Thursday, 22 September 2011

Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life With John F. Kennedy

If you are as fascinated as I am by the gilded enigma of the Kennedy dynasty, then you'll be interested to learn that last week saw the long-awaited publication of historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s interviews with Jacqueline Kennedy. Entitled Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life With John F. Kennedy, the book transcribes a series of conversations which Mrs. Kennedy held with Schlesinger only months after her husband's assassination.

These particular interviews have not been released since their recording in 1964, and have now been published with the approval of the Kennedys' daughter Caroline, not only to mark the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's presidency, but also as a way of putting Mrs. Kennedy's opinions on the historical record.

I've often thought that behind that soft, well-polished voice there had to be a wealth of choice opinions on the many and varied people Jacqueline Kennedy encountered, and Historic Conversations confirms this. Public opinion is, even after all these years, strongly divided on the former First Lady, but I've always felt there to be so much more to her than the popular image of a serene (but long-suffering) clothes-horse. 

As the President's wife, Mrs. Kennedy was naturally expected to be charming, supportive to her husband, and above all to maintain a smilingly diplomatic approach to all public matters. Yet as her conversations with Arthur M. Schlesinger show, she held privately strong opinions and made thoughtful - and sometimes acerbic observations. Of herself she said, " know, everybody thought I was a snob and hated politics." Of President Kennedy's successor, Lyndon B. Johnson she retells a remark her husband once made to her - "Oh, God, can you ever imagine what would happen to the country if Lyndon was president?"

The interviews are intimate and chatty in tone - conveying a strong sense of place and time, as well as offering hitherto unheard insights into the Kennedy's lives. Mrs. Kennedy asserts that theirs was a marriage in which very traditional roles were maintained - even going so far as to say that all of her opinions came from the President, yet historian Michael Beschloss urges us to "...take that with a warehouse of salt." 

Friends of Mrs. Kennedy have commented that the Jacqueline of the interviews is not the woman she was in later years, and it's certainly an interesting conundrum. However intimate the interviews seem, they were still exactly that: interviews, not a tell-all. No reference is made to President Kennedy's alleged infidelities, nor is his death discussed in any way. Mrs. Kennedy is articulate and charming, but rightly maintained her right to keep some matters strictly private. The interviews must be taken within the context of the time, too - coming as they did only months after her husband's murder. In many ways, she was still Jacqueline the First Lady (however many "Presidential" moments are relived), and more importantly, she was a grieving wife. This was Jacqueline before Jackie O, and before the respected career in publishing she would later have.

We will never know all that Jacqueline Kennedy was, but at least with the publication of Historic Conversations, we can get a glimpse into her fascinating world.

For audio clips and images, go to the New York Times story, here.

Image courtesy of


  1. Thanks for this review! I saw a tv interview with Caroline Kennedy about this book and I would very much like to read it. I think I'll have to save it for my Christmas holidays though.
    I've reinstated the comments feature on my blog - mostly because I miss hearing from friends like you!

  2. I think it'll most definitely be on my Christmas reading list, too. It's fascinating. Check out the NYT audio clips if you can!

    I'm so glad your comments function is back. I missed being able to comment. :)