Jackie Kennedy: The silent widow

Reeling from the events in Dallas, how the world saw the assassination of JFK through images of his widow Jackie – and how an alternative view was offered by Andy Warhol

On the 50th anniversary of the death of US president John F Kennedy, assassination fascination cranks up again. As pictures across the media remind those who were alive at the time to remember exactly where they were when they heard the news; those who weren’t there, myself included, may almost think we were, so strongly have those images been ingrained in the imagination.

Tragedy, politics and conspiracy theories aside, JFK was the first "television president". The news following his assassination created a media event that unfolded at such a rapid pace it actually changed the news, ushering in an era of 24-hour rolling broadcasts (as seen in the documentary JFK: Breaking the News, shown recently at the Cork Film Festival). These media images not only told people what was going on, they also told them how to think about what had taken place; and central to the images that came to saturate public consciousness were those of Kennedy's widow, Jackie.

This was immediately noticed by Andy Warhol. "What bothered me," the artist recalled, "was the way the television and radio were programming everybody to feel so sad. It seemed like no matter how hard you tried, you couldn't get away from the thing." And it wasn't just the death of the President that was being mourned, Warhol felt. He was also aware that the media were deliberately creating the idea of the passing of an era, the loss of more than a man. Warhol wrote about playwright John Quinn "moaning over and over, 'But Jackie was the most glamorous First Lady we'll every get'."

And Jackie was glamorous, as well as, even in shock and grief, media aware. She refused to change out of her blood-stained pink Chanel suit for the swearing in of new president Lyndon B Johnson on board Air Force One, saying, "I want them to see what they have done to Jack." In the Air Force One photograph, it is Jackie who stands beside the new president; as his wife, Lady Bird Johnson, hovers in the background. More iconic images of Jackie's widowhood followed: Jackie in a long black veil, holding the hand of her daughter, Caroline aged five, as John Jr, on what was his third birthday, saluted the cortege. Although criticised in some quarters for not breaking down and weeping, the Daily News summed up the US nation's mood, while also directing those unsure of what to think, with its front page use of the image below the headline "We Carry On".


Jackie's face was everywhere as a symbol of the country's grief, and also its stoicism. Warhol's, now famous, response was to create his series of silk screen prints, 16 Jackies, completed in 1964, and also that same year, a larger version Thirty-Five Jackies (Multiplied Jackies), now in the collection of Frankfurt's Museum of Modern Art / Museum für Moderne Kunst. Thirty-Five Jackies takes a close up of Jackie Kennedy's face, clipped from the image of her beside now-president Johnson on Air Force One. Warhol gives the picture a blue colour and repeats it in a grid, thirty-five times. "The more you look at the same exact thing, the more the meaning goes away and the better and emptier you feel," he said.

That may be true for the way his own repeated images work, but 50 years after the event, it is difficult to look at archive photos of Jackie Kennedy, later Onassis, and not read a story through them that perhaps has very little to do with reality. So what were the images that so engaged Warhol, and the world? And does a life told in a series of staged pictures have any connection to a life as it is really lived?

First, there are the photos of Jackie as a young wife and mother; carefully staged shots, where she looks carefree, though always adoring, alongside her husband, for whom film-star-handsome looks were always claimed; though I suspect that had a lot to do with the aesthetics of the political competition, coupled with an aura of power.

Then there are the photographs of Jackie in that pink suit and matching pillbox hat, giving wide, but meaningless smiles for the cameras, clutching a bouquet of roses at Dallas’s Love airfield. Then, later, she’s smiling and waving again, in the open-topped car, which can never now look anything but ludicrously, naïvely unprotected. The photos of Jackie, horrified, clutching her dying husband, and grasping at the hand of a suited member of the security detail, are all the more shocking for being blurred. Caught in the moment, even after all this time, they have the most immediate impact, and they are the only ones in which she betrays emotion. The others are of publicly staged happiness, and grief. Jackie remains relatively inscrutable, and for that reason, she is all the more iconic, as her very aloofness allows people to read their own thoughts and feelings into her face.

It's an interesting thing that images are often more powerful than words, and it can be surprising when some contemporary icons – think Princess Diana – do actually speak. Twice Booker-winning novelist, Hilary Mantel was taken out of context earlier this year, when she gave a lecture at the British Museum, in which she described the way the Duchess of Cambridge had been turned, by both media handlers and the media itself into a "jointed doll", "designed by a committee and built by craftsmen, with a perfect plastic smile and the spindles of her limbs hand-turned and gloss-varnished".

Of course Mantel wasn’t saying that was the real Kate Middleton at all, even though David Cameron weighed in to say that the author was being “hurtful”. Instead, she said, she was arguing that we want our female public figures to be “superhuman, and yet less than human”. Perhaps Middleton is wise to follow this route: the safest course to steer in the thick of a life lived at the focal point of the world’s camera lenses is silence, even as that silence reduces your ability to impact the world. Central to coverage of the assassination and its aftermath, Jackie Kennedy stepped back from public life following her husband’s death, appearing at limited events and dedications relating to JFK’s life.

Five years on, after her brother-in-law Robert F Kennedy was assassinated, Jackie married Greek shipping millionaire Aristotle Onassis. "If they're killing Kennedys, then my children are targets . . . I want to get out of this country," she said. The world was slow to forgive her for what they saw as a betrayal of her first husband's legacy, and perhaps of the Jackie they thought they knew from her photographs as a new widow. Images of her from her second marriage, happy, laughing in sunshine and at parties, seem almost incongruous in contrast, and she increasingly hid behind huge dark glasses. When photographs have frozen you a certain way in time and place, it can be impossible to break free. Later, following Onassis' death, she reinvented herself as a book editor and campaigner to preserve America's cultural heritage. She died in 1994.