The image of a pink-suited, blood-spattered Jackie Kennedy scrambling onto the trunk of the presidential limousine is seared into our collective memory.
The Abraham Zapruder film that captured that strange, poignant scene was replayed countless times as our country processed the trauma of the Kennedy assassination. It seems commonsensical to conjecture that the president’s widow, who was closest to it all, was traumatized, too, by those minutes in Dallas, and not irrational to imagine that, for many years, her life choices were shaped by their fallout.
Biographer Barbara Leaming, in her third Kennedy book, does more than conjecture. “Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis” provides suggestive evidence that her subject suffered from the clinical symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, including flashbacks, insomnia, numbness, avoidance, fear, depression, and anger. The syndrome, widely observed in returning Vietnam War veterans, did not enter the official psychiatric lexicon until 1980 and before that tended to be misunderstood and untreated.
Leaming’s 2001 biography, “Mrs. Kennedy: The Missing History of the Kennedy Years,” was salacious and fascinating, but speculative and thinly sourced. On scant evidence, it likened the relationship between Jack and Jackie to his bond with his beloved sister, Kathleen, who died in a plane crash. And it asserted that Jackie’s frequent absences from the White House were designed, in part, to permit her husband’s philandering to proceed unobstructed.
In the first third of the new book, Leaming recycles considerable material from the first biography, minus these dubious theories. “Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis” is also marred by Leaming’s tendency to mind read. But this time around, much of her documentation — which includes Jackie’s remarks to intimates, as well as her behavior — is compelling. Interpreting the post-assassination life through the lens of PTSD turns out to be a fruitful way of making sense of Jackie’s sometimes odd-seeming choices.
In the immediate aftermath of Dallas, “[o]ver and over, she recounted the murder for the benefit of visitors” and described herself as “keyed up,” Leaming writes. Jackie’s celebrated composure during the funeral, Leaming says, belied her private agony and difficulties in processing her grief and trauma — which apparently lasted for years.
After the assassination, Leaming details how Bobby Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, political rivals who detested each other, sought both to comfort her and to use her. Taped telephone calls show how cannily LBJ sought to ingratiate himself with the politically valuable widow. Leaming concedes “the electric intensity of their bond” but is unpersuaded that Bobby and Jackie had an affair, as others have claimed.
Instead, she writes, he recovered more quickly, if never completely, from his deep grief, condemned her for living too much in the past, and even referred to her privately as “my crazy sister-in-law.”
If Jackie was indeed afflicted by PTSD, Bobby Kennedy’s assassination in 1968 surely served as another trigger. Her sister Lee Radziwell’s words, excerpted from Cecil Beaton’s published diaries, are telling: “You don’t know what it’s like being with Jackie . . . She’s really more than half round the bend! . . . The new horror will bring the old one alive again and I’m going to have to go through hell trying to calm her. She gets so that she hits me across the face, and apropos of nothing.”
Leaming’s diagnosis sheds additional light on Jackie’s controversial decision, right after RFK’s assassination, to wed the much-older Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis. Not money alone, but the privacy and security she believed Onassis’s money could buy motivated this surprising and ill-destined union. “I wanted to go off,” Jackie said of the Onassis marriage. “I wanted to be somewhere safe.”
“Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis” has something of a happy ending, Jackie’s too-early death from cancer notwithstanding. Leaming argues that the former first lady fought her way back to mental health through her work in publishing, her contributions to landmark preservation, and her final, harmonious relationship with Belgian-born diamond merchant Maurice Tempelsman. When the British poet Stephen Spender asked, in 1980, about her greatest achievement, she told him: “I think it is that after going through a rather difficult time, I consider myself comparatively sane. I am proud of that.”
Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review. Email her at email@example.com .