Courage in a Pillbox Hat

Remembering Jacqueline Kennedy's public dignity in the face of catastrophe
The elegance of Jackie Kennedy, who was 34 years old when her husband was killed, lent glamour to the White House. Pictured here seven weeks before JFK's death, she showed a nobility that inspired the nation. (Associated Press)

The cotton is high these days for unreconstructed Jackie fans. The clothing exhibition [making the rounds of U.S. museums] has brought us a new flood of hagiography, mostly in the form of picture books, such as Jay Mulvaney’s Jackie: The Clothes of Camelot and Pamela Clarke Keogh’s Jackie Style. It’s best to stick to the transfixing, luminous photographs in such books, and not dwell too long on the text. Keogh’s is chock-full of the usual claptrap: Jackie was a “breath of fresh air,” the “creator of Camelot.” The author believes that “although her life can be seen as one continuous act of courage, more than anything else, Jackie is associated with style.” The part about “one continuous act of courage” is so silly that it hardly bears consideration (although striking the set of Camelot and putting up Zorba the Greek in its place certainly required a measure of pure pluck). But associating her most closely with her “style,” in any sense of the word, seems wrong also. To me, her life is most “associated” with the way she conducted herself during the days following her husband’s murder. For people of my generation (I was 3 when John Kennedy was killed) it’s difficult to have any authentic response to his assassination and to Jackie’s behavior afterward, because the whole thing has been so endlessly interpreted for us by our parents’ memories and by countless books and movies and television shows. We know that it was “shocking” because we are told that it was; but for us, really, it wasn’t. After all, the first thing we learned about JFK was that he had been assassinated. It’s one of the immutable truths of our childhood. The series of images used to telegraph the events—Jackie scrambling up and out of the touring car, standing stoically beside LBJ on Air Force One, appearing beside the casket in the glamorous widow’s weeds—has the predictability of the events of Holy Week. For anyone more interested in Jackie’s “style” than in her “courage,” her appearance at her husband’s funeral in a sheer black mantilla, her children beautifully turned out in their good winter coats and shined shoes, may seem like a triumph of fashion over rotten luck. But in fact her every decision about those events came hard on the heels of horror on an epic scale …

In an instant of pure and almost unimaginable carnage, Jackie Kennedy lost her husband, her job, and her house. Certainly, two of those losses were mitigated by her wealth: the job was an unpaid diversion rather than an economic necessity, and the house was quickly exchanged (after a brief kip at Averell Harriman’s Georgetown home) for a series of glamorous houses at drop-dead addresses. Nonetheless, the life that she had lived was ripped away so completely and so roughly that she could have been forgiven almost any response. Yet at every turn she did the right thing, and not always because the cameras were watching. Days after burying her husband, she returned to Arlington Cemetery in the dead of night so that their two children who had not survived—Arabella, who had been stillborn, and Patrick, who had died a few days after birth—might be reburied next to their father. (“He seems so alone here,” John Kennedy is said to have told two friends who visited Patrick’s grave in Brookline, Massachusetts, with him.)

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Caitlin Flanagan is the author of Girl Land (2012) and To Hell With All That (2006).  More

Caitlin FlanaganCaitlin Flanagan began her magazine-writing career, in 2001, with a series of extended book reviews about the conflicts at the very heart of modern life—specifically, modern domestic life as it is lived by professional-class women. Flanagan has quickly established herself as a highly entertaining social critic unafraid to take on self-indulgence and political correctness, and her reviews provide penetrating and witheringly funny observations about the sexes and their discontents.

Flanagan's Atlantic articles have been named as finalists for the National Magazine Award five times, and her essay "Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor," which ran in September 2001, was included in the 2002 compilation of Best American Magazine Writing. Her work has also been included in Best American Essays 2003 and Best American Magazine Writing 2003. She is the author of the book To Hell with All That—an exploration, based on her Atlantic articles, of the lives of modern women.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Flanagan earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Art History from the University of Virginia. She now lives in California, where she spends her time writing and raising twins.

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