May 31, 1994
Other First Ladies — Pat Nixon — have passed with little fanfare. So have enigmatic and glamorous icons like Garbo. No pullout sections of the paper or CNN specials for them. It dawned on me as I ingested the ubiquitous Jackie coverage over the weekend: the media was playing this as if a national leader had died. Because she had.
I imagine that makes no sense to anyone under 35 or even 40. But trust me. The team coverage, the people keeping vigil outside the apartment building, lumps in the throat among people who thought themselves above it all — this goes beyond the usual celebrity psychosis.
Everything depends on whether you lived through that horrific assassination in 1963. I was just a kid then, but I can assure you that no one was looking to Lyndon Johnson to get us through the trauma. It was Jackie who led us through days of national mourning. Instinctively, she understood the importance of confronting the horror head-on. She began by refusing to wash JFK’s blood from her pink suit. And it was Jackie who planned the funeral, a critical public ritual. She had the casket placed on an open caisson where all could see it, directed her three-year-old son to salute it, asked that there be a riderless horse with boots turned backward in the stirrups, and then that there be an eternal flame lit at the grave. She knew the images we needed, those that were solemn enough and true enough to meet the crisis. But then she always did have this sense of public appropriateness. Later it allowed her to maintain a public self, even as she remained completely private.
For those of us who lived through the assassination, though, Jackie remained something of a tragic figure forever after, the classically veiled widow leading a nation down Pennsylvania Avenue behind its murdered president. She was our chief of state then, if only for a few days. Naturally, there can be no other resting place for her but Arlington. — C. CARR
Part of me was going around all Friday humming: I want to be Jackie Onassis, I want to wear a pair of dark sunglasses, oh yeah. I couldn’t help it.
But the rest of me was sitting on the subway, looking at the Times, at the picture of her at the funeral, the kids who don’t know what’s happened (they were the same age I was when my father died); and her teary face, and her perfect legs in her black heels…
I wasn’t born yet in November 1963; I knew her only by her later, gossip-rag image, the sunglasses and perilous chic. I certainly never thought l’d be sitting on the subway tearing up over the passing of Jackie O.
But she seems to me now to have had an extraordinary strength and grace; and poise, an outdated female quality but perhaps an underrated one. She did what was required of her — what we asked of her — very well, and gave us what we wanted and kept something for herself behind her shades. Instead of merely giving in to girl clothes and girl roles, she used them and made them serve her purposes. She was running the White House at age 31, an age when most people I know still hoard newspapers and get their furniture off the street. And, no small accomplishment, she raised good kids.
You’d imagine her money would help, but I suspect even that only raised the stakes. It meant that even in her worst hell she had to be impeccably turned out, in a black suit and black heels. I’d like to think there’s some strength to be drawn from those female clothes, and from living as the woman we expected her to be. — JULIE PHILLIPS
The Jackie I long to see clutches a large, unwieldy camera as she stands ankle-deep in water to grab a shot during her stint as an inquiring photographer for The Washington Times-Herald in 1952. She reclines on the hood of a car in 1989, intently reading a book, perhaps for her job as an editor at Doubleday. These images suggest an active Jackie, the career woman Jackie that framed the professional-wife-and-widow Jackie. But even here there’s just too much grace: in the former photo, she bends decorously at the knee in her simple white dress; in the latter, her lean, bare legs are tightly pressed together, her head wrapped in a towel with casual élan.
These are the words that always attend Jackie: “taste,” “grace,” “dignity.” These words repel me, much as I admire Jackie the survivor, the fashion maven, the savior of historical buildings, the devoted single mom. But the canonization of poise surrounding Jackie’s death seems to me a cruel perpetuation of the containment that dogged this woman her whole life. Smile, please. Speak softly. Curtsy. Now stand up straight. Stay slim. And for god’s sake, be proper, whether you’re mourning a husband who cheated on you or being stalked by paparazzi who only strive to capture that millisecond when you stumble, drool, or flip them the bird. Only of course you never do.
Have you noticed how much Hillary’s gradually been molding herself into Jackieness, what with those controlled coiffures and tight little suits? Hillary has, of course, been routinely slapped for being less than first-ladylike (too opinionated, too crunchy), so maybe it’s understandable she’d take her cues from the exemplary, cool Jackie O. But does the glow of Jackie’s halo — not to mention her sheer starpower — blind us to the fact that she wore a straightjacket in the name of seemliness? Do we mourn the passing of her impeccable standard, or, in mourning, do we tacitly concede that womanhood is still too often defined thus: the right outfit, the correct pose, and just enough self-sublimation to serve a common good? — KATHERINE DIECKMANN
The history of the feminine speaks in images, like someone else’s photo album. We try to fill in the captions that might go beneath Mona Lisa’s sexy grin, Elizabeth’s hairline, the sway of Madame X’s shoulder line, the smoke veiling Dietrich’s face. How such women moved through the world registers less distinctly than the way they’ve been captured and stilled. And so, for me, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis will never escape her photographs. Her mastery of the pose, her perfection at balancing vitality and calm, make her seem unfleshly, unreal. Now, bombarded by snaps and portraits of Jackie, I feel my mind’s eye straying to other women’s pictures. There’s Marilyn, the obvious doppelgänger, spilling over her dress, looking like she could momentarily break into tears. Marilyn’s problematic allure precisely opposes that of Jackie’s: while the First Lady’s every recorded move (even the most casual or tragic) fits, the movie star disrupts the frame, or lets confining presence discomfit her. Marilyn seemed to want to walk out of her photos, toward you. Jackie, even when gazing into the lens, seemed to be turning away.
That turning away was her triumph, and it’s so divergent from feminism’s passion to dig up and confront that I can’t help but wonder about its worth. Jackie’s success at managing a life that could have easily defeated her makes me callow for questioning her legacy, and certainly Marilyn’s self-sacrifice offers less. But revered images demand obeisance, and iconoclasm seems in order when the ideal costs most women so much. So my mind turns to another snapshot, of a figure as iconic for this women’s studies-bred baby as Jackie seems to be for the women a generation older than me. It’s of another ’50s daughter, trying to stay in the frame: Sylvia Plath, neat as a pin, her darkness only seeping through in the intensity of her gaze. Plath let what she saw as her failure in those roles that Jackie perfected — socialite, wife — bury her spirit. But in her poems, at least, she confronted what confined her and raged against it.
“The woman is perfected,” Plath wrote, and she meant the woman is dead. Jackie survived perfection, even flourished under its rule. Let’s hope that someday women won’t have to wrestle with such a goal. — ANN POWERS
“She-e-eee was a friend of mine.”
The trumpeter, very tuneless, bicycled several yards along the park drive, stopped, played a long note, sang his plaint, and then moved on. Across Fifth Avenue, outside the building where she lived and died: police barricades, gawkers, and, a subtle sign of respect, senior officers working crowd control. At the curb: an armada of television vans with transmitter masts erect; foreign tourists; many of those peculiar people who attach themselves freakishly to public events, to tragedies, perhaps merely for the attention, perhaps out of some atavistic will, perhaps even because they feel compassion. But how can that be?
Two men jog past on their way to the park. “I cried when I heard this morning,” says one. “Yeah, classy lady,” replies his friend. I also cried, or felt an urge to cry, but not because Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis meant something to me, which would be untrue, but because her death reminded me of other deaths.
I’m encouraged by the press to feel something about her: she was the “symbol of an era,” a “courageous lady,” an iron will, a fiercely guarded privacy, a model First Lady, whatever that may mean. (Actually, it means Eleanor Roosevelt, in my book.) She was certifiably a good New Yorker, born and named here, a resident, and actively engaged with preserving the texture of the place (viz: Grand Central Terminal). People I know took pleasure in Jackie sightings. And, although I myself never laid eyes on her, in the week before her death I noticed two photographers laying for Jackie in Central Park, near a path where she might, with her lover’s assistance, take a brief walk. I experienced a chill of repugnance then and when I saw in the newspapers that the photographers had got her, bloated (and with that hard, awful bulge that people with abdominal tumors get), and tottering, with only a week left of life. Contemplating how grotesque, in some ways, that kind of fame must have been, how imprisoning and full of anguish, I remembered that she had handled it with “dignity.” The eulogists echoed the word so often that it became a kind of tic, a joke, almost, as though she were impervious, a public edifice. Maybe this was so. Jackie “achieved a level of privacy that, well, it is impossible, but she did it anyway,” Frank Mankiewicz, Robert F. Kennedy’s former press aide, said recently. I imagine that what people mean by dignity was refusal. “Minimum information given with maximum politeness” was how she herself once described her policy with the press, at a time when the White House received 10 daily requests for the size of her shoes.
The spring moon the evening after her death was a fragment of mica, not quite full, but waxing: it was still light at eight. I’d taken my dog along with me to check out the voyeurs; that way, I reasoned, I wouldn’t seem so much like a voyeur myself. What was I expecting? “We’ve been here two hours and haven’t seen nothing,” complained a Staten Island woman who’d come with her toy poodle. I stood awhile, staring at a limestone facade, a green canopy, some cops, and a doorman, then walked into the park and up the bridle path. Two people on horseback cantered past. Again, unaccountably, I felt a twinge of grief. Later, on board a plane to California, I read an article that claimed Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis had “added to our portfolio of iconic imagery,” which seemed awfully silly to me until I considered my own odd reaction and that of the man on the bicycle blowing his horn: “She-e-eee was a friend of mine.” I would never have said that. And yet here I am calling up her ghost. — GUY TREBAY
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 14, 2019