Why we can’t get enough of Jackie (Washington, DC and nearby Virginia locales, also Cape Cod, Greece, NYC; 1952 – 1977): Jackie Kennedy knew she was “capable of shaping history.” Once upon a time, she was “the most elegant woman in the world.” A “fairy tale” era that came to be known as Camelot, a name Jackie came up with inspired by a myth that inspired a classic Once and Future King and a Broadway musical.
On November 22, 1963 a grieving nation, guided by a widowed thirty-three-year old First Lady of enormous strength, grace, and courage holding the hands of her two precious young children, stood in shock when all the energy and hope of that era erased, except “for one brief shining moment.” (Lyrics from the musical in the preface.)
Camelot – the idea of it, belief in it, even if for too brief a time – one-thousand and thirty-six days frozen in time. And They Called It Camelot is a timeless gift, even if it wasn’t all Camelot. Those were the days of impossible dreams. Will they ever pass our way again?
Camelot is the stuff of legends, like our 35th President whose “smiles were blinding happiness” and his famously admired wife alongside, because she, like JFK, had her eyes on history.
Part of Jackie’s timelessness is her mystique, which Stephanie Marie Thornton splendidly imagines with historically rich details in her second contemporary historical novel, showing how carefully constructed her aura was. “I honed the image of quiet refinement for so long that it was difficult to tell where the act ended and the real Jackie began.”
What did America mean to Jackie? What did Jackie mean to America? Why does she captivate us so?
Thornton answers by capturing Jackie’s multi-sided voice that’s more often than not quite different than the confident and “picture perfect wife” she projected. “No one – including Jack – knew what I was thinking,” she says as if confiding in us. She knew how to get what she wanted, her toughness and shrewdness disguised by impeccable gracefulness. Thornton aims to pull away the veil of her mystique, if only for too brief a time: nearly 500 pages that whiz by.
The author rises to the challenge, imagining Jackie’s voice as playful, self-deprecating, sardonic, politically savvy, and much smarter than a woman was given credit for, showing the world that “women were able to finesse politics as well as a man.”
Well-bred and fluent in, or familiar with, five languages, the Jacqueline Bouvier the “debonair Congressman” courted had lived in and loved Paris, which gave her an elite education and a great appreciation for the arts, literature, history, culture, and fashion. JFK “didn’t make me choose between my intellect and love” to history’s great benefits.
Jackie knew what she was getting into when she married the man whose “air crackled around” him. Thornton does a marvelous job coming up with ways to describe JFK’s charisma as the “sun we all orbited.” Which means Jackie knew about other women. Rumors appear to be true, including the humiliating affair with Marilyn Monroe Jackie ended, as the author has done impressive research (bibliography listed). Jackie learned to look away, but that didn’t mean a piece of her wasn’t taken.
She did what she did out of love, not only for JFK – Jack to his family and friends – but for her country and her beloved children, Caroline and John F. Kennedy Jr., John-John to us. Motherhood, her “greatest victory in life.” Many of us may not know the depths of what that meant until now as Jackie excelled at hiding her pain, like the President did.
We knew JFK suffered from back pain, injured in an heroic WWII PT boat survival story, complicated by a disease of the adrenal glands (Addison’s), but we may not have known the extent of what he went through to cope with excruciating pain, nor that Jackie saved him in two gripping literary scenes.
“Just how much was he willing to hide?” Jackie wondered before she married him. More important to Jackie’s story: How much was she willing to take? Far more than we knew.
Fashion was very much part of her story, as it is here. History owes a debt to her Paris-born designer Oleg Cassini, who matched Jackie’s French tastes for elegance. Theirs a close relationship as he was the one who created her iconic style, copied by millions.
But that famous pink suit and pillbox hat bloodied when she cradled her husband in the back seat of an open convertible (she wanted it closed but JFK said no) when they were campaigning for a second-term in Dallas, Texas will not be on public display until 2031, a decision Caroline made to honor her mother’s desires for privacy she’d given up for so many years. Caroline is portrayed as a remarkably sensitive daughter and enormous comfort at tender ages.
For someone who seemed so calm, Jackie was attracted to JFK for his “intensity.” An understatement as he was driven by a fear to live everyday as if it were his last, having come close to death a few times too many. That was his explanation for repeatedly straying, as he loved and needed Jackie. She felt the same. Forgiveness, though, one of the hardest things to do.
A love of French furniture led Jackie to one of her crowning achievements: a major renovation of a “shabby” White House she transformed into a proud display of American history and “a showcase for great American artists and creative talent.” An Americanized version of European palaces like “Versailles and Buckingham.” Sixty million Americans were glued to their TV sets watching this video of Jackie Kennedy’s White House tour:
There’s so much more to say about Jackie’s highs and lows. Three selected to highlight Jackie’s spirit, sacrifices, and ability to love unconditionally.
She loved Joe Kennedy Sr., the Kennedy matriarch, “like a father” despite the scandals surrounding the former UK Ambassador who harbored his own presidential ambitions. Their wonderfully fond relationship cemented when he found Cassini for her. Their closeness is poignantly depicted in two crucial scenes when the Kennedy clan could not bear to tell him things, leaving it to Jackie to do.
Bobby, JFK’s devoted younger brother America also loved, takes center stage when his grief was as profound as Jackie’s. As Jackie’s “secret rock in the center of life,” the two are seen as soulmates clinging to each other. Yet their emotional intimacy apparently questioned by the media as being more. In Thornton’s perceptive hands what we see are two people of great character holding on to each other as if their lives depended on it, which it feels like it did.
After Bobby’s assassination, which led to our believing in a Kennedy Curse, Thornton helps us understand the hard-to-reconcile Jackie O’ (Aristotle Onassis) years on a Greek island. By the time we read about her contentment as a NYC editor for Doubleday we’re smiling from ear to ear. After all, she “loved books and words” since she was six.
Chapters are lengthy as they tell chunks of time, until Jackie’s (and a nation’s) grief moves slowly as anguish and despair overwhelm. It’s not until Jackie moves to Manhattan overlooking Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art that we feel her come alive again, when time moves faster again.
Through it all, Jackie found “beauty and hope, if only we dare to look hard enough.” A message to savor during these daunting historical times.