pillbox hat.”

An unhappy marriage

Jackie became so popular that John F. Kennedy, on a state visit to France, told the enchanted press that he was just the man accompanying Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris. Even among average women, the First Lady had cult status; seven percent of American women wore their hair like Jackie.

But not everything was right in the marriage of the dream couple idolized by the media. In secret letters to the Irish clergyman Joseph Leonard, she wrote of her “great love” for Jack, who was, however, “power-obsessed like Macbeth” and had given her an “amazing insight into the lives of politicians.” “Perhaps I am just blinded and see myself in a glittering world of crowned heads – and not as a sad little housewife. It is a world that may seem very glamorous from the outside, but for you, when you are stuck in it and lonely, it can be hell.”

Her verdict on the marital fidelity of the notorious womanizer JFK was: “He is somehow like my father, he loves the hunt and is bored with conquest. Even after the wedding he will remain an attractive guy for a long time and flirt with other women. I myself saw how my mother was almost destroyed by this.”

But all the glitz and glamour alone did not make Jackie a myth, but rather the crises and tragedies of her life. These gave her “that sentimental depth that lasts for decades” (“Stern”). In a TV report lasting several hours, which was only published 17 years after her death, she described to historian Arthur Schlesinger the agonizing hours and days during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when the world was on the brink of nuclear war. She said to her husband, the President, “even if there is no room in the White House bunker, I said, please, I just want to be with you. I would rather die with you, and the children want that too, than live on without you.”

Death as a constant companion

Death accompanied her like a companion, and not only during her ten-year marriage to JFK. Of her four children, Arabella was stillborn in 1956, and Patrick died two days after his birth in 1963. Three months later, on November 22, the images of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy went around the world. According to the “Stern”, one saw “a First Lady in a pink Chanel suit, stained and encrusted with the dried blood and brain matter of her murdered husband. The upright posture in which she carried John F. Kennedy to his grave, both children by her hand, is unforgettable. Jackie thus became the guardian of the dreams of a new, noble America…”

The fact that this woman, who had to endure her personal pain like a martyr for America, married the newly rich Greek shipping billionaire Aristotle Onassis (1906-1975) in 1968 was initially a shock to the American public. Because she chose a parvenu and not a presentable man from American society, a US newspaper commented that her second marriage was “the gravest insult to American men since Pearl Harbor.” For “Bild,” America had “lost a saint,” and a friend is said to have said to her: “You will fall off your pedestal.” Jackie's answer: “Still better than freezing to death on it.” She later said: “I could no longer live as a Kennedy widow. It was an escape from the oppressive obsession with which the Americans claimed me and my children.”

The second marriage did not go well. She spent most of her time travelling and shopping, which is said to have led to heated arguments with Onassis, who realised that his coveted trophy wife cost him as much as buying a supertanker.

Career in publishing

“Marriage to Jackie was the biggest mistake of my life,” he said – and was about to file for divorce when he died on March 15, 1975. Jackie received $27 million as a share of the inheritance – and began a new phase of her life. She became a recognized editor of art books at the New York publishing house. For 16 years she did an outstanding job, almost unnoticed by the general public. Then she died of lymphoma on May 19, 1994, at the age of 64.

She has had to experience a lot, but she was also spared a lot, such as the commotion surrounding her posthumously published comments on well-known contemporaries during her time in the White House. India's influential politician Indira Gandhi (1917-1984) was for her “a real prune, bitter, somehow pushy, a terrible woman”, France's Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970) “an egomaniac”, the charismatic civil rights activist Martin Luther King (1929-1968) she called a “fraud”, constantly on the lookout for new love affairs.

She was also spared from having to bury her son, John F. Kennedy, Jr., who crashed his private plane in 1999.

Although her life was constantly accompanied by tragedy, the American women's rights activist Gloria Steinem (90) says of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis: “She represents an era. Her face is the constant reminder of a time of hope.”