The recent release of the “Jackie tapes” has brought Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis back into America’s conversational circles. It has also inspired pundits, journalists, and assorted critics to analyze the former First Lady based on comments she made in interviews 47 years ago.
To her admirers and her critics, this attention is justified; to them, Jackie has always represented more than herself. She was an ideal, a symbol, or a caricature, but never just another American woman. As far back as 1960, the media put her under the kind of scrutiny from which First Ladies are usually spared (or were, until Hillary Clinton). Even after her husband’s death and her departure from the White House the press continued to report and critique her movements, her clothing, her hairstyle, her work—anything to feed the abiding interest of her supporters and critics.
In 1967, journalist Alan Levy spent a week trying to understand this intense interest and “what it is like for a lively 37-year-old mother to live the life of a tourist attraction.” As he reported in his Post article “Jackie Kennedy: A View From the Crowd,” she was not hard to find. Levy saw her several times without too much effort. He was there when she appeared at an art exhibition:
There were more than a thousand people … and fully half of them were watching for the one we had come to watch. You could tell by the way they talked in rushed little phrases so that their eyes wouldn’t be diverted from the doorway. Repeated assurances of “She’s expected at nine” gave way to “She was expected at nine” and then, toward 10, to “Well, she didn’t swear she was coming.”
At 10:05 … our bartender declared, “There she is!” So did dozens of others, and the words seemed to hit Jacqueline Kennedy like the wail of an air-raid siren. She didn’t flinch: she froze. For … 30 seconds, she was absolutely rigid.
As [she] advanced into our room, her audience became her entourage. Some preceded her with a harrumphing fanfare of “Make way for Mrs. Kennedy!”
There were small flurries of applause. She acknowledged these with a smile. She could clearly have done without this $35-a-ticket ovation.
A waiter said, “She looks tired. She must have many appointments in a day.”
“She won’t stay long,” said another waiter. “She never stays long.” Both waiters spoke of her with more compassion than I’d heard all evening.
Levy was there at Kennedy airport, along with a crowd of reporters, waiting for Jackie and her children to arrive for a flight. When they appeared outside the terminal—
[John Jr.] waited for his mother, who wore a white coat, black scarf and the same frozen smile I had seen at the Madison Avenue art gallery. Little John, wearing shorts and little-boy bruises, reached for her hand, but one of the photographers barked, “Out of the way, kid!” and he obeyed.
So did his mother when a woman photographer called, “Look this way, Jackie!”
The little boy wandered away from the action [and played] with the treadle that operated the automatic door. Here John F. Kennedy Jr. achieved one moment of triumph. A photographer poised for an arty shot through the doorway, suddenly was hit in the face by the door when little John stepped off the treadle. The man exclaimed, “Jesus Christ, kiddo!”
After two minutes of picture-taking, Mrs. Kennedy switched off her smile and entered the terminal where she assembled the children for the march to the gate.
Little John, however, tarried at a poster advertising a movie. This momentary delay enabled the working press to scurry ahead and board the escalator first.
In case she wanted guidance, however, a loudspeaker on the mezzanine was blaring: “Mrs. K., Mrs. K., arriving Gate Three.” For the airline had more than a dozen employees scattered about the terminal to “protect” Mrs. Kennedy from the press that, in effect, the airline had invited. Thus was my quest coming full circle: I was watching an event become An Event.
But if he was dismayed by the throngs of reporters at the airport, he was reassured by the response of passing New Yorkers when she appeared on the sidewalk outside her apartment.
She was standing … and chatting with her brother-in-law, Robert F. Kennedy. He was freckled, sparkling and bushier-haired than any man of 41 has a right to be. Alongside Robert and Jacqueline Kennedy sat the blue convertible, motor purring, with the Secret Service man at the wheel.
Levy crossed the street to Central Park where he could study the reaction of other passersby.
The passing parade continued, but the Kennedys did have a silent grandstand of some 25 or 30 benchwarmers. Nothing was said, other than an occasional “That’s her.” A young father hoisted his baby girl onto his shoulders to watch she-knew-not-what. Seeing this, a couple of mothers struggled to afford their children equal opportunity.
More interesting to me were the reactions across the street. In my five minutes of Kennedy-watching, 11 people walked right past Jacqueline and Robert Kennedy. Three didn’t even notice. Two men and two women broke step but didn’t halt. A swarthy maintenance man in uniform came to a dead stop and doffed his cap with a proletarian flourish. Without a pause in his conversation, Senator Kennedy acknowledged him with a nod.
My favorite was a blowzy woman in a nurse’s uniform. She stopped in her tracks. Her face drooped. Her frame sagged. She seemed as limp and lifeless as a badly hung dress. Then her eyes perceived that Jacqueline Kennedy was smiling, and her ears perceived that Jacqueline Kennedy was cheerful. Slowly, like a sunrise, the woman came back to life. Her mouth unpuckered into a crescent smile. Her face beamed. As she straightened up, her hair seemed to catch the sun. She strode onward, restored and refreshed by what she had witnessed.
No one had mobbed her, or tried to grab her attention. No one sought an autograph or photo.
That much-abused folk ogre, The Typical New York Man-in-the-Street, had acquitted himself handsomely.
This was 1967, however. In June of 1968, Bobby Kennedy was shot, and Jackie had to reassess the risks to which her children were exposed. She became more reclusive, and soon married a billionaire who could give the security she wanted.
Which prompted another wave of Kennedy commentary.