Live Like Jackie
What face pops into your mind when you hear either “Jacqueline” or the shortened version “Jackie”? I know that for me, it is Jacqueline Kennedy, who in 1960 was the youngest wife ever of an American president-elect at age 31.
She became first lady on John F. Kennedy’s inauguration day, January 20, 1961. I’ve heard the stories of that Washington DC event from my mother, who to this day, still treasures the commemorative button with its purple ribbon and memories of attending a public ball just a day after her own 29th birthday. She was most excited to see the Kennedys and friends go into an after-hours party on a snowy, sleepy street in Georgetown –though she just describes the scene, no photos or video were taken at the time!
This 1961 inauguration button, not the same as my mother's souvenir, misspelled Mrs. Kennedy's name. There is a "c" in Jacqueline.
More than ten years ago, a wonderful exhibit went on tour with selections from the JFK Library and Museum in Boston, MA. The exhibit started at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City 2001 and visited Boston and Washington DC. Fortunately, Jacqueline Kennedy, the White House Years, made a stop in the Midwest before being archived—the exhibit stayed in Chicago from November 2004 to May 2005.
We attended the exhibit as a dual Mother’s Day gift—both of us fascinated with this influential woman who was first lady for less than three years, yet brought a sense of style , grace, and intelligence to the role as a great proponent of the arts and historic preservation. The exhibition showed how her charisma and ability to speak fluent French and Spanish, influenced American statesmanship and diplomacy.
The inaugural festivities of January 1961 set both the cultural and political tone for the Kennedy administration.
Prior to the swearing-in of the president, Marian Anderson sang The Star-Spangled Banner. Despite the biting cold, the sun was shining so brightly that 87-year-old Robert Frost had to disregard his handwritten notes for a new poem called “Dedication” to recite from memory in a very commanding voice:
~ The Gift Outright ~
The land was ours before we were the land's.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia.
But we were England's, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak.
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.
~ Robert Frost; 1874-1963 ~
Jacqueline Kennedy attended the event in an understated coat with a domed pillbox hat, which would become a lasting symbol of her fashion impact. The garments worn by Jacqueline Kennedy on the campaign trail, to state events, and on her goodwill tours to Europe, India, Pakistan, and South America—70 in all, threaded through the narrative of the exhibition at the Field Museum. Visitors could view the fronts and backs of the designs, seeing belts, bows, and the simplicity of the “Jackie style” This youtube video published in March 2013 gives a depiction of Jackie’s distinct sense of style. https://youtu.be/20clpufW9VY
The first official state trip was to Canada in May 1961. There, Mrs. Kennedy was enthusiastically received. It marked the beginning of her role as goodwill ambassador for the new administration. The first lady’s universal appeal was confirmed when visiting Europe a month later. At a luncheon in Paris, President Kennedy spontaneously commented on her popularity: “I do not think it altogether inappropriate to introduce myself to this audience. I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris, and I have enjoyed it....” Jacqueline Kennedy occasionally served as interpreter for her husband and French president Charles de Gaulle, whom she impressed with her fluent conversation about French history and culture.
The Kennedy goodwill tours abroad also served a deeper political purpose. As the Cold War raged, the administration was watchful of Soviet interest in India and especially Latin America, where the president sought to improve relations. Jacqueline Kennedy again proved to be an asset to her husband in South America in 1961. Crowd control for her visit in Venezuela was handled by 20,000 troops. There, the president introduced her as “one of the Kennedys’ who does not need an interpreter,” as she delivered remarks in fluent Spanish. Jackie was able to use her color and fabric choices to stand out in the crowd on visits to both India and Pakistan. She complemented the host nations by wearing choices from different designers to reflect the art and culture of the region she was visiting. As on all state visits, she created a visual metaphor for the youthful new face of America: one that was cultured, sophisticated, and stylish.
Presentation of a silver pitcher to the White House in the Diplomatic Reception Room, December 5,1961 . Photograph by Robert Knudsen, White House, now located in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.
One of Jackie’s biggest discoveries when they arrived at the White House was how poorly maintained the executive mansion was. As a lover of books, design, and history, she noted that it lacked any furnishings from the previous century. She wasted no time in appointing the first White House curator and in forming the Fine Arts Committee for the White House to procure furniture and artwork that was either owned by previous presidents, or was representative of particular periods in the building’s history. She was careful to ensure that the public understood that this was not a matter of decorating to her tastes, but an effort to honor American history and craftsmanship.
While transforming the White House into a living representation of presidential history, Jacqueline Kennedy also added style and culture to the mode of entertaining at the executive mansion. She orchestrated every detail of state dinners—from her clothing to topics of conversation—to project an image of intelligence and youthful sophistication. For dinners, Mrs. Kennedy favored round tables that sat eight or ten guests over the more formal horseshoe and E-shaped tables of the past. Guests were served meals conceived by French chef René Verdon and treated to entertainment by the finest performers.
In less than a year, the Kennedy's’ style of entertaining was well-known. There are documents archived now at the JFK library that relate to the White House redecoration project and the Fine Arts Committee, requests of the Social Office, state gifts, and state dinners such as the Nobel Prize winners dinner, which includes the guest book signed by invitees such as Pearl Buck, Robert Frost, and Robert Oppenheimer.
There are extensive handwritten notes from Mrs. Kennedy to Chief Usher J.B. West regarding the upkeep and running of the White House. As well as this sample memo for Chief Usher J. B. West from Mrs. Kennedy outlining her specific instructions for how to photograph an official state dinner. The letter was copied to Nancy Tuckerman, her Social Secretary.
The archives of the JFK museum have original seating charts, programs, and menus, available and even video showing the Kennedys and honored guests at White House functions.
With her gracious personal style and her passion for history and the arts, she worked hard to be worthy of her new role. While Jackie Kennedy had a deep sense of obligation to her country, her first priorities were to be a good wife to her husband and mother to her children. She told a reporter that "if you bungle raising your children, I don't think whatever else you do well matters very much."
The White House hadn't had a presidential family with young children living under its roof for more than fifty years, prior to the Kennedy family. Photograph by Cecil Stoughton, White House Photos.
Mother Jacqueline Kennedy spends time with the children Caroline and John F. Kennedy, Jr. in the White House nursery November 27, 1962. Caroline Kennedy is wearing a peasant girl costume--a gift found in the F.A.O. Schwarz 1961 catalog that was earmarked and notated by Jackie. It is now archived at the JFK library.
Jacqueline Kennedy was a letter writer and there are numerous examples of her letters in the Presidential library. When she was traveling abroad with John F. Kennedy or her sister Lee Radziwill, Jackie would send her children a postcard for every day she was gone.
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By: Ann K. Nicknish, The Blogging Word Girl (BWG)