She’s remembered for her trademark fashion sense and breathy voice, but few people know how large a role Jackie Kennedy played in her husband’s life and establishing his legacy. She was a woman who wasn’t afraid to take control of history — and even 50 years later, we still remember her husband the way she wanted us to. Modern women can learn from her graceful style and the composed front she presented to the world, but we can learn even more from what went on behind the scenes.
As JFK campaigned, America began to take note of Jackie’s excellent sense of fashion and graceful way of speaking — transforming her from a poised housewife to a celebrity in a matter of months. But even as her fame grew, she remained humble and often steered the conversation back to her husband, writing in one of her famed “Campaign Wife” columns, “All the talk over what I wear and how I fix my hair has amused me and puzzled me. What does my hairdo have to do with my husband’s ability to be president?”
She didn’t live to please the public, but instead centered her goals on being a good wife to Jack and mother to their two children, Caroline and John Jr. What made her so glamorous was that she wasn’t trying to be — and there’s something to be said for a woman who shied away from attention in a world that is increasingly attention-obsessed.
Her devotion never faltered, even with the knowledge of JFK’s numerous affairs. And though it was the early 60s and the gender roles of the 1950s were still firmly in place, their relationship was called “Victorian” by some.
Out of the public eye, however, she wasn’t as naive as she seemed. According to The New York Post, her friend Ralph Martin said, “You know, in the end, Jackie knew everything. Every girl. She knew her ratings, her accomplishments ... ”
Peter Lawford, an actor who was married to Patricia Kennedy, claims Marilyn Monroe, JFK’s most famous mistress, called Jackie and told her Jack had promised to leave his family and marry her. Jackie responded, “Marilyn, you’ll marry Jack, that’s great. And you’ll move into the White House and you’ll assume the responsibilities of first lady, and I’ll move out and you’ll have all the problems.”
But, despite the “fooling around,” she stood by JFK because she wanted him to succeed and she wanted people to remember him for his accomplishments and not a detrimental affair. She was self-sacrificing in the way she loved him, and for that reason our image of the Kennedys is bright and centered on family instead of dark and clouded by jealousy.
In the audio tapes she recorded in 1964, which were released to the public in 2011, she explains that during the Cuban Missile Crisis she begged him not to send her to Camp David, “I just want to be with you, and I want to die with you and the children do too, [rather] than live without you.” She was wholly devoted to him and it showed in her every action and valued possession.
Because of that, I think what we can learn most from Jackie Kennedy is how to handle the loss of a loved one — especially since he was someone she really leaned on and loved whole-heartedly. She was strong during the funeral and in the months afterward. In pictures, it’s clear she’s putting on a brave face for her children and for America during a time when the country looked to her for how they should react.
“She was sad,” Clint Hill, the Secret Service agent assigned to protect her on that fateful day in Dallas, told People magazine in early November. “She didn’t have the same radiance as before. But she grew stronger. She was already thinking about his legacy. She was always thinking ahead.”
She asked Theodore H. White, a writer for Life magazine — which had covered everything Kennedy, from the wedding, to the inauguration to their very classy White House life — to come and see her so she could tell him something she had become “obsessed” with since her husband’s death. She needed America to know about “Camelot.”
She told him, “When Jack quoted something, it was usually classical, but I’m so ashamed of myself — all I keep thinking of is this line from a musical comedy. At night, before we’d go to sleep, Jack liked to play some records; and the song he loved most came at the very end of this record. The lines he loved to hear were: Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.”
So for 50 years, JFK’s brief term in the White House has been known as Camelot. He continually ranks highly on the list of America’s favorite presidents and is remembered for being a young, fresh face in American politics rather than for his criticisms. While we can attribute much of his popularity to his charm, it’s also important to realize how much Jackie affected how people would see her husband for years to come. She is the woman behind the legacy.
Jessica Williams is a senior English and writing, rhetoric and technical communication double major. Contact Jessica at firstname.lastname@example.org.