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.)

For the cynical, the entire Kennedy enterprise is a kind of all-you-can-eat buffet of hypocrisy and untrammeled personal ambition, and in this construct Jackie’s composure at the time of the assassination was the result of her considerably cooled ardor for her husband. But in fact her actions at the time—and at so many times in her life—resist easy and inflexible interpretation. For example, during the long, rambling interviews that she granted [the author] William Manchester not long after the assassination (their taped voices are punctuated by the rattle of ice in glasses and the lighting of cigarettes), she told him that before leaving Parkland Memorial to board Air Force One, she freshened her lipstick. Later she greatly regretted this confession, and begged (in fact, sued) to have it omitted from his account; however, it came to light—and now we can bring to her small gesture the full force of our feelings about her: Did she freshen her lipstick because she realized that she was moments away from the greatest photo op of her life, and didn’t intend to look washed-out and cuckoo, like Mary Todd Lincoln? Or was she hewing to old-fashioned notions of decorum and propriety in the face of a national disaster in which she had just figured prominently? We will never know …

To respond to personal catastrophe with public dignity … represents human conduct at its most impressive. Her behavior during those four days, derived from the old values of forbearance and restraint, was girded by a kind of internal fortitude that was not at all in conflict with other aspects of her character—aspects that many of today’s feminists would lambaste as pathetic and weak. (“Her instincts were completely feminine,” William Manchester wrote of her; “if she met your plane at the Hyannis airport, she automatically handed you the keys to her convertible.”) The ways in which she allied her matchless femininity—which only a fool would believe she deployed naively—with her tremendous strength are central to her intrigue, and they are why, so many years later, so many people will turn out to see a few dozen coats and dresses and pillbox hats.

Read the full article in the Atlantic archives.