September 15, 2011

{Goddess Jacqueline}

[This is an excerpt from my upcoming book, The End of the Fairy-Tale Bride.]

In 1962, the wife of the U.S. president made a semi-official trip to India without her husband where she was, according to Christopher Andersen’s biography, “revered as something akin to royalty.” Wherever she went, “crowds lined the streets shouting Jackie Ki Jai! Ameriki Rani! (‘Hail Jackie! Queen of America!’).” In a country that knows something of goddesses, one newspaper called Jacqueline Kennedy “the new ‘Durga, Goddess of Power.’” And part of the First Lady’s power was understanding how to use her intuitively elegant, elegantly simple fashion sense.
What Mrs. Kennedy wore became news—the public couldn’t get enough of her image on television, in newspapers and magazines (this was pre-People-like celebrity magazines)—and during those White House years, she started revolutions! She and other sister-goddesses of the era (including Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly and Katherine Hepburn) even helped chip away at the old patriarchy.

Historically in the United States, the wife of the president, the First Lady, has carried the public’s expectations of what was similar to the “royal codes of conduct and protocol” usually expected by a duchess or princess or queen in the British monarchy.
As scholar Colleen Denney declared in her book, Representing Diana, Princess of Wales, these were aligned with the “patriarchal codes of womanliness” that she spoke of in her Princess Diana study. There have been some First Lady “rebels” throughout the country’s history; and the current First Lady, Michelle Obama, is a glowing example with her independent spirit, education and career experience, plus her casually chic modern clothing style.

But none created such a stylish and dignified revolution, including being America’s foremost fashion influence, as the First Lady who heralded in the 1960s, bringing the nation out of its stodgy, grandmotherly silhouette of Bess Truman and Mamie Eisenhower. (There’s nothing wrong with “grandmotherly” or even “stodgy” for that matter; but goddesses knew they’d need all the feminine wiles they could muster to spark the revolt required to make sweeping changes for women. It was the beginning, after all, of the female-rich Age of Aquarius!)

When John Fitzgerald Kennedy was elected president of the United States in 1960, the youngest before or since, he, his even younger wife and children caught the imagination of the country and the world. (Like Diana, Jacqueline was twelve years younger than her husband.) It was not only their youth, but Jack was handsome, sexually alluring, and visionary; Jackie was beautiful, fashionably glamorous, and mysterious. They were both charismatic and sophisticated with camera-loving smiles; they both understood the magic of the camera and how to charm an audience—of one or thousands. Jackie was more private and withdrawn to Jack’s gregarious, bold nature. (And once she cleaned up her husband’s sloppy dressing habits when they were on the presidential campaign trail, he became a dynamic, leading man to her modern, dazzling fashion plate.)

Christopher Andersen writes in his book, Jack and Jackie: Portrait of an American Marriage, that on the morning when the down-to-the-wire presidential election results were realized, amidst all the noisy exuberance of the huge Kennedy family, Jackie “definitely had ambivalent feelings about becoming first lady. She had always lived in a fairyland, in the role of a storybook princess. I’m not sure Jackie ever counted on being queen.”

But queenly she was.  “As a disciple of French couture, she would of course have to redirect her fashion selections,” Kathleen Craughwell-Varda explained since, as First Lady of the United States, it would be the “politically expedient strategy” to wear American designed and manufactured clothing. Jackie selected American Oleg Cassini as her main custom designer—who “borrowed heavily from Givenchy”—and working closely together on even the tiniest details, they “discussed the impact they wanted her clothes to have…and craft[ed] her image as the best dressed woman in the world.” Creating something purely American, “the style was…simple, youthful, and elegant, the lines clean and uncluttered, setting off the First Lady’s lithe figure,” concluded Craughwell-Varda in Looking for Jackie: American Fashion Icons.  And the results made magic all over the world, winning over even the toughest of fashion critics, the French! During the presidential state visit to France in 1961, “more than a million Parisians lined the parade route, chanting ‘Jacqui! Jacqui! as the Kennedys entered Paris.” The author declared that Cassini’s intention for her trip’s wardrobe was “to make Jackie look like a queen, and to prove that American fashion was the equal of French couture…[and it] worked like a charm.” Queen, Empress, Goddess—all the titles fit!

Even the pronunciation of her name (that Americans seldom could remember to say correctly) was the most glamorous French version. During her first time to dine with the entire Kennedy clan at Hyannis Port in the summer of 1952, biographer Anderson recalls, the proper Jacqueline Bouvier sweeps into the dining room in an evening gown—a bit overdressed for the casual, sporty young Kennedy’s. Already the butt of the siblings’ jokes and “after being told that their guest’s name was technically pronounced ‘Jock-leen,’ [Jack’s sister] Eunice muttered, sotto voce, ‘rhymes with queen.’”

But the pronunciation always suited her. Jackie’s refined, erudite taste translated from her clothes to her entertaining style, hospitality, and décor as well. Through careful research and by scouring its basement and enrolling talented and/or wealthy friends, she oversaw the redecoration of the White House, turning it into an elegant, antique-filled, historically significant show place from the rather shabby, dour interior it had been. Bringing fine china and silverware out of storage—treasures that had been used during the administrations of former presidents—the Kennedys entertained often and grandly with great food (Jackie brought in a famous French chef), well-known musicians, writers, dancers, and other sparkling guests from all areas of the cultural elite.

The Kennedy galas at the White House became legendary: “‘When they appeared at the top of those stairs,’ Betty Beale [of the Washington Star] recalled, ‘they were a glorious-looking, stunning couple, almost beyond belief. I don’t know if they brought culture to Washington, but they sure brought glamour to Washington. No one had ever seen anything like it before. It was more like a royal court than an administration,’” the Andersen biography exclaimed.

“In turning her attention on her own backyard…Jackie unwittingly brought attention to all that was beautiful and stylish in America,” Craughwell-Varda shared, “reinvigorating a nation’s pride in its own rich tradition in the decorative arts.” Not only was the fashion industry vivified and the appreciation of fine artisans of all stripes encouraged, but the recognition of the country’s heritage and the lives of its performing artists were also honored as well through Jackie’s vision.

Even in casual “‘unpresidential’” settings, there was a “‘stateliness’”—the word New York Philharmonic music director and Kennedy friend Leonard Bernstein used about the couple—“‘never losing dignity’.” However, like the carefully crafted imagery that the British royalty created to represent “normal” family life, photographers were hired—against Jackie’s protest of the invasion of privacy—by the Kennedy handlers to “take meticulously arranged photographs of the first family at ‘informal’ moments,” author Kathleen Craughwell-Varda recalled, “establishing an unprecedented intimacy between the American public and the office of the President.”
(An intimacy that the public today does not always honor or respect in the private lives of famous people. In our media-driven, entitlement-driven, celebrity addicted voyeur world, our fascination has become a bit obscene. So when we see/feel real intimacy survive the crush of our invasion, like with how Prince William and Duchess Catherine connect so warmly with people and with each other, then we know something special is afoot.)

Nonetheless, each in their own way, Jack and Jackie Kennedy worked hard to reveal as little as possible of their inner private lives to the curious public; fully understanding the difference in their public and private persona. “‘They both considered 1600 Pennsylvania sacrosanct,’ [Letitia] Baldrige [Jackie’s social secretary] said. ‘She wore a mask.’”

Christopher Andersen speaks of Jacqueline Kennedy’s pride and dignity and “reluctance to go public with her personal problems” although there was much anguish happening in her marriage, most of which the public never knew until years later. (“‘The press wasn’t as aggressive about digging up dirt on public figures back then’.”) Jackie’s designer Oleg Cassini, who also became a friend, said in an interview for Andersen’s 1996 biography which was released after Jackie’s death: “‘When you see Princess Diana, who is now older than Jackie was when she was in the White House, disemboweling herself in public—Mrs. Kennedy would have never done that. Jackie was of sterner stuff made.’”

He was speaking of Diana’s shockingly sad-sack, secretly planned television exposé, via a BBC interview with Martin Bashir, broadcast live in 1995 at the time of her separation from Prince Charles. In the interview, she divulged things about their marriage and its ills (including admission to her own romantic affairs.) Supposedly it was an attempt to win back the public’s affection following Andrew Morton’s “true story” biography a few years earlier after which much of the press and public turned against Diana. (Looking ahead to a possible divorce, it was also a power play in an attempt to hold on to her “princess power.”) The television interview was horrifying to her family and friends, humiliating to her sons, and it broke the code of respect and dignity of the royal family—a code that was to keep one’s private and public life separate. (It seems that it would have offended most people’s sense of appropriateness and decorum.) However, inappropriate exposé or not, the family secrets Diana revealed—whether it was because the public was ready for the monarchy to be exposed, or they couldn’t get enough of salacious royal gossip, or because humble appearing Diana declared that she wanted to be “princess of people’s hearts”—she won over the public (and their hearts) hook, line and sinker!

This presents a perfect moment to emphasize “dignity”—as in “self-respect.” It’s not an archaic word! In fact, I can’t think of anything more needed in the frenetic, mean-spirited world that’s taken over so much of early twenty-first century life. Jacqueline Kennedy had it in spades; so does Diana’s former mother-in-law, Queen Elizabeth; but I think Diana was just beginning to recognize its necessity if we were to have a kind, open-hearted society when, at her sudden death, (and paraphrasing Tina Brown from The Diana Chronicles), the public willed Diana’s dignity back to her.

The two women—Diana, British royalty by marriage and Jacqueline, American royalty by bearing—had their similarities, however. During their singular time, they were each the most famous and photographed woman in the world. (“The price of an exclusive photograph of Jackie was rivaled only in years to come by the prices commanded by Diana, Princess of Wales,” declared Craughwell-Varda.) Jackie knew this intuitively, Diana learned it by practice, but they both used clothes brilliantly to communicate a particular message. They both knew the power of giving focused, personal attention to connect with someone in conversation; and they were both rather erratic in their moods, but knew how to turn on the dazzle at just the right time. “‘You never knew when it was going to happen,’ one of Jackie’s teachers at Chapin said in Andersen’s biography. ‘She would turn it on and off like a light bulb. But when the light was on, it was blindingly bright.’” And the same could be said for the Princess of Wales. “She was simply shining” I read over and over about Diana at those times when she had a heart-to-heart connection with someone.

As young thirty-somethings, both women remained cultural and fashion icons even after changes to their world-stage marriages. Jacqueline, the widow of a fallen U.S. president (who, in her mourning, was said by a British journalist to “‘[give] her country the one thing it has always lacked, and that is majesty”) and Diana, as the ex-wife of the heir to the British throne, both emerged from their major rites-or-passage even more goddess-like in the eyes of the media and the public. Diana had courted and manipulated the press more in her “goddess career,” but both women were eager to change, as Jackie expressed at the end of her mourning period, “‘the oppressive obsession the world has with me.’” She achieved it to some degree—as well as adding to her regal élan—by marrying someone wealthy enough to protectively cocoon her away in grand style. By becoming Jackie Onassis, she was given her “‘release, [her] freedom’” so yearned for. Diana, however, achieved her release and freedom only in death.

Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis was eulogized by her former brother-in-law, Senator Edward Kennedy: “Jackie would have preferred to be just herself, but the world insisted that she be a legend too.” We know a goddess when we see one and sometimes, in their bright light, we just can’t help our adoring selves. We want to follow their lives like dazzled goddess groupies! ~

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