A rare glimpse into Jacqueline Kennedy’s inner life

Few of Jacqueline Kennedy's letters have been published or sold at auction and fewer still have revealed much about her

Jackie Kennedy

Jackie Kennedy

Tue, May 13, 2014, 06:00

For thirty years before her death in 1994, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis gave no interviews, withheld cooperation from all biographers and refused to write a memoir. Few of her letters have been published or sold at auction and fewer still have revealed much about her interior life or her relationship with John F Kennedy. The most intimate to appear in recent years have been a batch of 17 notes written to her personal shopper at New York department store Bergdorf Goodman, which were auctioned last year, and some love letters to a high school sweetheart that were sold two years earlier.

As First Lady, Jackie sought to shape her public image by authorising a biography by Mary Van Rensselaer Thayer, a Washington Post journalist and a friend of her mother’s. Thayer, whose Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy contained nothing its subject did not want to make public, had access to Jackie’s scrapbooks , photographs and letters. Subsequent biographers, from Kitty Kelley and Donald Spoto to the more substantial Sarah Bradford, had to depend more heavily on secondary sources and often anonymous interviews with friends and associates. Jackie was so jealous of her privacy and so protective of her family’s image that those close to her knew that spilling her secrets or sharing her correspondence would mean the end of their friendship.

Days after JFK’s assassination in November 1963, Jackie invited a sympathetic journalist, Theodore B White, to the Kennedy family compound at Hyannis Port and gave him an exclusive interview for Life magazine. She told him that her husband was fond of the musical Camelot, which had just finished a successful run on Broadway, particularly the lines from the title song: “Don’t ever let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was Camelot.” Then, in a phrase that would shape the popular view of the Kennedy presidency from then on, she added: “There will be great presidents again but there will never be another Camelot.”

Jackie spoke to two other interviewers in the months following the assassination, the historians William Manchester and Arthur M Schlesinger. Manchester had been chosen by the Kennedys to write a book about the assassination and Jackie sat down with him for ten hours of interviews, fuelled by jugs of daiquiris and packets of cigarettes. She soon regretted the arrangement and sought to stop the book’s publication, insisting that the recordings of the interviews should be deposited in the JFK presidential library, where they will remain under seal until 2067.

Schlesinger, who was a close aide to her husband, conducted seven interviews with Jackie in early 1964 as part of an oral history project. These too were placed under seal at the JFK library but were released by Caroline Kennedy in 2011, causing a sensation on account of Jackie’s frank comments on political events and personalities. She described Martin Luther King Jr as “a phony” and claimed that he arranged orgies at a Washington hotel, she dismissed Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi as “a real prune-bitter, kind of pushy, horrible woman” and suggested that the South Vietnamese first lady, Madame Nhu, was a lesbian. Despite such candour, the interviews reveal little about Jackie’s relationship with JFK, which she describes as “rather terribly Victorian or Asiatic” insofar as she deferred to her husband on political matters.

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