MOURNING IN AMERICA James Auchincloss, Lady Bird Johnson, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, Sargent Shriver, Jacqueline Kennedy, Stephen Smith, and Senator Edward Kennedy in President John F. Kennedy’s funeral procession, Washington, D.C., November 25, 1963., © Henri Dauman/daumanpictures.com.
During the long winter of 1963, during the lonely nights that seemed to never end, the wakeful nights that no quantity of vodka could assuage, Jackie Kennedy would relive the sliver of time between the first gunshot, which had missed the car, and the second, which hit both the president and Texas governor John Connally. Those three and a half seconds became of cardinal importance to her. In the course of her marriage, she had constructed herself as Jack Kennedy’s one-woman Praetorian Guard—against the doctors, against the political antagonists, against the journalists, even against anyone in his own circle who, to her perception, would do him harm. So, again and again that winter of 1963-64, she rehearsed the same brief sequence. If only she had been looking to the right, she told herself, she might have saved her husband. If only she had recognized the sound of the first shot, she could have pulled him down in time.
It was Monday, December 2, and she and the children had returned from Cape Cod the night before in anticipation of moving out of the White House family quarters at the end of the week so that Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson could move in. Jackie had initially hoped to be ready to go on Tuesday, but the move had had to be put off until Friday. She was to move temporarily to a borrowed house on N Street in Georgetown, three blocks from the house where the John F. Kennedys had lived at the time he was elected president. Packing had begun in her absence, but in the course of the next few days she planned to pick through her husband’s wardrobe herself in order to determine which items to keep and which to disperse. Helpers laid out the president’s clothes on sofas and racks for her to inspect. Seeming to connect the irrational death of her young husband and the loss of the two babies, Arabella (who was stillborn in 1956) and Patrick (who died at two days old in August 1963), Jackie also planned to immediately transfer the remains of both of them from Holyhood Cemetery, in Brookline, Massachusetts, to beside their father’s grave, in Arlington. As far as she was concerned, there was not a moment to be lost. The secret burial was set to take place that week under the auspices of Bishop Philip Hannan, who, at Jackie’s request, had given the eulogy for President Kennedy at St. Matthew’s Cathedral. It remained only for Teddy Kennedy, youngest of the Kennedy brothers, to fly in the remains of both children on the family jet.
In the weeks following the assassination, Jackie was, as she later said of herself at this point, “not in any condition to make much sense of anything.” In spite of that, she had yet to move out of the White House when she was confronted by the need to make an immediate decision about the first of the assassination books to be commissioned. Author Jim Bishop, whose previous titles included The Day Lincoln Was Shot and The Day Christ Died, was first out of the gate with his planned The Day Kennedy Was Shot, but other writers no doubt were soon to follow. Appalled at the prospect of this same painful material, as she said, endlessly “coming up, coming up,” she decided to block Bishop and others by designating one author who would have her exclusive approval to tell the story of the events of November 22. Finally, she settled on a writer who, curiously, had voiced no interest in undertaking such a project and had no idea he was under consideration. Nor, at the time Jackie chose (she later used the word “hired”) William Manchester, had she ever even met him. Manchester was a 41-year-old ex-Marine who had suffered what his medical-discharge papers described as “traumatic lesions of the brain” during the carnage on Okinawa in 1945. Among his seven previous books was a flattering study of J.F.K. called Portrait of a President, galleys of which Manchester had transmitted to the White House in advance of publication so that the president might have an opportunity, should he desire it, to alter any of his own quotes. Now, at a moment when Jackie could do nothing to stanch the flow of her recollections of Dallas, she selected Manchester because, she judged, he at least would be manageable.
Prior to the move to N Street, Jackie; Bobby Kennedy; her mother, Janet Auchincloss; her sister, Lee Radziwill; and a few others gathered at night at Arlington National Cemetery to re-inter Arabella and Patrick. She and Bishop Hannan deposited the heartbreakingly small white caskets on the ground near Jack’s freshly dug grave. Given what he saw to be the state of her emotions, the bishop elected to say only a short prayer, at the conclusion of which Jackie sighed deeply and audibly. While he walked her back to her limousine, she broached certain of the conundrums that had been torturing her since Dallas as she struggled to comprehend events that, after all, could not be explained in any rational terms. To the bishop’s perception, she spoke of these things “as if her life depended on it—which perhaps it did.”
As he and the widow were not alone, he wondered whether it might not be, in his words, more appropriate if they continued their talk elsewhere. He thought perhaps it would be better to meet in his rectory or at the White House, but Jackie continued to pour out her concerns notwithstanding. She did not care who else heard her speak of such intensely private matters. Her behavior in this respect was sharply out of character for a woman who, as her mother said, tended to cover her feelings, but she had all these urgent questions and she demanded answers: Why, she wanted to know, had God allowed her husband to die like this? What possible reason could there be for it? She emphasized the senselessness of Jack’s being killed at a time when he still had so much more to offer. “Eventually,” the bishop recalled in his memoir The Archbishop Wore Combat Boots, “the conversation turned more personal.” Jackie spoke of her unease with the role that the American public had thrust upon her in the aftermath of Dallas. “She understood that she was forever destined to have to deal with public opinion, the differing, not always flattering feelings toward her. But she did not want to be a public figure…. Already, however, it was clear that the world viewed her, not as a woman, but as a symbol of its own pain.”
The unanswerable questions that Jackie had posed to Bishop Hannan continued to preoccupy her when, on December 6, she moved to the house that Undersecretary of State W. Averell Harriman had provided for her use until she was able to acquire a property of her own. “Jackie’s bedroom was on the second floor and she seldom left it,” remembered her secretary Mary Gallagher. “I was constantly aware of her suffering.” She wept. She drank. By turns unable to sleep and tormented by recurrent nightmares that caused her to awaken screaming, she lacked even the solace of safely withdrawing into unconsciousness. Trying to make sense of the assassination, she lay awake, endlessly going over the events of November 22. By day, she told and retold her story to writer Joe Alsop (who clutched her hand throughout her narration), family friend Chuck Spalding’s wife, Betty, and numerous others. She pinballed between being, in her phrase, “so bitter” about the tragedy and futilely enumerating the things she might have done to avert it. Though she had no rational reason to feel guilty, she second-guessed her every action and reaction that day. She pounced on every missed opportunity and pondered how it all might have been made to happen otherwise. Again and again in these scenarios, it came down to some failure on her part: If only she had not mistaken the sound of a rifle shot for the revving of motorcycles. If only she had been looking to the right, “then,” as she later described her line of reasoning, “I could have pulled him down, and then the second shot would not have hit him.” If only she had managed to keep his brains in as the limo sped to Parkland Hospital. She even dwelled on the red roses with which she had been presented when the presidential party arrived at Love Field, in Dallas, whereas at previous stops she had been given yellow roses of Texas. Ought she to have recognized them as a sign?
At times, conversations with Jackie were like skating on a pond of thin ice, with certain areas designated dangerous. Easily provoked to anger, she bristled when a woman in her social circle praised her bearing during the memorial services. “How did she expect me to behave?” Jackie remarked afterward to historian Arthur Schlesinger with what struck him as a certain contempt. Jackie was, in her word, stunned when other friends said they hoped she would marry again. “I consider that my life is over,” she informed them, “and I will spend the rest of my life waiting for it really to be over.” She became indignant when, however well-meaningly, people suggested that time would make everything better.
She found it too painful to see so much as an image of her husband’s face—the face she had been looking into when the fatal bullet struck. The single photograph of Jack that, by her own account, she did have with her at the Harriman house was one in which his back was turned. Paintings as well were problematic. When Secretary of Defense Bob McNamara and his wife, Marg, sent over two painted portraits of J.F.K. and urged her to accept one as a gift, Jackie realized that though she especially admired the smaller of the pair, which showed her late husband in a seated position, she simply could not bear to keep it. In anticipation of returning both paintings, she propped them up just outside her bedroom door. One evening in December, young John emerged from Jackie’s room. Spotting a portrait of his father, he removed a lollipop from his mouth and kissed the image, saying, “Good night, Daddy.” Jackie related the episode to Marg McNamara by way of explanation as to why it would be impossible to have such a picture near. She said it brought to the surface too many things.
For all that, she did everything she could to sustain an atmosphere of normalcy, threadbare though it might be, for Caroline and John. Before leaving the White House, she held a belated third-birthday party for John, whose actual birth date had coincided with his father’s funeral. In Palm Beach at Christmastime, she was determined to make it, in the words of the nanny, Maud Shaw, “a good time for the children,” putting up the familiar lights, stars, and baubles, hanging stockings over the fireplace, and repeating other of the little things they had done as a family when Jack was alive. And when she purchased an 18th-century fawn-colored brick house across from the Harriman residence on N Street, she showed the decorator Billy Baldwin photographs of the children’s White House rooms and specified that she wanted their new rooms to be precisely the same.
During Jackie’s two months as a recipient of the undersecretary of state’s hospitality, the crowds that regularly stood vigil outside, sometimes shivering in the snow, had been a source of distress. At a moment of national catastrophe, people had anointed Jackie a heroine. In a time of mass confusion and anxiety, they had invested her with almost magical powers to hold the nation together. They had seized upon the widow’s demeanor of emotional control at the funeral to transform her from a symbol of helplessness and vulnerability to a symbol of resolute strength. Jackie for her part was irritated by the chorus of public praise for her conduct in the aftermath of tragedy. “I don’t like to hear people say that I am poised and maintaining a good appearance,” she resentfully told Bishop Hannan. “I am not a movie actress.” Nor did she feel like much of a heroine. On the contrary, she remained privately preoccupied with the notion that she had missed one or more chances to save her husband.
The crowds outside her house were upsetting to her in another way as well. Confronted with the throngs on N Street, she feared that real danger might suddenly spring forth, as it had on November 22. Easily startled, her body tensed for another attack, she grew exceedingly alarmed when people attempted not only to see but also to touch the woman who had survived the slaughter in Dallas, or when certain of them broke through the police lines in an effort to kiss and hug the slain president’s children. As January waned, the numbers on the sidewalk, instead of diminishing, seemed only to swell in anticipation of the widow’s move across the street. Every time Billy Baldwin came from New York to check on the paint, curtains, and other details, it struck him that there were even more people lined up outside the new place, straining to look in the huge windows.
Soon the problem was not just the crowds. Cars and eventually even tour buses began to clog the narrow street. At Arlington National Cemetery, an average of 10,000 tourists visited President Kennedy’s grave every day. Many made the pilgrimage to inspect the widow’s new house as well. By moving day, in February 1964, N Street had established itself as “one of the tourist sights of Washington.” The new residence, which Jackie dubbed “my house with many steps,” perched high above street level. Nevertheless, Billy Baldwin recalled, “I was shocked at how easy it was to see inside the house, despite its great elevation. Once I arrived in late evening, and the lights inside the house were making a doubly interesting show for the spectators.” After dark, Jackie had no choice but to draw the voluminous apricot silk curtains lest she be on full view to strangers who loomed adoringly, expectantly, until all hours.
Din of Commission
Jackie’s first month of residence there coincided with the opening sessions of the Warren Commission, a seven-man bipartisan panel convened by President Johnson to review and reveal all of the facts and circumstances surrounding the assassination and the subsequent killing of the alleged assassin. Six months into the proceedings—in June 1964—Jackie would testify as well. In the meantime, it was almost impossible to look at a newspaper or turn on a radio or television without encountering further talk of the assassination. At a moment when the country was frantic to learn definitively and at last who had killed President Kennedy, Jackie discovered that she had little interest in that particular whodunit. “I had the feeling of what did it matter what they found out?” she later reflected. “They could never bring back the person who was gone.”
Another problem for her was that every media reference to the official inquiry had the potential to cause a new flood of uninvited memories. She had acted at once to try to stop precisely this sort of provoking material from “coming up, coming up” (not by chance, her phrasing in this respect reflected the involuntary nature of these onerous recollections) when she moved to exert personal control over the books about the assassination. Suddenly, however, it became impossible to fully shield herself against the steady blast of information from the Warren Commission.
On March 2, 1964, Arthur Schlesinger made the first of seven official visits to N Street, where he set up his tape recorder and proposed that Jackie answer his questions about her late husband and his administration as if she were speaking across the decades to a “historian of the twenty-first century.” These interviews, conducted between March 2 and June 3, were part of a larger effort undertaken by a team of historians to record the memories of individuals who had known President Kennedy. The tapes would over time be transcribed and deposited in the archives of the projected John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, in Boston. The concept behind the emergent academic discipline of oral history was that, in an epoch when people were producing fewer letters and diaries, historians had better interview all the players directly lest precious details that would previously have been committed to paper be forever lost to posterity. Jackie’s willingness to participate in the oral-history project was predicated on two stipulations. The first was that her reminiscences would remain sealed until sometime after her death. The second was that, in any case, she would be free to strike anything from the transcript that on reflection she did not care to be part of the historical record.
Thus, whenever she instructed Schlesinger to turn off the machine so that she could ask, “Should I say this on the recorder?,” the bow-tie-wearing historian invariably reminded her of the original agreement. “Why don’t you say it?” he would reply. “You have control over the transcript.”
For Jackie, control was all-important in interviews that offered a chance to fashion a narrative not just of her husband’s life and presidency but also, more problematically, of their marriage. It had long been Jack’s plan that, when he left office, he would tell his story as he saw it and wished others to see it. Now, she believed, it fell to his widow to attempt to do it in his stead, if not in a book, then in the form of these conversations. Still, the undertaking presented a formidable challenge, not least because J.F.K. had had so many secrets. At moments in the tapes, Jackie clearly is not quite sure how much she ought to disclose about her husband’s precarious health. She whispers, she hesitates, she requests that there be a pause in the recording. The tapes therefore are often as interesting for their ellipses as for their content, for the intervals when the machine has been urgently turned off as for when it is actually running. On the matter of her marriage, Jackie’s task is even more complicated. One observes her proceeding gingerly, testing to see what she can feasibly claim to have been the case to an interlocutor who, on the one hand, knows full well about Jack’s dissolute sexual habits and, on the other, is likely, though by no means sworn, to go along with the lie.
At times, when the subject matter is especially sensitive, as when she finds herself compelled to comment on Jack’s friendship with Senator George Smathers (with whom he often pursued women), Jackie stumbles in the thicket of her own desperately contorted phrases. The thicket is filled with thorns, and at every turn they draw blood. First she insists that the friendship took place “before the Senate.” Then she says, no, it was indeed in the Senate but “before he was married.” Then she suggests that Smathers “was really a friend of one side of Jack—a rather, I always thought, sort of crude side. I mean, not that Jack had the crude side.”
When the subject matter is less personal than political and historical, the challenge that confronts her is no less of a minefield, for, more often than not, she is addressing subjects that she would never have dared or been even remotely inclined to pronounce on while her husband lived. Not only is Jackie doing something that she never anticipated having to do, she is operating in the worst imaginable circumstances—when she is unable to sleep, self-medicating with vodka, tyrannized by flashbacks and nightmares. For Jackie, the principal point of these interviews is to burnish her husband’s historical reputation. She certainly does not want to do him any damage, yet there is always the chance that inadvertently she will accomplish precisely that.
Later, when Jackie commented that the oral-history interviews had been an excruciating experience, it is a safe bet that she was referring not merely to the exertion involved in dredging up from memory so many details about J.F.K. As she faced Schlesinger, she also had to make spot judgments about which of those details to cover over and conceal—from posterity, from her interviewer, and even at times from herself.
The oral-history tapes span the late president’s life from boyhood on, with the freighted topic of the assassination deliberately left out. In the course of a brief discussion of J.F.K.’s religious beliefs, Jackie did touch on certain of the “Why me?” questions that had absorbed her of late. “You don’t really start to think of those things until something terrible happens to you,” she told Schlesinger on March 4. “I think God’s unjust now.” Otherwise, she preferred to leave the events of November 22 for her impending talks with William Manchester, whom, by design, she had yet to meet.
Until the moment when Jackie actually had to face Manchester, she contrived to deal with him through various emissaries. On February 5 she had reached out to the Connecticut-based writer via a phone call placed by Pierre Salinger. On February 26, Bobby Kennedy met with Manchester at the Justice Department to detail her wishes. When Manchester proposed that it might be a good idea to see the widow before he signed on, R.F.K. assured him that there was no need. As the attorney general had been doing since the assassination, he made it clear that he spoke for Mrs. Kennedy. In the current negotiations, if at this point Manchester’s dealings with the family could even be called that, he proved to be as deferential as he had been when he invited J.F.K. to alter his own quotes. After various decrees from on high had been transmitted to Manchester by both Salinger and R.F.K. lieutenant Edwin Guthman, the author unflinchingly signed an agreement that provided that his final text could not be published “unless and until approved” by both Jackie and R.F.K. Manchester’s eager offer to go to Jackie in Washington at any time on just a few hours’ notice fell flat. So did his request for a quick meeting the better to know what to say in response to press inquiries once the book deal had been announced. On March 26, the day after the attorney general’s office released the news of Manchester’s appointment, Jackie went off for the Easter weekend with Bobby and Ethel, and both sets of children, to ski in Stowe, Vermont. Manchester, meanwhile, assured the press that he intended to see her as soon as possible while her recollections were fresh.
Presently, Jackie, Bobby, Chuck Spalding, and the Radziwills assembled on Antigua, where they were due to spend a week at the waterfront estate of Bunny Mellon. The group swam and water-skied, but, as Spalding remembered, an “overwhelming” air of sadness pervaded the trip. It struck him that the immense beauty of the setting, which overlooked Half Moon Bay, merely highlighted “everybody’s terrible sense of dejection.” Jackie had brought with her a copy of Edith Hamilton’s The Greek Way, which she had been studying in an effort to learn how the ancient Greeks approached the universal questions posed by human suffering.
Bobby, who had been troubled by questions of his own since November 22, borrowed the Hamilton book from her in Antigua. “I remember he’d disappear,” Jackie later recalled. “He’d be in his room an awful lot of the time … reading that and underlining things.” To Spalding’s eye, Bobby was depressed nearly to the point of paralysis. Unable to sleep, frantic that his own actions as attorney general against Cuba or the Mob might inadvertently have led to his brother’s murder, he had lost an alarming amount of weight, and his clothes hung loosely from a frame that called to mind a Giacometti figure. For all of Bobby’s acute suffering, however, he was also worried about Jackie. Though in the course of a March 13 interview he had assured the television host Jack Paar that she was making “a good deal of progress,” it was evident in private that she was not. After they came back from the Caribbean, Bobby, concerned about Jackie’s abiding mood of despondency, asked a Jesuit priest, the Reverend Richard T. McSorley, with whom he and Ethel were close, to talk to his brother’s widow. First, however, in response to a new handwritten note from Manchester requesting a meeting, Jackie finally consented. When, shortly before noon on April 7, the edgy, rumpled, ruddy-faced author beheld her at last in her book-and-picture-filled living room, she told him that her emotional state made it impossible to be interviewed just now. Manchester had no choice, really, but to be patient.
Before Jackie received Manchester again, she began to see Father McSorley. The flimsy pretext for these sessions, which began on April 27, was that the Georgetown-based priest, who also happened to be an expert tennis player, had signed on to help Jackie improve her game. Almost immediately that first day on the tennis court at R.F.K.’s family estate, Hickory Hill, she broached certain of the preoccupations she had previously spoken of with others. On this and subsequent occasions, Father McSorley recorded her comments afterward in his diary (which came to light with the 2003 publication of Thomas Maier’s The Kennedys: America’s Emerald Kings). Today there were the unanswerable questions: “I don’t know how God could take him away,” she told the priest. “It’s so hard to believe.” There were the feelings of guilt at what she perceived to have been her failure to act in time to prevent Jack’s death: “I would have been able to pull him down,” she said remorsefully, “or throw myself in front of him, or do something, if I had only known.” But it was not until the next day, when Jackie and the priest faced each other again on the tennis court, that she began to speak overtly of suicide.
“Do you think God would separate me from my husband if I killed myself?” Jackie asked. “It is so hard to bear. I feel as though I am going out of my mind at times.” When she asked the priest to pray that she die, he responded, “Yes, if you want that. It’s not wrong to pray to die.” Jackie went on to insist that Caroline and John would be better off without her: “I’m no good to them. I’m so bleeding inside.” Father McSorley countered that the children did indeed need her. He argued that, contrary to anything Jackie said, Caroline and John certainly would not be better off living at Hickory Hill, where Ethel Kennedy could hardly give them the attention they required. “She has so much pressure from public life and so many children,” he said of Ethel. “Nobody can do for them except you.”
Six days after Jackie confided to Father McSorley that she had been contemplating suicide, she finally sat down with Manchester to talk about the assassination. Jackie asked him, “Are you just going to put down all the facts, who ate what for breakfast and all that, or are you going to put yourself in the book, too?” Manchester’s reply, that it would be impossible to keep himself out, seemed to please her. Nonetheless, in important ways, she and the writer were and would remain at cross-purposes. She longed to stop reliving the horror. He was determined to experience it himself, the better to enable readers to experience it as well. She needed to relegate November 22 to the past. He aspired by his craft to make it vividly present.
For the Record
‘It’s rather hard to stop once the floodgates open,” Jackie was to say ruefully of the Manchester interviews, which the author captured on a tape recorder that he had arranged to place out of her sight, though she knew it was running. Lest the floodgates close at any point, Manchester fed her daiquiris, which he poured liberally from large containers. He gleaned, from the widow herself, that she devoted many sleepless nights to obsessively turning certain of these episodes “over and over” in her mind; she knew that brooding was useless now, yet she was unable to stop herself.
Jackie’s meetings with Manchester that month took place on May 4, 7, and 8. By the 19th, Father McSorley found himself growing fearful that Jackie, as he wrote, “was really thinking of suicide.” The priest had briefly hoped she might be doing better, but the way she talked now spurred him to take a different view. Speaking again of the prospect of killing herself, Jackie told him that she would be pleased if her death precipitated “a wave” of other suicides because it would be a good thing if people were allowed to “get out of their misery.” She disconcerted the priest by insisting that “death is great” and by alluding to the suicide of Marilyn Monroe. “I was glad that Marilyn Monroe got out of her misery,” J.F.K.’s widow maintained. “If God is going to make such a to-do about judging people because they take their own lives, then someone ought to punish Him.” The next day, after Father McSorley strove to persuade Jackie that suicide would be wrong, she reassured him that she agreed and that she would never actually attempt to kill herself. Still, it was clear from all she had said previously that she was not improving—far from it.
Jackie described herself in this period as having tried “to climb a little bit of the way up the hill,” only to abruptly discover that she had rolled back down to the bottom again. She was speaking of her feelings during a May 29 memorial Mass at St. Matthew’s, presided over by Bishop Hannan on what ought to have been President Kennedy’s 47th birthday. Jackie later remembered that, as she stood “in the same place in the same church” she had been in in November, she felt “as if time had rolled back six months.” When the bishop approached her afterward to exchange the sign of peace, Jackie discovered that she could not bear even to look at him, for she doubted that she would be able to restrain her tears. Later in the day, Jackie flew to Hyannis Port, where she and R.F.K. participated in a satellite television tribute to President Kennedy, which also included contributions by former prime minister Harold Macmillan, speaking from England, and other world figures.
The next morning brought unsettling news. It was reported in the press, erroneously, as it would turn out, that the Warren Commission’s findings were expected to show that, contrary to much previous opinion, the first bullet had struck both the president and the governor and that the last of the three shots had gone wild. That certainly was not how Jackie remembered it. She had been there. The mental pictures with which she continued to be inundated were so sharp and detailed. Yet here was new information that seemed to challenge the validity of her memories. And this was not the first vertiginous discrepancy between what she thought she remembered and what she subsequently read or saw. Similarly disorienting had been film stills of Jackie crawling on the rear of the presidential limousine. Try as she might, she could recollect no such episode. She did not deny that it had taken place, but it had no particular reality for her either. As Jackie prepared to deliver her widely anticipated testimony before the Warren Commission, it was becoming apparent, even to her, that, despite the many times she had retold and relived the events of November 22, she was less certain than ever of what had actually occurred.
Back in Washington on June 1, Jackie told Bishop Hannan of the sense she had had at the birthday Mass that her recovery efforts to date had been “for nothing.” She pledged to try “so hard” for her children’s sake in the years that were left to her—“though I hope they won’t be too many,” she added pointedly and poignantly. Following two days, June 2 and 3, of further interviews with Arthur Schlesinger, she received representatives of the Warren Commission at her home on the 5th. Facing Chief Justice Earl Warren and the commission’s general counsel, J. Lee Rankin, along with the attorney general and a court reporter, in her living room late on a Friday afternoon, Jackie asked for the umpteenth time, “Do you want me to tell you what happened?”
On countless occasions since the night at Bethesda Naval Hospital when she had greeted visitors in her bloodied garments, she had related this same story, often in nearly identical phrases, to friends and interviewers. “Let her get rid of it if she can,” the physician had urged, yet for all the words that had poured from Jackie’s lips, there could be no denying that, six months later, the horror was still very much with her. The assumption at Hickory Hill, and increasingly in various other quarters, was that Jackie needed to try harder to, in her brother- and sister-in-law’s phrase, “get out of the doldrums.” “Sorrow is a form of self-pity,” Bobby counseled her. “We have to go on.” Even Jackie seemed to ascribe the absence of progress to some personal weakness of her own. In conversation with Father McSorley, she bitterly lamented that she lacked Bobby’s and Ethel’s drive and energy. She blamed herself for, among other failings, spending so much time in bed in a mist of depression; some mornings, she required as long as 90 minutes to wake up fully. Still, when R.F.K., Father McSorley, and others urged her to stop brooding and to get on with her life, they were asking her to do something that in ways they seemed never to comprehend was simply beyond her capacity. When Jackie had spoken of feeling as though she were losing her sanity, Father McSorley appears to have interpreted her remarks exclusively in terms of a widow’s longing for her husband. When she talked repeatedly about taking her own life, it seems not to have occurred to the priest, focused as he was on her recent bereavement, that she might be responding as much, if not more, to the pain of living day to day with all that was still going on inside her head.
Looking back at the controversial two-and-a-half-week trip to Europe after the August 9, 1963, death of infant Patrick in light of all that was so soon to follow, Jackie regretted her prolonged absence on the Continent, as well as certain aspects of her private behavior in the aftermath of her October 17, 1963, return to the United States. “I was melancholy after the death of my baby, and I stayed away last fall longer than I needed to,” she would tell Father McSorley. “And then when I came back he [J.F.K.] was trying to get me out of my grief and maybe I was a bit snappish; but I could have made his life so much happier, especially for the last few weeks. I could have tried to get over my melancholy.” That, at least, is how she remembered it in May 1964, when she was being counseled by the priest, among others, that it was time to “get over” the death of her husband.
Later, Jackie would tell the story of her marriage to Jack Kennedy in terms of his evolving sense of her political viability—a process that, as she saw it, was not complete until the very last hours of his life. “I had worked so hard at the marriage,” she told Father McSorley. “I had made an effort and succeeded and he had really come to love me and to congratulate me on what I did for him…. And, then, just when we had it all settled, I had the rug pulled out from under me without any power to do anything about it.”
In 1964 there was as yet no name for what she was enduring. At the time, Harold Macmillan perhaps came closest to intuiting the character of her post-Dallas ordeal when, in a February 18, 1964, letter to Jackie, he compared it to the experiences of war veterans such as himself. Macmillan could not precisely identify the problem, but he suggested exactly the right frame within which to begin to think about it. In the following decade, the efforts of Vietnam veterans and a small number of psychiatrists sympathetic to their plight led to the 1980 inclusion of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the American Psychiatric Association’s official manual of mental disorders. Subsequent study of the effects of trauma on a wide range of subjects, including veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, added a profusion of invaluable detail to the picture. In every significant respect, Jackie’s ordeal conforms to the portrait that has gradually emerged of the effect of overwhelming experiences on body and mind. Symptoms of PTSD include reliving the traumatic event, avoiding situations that threaten to provoke memories of the event, feeling numb, and feeling keyed up. Among other hallmarks are suicidal thoughts, nightmares and sleep disturbance, obsessive ruminations, and a significant spike in distress around the anniversary of the traumatic event.
Finally, Jackie decided to leave Washington and move to New York City in the fall of 1964. Echoing the phrase she had used on the eve of her previous move, Jackie told Marg McNamara of her intention to attempt to start a new life in New York. In Washington, she acknowledged, she had been becoming more and more of a recluse. Along with Father McSorley, who continued to advise her, she hoped that the move to a new city would, among other advantages, help her to stop brooding. But, whatever Jackie and the priest may have wished, it would not be so easy to escape the traumatic memories that, wherever she went on earth, would long persist in causing havoc in her life. She and Father McSorley both believed her to be suffering from an inability to get over her grief. He went as far as to suggest that Jackie felt guilty about getting better and that she needed to divest herself of that guilt. But, in ways he simply did not grasp, Dallas had burdened her with a condition that was not so much psychological or emotional as physiological. As she was soon to discover, her problem was not something that she could just choose to leave behind in Georgetown as though it were a sofa she preferred not to take with her to Manhattan because it might clash with the new décor.
That July, the assassination inevitably pursued her to Hyannis Port in manifold guises. Manchester turned up at the Cape to interrogate Rose Kennedy, Pat Lawford, and the widow herself. Unbeknownst to him at the time, his July 20 session with Jackie would be his last. Lest she further allow Manchester, by his highly detailed questioning, to repeatedly hurl her back to the events of November 22, Jackie arranged never to be interviewed by him again. To his monumental frustration, henceforward whenever he contacted Jackie’s office, he would be referred to R.F.K.’s secretary, who in turn would pass him on to various aides.
Jackie’s dealings with Look magazine, which was preparing a special J.F.K. memorial issue in conjunction with the upcoming first anniversary of the assassination, were a good deal more complicated because of the clashing Kennedy interests in play. She had previously rejected the idea of an upbeat story about her life since Dallas that the photographer Stanley Tretick wanted to do for the memorial number. Tretick had pitched her unsuccessfully on May 21, two days after Father McSorley had begun to fear that she might actually be about to kill herself. And she remained opposed when Tretick re-pitched her on July 12. “My feeling,” Tretick wrote, “is that in the context of the Memorial Issue it would not be harmful to show that [J.F.K.’s] children … are getting along fine with the help of his brother and some of the rest of the family. And that Mrs. John F. Kennedy (even though the scar will never heal) is not in the depths of deep despair, that she is working hard to preserve the fine image of President Kennedy and that she is building a new life for her and her children.”
For Jackie, the problem with saying no to this was that Bobby was cooperating enthusiastically with the magazine, which he had already invited in to photograph at Hickory Hill. At a moment when Bobby’s immediate political options included not only the vice-presidency but also a Senate seat from New York, a Look feature that showed him assuming his brother’s political mantle, as well as looking after J.F.K.’s widow and children, was not to be turned down lightly. In the end, Bobby persuaded her to participate. Bobby’s decision to run for the Senate appeared to improve his state of mind. Jackie, by contrast, seemed to experience no such improvement. “I am a living wound,” she said of herself at the time.
Eight months later, instead of fading out, or even beginning to lessen in immediacy, November 22 remained powerfully present to her. The floodgates were constantly in peril of reopening, which is why the photographic session at Hyannis Port, with all of the chaotic feelings it threatened to incite, was just not something she wanted to do. But Bobby needed her to pose with the children, and at last she consented out of loyalty—loyalty to her brother-in-law but also to Jack, whose agenda R.F.K. had pledged to keep alive.
At the end of July, Jackie took the children to Hammersmith Farm; she planned to leave them there with her mother while she traveled on Jayne and Charles Wrightsman’s yacht along the Dalmatian coast of Yugoslavia with their other guests, the Radziwills and former British ambassador Lord Harlech and his wife, Sissie.
While Jackie was abroad, the Kennedyites examined how most effectively to employ her to further R.F.K.’s election chances in New York, where some key politicos, New York City mayor Robert Wagner not least among them, regarded Bobby as an interloper. A tribute to J.F.K. was scheduled for the Democratic convention in Atlantic City, which L.B.J. had insisted take place after both he and his chosen running mate, Hubert Humphrey, had been nominated, lest Bobby and his supporters use the opportunity to storm the convention.
Given the Kennedyites’ inability to position Jackie at R.F.K.’s side on the evening of the tribute, when he was scheduled to introduce a short film about his late brother, their next-best idea was to produce her at an invitation-only afternoon reception hosted by Averell Harriman at a nearby hotel, where she and R.F.K. would greet delegates together.
In the end, Jackie flew into Atlantic City for the day only, and left well before the evening tribute. At the August 27 reception in her honor, she, along with Bobby, a pregnant Ethel, and other Kennedys, greeted some 5,000 delegates in three shifts. The husband-and-wife actors Fredric March and Florence Eldridge read a program of excerpts from some of J.F.K.’s favorite literary works, much of it about death and dying young, which Jackie had selected for the occasion. Introduced to the audience by Harriman, Jackie spoke in a scarcely audible voice: “Thank you all for coming, all of you who helped President Kennedy in 1960.” If possible, her words were even harder to make out when she continued: “May his light always shine in all parts of the world.” In the course of the five-hour reception, Jackie twice appeared on an exterior balcony, first with Bobby, then with Ethel, to wave to excited crowds on the Atlantic City boardwalk.
Afterward, Jackie wrote to Joe Alsop that she ought never to have watched the filmed tribute to J.F.K. on television in Newport, where the last photographs of him and John on the beach had been taken nearly a year before. Having successfully ducked one situation likely to unseal disturbing recollections, Jackie had promptly and calamitously placed herself in another. As it happened, viewing the documentary in this particular setting had provoked a whole separate chain of anguished associations.
To make matters worse, when she read Alsop’s August 28 letter detailing his own deeply felt response to the J.F.K. film, which he had seen at the convention, the experience, she reported, “opened the floodgates” anew. Nine months after the assassination, rather than diminishing, the potential triggers of trauma-related memories and emotions seemed only to proliferate. She had come to a point where even a letter meant to be helpful, as Alsop’s plainly was, was capable of setting off strong feelings of distress. Simply by causing her emotions to surge, Alsop’s remarks had plunged her back into the trauma. Jackie replied to Alsop on the 31st by observing that, contrary to what people said about time’s making everything better, it was proving to be “just the reverse” for her. She noted that every day she had to steel herself, as she put it, took a little more out of her that she needed for her task of making a new life. Jackie’s abject suggestion that J.F.K.’s death had left her to be the “miserable self” she had long been seeking to escape horrified her former mentor.
“You have never had nearly enough self-confidence,” Alsop passionately retorted. “Your self is not ‘miserable.’ ” Reminding Jackie that, when she had first come to him, he had given her the highest handicap he had ever bestowed on any starter, Alsop urged her to concentrate on all that faced her currently when she endeavored to start over again.
Autumn in New York
Jackie had a fantasy of what might be possible in New York, where she was to take up temporary residence at the Carlyle hotel while an apartment that she had purchased at 1040 Fifth Avenue was being prettified. As she told Treasury secretary C. Douglas Dillon, whose purview included the Secret Service, she longed to be able “to walk around the city, take taxis, do all the little daily things, without two people always following.” On her first day in Manhattan, Monday, September 14, the indications certainly seemed positive. She took both children rowing in Central Park, where few people appeared to notice them. This was nothing like Washington, where she had needed only to appear at her front door for onlookers to call her name and snap photos in rapid succession. For a few halcyon hours it seemed as if New Yorkers might actually afford her a modicum of privacy, but the picture changed abruptly the next day.
After she delivered Caroline to her new school, the Convent of the Sacred Heart, in Carnegie Hill, Jackie and young John visited R.F.K.’s Midtown campaign headquarters. Bobby’s staff had notified the press (though not the local police station) that his brother’s widow was to be there greeting campaign volunteers, and a battery of photographers downstairs on East 42nd Street attracted a crowd of some 400 people. When Jackie, holding young John by the hand, emerged from the campaign office after about 10 minutes, the friendly, cheering crowd surrounded her. Amid the chaos, there was a bit of pushing. More than once, as campaign workers attempted to clear a path, Jackie seemed as if she might be about to fall. In the end, she and her son reached the car safely. Still, it was the sort of episode that, after Dallas, could not but propel her into heart-pounding, adrenaline-pumping high alert. She had yet to spend 48 hours in the city when the visit to Kennedy headquarters had thrust into stark relief the conflicting needs of Jackie and the brother-in-law whom she depended on and adored. At a time when he was seeking public office there, New York was almost certainly among the last places in which to search for any kind of peace.
The timing of her move proved inopportune in other ways as well. The findings of the Warren Commission were scheduled to be made public later that month in hopes of providing resolution before the first anniversary of J.F.K.’s death. The panel’s assessment that a crazed lone gunman had been responsible offered no comfort to Jackie, who would have preferred for her husband at least to have died for some great cause such as civil rights. Instead, the official ruling merely highlighted the senselessness of the tragedy. That left her with no way to rationalize his violent death in terms of some higher meaning. At any rate, as she told Alsop, she was determined to read nothing that was written in the run-up to November 22. Given the degree of public interest in the assassination, however, it was one thing to actively attempt to avoid reminders of Dallas and quite another to succeed when the volume was so immense. The uncertainty about where and when they might suddenly materialize transformed Manhattan, even her own hotel suite, into an anxiety-laden obstacle course.
And it was not just the reminders themselves when they popped out at her, often in the form of words and pictures, that were so upsetting. The very anticipation of encountering some new trigger could be acutely painful, as when, in this period, Jackie worried at the prospect that she would one day be confronted with a book titled The Day Kennedy Was Shot. “The idea of it is so distressing to me, I cannot bear to think of seeing—or of seeing advertised—a book with that name and subject,” she wrote on September 17 to Jim Bishop, whose work in progress she had thus far failed to obstruct by commissioning another book on the same subject. Jackie went on: “This whole year has been a struggle and it seems you can never escape from reminders. You try so hard to avoid them—then you take the children to the news shop—and there is a magazine with a picture of Oswald on it, staring up at you.” Without mentioning that she was already fleeing from Manchester, she repeatedly cited his forthcoming authorized account in a renewed effort to stop Bishop. Jackie begged Bishop not to proceed with his book, noting that its very existence “would be just one more thing that would cause suffering.”
Bishop countered by pointing out that his book was only one among a great many on the subject. He cited various other accounts that had already been published or were even then (in case Jackie had not yet visualized the process herself) “being set in type.” “This morning,” Bishop helpfully continued, “ten thousand newspapers throughout the United States published a re-creation of November 22, 1963. Next week, Bantam books will place 500,000 copies of it in the bookstores. The Government Printing Office has a backlog of orders for the Warren Commission report. G. P. Putnam’s John Day sent an announcement to me that they were publishing the European bestseller: ‘Who Killed Kennedy?’ ” Far from assuaging her, these and similar details were the equivalent of a red rag to a bull. Jackie, meanwhile, sent copies of this fraught correspondence to Manchester, who, far from being pleased by her emphatic reiteration of his favored status, balked at Jackie’s reference to having “hired” him and to her assumption that as long as he was “reimbursed for his time” she had the right to decree that his book not be published.
In the midst of further frantic back-and-forth with Bishop and his publishers, Jackie forgot to call off the delivery of her newspapers at the Carlyle before the September 28 release of the Warren Commission report. “I picked them up and there it was,” she said at the time, “so I canceled them for the rest of the week.” She soon learned that that would not be protection enough. Living with PTSD is a bit like inhabiting a country that has been besieged by terrorists. One has no idea when the next attack will occur or the precise form it will take. It may come in a place one had every reason to expect to be safe. Jackie was at her hairdresser Kenneth’s when she saw a copy of the October 2 issue of Life, whose lead story concerned the Warren Commission report. The stills on the cover, extracted from amateur footage of the assassination filmed by Dallas resident Abraham Zapruder, showed Jackie holding her wounded husband in the moments before the fatal bullet struck.
“It was terrible,” she said to Dorothy Schiff, the publisher of the New York Post, of her brush with that particular magazine. Then she added, “There is November to be gotten through … maybe by the first of the year … ”
“People tell me that time will heal,” she burst out. “How much time?”
Uneasily, Jackie hung suspended between a determination to try, in her phrase, “to put [J.F.K.] out of my mind” and a sense that it was her duty to memorialize him. Though she did not intend to join Bobby, Ethel, Eunice, and the rest at Arlington National Cemetery on the 22nd, nor indeed to participate in any public tributes prior to that date, one last decision about J.F.K.’s burial place still faced her. She had yet to ratify the final plans for the grave design. Once she had done that, John Warnecke, the architect whom she and Bobby had appointed in the aftermath of the assassination, could call a press conference, as seemed fitting, in advance of the first anniversary of President Kennedy’s death. According to Warnecke, a six-foot-two, 220-pound former college-football star then in his mid-40s, on the same day Jackie gave her final approval to the grave design, she also went to bed with him. Given the signal conjunction of these two events, was the latter an effort on her part to jump-start the process of forgetting that, in another context, she’d spoken of consciously endeavoring to begin?
Finally, Jackie, who had noticeably lost a good deal of weight in the weeks since Bobby’s Senate race, remained in seclusion on the 22nd. Her children and a few other family members were with her at the fieldstone house in Glen Cove overlooking the Long Island Sound that she had recently taken as a weekend retreat. When the last of the church bells had tolled, she sat up late into the night scribbling letters, which she tore up afterward because, as she said, she feared they were overly emotional.
Her one-year period of mourning at an end, she planned to appear at a pair of charity events immediately thereafter, a Washington, D.C., screening of the film My Fair Lady to benefit what would become the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the International Rescue Committee, and a fund-raising dinner for Cedars-Sinai Hospital, in Los Angeles. As early as the 24th, however, it became apparent that even now there was to be no relief from the emotional triggers that could come at her unexpectedly at any time. Days before her Warren Commission testimony had been officially scheduled to be released, Jackie opened the newspaper to discover extracts of her remarks, including a description of her efforts to second-guess her actions in Dallas.
Whereupon she canceled her impending appearances. A spokesperson announced that Mrs. Kennedy had hoped to attend both events: “However, due to the emotional strain of the past ten days she feels unable to participate in any public engagement.”
Adapted fromJacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis: The Untold Story,by Barbara Leaming, to be published this month by St. Martin’s Press; © 2014 by the author.
As the oldest and one of the largest online formal and prom dress stores, we take great pride in.