Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with JFK

Shortly after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, with a nation deep in mourning and the world looking on in stunned disbelief, Jacqueline Kennedy found the strength to set aside her own personal grief for the sake of posterity and begin the task of documenting and preserving her husband’s legacy.  She sat down with historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and recorded an astonishingly detailed and unvarnished account of her experiences and impressions as the wife and confidante of John F. Kennedy. The tapes of those sessions were then sealed and later deposited in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum upon its completion, in accordance with Mrs. Kennedy’s wishes. 
In conjunction with the fiftieth anniversary of President Kennedy’s Inauguration, Caroline Kennedy and the Kennedy family are now releasing these beautifully restored recordings on CDs with accompanying transcripts.  These interviews will add an exciting new dimension to our understanding and appreciation of President Kennedy and his time and make the past come alive through the words and voice of an eloquent eyewitness to history.

I've always been fascinated by Jackie Kennedy - her style, her poise, her grace - and curious about that time in history and JFK's role in it.  I was born a few months after Pres. Kennedy was inaugurated.  In fact, the day I was born (5/25/61) JFK gave his now-famous speech before Congress stating that "First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth."  Though I lived through the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban MIssile Crisis and the assassination, of course I have no first-hand memories of them.  So, I was understandably excited to receive this book/cd set for Christmas.

I wanted to hear the stories in Mrs. Kennedy's own voice, so I chose to listen to the audio cd's first, and follow up by reading the transcripts of parts that were difficult to understand or needed more research.  The interviews cover a range of topics, political and personal, from the time the Kennedy's were married until JFK's death in 1963.  There is an abundance of names, well-known at the time but not so much today except by serious history buffs, that require some research; and sometimes Mrs. Kennedy's naturally soft voice combined with background noise made it difficult to make out what she was saying. Still, her comments, spoken in a subdued, slightly Boston-accented tone, were so much more personal than reading words on a page.
The stories of Mrs. Kennedy's efforts to restore the historical furnishings and decorating of the White House, and the resistance she met, were fascinating.  I admire her knowledge and taste, as well as her initiative in a decade when a First Lady with her own agenda was not necessarily appreciated.  She also told some anecdotes about her husband that were equally fascinating.
However, her narration was so often mean-spririted or tinged with superiority, that my opinion of Mrs. Kennedy came away tarnished.  From the blurb and the book's introduction I was expecting stories that would "document and preserve her husband’s legacy...through the words of an eloquent eyewitness". Unfortunately, it was mostly a parade of names followed by snarky comments about each of them.  By her own admission, Mrs. Kennedy had very little inside knowledge of the political machinations of JFK's administration. She saw it as her job to distract her husband from the cares and pressures of his job, so she very rarely asked to discuss political issues.  But she certainly had her own opinions about the people involved.  From world leaders to White House staff, nearly everyone mentioned by Mr. Scheslinger was met with comments such as "What a sad little man" or "I just hated him!"  
Mrs. Kennedy upholds her husband's image as inviolable, which I appreciate, but everyone else falls short.  And to what end?  Those comments don't document historic happenings or expose the President's personal thought process about any events or topics. At the very least, I think the conversations should have been kept under lock and key for another fifty years.  Though few of the people mentioned are still living, their children and grandchildren certainly are.  And who needs to hear a former First Lady say that she hated your father/grandfather?  In speaking about a Supreme Court Justice appointed by JKF, Mrs. Kennedy maintains that her husband thought later that the appointment was a mistake, but she doesn't expound on the reasons why. What purpose is served by revealing that?  It accomplishes nothing but hurt feelings.

Perhaps I had Jacqueline Kennedy on too high of a pedestal, labeling her as the depiction of "Grace: elegance or beauty of form, manner, motion, or action".  And while it still holds true in some areas, her words were certainly not gracious.


  1. Oh wow. This doesn't quite sound like the Jackie O that we've all been hearing about for years. It would be interesting to hear her in her own voice … but perhaps this wasn't the best subject matter. Sorry it took away from what you thought of her.

  2. Fascinating. In some ways this makes me even more interested in investigating this book.

  3. As an avid reader, I love all genres, but there is another book that I'd like to recommend worth reading, it's called "When God Stopped Keeping Score" and it's on sale here on BN. It's a great book and proceeds from its sale goes to support women and children based charities, like the National Breast Cancer Research Center, Women Against Abuse and the Make A Wish Foundation.