NEW YORK — Nancy Tuckerman, a lifelong friend of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis who became her social secretary when she was the first lady and continued to be her spokeswoman until her death in 1994, died Wednesday in Salisbury, Conn. She was 89.
The cause was chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, said her niece Phyllis Gay Palmer.
Ms. Tuckerman was the first lady’s social secretary for only a few months, arriving at the White House in the spring of 1963, a bit more than two years into President John F. Kennedy’s term. But those months were eventful.
In August of that year the Kennedys’ newborn son, Patrick, died shortly after birth. In November the president was assassinated in Dallas, and Ms. Tuckerman found herself helping the first lady deal with the trauma, the funeral preparations, an avalanche of mail, and more.
“She was very much in command of herself, aside from the shock,” Ms. Tuckerman said of the first lady a year later in an oral history recorded for the John F. Kennedy Library. “Obviously she was in a certain amount of shock, but she could operate and she could make sense, and she realized that she had to make certain decisions, and she did them simply beautifully.”
Ms. Tuckerman, who was 34 when she went to the White House, nine months older than the first lady, was still at her friend’s side three decades later, by which time Kennedy had become Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and had received a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer.
Ms. Tuckerman was never one to gossip about her famous friend and always sought to protect her privacy. Just a few weeks before Onassis died on May 19, 1994, Ms. Tuckerman had told reporters asking about her hospitalization: “She goes in for routine visits, routine treatment. That’s what this is.”
She acknowledged that she had deliberately played down the severity of Onassis’ condition to prevent a news media sideshow.
“I said what I thought was appropriate,” she told The New York Times on the day of Onassis’ death. “We were trying to protect her and the children, because they could not make visits with ease.”
Nancy Ludlow Tuckerman was born on Oct. 24, 1928, in Manhattan. She said she first met Jacqueline Bouvier at 8 or 9 when both were students at the Chapin School in Manhattan. Later they were roommates at Miss Porter’s School, a college preparatory school in Farmington, Conn.. Next to Jackie’s 1 947 yearbook photo, it says that she can generally be found “laughing with Tucky,” Ms. Tuckerman’s nickname.
Ms. Tuckerman had been a travel agent in New York City for about 10 years when her old friend, now the first lady, asked her to become her social secretary, taking over the job from Letitia Baldrige. “ ‘Tuck’ Replaces ‘Tish’ on Mrs. Kennedy’s Staff,” read a headline in the Times over a United Press International article announcing the news.
“Miss Tuckerman is attractive with golden brown hair, blue eyes and a comely five foot five figure,” the article said, a sentence indicative of the tenor of the day.
Reporters may have viewed the social secretary’s job with a certain condescension, but it required serious organizational skills, since Kennedy was proving to be a popular first lady and the focus of countless requests.
She also supervised other staff members and organized dinners and other White House functions. She took over the job just as the busy spring season was ending and Kennedy’s pregnancy was leading her to reduce activities. But in early September 1963 she had her first chance to stage a major event, a dinner for the king and queen of Afghanistan.
On Nov. 22, Ms. Tuckerman was at the White House planning another dinner to be held three days later, this one for the chancellor of West Germany. She was painstakingly plotting where each of the 120 guests would sit when someone came in and told her about the shooting in Dallas.
She kept the staff, though benumbed, focused, since everyone immediately had a long list of practical things to think about, including planning for the funeral and determining when Kennedy would move out of the White House and where she would go.
“Nobody collapsed, and you never discussed anything — never said ‘Why are we doing this’ or ‘Who do you suppose shot the president’ or ‘Who is doing what job?’,” she said in the oral history. “You just had so much to do that you never stopped to talk to anybody. At least that’s the way I felt.”
Her immediate task was coordinating a small staff that responded to the letters of condolence that were coming in by the sackful.
“It fluctuated for about a month between 20 to 30 to 40,000 each day,” she said.
Ms. Tuckerman continued to act as a spokeswoman for Onassis and the Kennedy family. She took a public relations job with Olympic Airways, which was owned by Aristotle Onassis, and in the early 1970s helped arrange for that company to sponsor an early version of the New York City Marathon.
“One of the things she was most proud of,” Palmer said, “was that she made sure it included women,” the participation of female runners in such races still being a matter of contention.
In 1975 she became a book editor at Doubleday, and three years later Jacqueline Onassis did as well; the two often worked together over the next 15 years.
Ms. Tuckerman, who died at an assisted-living center, leaves nieces and nephews.