After the assassination of her husband, Jackie Kennedy was unhappy that journalists were beginning to write assessments of his presidency, deciding for themselves how his time in the White House would be remembered. In fact, she had her own idea of what his legacy should be— so she took matters into her own hands.
PAUL: It was the sound that Jacqueline Kennedy was desperate to forget…
*Sound of gunshots*
…but never could.
*Sound of gunshots
Like this 21-gun salute at her husband’s funeral — just three days after his assassination. It was jarring — and took her back to the scene of the crime.
Of those moments in Dallas — on Elm Street, she would say that winter — that first terrible winter — “I’ve heard that gun go off ten-thousand times.”
I’m Paul Brandus — you’re listening to Jackie, a podcast about Jacqueline Kennedy’s transformation from First Lady to Jackie O.
The day after she buried her husband, Jackie invited the new First Lady — Lady Bird Johnson — for tea in the White House.
Lady Bird noticed that Jackie was still talking about Jack — that’s what she called her husband — in the present tense. She was talking about the food at the White House and the chef Rene Vernon. Jackie said “Oh Jack never likes those rich things that Rene does.”
Maybe it was a defense mechanism — a way to deny the reality that her husband was gone. But the widow didn’t really need any reminders — when they went into the Yellow Room — there on the table Lady Bird saw a pair of gleaming black boots and a neatly folded flag.
The boots had been placed backwards — by tradition — in the stirrups of the riderless horse during the funeral procession — Black Jack was the horse’s name. And the flag, of course — had covered her husband’s coffin the day before.
Jackie needed no reminders — she was surrounded by them.
Two days later was Thanksgiving — her first holiday without Jack.
She visited Arlington — then flew to Hyannis. She took that flag with her — and when she got to the home of her in-laws — that famous house overlooking the sea — she went to the room of Joseph P. Kennedy — the late president’s father.
Now Old Joe Kennedy — he was 75 — had suffered a crippling stroke two years before. He couldn’t speak, and was confined to a wheelchair. He missed his son’s funeral.
So Jackie sits by his bedside, holds his hand — tells him everything — the assassination, the funeral.
And when she was done, she left him the flag that had covered the coffin.
Now here’s kind of a creepy story. Later that night. Kennedy’s nurse — her name was ironic — Rita Dallas — she goes in to the room to check on him. And she covers him with what she thought was a blanket — didn’t notice in the dark — that it was the flag.
At some point, Kennedy wakes up — sees himself covered in the flag that covered the coffin — and began screaming.
Anyway — that flag is now at the Kennedy Library in Boston.
The next day was Friday, November 29th — now for the rest of this episode we’re going to focus on this particular day — because what happened on November 29th — actually the night of the 29th — played a huge role in explaining not only what Jackie was going through — but it also shaped much of John F. Kennedy’s legacy as people think of it today.
So November the 29th — exactly a week after the assassination.
By now Jackie had told everyone within listening distance about Dallas — every gory detail. Some friends later said they nearly became physically ill listening to it — that’s how bad it was.
And here I’m going to bring in another Jackie biographer — Barbara Leaming — from a radio show in 2014.
LEAMING: "I discovered, while I was writing a biography of her husband, John Kennedy, that Jackie Kennedy suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, for 31 years after the assassination of Jack Kennedy. Remember, this was someone whose husband's head was literally blown apart inches from her face, and she was left drowned in his blood, in his brains. To make someone be able to understand what is was like to be inside her head is an extraordinary thing, and you can feel that when you hear what she was saying, when you read what she was saying, it's a unique opportunity to understand something that we really need to understand."
Now post-traumatic stress disorder — PTSD — wasn’t even a thing in 1963 — the name didn’t exist. But we now know that’s what Jackie had — and again she told this horrible story to everyone she knew — it was her way of dealing with it.
But Jackie wanted the whole world to hear as well — so she calls a man in New York named Theodore White — a reporter for LIFE magazine — the biggest and most prestigious magazine in the country.
Can you come to Hyannis? She asks.
Being summoned by Jacqueline Kennedy? Wow.
But this was a problem because 1) White’s aging Mother had just suffered a heart attack and 2) there’s a ferocious storm bearing down on the Northeast at that very moment — a nor’easter. Planes were grounded.
So he hires a car — tells the driver “Hyannis — step on it.” And on the way they stop at pay phones a couple times so he could check on his Mom’s condition.
Finally they get there — it’s raining buckets — the wind fierce.
White goes inside, shaking off the November chill. And there’s Jackie. She’s wearing black slacks and a beige pullover.
They go into a small room — she begins talking.
In that unique voice — soft and Long Islandish — she told White every gory detail — “his blood, his brains are all over me,” she said — and the long, long coffin, as she calls it.
White’s scribbling notes furiously on a yellow pad. He writes how Jackie was so composed— eyes wider than pools — as she tells this terrible story.
And he notices something unusual — it’s the PTSD — again, here’s Barbara Leaming:
LEAMING: "For thirty years, she was suffering from what we call intrusive flasbacks, meaning flashbacks that you can't control, they just come unpredictably, at any moment, and one of the things that I realized in listening to her is that a flashback for someone with PTSD is not remembering. It's not a memory in the way that you and I remember Christmas last year, or something. It is something that is actually happening to the person again. So that when Jackie would have a flashback, she would literally be back in that car in Dallas again. She would smell the blood. She would see the head exploding."
The PTSD would dog Jackie for the rest of her life — she learned to manage it better though, push into some dark crevice of her mind — but something like that never goes away. How could it?
LEAMING: "When the blood scene kept taking her over during their interview, he realized that she wasn't talking to him. She wasn't even in the room with him. He didn't even understand what was going on, because until a diagnosis was actually forumlated in 1980, there was no such thing as a diagnosis of PTSD. It wasn't until the Vietnam vets came back that anybody knew what was going on. But he knew that what he was seeing when Jackie was talking about being in that car was not what he had seen with anybody else. I mean, she was there in the car."
Now what’s interesting here — perhaps inexplicable — White has a tape recorder with him — but didn’t use it. From a historical standpoint, this is a huge loss, because a recording of Jackie just a week after the assassination — would have been priceless. Years later White wrote that quote “A talk with Mary Todd Lincoln a week after Lincoln’s assassination would not have been nearly as compelling.”
He’s right — and yet — no recording.
So after telling the story of Dallas for the umpteenth time — Jackie shifts gears.
As the rain continues to pound on the roof — she tells White she was unhappy that other journalists were beginning to write assessments of the Kennedy presidency — and deciding for themselves what his legacy was.
Well, Jackie had her OWN idea about what her husband’s legacy should be. This was the real reason she summoned White to Hyannis.
“There’s this one thing I wanted to say...” she told him. “It’s been almost an obsession with me, all I keep thinking of is this line from a musical comedy.” She repeated how she was obsessed with it.
“At night before we’d go to sleep,” she said, "Jack liked to play some records.”
She tells White that Jack’s favorite song was from a Broadway musical — called Camelot.
Now - Camelot was a mythical twelfth-century castle. A heroic figure lived there - King Arthur — and he surrounded himself with a group of chivalrous knights — and they sat around a table — so became as the Knights of the Round Table.
Of course — as Jackie’s telling this to Theodore White — she sees her martyredhusband as the King — and that makes her Lady Guinevere.
She then recites lines to White from the musical’s final number — where King Arthur knights a young boy and tells him to pass along the story of Camelot—and its brief and shining moment— to future generations.
And she tells White — quote — “There will never be another Camelot again.”
So it’s exactly a week after the assassination — and here’s the widow — trying to portray Jack as some sort of mythical figure. “Don’t leave him to the bitter old men to write about,” Jackie says.
White can’t say no to Jackie — so he writes the story the way she wants.
And LIFE magazine — I mean — that was it. It was the biggest and greatest magazine there ever was. Abraham Zapruder — who had filmed the assassination the week before— there was only ONE place he would allow images from it to appear — and it was LIFE magazine. It was almost pre-ordained.
And then an actual interview with Jacqueline Kennedy! She had the power to shape her husband’s image in a way that endures to this day.
Of course there’s an irony here — if you know the Camelot story — it’s full of
infidelity — and let’s be honest — that was part of who JFK was. But Jackie understood that’s how men were. Her own father was that way. Her father-in-law was that way. Her husband was that way.
She had a very European way of seeing all this. And this was all subordinate anyway to the image of her husband that she wanted to create — for him to be remembered as some mythical larger-than-life figure — a hero.
I spoke with Barbara Perry about this — she’s Director of Presidential Studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center:
PERRY: That must have been the awful tension in her life, she not only wanted to forget the horrors of Dallas, but she didn't want to forget her own personal memories of her husbad, and she didn't want the country or the world to forget him, but she also wanted them to remember him the way she wanted them to remember him. Which to me explains one week after the assassination explains the so-called "Camelot interview" with Theodore White of Time Magazine, that she picks out that symbol, that very evocative English mythology of King Arthur and Lancelot and Gwenevere and the golden age of Camelot. She does get ahead of what would be, eventually, stories that would come out about the seemier side, as one book called it "The Dark Side of Camelot," that is particularly her husband's womanizing, and indeed it did come out, about ten years later."
So Jackie had a head start of about a decade in forming the image of her husband that SHE wanted. And Theodore White — went along with it. In fact, years later White wrote “more than any other President since Lincoln, John F. Kennedy has become myth.”
He should know — for on that cold, rainy night on Cape Cod — he helped construct that myth.
So the whole Camelot thing was contrived — and six decades later — it might seem easy to be cynical about this — but another Kennedy scholar — Larry Sabato — also of the University of Virginia — says not so fast.
SABATO: "We, the people, needed it. It wasn't just Jackie Kennedy doing it for her kids, or for JFK's legacy. We needed it. We needed to mythologize him, we needed to make sense of something that was asbolutely not sensible, could not be explained in a kind of rational way. We were still trying to put the pieces together. She did a favor for America by coming up with that Camelot myth."
In our next episode:
JACKIE: "I want to take this opportunity to express my appreciation for the hundreds of thousands of messages, nearly 800,000 in all, which my children and I have received over the past few weeks. The knowledge of the affection with which my husband was held by all of you has sustained me."
For Jackie — that first winter after the assassination was — long and lonely — as she tried to adjust.
Special thanks this week to Barbara Perry, Larry Sabato — and Joan Hermann — host of the radio show Conversations with Joan - for the segments with Barbara Leaming.
Thanks for listening — and I hope you’ll check out my new book on Jackie’s between her two marriages — it’s called — “Jackie: Her Transformation from First Lady to Jackie O.” Available everywhere — and if you’re enjoying THIS show, make sure to leave us a review on Apple Podcasts to help other history fans find it.
“Jackie” is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. My special thanks to producer Hannah Rae Leach, sound designer and engineer Sean Rule-Hoffman, and executive producers Michael DeAloia and Gerardo Orlando. Our theme music and "Camelot" music is by Josh Perelman-Hall.