Much is known about her elegant clothing and the way she wore her hair, but a newly released collection of notes by Jacqueline Kennedy, some handwritten, reveal her hands-on manner of transforming the White House into a living museum.
“Her understanding of decoration and furniture and history is remarkable,’’ said Jennifer Beaton, an archivist at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Dorchester. A collection of Kennedy’s letters was made public yesterday at the library, on the 50th anniversary of her first televised tour of the White House, broadcast on CBS.
“She was clearly a student of art and history and used that knowledge to transform the White House,’’ Beaton said.
When her husband took office, 31-year-old Jacqueline’s first task was a “scholarly restoration of the presidential mansion,’’ according to the library.
“Her mark on American history cannot be overstated,’’ said Laurence Leamer, a Washington-based author who wrote a trilogy on the Kennedys, including “The Kennedy Women.’’ “Initially, many people thought America wouldn’t like her, but people quickly became mesmerized by Jackie,’’ Leamer said in a telephone interview. “She had such an impact on style. The White House looked like a midscale hotel before her, and she came in and changed everything in such a short time. It was dramatic.’’
Jacqueline Kennedy helped to win passage of legislation designating the White House as a museum and helped start a system for cataloging gifts, art, and other items. In a handwritten note to her secretary, she suggests a system in which the items would be tagged and cataloged by arrival date. “Don’t you think that makes sense in the long run, as 61 was the year JFK’s term started and the year the curator first came,’’ she wrote. “1960 was the end of the previous administration. I pity whoever has to change all those numbers, but historically it is more correct.’’
Kennedy - who after her husband’s death remarried and became Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis - even suggests that the White House usher might twist some arms to get help from the Smithsonian Institution to complete the task.
The library and museum collection contains more than 20,000 papers, donated to the library by Caroline Kennedy and John F. Kennedy Jr. from 1979 to 2009, and also from their mother’s own collection. The collection, which includes papers on state visits and cultural projects, is divided among 42 “books.’’
Although some Kennedy’s writings will be on display in the museum, most of the collection will be kept in a temperature-controlled archival room and be available upon request.
“Most likely, the highest demand will come from researchers, people who are looking to learn more about her and the administration for research purposes,’’ Beaton said.
The opening follows the library’s release last September of the 1964 oral history interviews Jacqueline Kennedy gave, in which she discusses topics from her husband’s early campaigning to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Some of the writings contained in this latest release include correspondences between Kennedy and her personal, social, and press secretaries. The collection includes a few humorous entries, such as an invitation to General and Mrs. George Washington for a dinner at Mount Vernon on July 11, 1961.
It also includes sketches by famed hairdresser Alexandre de Paris in preparation for Mrs. Kennedy’s visit to Paris that year.
The president’s wife often edited her prepared speeches and her scripts for the White House televised tour. Apparently concerned about how a paragraph in the White House guidebook concerning decor might be interpreted by some, she writes on the typed text, “This could open the gate for people to say we should have modern things in it.’’
Brian R. Ballou can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.