LAST WINTER, Caroline Kennedy finally sat down and listened to her mother’s seven taped interviews, recorded shortly after President Kennedy’s death in 1963. Although Caroline had read the transcript some years ago, she thought that listening to her mother’s voice as a young, wounded widow would be painful.
But she was pleasantly surprised. “It was really nice, actually,’’ says Kennedy, who was 3 years old when her father was elected president and 6 when he died. “The stories were somewhat familiar to me, but the details had fallen away.’’ Still, she says, her mother “didn’t sound as relaxed as I remember her mostly being.’’
Fifty years after John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy - gone herself for 17 years - is making the best-seller list with her recently released conversations about the couple’s life together. Taped just months after JFK was assassinated, the interviews with historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. reveal an alternately thoughtful and snippy first lady, just 31 years old when she moved into the White House and 34 when she moved out.
The book is accompanied by CDs of the 8 1/2 hours of interviews featuring Jacqueline Kennedy’s soft, breathy voice, patrician accent, and surprisingly strong opinions. Her words shine light on a bygone era, a famous marriage and a man that, in his wife’s adoring eyes, could do no wrong. In the background, ice clinks, cigarettes are lit, a dog barks, and the children occasionally interrupt.
The young widow had specified that the tapes be sealed for 50 years. Caroline, now the sole keeper of the family legacy, honored her mother’s wishes and arranged for the release of both the tapes and transcript to coincide with the 50th anniversary of JFK’s presidency.
“Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life With John F. Kennedy,’’ is, as Caroline told a recent audience at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, selling briskly. “She did knock Dick Cheney out of the number one spot on the bestseller list,’’ she said, to laughter and applause.
In the foreword, she wrote of her mother: “In the years since her death, I have asked myself the question, When does someone no longer belong to you, but belong to history?’’
Like mother, like daughter. She looks like a Kennedy, but Caroline shares her mother’s reserve. At 53, she is in the position of both promoting and protecting her mother’s image, much as her mother had protected her and brother John Jr. from publicity when they were young.
The more controversial passages from the interviews have made headlines. The Kennedy family loathed Lyndon Johnson. According to Mrs. Kennedy, “Jack said . . . ‘Oh God, can you ever imagine what would happen to the country if Lyndon was president?’ ’’
Jacqueline Kennedy also opined that Martin Luther King was “a tricky person’’ who the FBI knew was having “sort of an orgy’’ in a hotel during a freedom march. Her husband had told her that Franklin D. Roosevelt was a “poseur’’ whose foreign policy was wrong and that Teddy Roosevelt sounded “fatuous’’ in his memoirs.
Mrs. Kennedy didn’t shy away from criticizing her in-laws, either. The eldest Kennedy brother Joseph Jr., killed in World War II, wouldn’t have made a great president (“so unimaginative, compared to Jack’’) and Eunice Kennedy kept bugging Jack to appoint her husband, Sargent Shriver, to be head of Housing, Education, and Welfare “because she wanted to be a cabinet wife.’’ Jacqueline Kennedy heaped praise on her father-in-law, Joseph P. Kennedy, for being an involved, supportive parent, a “tiger mother’’ decades before that term gained traction in the media.
But his wife, Rose? Not so much. “Poor little thing was running around, trying to keep up with this demon of energy, seeing if she had enough placemats in Palm Beach . . . her little mind went to pieces.’’
More than anything, Jacqueline Kennedy wanted to paint a picture of her husband as brilliant, charming, and politically deft, and to protect the legacy of his presidency. After all, it was she who coined the iconic term “Camelot’’ to describe his White House years, and the interviews reveal how much she loved and admired him. It would be years before allegations of his extramarital affairs became public.
The ‘happiest time’
For Jacqueline Kennedy, who suffered deep anxiety about going to live in the White House, those three years turned out to be “the happiest time of my life; it was when we were the closest.’’
She details how she and JFK enjoyed books, history, and art together - “the love of the life of the mind,’’ as Caroline puts it.
Caroline has drawn praise from historians for not editing the transcripts, for preserving the integrity of the on-the-record conversations. “It’s not about projecting an image, but trying to be honest,’’ she says, in a recent interview at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, where she is president of the foundation.
Still, Caroline believes her mother would have made revisions were she still alive. “I know she would’ve been rolling her eyes: Did I really say that?’’ she says with a smile.
Regarding her mother’s dislike of Lyndon Johnson, she says that later, her mother told her that Johnson had been very kind to her, and that she loved Lady Bird. Her feelings in 1964 may have been the result of political rivalry between LBJ and Robert F. Kennedy. “There was a lot going on with my Uncle Bobby (and Johnson) at the time, and I think that was behind it,’’ says Caroline.
To many, Jackie Kennedy was a fashion icon who re-did the White House. But Caroline notes - as does her mother, in the interviews - that it was no mere interior decorating job, but a whole-scale historic renovation that turned the White House from frumpy dowager to “one of the premiere history museums in the United States,’’ in her daughter’s words. Kennedy also published the first White House guide, which helped pay for the restoration.
“I think people had a sense of her style but probably didn’t understand how well-read and interesting she was,’’ says Caroline. She hopes readers will remember that her mother’s words are a snapshot of “a period and time,’’ that the woman who appears in the book as fiercely anti-feminist would later enjoy an independent life and a career as an editor at major publishing houses.
“She lived fully in both worlds,’’ says Caroline. “She had a second act.’’
Still, back in 1964, Mrs. Kennedy thought a woman’s place was in the home, and that women were too emotional to be in politics: “We’re just not suited to it.’’ She saw her role as not asking too many questions and to “be what you should be for him when he came home,’’ which included serving up “good food’’ and “the children in good moods.’’
She got “all my opinions from my husband. . . . I could never conceive of not voting for whoever my husband was for. I mean, it was really a rather terribly Victorian or Asiatic relationship which we had.’’
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, she pleaded with JFK not to send the family to a safer place as some of his advisers had. “Please, then I just want to be on the lawn when it happens - you know - but I just want to be with you, and I want to die with you, and the children do too - than live without you.’’
Caroline says that her own two daughters, ages 22 and 20, were “horrified’’ at their grandmother’s outdated take on the roles of women. But they loved the stories about their grandparents and wished Schlesinger had asked more about their grandmother herself.
“Today,’’ she says, “they’d ask first ladies different questions, but the purpose of the project was to talk about my father, and she took that very seriously.’’
Caroline and her brother John Jr., who died in 1999, aren’t mentioned much in the tapes. “She was absolutely protective of us; we were the most important thing to her,’’ says Caroline. “She encouraged us to follow our own interests.’’
What else was she like as a mom? “She was incredibly curious about the world, she loved adventure. She was many wonderful things as a mom.’’ And of Caroline’s own parenting, what would her three children say? “So far, they think I’m passably adequate,’’ she says with a laugh. Her son, John, is 18. Caroline Kennedy - she kept her own name after marriage - and her husband Edwin Schlossberg, live in New York, where they’ve raised their children.
As for her father, Caroline remembers going into his room in the mornings, then into his office and “making construction paper necklaces, eating candy, and running around his desk.’’
How does she want her parents to be remembered by others? “Both can stand on their own, with an incredibly huge and powerful legacy,’’ she says. “I hope people will realize that historical figures are just people and each one of us should try to make the world better, which I think they both did.’’
Bella English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.