Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis: The Untold Story

Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis: The Untold Story

by Barbara Leaming


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"An intimate and revealing look at one of the twentieth century's most remarkable—and misunderstood women." —KIRKUS REVIEWS

Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onasis: The Untold Story is the first book to document Jackie's thirty-one-year struggle with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Here is the woman as she has never been seen before. Barbara Leaming explores the seemingly magical world of Jackie's youth, her fairy-tale marriage to a wealthy and handsome senator and presidential candidate and her astonishing transformation into a deft political wife and unique First Lady. This spirited young woman's rejection of the idea of a "safe marriage" as the wife of some socially prominent but utterly predictable man led her to JFK and, in time, international fame. But the trauma of her husband's murder would damage her far more than has been known. Until now.

While the life of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis has been examined and scrutinized countless times, it is only now that we can truly understand the woman behind the facade, the untold story of this iconic woman.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250070258
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/03/2015
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 264,599
Product dimensions: 8.20(w) x 5.50(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

BARBARA LEAMING is a New York Times bestselling author. Three of her biographies have been New York Times Notable Books of the Year. Her recent book, Churchill Defiant, received the Emery Reves Award from The Churchill Centre. Leaming's articles have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, London's The Times, and other publications. She lives in Connecticut.

Read an Excerpt


At a cocktail party in Newport, Rhode Island, in the waning summer of 1945, a loquacious college boy was delivering a chest-thumping monologue to a frizzy-haired, snub-nosed sixteen-year-old named Jacqueline Bouvier. As the young man talked on, her wide-set hazel eyes settled on his face. Jackie, as she was known, allowed him to speak without interruption, but at intervals she nodded to signal that she understood him and the many important things he had to tell her. An observer of the scene would have had no reason to surmise that the quiet, worshipful beneficiary of the collegian’s wisdom had information and strong opinions of her own about his theme. Jackie was only just discovering boys that year, but she already understood that it was her duty to ensure that he enjoyed himself immensely and had no inkling of what she actually knew or thought.

The boy’s subject was Marshal Philippe Pétain, the former head of the collaborationist Vichy government. When, in the last days of World War II, a French court sentenced Pétain to face a firing squad, the provisional government’s president, General Charles de Gaulle, had moved swiftly and controversially to commute the sentence to life imprisonment, in the interest of relegating the war to the past as soon and as much as possible.

A similar determination to get on with life animated the reopening of Newport society’s marriage market eleven days after Japan surrendered unconditionally following the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At the time, young men in military uniform were everywhere to be seen throughout the moneyed American resort, presaging a whole series of Newport debutantes’ marriages to returning soldiers. Immediately, the expansive spirit of the first grand-scale debut party since before Pearl Harbor carried over to other gatherings of the Newport tribe in the final days of August and early September, before the rich summer residents—along with those less fortunate souls who, having no money of their own, lived and maneuvered among them—dispersed for the winter.

It was at one such gathering that Jackie Bouvier was treated to the lecture on the Pétain affair. As it happened, the college boy had had the misfortune to speak of matters she probably knew a good deal more about than he. When Jackie was eleven, her paternal grandfather had dedicated to his ten grandchildren a privately printed family history asserting that the American Bouviers were descended from French nobility. The claim would later prove to have been fraudulent, but it had a tremendous impact on her nonetheless. She was a child who loved to escape into her books, and now French history had become not just reading to her, but a source of personal identity, a guarantee of her own specialness and superiority, consolation for the indignities of a daily life where money was not always as plentiful and one’s parents’ behavior not always as spotless as one might wish. When the Vichy regime signed an armistice with Hitler in 1940, de Gaulle, speaking on BBC Radio from the sanctuary of London, had urged his countrymen to resist. The broadcast provoked Pétain, the idol of de Gaulle’s youth, to charge de Gaulle with treason and threaten him with death. Impressed by de Gaulle’s staunch refusal to accept defeat, little Jackie Bouvier seized on him as her hero. For five years, she avidly followed him in newspaper accounts. She named her poodle “Gaullie” in his honor.

Yet when the young man at the cocktail party held forth, she did what most sensible, well-brought-up girls who hoped to win the Newport matrimonial sweepstakes circa 1945 would have done. The point was to seem bright enough to interest a man but not so bright as to imperil his ego. So Jackie played her part and said nothing. Afterward, her only outlet was to vent her frustration in the form of mockery when she recounted the episode to a female friend: “He sounded like a little boy who’s just read a big book and is having a lovely time expounding it all to a little country urchin without really knowing what it was all about. I wanted to give him a big maternal kiss on the cheek and tell him he was really a big boy now!”

The author of those spiky sentences delighted in being very different from the shy, timid girl, in her own phrase petrified of everything, who had first appeared in Newport two years before, after her mother, Janet Lee Bouvier, married investment banker and Standard Oil heir Hugh D. Auchincloss Jr. Previously, the dissolution of Janet’s marriage to Jackie’s father, John “Black Jack” Bouvier, a stockbroker with a Social Register background, had been prominently chronicled in the tabloid press under the headline “Society Broker Sued for Divorce.” Accompanying the article, which documented a pattern of infidelity on Mr. Bouvier’s part, had been a photograph of small-boned Janet and her daughters, Jackie and little Lee. It was not the first time Jackie and her mother had made news. Both were ribbon-winning equestriennes, and prior accounts had spotlighted their accomplishments in the riding ring. Now this new coverage seemed to chip away at the idealized public image to expose the ugly family reality beneath. Taunted by classmates at the private day school she attended in New York at the time and teased by certain of her Bouvier cousins, Jackie reacted to the publicity as if she had been flayed alive. In the aftermath of the ordeal, she became secretive, withdrawn, willfully impossible to read or know. The summer of 1945 was important to her for a number of reasons, not least her newfound popularity among the boys of Newport. It was certainly not that Jackie, who had oddly broad features, a splash of freckles across her nose and under both eyes, and disproportionately large hands and feet, was prettier than her female contemporaries, only that in a world where most of the young people had known one another all their lives, she suggested a flavor the boys had not tasted before.

On her return to boarding school, Miss Porter’s in Farmington, Connecticut, two of those boys wrote repeatedly to her from Harvard. Jackie judged that her replies had better be “devastatingly witty.” She also calculated that since her correspondents knew each other well and belonged to the same college social club, the Owl, it was necessary to compose entirely different letters to each. This required a good deal of labor on her part. Half in earnest and half in jest, she was soon bemoaning the agony she had to endure drafting separate missives to nineteen-year-old John Sterling and twenty-year-old R. Beverley Corbin Jr. Despite her laments, both boys struck her as tremendously appealing. John Sterling was the son of a distinguished career diplomat and former U.S. ambassador to Sweden, Bev Corbin of an attorney who was also the president of Bailey’s Beach in Newport. When she was with him, she loved talking to John, who was smart and interesting and had actually seen a bit of the world. The problem, by her own account, was that she was not physically attracted to him. With Bev, by contrast, it was “all physical.”

Jackie found Bev shallow and was ashamed of liking him as much as she did, but there it was. She acknowledged that some of her friends, mystified by what she saw in Bev, had begun to look at her as though she were insane or had “queer glands.” “I’m beginning to think so myself!” she declared. Neither fellow had kissed her yet. Jackie said she would love it if Bev tried, but would “upchuck” if it were John. Still, on paper John enjoyed a distinct advantage. While Bev’s letters tended to be ordinary, John’s were clever and funny. In Jackie’s own letters, instead of the backbiting about mutual friends and acquaintances she might have indulged in had her correspondent been a girl, it seemed wiser to reserve her venom for prison, as she referred to her boarding school and the quiet, conservative New England town where its porticoed white-clapboard dormitories were set. “If schooldays are the happiest days of your life,” she deadpanned to Bev, “I’m hanging myself with my skip-rope tonight.”

Sarah Porter, who established the school in 1843, never married, yet she had persisted in regarding marriage as a woman’s fitting and proper state. A century after its founding, Miss Porter’s endeavored to prepare young women, most of them Wasp and rich, for essentially the same lives their mothers had led. In 1945, as in Sarah Porter’s time, it was the purpose of a woman’s education to make her a more pleasing companion to her husband. In important ways, Jackie Bouvier (though Catholic and relatively poor) was the model Farmington girl. She rode, she wrote, she sketched. She read widely and acted in school plays. She was by turns hardy and graceful, pragmatic and romantic, serious and fey. She did not question the assumption that it should be her goal in life to marry becomingly. She did not doubt that one lived through a man and that without him there could be nothing. At the same time, her caustic remarks about Farmington suggest that she was beginning to sense she might want something more than was on offer.

Meanwhile, she looked forward to a reprieve from routine when she had a chance to attend the Harvard-Yale game in the company of both the Interesting Boy and the Sexy Boy. This year’s Harvard-Yale matchup was to be the first in three years, one of football’s oldest and best-loved rivalries having been suspended in wartime. Because a number of players were veterans who would be returning to the field for the first time since the war, in both New Haven and Cambridge there was a huge amount of emotion invested in the event, which could not be scheduled to take place until Saturday, December 1, after the traditional Thanksgiving weekend windup. John Sterling was set to escort Jackie, but as Bev Corbin had no date of his own, it had been agreed that he would sit with them and some others at the Yale Bowl. Two days before the football game of games, however, it looked as if she might not get to go after all. A combination of snow, sleet, and rain pounded Connecticut. The next day, when it seemed as if the game might have to be played in knee-deep snow, university officials had the field cleared, then covered over with a tarpaulin. That evening, Jackie took the train to New York to spend the night at her father’s apartment. Black Jack Bouvier, whose nickname derived from his exceptionally (some might say weirdly) intense year-round tan, was scheduled to drive her to New Haven in the morning.

Jackie kept a photograph of her father—slim, suave, impeccably attired in plus fours, calf-hugging licorice-striped stockings, and immaculate two-toned shoes—on her desk at Farmington. In the picture, said to have been taken in Cuba or Florida in the 1920s, Black Jack was indeed, as his elder daughter judged him to have been, a beautiful specimen of a man. A slender mustache above sensuous lips looked as if it might have been finely penciled in. The crease darting from the center button of his slim-tailored, wide-lapeled suit jacket highlighted the flat, hard stomach beneath. By 1945, however, despite a punishing exercise regimen religiously pursued, that frame had thickened. And though at fifty-four he dressed and comported himself as though he were still the pretty boy Cole Porter was reputed to have fallen in love with decades before, his sunlamp tan could not conceal that he had begun to go jowly and pouchy-eyed. Instead of letting the air out of Jackie’s father, a lifetime’s disappointments and dissipation seemed to have inflated him to a parody of his former self.

After numerous martinis, he would sprawl on his living room sofa dressed in baby-blue boxer shorts and black patent-leather shoes, inveighing against all the people he blamed for the shipwreck of his life. High on the list were Janet and Hughdie, as Janet’s second husband was known. Black Jack was sure that Janet had married again principally to spite him. He was certain the Auchincloss clan intended to steal away his daughters. Of the two girls, Jackie, who resembled him facially, was his favorite. He called her “the most beautiful daughter a man ever had.” At his two-bedroom, fourth-floor apartment on East Seventy-fourth Street in Manhattan, her ubiquitous image stared out from walls, tables, bookshelves. But all the photographs on earth could not alter the fact that, as he believed, he was slowly losing her. How could he compete with all that Auchincloss money? Though Black Jack continued to work on Wall Street, his personal finances had never recovered from the Great Crash of 1929, after which he had burned through capital and borrowed from relatives in order to maintain a frail veneer of wealth. In the narrative he constructed of his life, he traced his inability to right himself to the tough new trading rules introduced by the fledgling Securities and Exchange Commission in 1934.

Before Janet remarried, he had insisted that her cash demands were suffocating him. Now that she had attached herself to riches, he resented any implication that he was incapable of providing for his own children. In the perpetual scramble for funds, he did business with several bookies, notably a Lexington Avenue butcher who took bets in a room-sized freezer thick with hanging carcasses. Black Jack always seemed to have money on various sporting events and followed the scores on four radios that blasted simultaneously in his apartment. He was ever at daggers drawn with his father about the latter’s will, never grasping until it was too late that the old man had spent much of what he had on annuities that assured substantial returns during his lifetime but would stop paying when he died. Tellingly, while the forty-six-acre Auchincloss family estate in McLean, Virginia, where Jackie lived during the year when she was not at boarding school, gave long views of the Potomac, and while the seventy-five-acre Auchincloss estate where she spent her summers was perched high above Narragansett Bay, Black Jack’s apartment faced a sunless ventilating shaft.

He was right to perceive that her stepfather’s world had begun to envelop her. Yet she loved Black Jack no less for her attraction to that world. Years later, Jackie’s first husband would laugh that she still suffered from a major father-crush. Since girlhood, she had worshipped Black Jack for the very things that her disciplined, driven, mercenary mother was not. Janet was a survivor who had done whatever was necessary for her and her girls to get on in life. By contrast, louche, self-pitying Black Jack was one of the beautiful losers. Jackie savored the worst in him, especially the compulsive womanizing that had doomed her parents’ marriage from the outset. Through the years, she would speak with cringe-inducing glee of his having bedded another woman during his and Janet’s honeymoon. She loved that, on a subsequent occasion, he had been photographed affectionately holding a pretty girl’s hand while, a few inches away, poor oblivious Janet smiled idiotically and stared in the other direction. When, as often as possible, he visited Farmington, Jackie delighted in quizzing him about which of her classmates’ mothers he had already slept with and which he had in his sights. Many years afterward, when she was herself a wife and mother, she liked to reminisce about how all her boarding school friends had adored Black Jack. They regarded him, in Jackie’s telling, as “a most devastating figure.” Had she been aware that a number of the girls thought him a cartoonish dirty old man? When certain of her classmates laughingly shook their backsides at him, did she register that they were making cruel fun of the parent they regarded as a repulsive lecher? Had she really been oblivious to the insult? Or had she just pretended not to notice? Such perhaps was Jackie’s craft that, then and in retrospect, her father’s tormentors could never be sure.

A Yale man himself, Black Jack delivered Jackie in his black Mercury convertible in time for her to meet her date before the 1:30 P.M. kickoff. Previously, she had confessed to being rather nervous in anticipation of the big day, which was to conclude with dinner and dancing in New York. Though she had yet to choose between John and Bev, she would be attached to one of her suitors for the course of the day while the other tagged along. The choreography threatened to prove awkward. At the Yale Bowl, which had attracted a smaller crowd than anticipated due to icy temperatures, she and her Harvard friends watched the Elis trounce their team by a score of 28–0. When it was over, Jackie’s group took a yellow trolley to the train station. En route to Manhattan, Jackie, a smoker since she was fifteen, made a game of lighting up whenever the conductor was not looking. In New York, John dropped her off at her father’s apartment so she could change. That night, the couple’s first stop was the Maisonette, an East Fifty-fifth Street supper club where the singer Dorothy Shay, known as the Park Avenue hillbilly and a particular favorite of New York debutantes and post-debutantes, was performing. Jackie to this point seems to have had little trouble navigating between the Interesting Boy and the Sexy Boy. But everything changed when she and John joined Bev at his table and she discovered that Bev had acquired a date in the interim. Worse, she spotted his prep school ring, as she later said, blazing away on the young woman’s left hand. Seated between the two boys at dinner, Jackie reveled in the amount of attention she received from Bev, though technically he was with someone else. Still, she needed only to glance at that ring for her pleasure to be spoiled.

By the summer of 1946, when Jackie turned seventeen, glands had trumped mind. The physical attractions of Bev Corbin won out over John Sterling’s intellectual appeal. Tall, lean, and muscular, with a long neck, high cheekbones, and a handsome face whose only flaw was a weak mouth, Bev seemed nothing if not cocky and confident. It struck her that gossipy banter about New York, its nightspots, and the people he knew there was about as serious as he was capable of getting. But then, she had not anointed him for the quality of his conversation. Besides, he made her laugh, and “sweet” was a word she used about him repeatedly. Late one night after a dance in Newport, Jackie brought Bev back to the Auchincloss estate. In the kitchen of the twenty-eight-room gabled Victorian house, she scrambled some eggs for him. Jackie seemed so at home at Hammersmith Farm, yet there was an element of illusion in that picture of ease and entitlement. From the first, she and her sister, Lee, four years her junior, had not been on the same footing in Hughdie’s establishments as his three children from two previous marriages. As Jackie was not blood, the riches that surrounded her were not and never would be hers. Her monthly fifty-dollar pittance came from Black Jack, who also paid her tuition at Farmington, as well as medical and dental expenses. Appearances to the contrary, Jackie was a poor relation. The rambling house on the hill, with its faded crimson carpets, comfortable old furniture, and walls covered with looming moose, bear, and reindeer heads, was but a vast stage set for her.

When Jackie and Bev began their senior years at Miss Porter’s and Harvard, respectively, they regarded themselves as a couple. For some girls, Miss Porter’s functioned, as it long had, as a finishing school. Upon graduation they considered themselves finished—that is, ready for a proper husband. Other seniors preferred to continue their schooling, whether at a junior college, an art school, or a full-fledged four-year college. In Jackie’s day, Miss Porter’s placed new emphasis on college preparation. Still, for those who chose college, as for those who did not, the nearly universal objective was marriage. Few girls saw college as the prelude to a serious career of one’s own. Seniors like Jackie who, though they had yet to be introduced to society, had already had established boyfriends appeared to be on a fast track to married life. For them, college could be a good place to wait until the boys were ready to become husbands. As Jackie solemnly advised a friend, the reason so many boys resisted marrying immediately was that they needed time to establish themselves in business. Besides, she stressed, marriages were so much more likely to last when the boys had had a chance to “sow their wild oats first.” For her part, Jackie was keen to attend Sarah Lawrence, mainly, it appears, because of the school’s proximity to Manhattan and its nightlife. Black Jack insisted that she select the rather more isolated and inconvenient Vassar. Though after a preliminary visit Jackie despairingly described Vassar as a huge lonely place, in the end Black Jack gave her no choice but to capitulate.

Meanwhile, addressing Bev as “darling” and “dearest,” she recorded her ever-shifting feelings for him in blue ink on pale blue monogrammed stationery. Since she rarely saw Bev now that they were both at school, there was a sense in which the relationship existed more on paper than in reality, more in her head than in the flesh. She spent many hours alone, reading about romantic love, contemplating what it means to be in love. Keenly, she dwelled on the pleasures to come when she and Bev could be together. Yet when she was actually with him, more often than not he was a disappointment to her and she pulled back. In the beginning, Jackie had admitted to being ashamed of liking him as much as she did. Now it was Bev’s turn to be embarrassed.

Jackie had not seen him for a good many weeks when, on a Saturday afternoon in October, he materialized at Farmington in the role of a caller. In accord with tradition, Bev arrived at two P.M. and departed after tea at the headmaster’s residence. At some point in between, the twenty-two-year-old made a blundering attempt to kiss Jackie, who refused him. Writing afterward, she sought to assuage his hurt. “I do love you—and can love you without kissing you every time I see you and I hope you understand that.” As Christmas drew near, her fantasy of Bev seemed to recover from the ambivalence that a dash of reality, in the form of actually seeing him, had provoked. Suddenly, she could hardly wait to be with Bev in New York during the holiday break. Yet when at length she did meet him there, the experience proved as awkward and unhappy as before. At Rockefeller Center, Bev again tried to kiss her, and again she pulled away. He charged Jackie with not loving him.

“I do think I’m in love with you when I’m with you,” she wrote initially. “But it’s awfully hard for me to stay in love with someone when I only see them every three months and when the only contact I have with them is through letters.” Unfortunately for Bev, there was worse in store. The more opportunity she had to reflect, the less willing she was to try to talk herself into believing that she loved him. At the outset of their correspondence, she had aimed to fashion a voice that was “devastatingly witty.” A year and a half later, her words of January 20, 1946, were simply devastating. “I’ve always thought of being in love as being willing to do anything for the other person—starve to buy them bread and not mind living in Siberia with them—and I’ve always thought that every minute away from them would be hell—so looking at it that [way] I guess I’m not in love with you.”

Behind his back, Jackie was even harsher. Bemoaning to another girl that Bev would never be much in the world, she predicted he would be content to be a party boy for the rest of his life. Despite Jackie’s complete disillusionment, she and her first real boyfriend continued to correspond. He still visited her at Farmington, and in anticipation she merrily urged him to smuggle in cigarettes, chocolate, and even a hip flask, the latter expressly to shock the housemother charged with keeping order in the dormitory. Bev’s passion for Jackie showed no sign of abating. On her side, however, fire had turned to ice. For Jackie, as for other Farmington girls, everything ultimately was about marriage and the future. Bev seemed incapable of a future she might actually want to share. Pointedly, Jackie had once asked him if he could think of anything worse than living in a small town like Farmington all one’s life and competing to see which housewife could bake the best cake. She made it clear that she had higher ideas for herself than such a hidebound existence, yet she remained fuzzy about specifics. At seventeen, she was able to conceive of the future largely in negatives. Called on for the purposes of her class yearbook entry to state her life’s ambition, Jackie flung back: “Not to be a housewife.”

In Newport that summer, Jackie officially entered the marriage market. Positioned alongside Janet and Hughdie, who were also celebrating the christening of their second child together, Jackie “met” three hundred of the couple’s friends at a tea dance at Hammersmith Farm. No matter that Janet’s newborn son, as well as a daughter born two years before, bore a completely different relationship to the household than Jackie did. The optics of Jackie’s debut seemed to confer upon her the Auchincloss imprimatur. Daughters of divorced parents often had two separate debut parties. For example, Jackie’s friend Helen Bowdoin, known as “Bow,” was formally presented by her very rich father at his home in Oyster Bay, Long Island, before being feted in Newport by her mother and stepfather. Both events were listed in the same notice in The New York Times. By contrast, on the occasion of Jackie’s debut, it was as if her real father did not exist. He was not even mentioned in the Times announcement.

Black Jack’s exclusion from anything to do with his daughter’s social emergence was a triumph for Janet. Despite her status as the chatelaine of two estates, she remained imaginatively invested in the futile, unending war with her failed, frenzied ex-husband. As far as Janet was concerned, in the financially desperate pre-Auchincloss years when the girls lived with her and spent weekends with their father it had been easy for him to arrange to be the parent they always had fun with. In those days, Jackie had spoken of wanting to run away and move in with her father, and she had often gone so far as to tell Janet that she hated her. Long afterward, Janet, forgetting apparently that she had been a drinker, a yeller, a carper, a spanker, and a slapper, persisted in brooding about the injustice of Black Jack’s favored status. At the time of Jackie’s debut, when he reproached Janet for having presented their daughter under the Auchincloss banner in Newport, Janet retorted that he was free to give his own party for Jackie in New York. With an additional twist of the knife, she asked whether that was not the custom among divorced parents. What could Black Jack say? Obviously, financing such an event was beyond him.

In the fall semester of 1947, the photograph of Black Jack Bouvier taken in the 1920s went up in a college dormitory room, which was soon deluged with engraved invitations addressed to his eighteen-year-old daughter. Rarely spending seven consecutive days at “that goddamn Vassar,” as Jackie referred to her school, she was observed at nearly every major event of New York’s debutante season. She appeared among weeping willow branches and strings of clematis at the Tuxedo Autumn Ball. She posed at a table decorated with pink carnations and pompon chrysanthemums at the Grosvenor Ball. She danced before a background of artfully arranged tropical tree ferns at the first Junior Assembly. Genteel New York, as she experienced it that year, was a whirligig of large, lavish parties, intimate dinners beforehand, midnight champagne suppers, and special breakfasts for those revelers who stayed out all night. Despite the appearance of sybaritism, the purpose of these rituals was something other than pleasure. Tacitly understood by all, the objective of a debutante year was twofold: first, to show the suitable marriageable girls to the suitable marriageable boys, and vice versa (when Jackie was not in Manhattan for the weekend, there was further opportunity to consult the menu of possible husbands during football outings at Harvard and Yale), and second, to provide the debs with a preview of their future lives as wealthy, leisured married women who would be expected to pour their energies into volunteer work. Most of the classic cotillions therefore were fund-raisers. Exchanging the strapless gowns she wore at night for boxy sober suits that made her look like the young society matron she was expected soon to become, Jackie served on a number of junior committees. In November she was appointed to lead a committee tasked with organizing a night at the opera to benefit a free milk fund for ill and indigent children.

Every year, Igor Cassini, who wrote a gossip column for the Hearst newspapers under the pen name Cholly Knickerbocker, designated a leading debutante. Typically, Cassini focused on one of the showier, better-looking society girls who had made their debuts in New York that season. This time, however, the arbiter did something different. He named Jackie Queen Deb because he had perceived what certain of her rivals also had seen. She was shy and reserved, at times to the point of standoffishness, yet she had a knack of compelling attention, of getting herself noticed.

For rich American girls, as well as for those merely pretending to be rich, a European grand tour had long been part of the momentum toward marriage. They went to view the art and antiquity, to see and appreciate everything, and thereby, in theory at least, to become more entertaining companions for their future husbands. Bow, Jackie’s Newport friend, was set to travel to Europe that summer of 1948, accompanied by a younger sister and another girl. At length, it was arranged that Queen Deb would go with them. A chaperone was hired; hotels, cars, and local tour guides were reserved; and nearly every hour of the seven-week trip to England, France, Italy, and Switzerland was blocked out and accounted for in advance. The goal was for the quartet to be able to explore the continent without ever having to emerge from a protective bubble. Still, so soon after 1945 there could be no shielding the young travelers from sights and sensations well outside their accustomed sphere of life. England, where the wreckage of war remained everywhere evident, made the strongest impression on them. The American girls, with their wide-brimmed straw hats and elbow-length white gloves, happened to be traveling at a moment of acute international tension, when the Soviet decision to sever Western road and rail access to Berlin threatened to spark a third world war.

At a garden party at Buckingham Palace (to which Bow’s stepfather, Edward H. Foley Jr., undersecretary of the Treasury in the Truman administration, had secured an invitation for them), Jackie and the others went down the receiving line twice in order to shake the hand of Winston Churchill, like de Gaulle one of Jackie’s particular heroes. Though widely regarded as the savior of his country, Churchill had been hurled from power in 1945. At the time Jackie saw him, in 1948, Churchill, ignoring demands that he retire as head of the Conservative Party, was maneuvering to become prime minister again. He hoped to “round out” his career by settling the unfinished business left at the end of the war when the last of the Big Three meetings, the Potsdam Conference, had broken off without resolving the matter of the ongoing Soviet presence in Eastern and Central Europe.

Jackie came home at the end of August and spent the last days of summer at Hammersmith Farm. She was nineteen and her year was over. Ostensibly, as Number One Deb she had been more successful than most of her peers. Yet in the one way that really mattered, the deb experience had backfired for her. At length, having seen all the suitable bachelors, Jackie balked. “Not because of them,” she later said, “but because of their life.” The distinction was crucial. Previously, she had cast off Bev Corbin because of his individual limitations, as she perceived them. Now she was inclined to rule out the entire group of young men that had just been confidently presented to her as the cream of the haut bourgeois crop. Most were in business, finance, or law. It was by no means the idea of marriage she had rebelled against, just marriage to any of them. It certainly was not their money she objected to, just how they and their families chose to live with all that wealth. Having previewed what it would be like to be the committee-minded wife of one of these vanilla fellows, all with the right pedigrees and jobs, she realized it was not for her. There was a bland predictability to what they offered, and she was eager for an alternative. As to what that other option might be, she had yet to form a definite conclusion. “I didn’t know what I wanted,” Jackie said years afterward of the quandary that beset her when she was nineteen. “I was still floundering.” In conventional terms, her grand tour also had failed to work out quite as it was supposed to. Abroad, she had had her first hurried but tantalizing glimpses of some unfamiliar vistas. What she sought now was the chance for a more leisurely look.

She found it in the form of a notice on a bulletin board at Vassar, where she had begun her sophomore year. Smith, another of the elite Seven Sisters schools, offered a junior year of study in Europe. In the absence of such a program at Vassar, Jackie sought permission to join the Smith group. Her partner in the endeavor was another Miss Porter’s graduate who had gone on to Vassar, Ellen Gates. Puffin, as everyone called her, had been one of the Farmington girls who had thought Black Jack Bouvier a cartoonish dirty old man. At college, Puffin had sustained a friendship with Jackie based in part on the fact that both were exceedingly restless in Poughkeepsie, the Hudson River town where the campus was set. The friends also shared an interest in art. Unlike Jackie, however, Puffin had a steady boyfriend. Russell D’Oench Jr., who had attended the same prep school as Jackie’s old Newport beaux, was then working in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. When he learned that Puffin intended to go to Paris for a year, he proposed that she marry him instead. In keeping with the perception of college as a convenient place to park oneself for a few years, it was routine for girls of their caste to drop out before completing a degree. Faced with the choice of Paris or a husband, Puffin chose the latter. Previously in letters to Bev, Jackie had flashed disdain for the insular, unadventurous life. Now again, she voiced her contempt in a poem addressed to Puffin. In the past, she had targeted cake-baking Farmington housewives. This time, she aimed her shafts at Puffin’s future mode of life. The mocking text read in part: “Instead of boating on the Seine, alas, Puffin’s floating down the drain in Pittsfield, Mass.”

And it was not just Puffin. Other girls Jackie knew were beginning to marry precisely the sort of young men she was so eager to elude. Clearly, the rites and rituals had not failed to work for everyone. It was only natural that this year a good number of the invitations accumulating in Jackie’s dormitory room were to engagement parties and weddings. Notable among the impending marriages was that of her friend Bow, with whom she had traveled to Europe the year before. In June 1949, Jackie served as Bow’s bridesmaid. As it turned out, she would not be available to do the same for Puffin. In August, Puffin was awaiting her September nuptials when Jackie sailed for France.

The Smith group went first to Grenoble for an intensive six-week language course. In October they moved on to Paris to study French civilization and history at the Sorbonne. Rather than live in a dormitory, Jackie preferred to board in a household where only French would be spoken. During the war, she had followed press accounts of the French Resistance. Now she landed in the apartment of a woman who, along with her late husband, had participated in the struggle against the Nazi occupation and the Vichy regime. Eventually, both the Count and Countess de Renty had been arrested and sent to a concentration camp, where he perished. Four years after the war, the countess survived financially by taking in boarders. Fuel was so expensive that her rooms were often almost unbearably cold. Swathed in sweaters, scarves, earmuffs, and woolen stockings, Jackie, writing in graph-paper notebooks with mittened hands, did much of her schoolwork in bed. At sixteen, she had monitored the trial of Marshal Pétain and its aftermath. At twenty, she found herself in an environment where some of the very questions the Pétain affair had raised, about France’s anguished recent past, but also about its postwar future, were being played out daily. She loved experiencing Paris as she could never have done when she visited under more guarded and gilded circumstances. She enjoyed spending part of the day as a university student and then, as she wrote home, “like the maid on her day out, putting on a fur coat … and being swanky at the Ritz.” She prized the sense she had in France that in her dealings with others, men included, she need not conceal that she had a mind. Prior to her year in Europe, Jackie had lamented the stultifying sameness of the young men she knew and of the futures they seemed to offer. Paris suggested a bouillabaisse of other options. She dated authors, titled aristocrats, junior diplomats, political aspirants. The significance of these men in Jackie’s story is not that she actually considered marrying any of them. It is that by their very existence, they confirmed that there were positive alternatives to the life she had seen looming ahead of her in Newport and New York, a life she remained determined to avoid.

Still, that life continued to beckon when she returned to Newport late in the summer of 1950. There were new engagement announcements, new wedding invitations, and requests that she serve as a bridesmaid. Puffin, who had chosen not to accompany Jackie to Paris, had just had her first child. By the standards of her group, Jackie was simply not where she ought to have been at the age of twenty-one. By this point, many of the most sought-after men of her year had already been taken. To make matters worse, another massive wave of debutantes—younger, fresher, less familiar to the eye—was about to break in New York. Highlighting the pressure of fleeting time in Jackie’s case was that her sister Lee had already begun her deb year. The Bouvier girls had long been rivals, with Lee almost always cast as the lesser light. Nineteen fifty, however, was very much Lee’s period overall. Presented by her mother and stepfather at Merrywood, the family’s ivied Georgian-style winter home in Virginia, Lee made a second formal bow to society at the Junior Assembly in New York. Like her sister before her, she was crowned Queen Deb, but Lee differed from Jackie in being smaller, more fine-boned, and more exquisitely featured. At the time, she also tended to be the more stylishly dressed. Regarded as the prettier, sexier, and more accessible of the Bouvier girls, Lee was hugely popular with the young society men of whom Jackie claimed to want no part.

Loath to return to Vassar, Jackie transferred to George Washington University, where she majored in French while living at Merrywood. She had been in no hurry to come back from Europe, and now she yearned for the more flavorful life she had had there. In October she entered Vogue magazine’s annual Prix de Paris contest for female college seniors. The top prize was a yearlong junior editorship: six months at the New York office and, crucially from her point of view, six in Paris. Her submission materials included an arch account of herself (“As to physical appearance, I am tall, 5'7", with brown hair, a square face and eyes so unfortunately far apart that it takes three weeks to have a pair of glasses made with a bridge wide enough to fit over my nose”) and an essay on the three figures of history she would like to have known: Charles Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde, and Sergei Diaghilev. Jackie beat out more than a thousand girls from more than two hundred colleges, and was asked to report for her first day of work in the fall. In the meantime, Hughdie, under pressure from Jackie and Lee, had agreed to send the sisters to Europe for the summer, in honor of their graduation from George Washington and Miss Porter’s, respectively.

Before Jackie sailed in June, she accepted an invitation to dine at the home of friends in Georgetown. Charles Bartlett, a thirty-year-old correspondent for The Chattanooga Times, had first met Jackie some years before in East Hampton, Long Island, where the Bouviers summered, and he had dated her briefly in the interim. Now he and his wife, Martha, who had married the previous December and were expecting their first child, sought to play matchmaker. The purpose of the dinner party was to introduce Jackie to a thirty-four-year-old congressman from Massachusetts named John F. Kennedy. As it happened, she had previously met her voluble, boyishly attractive, dryly humorous dinner partner, who had long, skinny arms and legs, long, pale lashes over ice-blue eyes, and a mop of reddish hair, and looked substantially younger than his age: When she was still at Vassar, Jack Kennedy, as he was known, had flirted with Queen Deb on a train between Washington and New York. At the time his efforts had come to naught, and so it was again in 1951 when at evening’s end he followed Jackie outside. “Shall we go someplace and have a drink?” Kennedy’s murmured invitation fell flat. While Jackie was at dinner, a male friend of hers had spotted her battered convertible parked in front of the Bartlett residence and had concealed himself in the backseat to surprise her. Having found him there, Jackie declined the drinks offer and drove off with her friend. Kennedy, an incorrigible skirt chaser, had made the effort expected of him by his hosts, but he was not so smitten that he attempted to call Jackie afterward. In any case, for all of Charles and Martha’s enthusiasm for the match, it hardly seemed to matter that Kennedy did not follow up. Jackie was soon off to Europe, and on her return was due to be away from Washington for at least a year.

At length, only the first part of her plan came to fruition, however. On the day Jackie started at Vogue headquarters in New York, the magazine’s managing editor, Carol Phillips, sensed the twenty-two-year-old’s ambivalence. After twelve months, Jackie would be perilously near an age beyond which young women of her background became increasingly less marriageable. Was Jackie really willing to take that risk? The Vogue editor perceived something in her that suggested she was not. Skidding between kindness and condescension, Phillips advised the younger woman to go back to Washington immediately, saying, “That’s where all the boys are.” The encounter seemed to unnerve Jackie. Instead of spending the anticipated year at Vogue, she did not last beyond that first day.

Living again with her mother and stepfather at Merrywood, Jackie began to attend Washington parties and dances frequented by the sort of young men she had previously ruled out. She was also soon looking for a job in the capital. A position at the CIA was in play for a time, but before long another possibility materialized. On her behalf, Hughdie approached a journalist friend, Arthur Krock of The New York Times, who had a history of placing “little girls,” as he called them, at the Times-Herald, a conservative, colorful, and often controversial Washington paper that had been among the national publications to tout Jackie as Queen Deb. Its editor, Frank Waldrop, had made journalistic history when his paper was first in the nation to report the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Times-Herald looked to inexperienced girls like Jackie, many of them finishing-school graduates, as a source of fresh, unconventional points of view, not to mention cheap labor. Initially, Waldrop used certain of these girls as gofers in his office, both to assess what they were capable of and to give them a chance to see if the rowdy atmosphere at the Times-Herald suited them. If the new hires survived, he sent them on to other jobs at the paper. When Jackie came to see him shortly before Christmas, he demanded to know whether she intended merely to “hang around” until she got married. In this respect, he exhibited the same skepticism about her that the Vogue editor had shown. Eager to be hired, Jackie assured him she wanted a career in journalism. Waldrop told her to go home for the holidays and report to work after the first of the year. In parting, he warned her not to come to him in six months with the news that she was engaged.

Hardly had Jackie had that conversation when she met John G. W. Husted Jr. at a seasonal party for which he had driven down from New York. The twenty-four-year-old stockbroker, who had powerful shoulders, a high, slightly protruding forehead, and bright, clear, expectant eyes, was unmistakably of the milieu she had been in flight from since she was nineteen. He had been to prep school and to Yale, he worked at a prominent Wall Street firm, he belonged to exclusive clubs, his family was listed in the Social Register and had homes in Bedford Hills and Nantucket. Nevertheless, at this point John Husted appealed to the romantic element in Jackie. For him, their initial encounter was a coup de foudre. When he first saw her, Jackie had recently cut off her shoulder-length hair in favor of a feather cut that gave her a distinctly gamine look. Taken by what he perceived to be her sensitivity and vulnerability, he compared her to a deer that has just come out of the woods and beheld its first human being. The suddenness of Husted’s feelings for her, and the swiftness with which he acted on them, harmonized with her bookish notions of romantic love. In the days that followed, he called her often, and soon she was traveling to New York to see him. On a snowy December day on Madison Avenue, she who tended to be so cautious and so fastidious acted impulsively, agreeing to marry this young man she had not even known the month before. Later, she wrote Bev Corbin suggesting that, given the speed with which she had become engaged, this time it really must be love.

“What I hope for you,” she grandly told her spurned former boyfriend, “is for the same thing to happen as quickly and as surely as it did with me. It will when you least expect it.” No sooner had Jackie assured Bev of all this than she was overcome by doubt. A meeting with her intended’s mother proved to be a debacle. A former Farmington girl herself, Helen Armstrong Husted had had a debutante’s pattern career. She had been presented to society twenty-eight years previously, had married a banker shortly after that, and had long been active in volunteer work. Everything about her background was intensely familiar, but for Jackie that was very much the problem. The sweet, shy, elfin child John Husted had fallen in love with seems to have been scarcely in evidence the day he brought her home to David’s Brook in Bedford Hills. Alarmingly, Jackie became snippy when Mrs. Husted produced some family picture albums documenting a life the young woman was expected soon to become part of—indeed, to carry on in a new generation. Rudely, she refused her hostess’s offer of a childhood image of John, commenting that if she wanted a photograph of him, she was capable of taking one herself. As if tone-deaf to the implications of that dispiriting exchange, John went on to make a huge mistake: He presented Jackie with a sapphire-and-diamond engagement ring that had previously belonged to his mother. Jackie wore that ornament for several weeks thereafter, and it is tempting to imagine it blazing away on her finger as she read a new novel that, to her amazement, seemed to clarify her situation uncannily.

The book was Sybil, and its author was thirty-four-year-old Louis Auchincloss, whose father was Hughdie’s first cousin and whose grandfather had built Hammersmith Farm. The novel’s heroine is a young New York woman who becomes a most reluctant participant in the marital sweepstakes that are of such compelling interest to others in her opulent milieu. For all of Sybil Rodman’s gestures toward escape, in the end she is drawn ineluctably into precisely the kind of hemmed-in existence she had hoped to avoid. For all of her apparent “spunk” and individuality, at last she proves deficient in the qualities of courage and determination that would make it possible to break free. This protagonist does not triumph so much as resign herself to the inevitable. The book’s icily ironic final vignette portrays poor Sybil, her capitulation to her husband’s family complete, being toasted by her exultant mother-in-law and other members of “the assembled tribe.”

“Oh, you’ve written my life,” Jackie told beak-nosed “cousin” Louis when she encountered him at an Auchincloss family dinner in Washington not long after she had read his novel. He knew what it felt like to want to free oneself from a certain society, to create a new and different kind of life. Tracked to become a lawyer like his father, he had long aspired to be a writer. It was not that he wished altogether to remove himself from the luxe Wasp world of his New York upbringing, but rather to paint that world with ironic detachment in novels and short stories. His loving but overbearing parents had pressured him to publish previous fiction under a nom de plume for fear that his books might damage his legal career. Sybil was the first work to appear under his own name. When he and Jackie talked that evening, he was still in crisis over how he intended to live the rest of his life.

But it was Jackie’s future they spoke of when, after a meal that had included a champagne toast on the joyous occasion of her engagement, they sat together in a corner apart from the others. Officially set to marry in June, Jackie pictured her life as the wife of such a man as she had finally chosen. Louis’s new book had helped her see it all so clearly, and like the character in the novel, she seemed grimly resigned to the inevitable. “That’s it. That’s my future,” Jackie declared. “I’ll be a Sybil Husted.”

Copyright © 2014 by Barbara Leaming

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