When John F. Kennedy walked into the White House as President of the United States, he had on his arm his best accessory – his wife, First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.
Talented and charismatic, Jacqueline Kennedy was blessed with the same type of privileged upbringing her husband experienced as a child. Educated in private schools in the United States and France, Jacqueline was an accomplished horsewoman and also well versed in fancy teas and dinners. There burned within her, however, a determination to do more with her life than just reflect the status of her upbringing.
The daughter of John (Jack) Vernou Bouvier, III and Janet Norton Lee, Jacqueline Lee Bouvier was born in Southampton, NY on July 28, 1929. Though she wore a French last name, the quantity of French blood Jackie inherited was approximately one-eighth. Predominantly Irish, she received a portion of her heritage from her mother’s grandparents who emigrated from County Cork during the potato famine in 1840.
While still a youth, Jackie began to write poems and essays, some of which were published in local newspapers. In 1951, Vogue magazine held a Prix de Paris contest and Jackie submitted an entry. First prize was spending half a year in New York City, and the other half in Paris, France as a junior editor for Vogue. The title of Jackie’s essay was People I Wish I Had Known. She was named one of 12 finalists, all of whom were interviewed by the magazine’s editors. The winner of the contest, Jackie was one of 1,280 entries. The prize, however, went to the second place contestant because her mother did not want Jackie to leave the country and made her turn down the award.
In 1942, following her divorce from Jack Bouvier, Jackie’s mother married Hugh D. Auchincloss. Jackie and her sister, Caroline, now moved to “Merrywood,” Auchincloss’s home near Washington, D.C. Summers were now spent in Newport, RI at his estate. During the 1947-1948 social season, Jacqueline was named “Debutante of the Year.” Though socially prominent now, the title did not deter Jackie from her education.
Following her graduation from George Washington University in 1950 where she received a Bachelor of Arts in French literature, Jackie was hired by the Washington Times-Herald to be their Inquiring Camera Girl, a job which paid her $42.50 each week. The first interview she conducted in her new position was with Pat Nixon, wife of then Vice-President Richard Nixon. On another assignment, she traveled to England to cover the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
During her roving camera career, Jackie met and interviewed Massachusetts Senator John (Jack) F. Kennedy. Despite their busy schedules, Jack and Jackie stayed in touch with each other. Their romance bloomed quietly without attracting a lot of attention; however, their wedding was the social event of the year. The event included 800 guests, a large amount of media coverage and a special blessing from the pope. On September 12, 1953, Jacqueline Bouvier left a quiet, private routine behind as she said “I do” to Senator John F. Kennedy and began a public life which immediately kicked into overdrive.
At her wedding, Jackie expressed a desire to write a novel. The hectic life of marriage to a US Senator forced her novel dreams to the back burner; however, she was afforded the opportunity to do plenty of writing. Numbered among her many endeavors were responding to constituent mail, translating various articles and drafting an endorsement statement for her husband in 1956 directed to Adlai Stevenson.
Marriage to John Kennedy required Jackie to adapt to the frantic role as wife to one of America’s most energetic politicians. Her own public appearances were highly successful, but limited in number. Following the sadness of a miscarriage and the stillbirth of a daughter, Jackie gave birth to Caroline Bouvier on November 27, 1957. She also worked as the coordinating editor for Kennedy’s book Profiles in Courage, which later received a Pulitzer Prize. In 1958, Jackie hit the campaign trail for Jack’s Senate re-election campaign and gave speeches in Spanish, Italian and French.
In 1960, John’s campaign for president kicked into high gear. Again pregnant, Jackie laid low for a good portion of the campaign. She did, however, continue her writing with a column entitled “Campaign Wife”. In this column, she mixed a number of her personal stories with policy views from the Democratic Party regarding education and the aged. She taped radio commercials in foreign languages for the campaign and offered John numerous quotations and historic examples to use in his speeches. Shortly after John won the election for president in November, Jackie presented him his son and namesake, John F. Kennedy, Jr. on November 25, 1960.
As the wife of the new president, Jacqueline Kennedy brought to the role of First Lady a combination of beauty, intelligence, and cultivated taste. At the same time, she defined her major role as “to take care of the President“. She also devoted a great deal of time to her children, stating: “If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do well matters very much.”
Thirty-one at the time she became First Lady, Jackie was an immediate trend-setter. Beautiful and young, women all over the country immediately began to mimic her hairstyles and clothing choices. However, Jackie harbored a number of interests far greater than fashion, which she would soon begin to reveal to the American people.
The attention Jackie brought to the White House regarding the arts had never before been seen that strongly on a national level. Special guests invited to the White House included: musicians Igor Stravinsky, Isaac Stern and Pablo Casals. Poet Robert Frost participated in President Kennedy’s inauguration. The Vienna Boys’ Choir performed in the East Room, along with opera divas and ballet companies. Each occasion saw Jackie entertain her guests beautifully dressed in chic gowns and long gloves.
Jackie sought to transform the White House into a museum of American history and the family residence into one of charm and elegance. The first part of the process involved totally restoring the interior of the White House. At the time the Kennedys moved in, the Executive Mansion was in dire need of repair. Cracked plaster was seen in numerous rooms, with other rooms in complete disarray and a large portion of the furniture was shabby. In an effort to restore the White House to the level it should be, Jackie began by creating a fine arts commission led by Americana expert Henry Dupont. The sub-committees were composed of experts on furniture, painting and books. She combed through the White House attic and basement for important artifacts and displaced White House furnishings. She also searched government warehouses and solicited donations of historic, period furniture from the world over.
Among the treasures Jackie discovered was the Resolute desk which soon found itself center stage in the Oval Office. Probably the most memorable part of this beautiful piece of furniture is the compartment under the desk where “John-John” enjoyed popping out from during the times he spent playing in the office at his father’s feet. So intent was Jackie to restore the White House, she pressed the 87th Congress, with the help of Senator Clint Anderson, to pass legislation which later became Public Law 87286. This law stated items donated to the White House became the structure’s inalienable property.
Due to the fact the restoration project would be privately funded, Jackie created a White House Historical Association. This group raised funds through the public sale of a book Jackie helped put together, The White House: An Historic Guide. She also successfully pressed for the establishment of the federal position of White House Curator. This position was to permanently continue the effort she and others had begun of protecting the historical integrity of the Executive Mansion. Her legacy of fostering an national interest in historic preservation extended to her own “neighborhood,” when she reversed a previous federal plan to destroy the historic Lafayette Square across from the White House and helped to negotiate not only a restoration of old buildings there, but a reasonable construction of new buildings with modern use.
Following the restoration, Jackie invited a crew from CBS to come film a tour she personally conducted in February 1962. Viewed by fifty million people, the effect Jackie had on the American public with this effort was immeasurable; with children, as well as adults. Before long, she began receiving thousands of letters from children all over the country, and with the help of her staff, each received a reply.
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I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris
John F. Kennedy