The new Jackie Kennedy biopic starring Natalie Portman is nearing cinemas (well, we are getting closer to 2017) and I for one am very excited. The film will focus on the days following JFK’s assassination. We can only speculate what the film will include exactly though it was a fascinating, and of course dramatic time, in the life of one of the twentieth century’s most famous women.
I hope Jackie’s interview with Life magazine will be included as it is a fascinating, little known episode. Jackie was understandably traumatised following her husband’s public death and retreated to their mansion and Hyannisport. But she angered reading articles summarising JFK’s accomplishments, and dwelling on his failures, in the wake of the assassination. It would not do. So one week after she became a widow she called a journalist named Theodore White.
Unfortunately, he was not at home, but at the dentist. He was taken by a call from the chair with his mother telling him “Jackie Kennedy was calling and needed him”. Bemused, soon he was speaking to Jackie who he recalled told him, “there was something she wanted Life magazine to say to the country, and I must do it”.
It was not the sort of offer to be refused.
A hurricane meant flying was impossible that weekend, so White had no choice but to drive – through an appropriately dark and stormy night. The editors of Life agreed to hold the presses for the story, an unprecedented story that would cost $30,000 an hour.
Theodore White was well chosen. He had a respected career and was the author of a recent best seller detailing the 1960 campaign, The Making of the President, admiring of JFK and equally disparaging of opponent Richard Nixon. He had also been friendly with Joseph Kennedy when they had schooled together at Harvard in the 1930s. He was greeted by Jackie who described in his shorthand notes, “Composure…beautiful…dressed in trim black slacks…beige pullover sweater…eyes wider than pools…calm voice.”
She informed White she wanted to ensure her husband was not “forgotten by history” which stunned him, as the idea of his being forgotten seemed very unlikely. What she meant, in actuality, was that she wanted her version of history to become pre-eminent.
The following is the transcript of what she told White, a donation to the Kennedy Library made public after Jackie’s death in 1995. It is clear reading it Jackie’s consummate skill as a storyteller – she had quite the talent with words working for a newspaper and the Vogue Prix de Paris prior to her marriage, which she later tapped into during her career as a book editor.
There'd been the biggest motorcade from the airport. Hot. Wild. Like Mexico and Vienna. The sun was so strong in our faces. I couldn't put on sunglasses... Then we saw this tunnel ahead, I thought it would be cool in the tunnel, I thought if you were on the left the sun wouldn't get into your eyes...
They were gunning the motorcycles. There were these little backfires. There was one noise like that. I thought it was a backfire. Then next I saw Connally grabbing his arms and saying "no, no, no, no, no," with his fist beating. Then Jack turned and I turned. All I remember was a blue-gray building up ahead. Then Jack turned back so neatly, his last expression was so neat... you know that wonderful expression he had when they'd ask him a question about one of the ten million pieces they have in a rocket, just before he'd answer. He looked puzzled, then he slumped forward. He was holding out his hand … I could see a piece of his skull coming off. It was flesh-colored, not white — he was holding out his hand … I can see this perfectly clean piece detaching itself from his head. Then he slumped in my lap, his blood and his brains were in my lap … Then Clint Hill [the Secret Service man], he loved us, he made my life so easy, he was the first man in the car … We all lay down in the car … And I kept saying, Jack, Jack, Jack, and someone was yelling "he's dead, he's dead." All the ride to the hospital I kept bending over him, saying "Jack, Jack, can you hear me, I love you, Jack."
His head was so beautiful. I tried to hold the top of his head down, maybe I could keep it in...but I knew he was dead.
When they carried Jack in, Hill threw his coat over Jack's head, and I held his head to throw the coat over it. It wasn't repulsive to me for one moment — nothing was repulsive to me —
These big Texas interns kept saying, "Mrs. Kennedy, you come with us", they wanted to take me away from him... But I said "I'm not leaving"… Dave Powers came running to me at the hospital, crying when he saw me, my legs, my hands were covered with his brains... When Dave saw this he burst out weeping... I said "I'm not going to leave him, I'm not going to leave him"… I was standing outside in this narrow corridor... ten minutes later this big policeman brought me a chair.
I said, "I want to be in there when he dies"… so Burkeley forced his way into the operating room and said, "It's her prerogative, it's her prerogative..." and I got in, there were about forty people there. Dr. Perry wanted to get me out. But I said "It's my husband, his blood, his brains are all over me."
I held his hand all the time the priest was saying extreme unction. The ring was all blood-stained... so I put the ring on Jack's finger... and then I kissed his hand...
Everytime we got off the plane that day, three times they gave me the yellow roses of Texas. But in Dallas they gave me red roses. I thought how funny, red roses — so all the seat was full of blood and red roses.
But there's this one thing I wanted to say... I'm so ashamed of myself... When Jack quoted something, it was usually classical... no, don't protect me now... I kept saying to Bobby, I've got to talk to somebody, I've got to see somebody, I want to say this one thing, it's been almost an obsession with me, all I keep thinking of is this line from a musical comedy, it's been an obsession with me... At night before we'd go to sleep... we had an old Victrola. Jack liked to play some records. His back hurt, the floor was so cold. I'd get out of bed at night and play it for him, when it was so cold getting out of bed... on a Victrola ten years old — and the song he loved most came at the very end of this record, the last side of Camelot, sad Camelot... "Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot."...There'll never be another Camelot again...
Do you know what I think of history? … For a while I thought history was something that bitter old men wrote. But Jack loved history so... No one'll ever know everything about Jack. But … history made Jack what he was … this lonely, little sick boy … scarlet fever … this little boy sick so much of the time, reading in bed, reading history … reading the Knights of the Round Table … and he just liked that last song.
Then I thought, for Jack history was full of heroes. And if it made him this way, if it made him see the heroes, maybe other little boys will see. Men are such a combination of good and bad … He was such a simple man. But he was so complex, too. Jack had this hero idea of history, the idealistic view, but then he had that other side, the pragmatic side... his friends were all his old friends; he loved his Irish Mafia.
History!... Everybody kept saying to me to put a cold towel around my head and wipe the blood off... later, I saw myself in the mirror; my whole face spattered with blood and hair... I wiped it off with Kleenex... History! … I thought, no one really wants me there. Then one second later I thought, why did I wash the blood off? I should have left it there, let them see what they've done... If I'd just had the blood and caked hair when they took the picture … Then later I said to Bobby — what's the line between history and drama? I should have kept the blood on.
White was awestruck by this account. He composed his draft essay in a guest room of the Kennedy mansion, his editors standing by. When he related it over the phone however they wished to remove the references to Camelot, which seemed to them overly sentimental. Jackie, standing close by, grasped what was going on and glared. Camelot would remain. The magazine was printed and flew off the stands around America, the vision of a magical, lost time was disseminated into the minds of millions.
The problem was that it was very likely untrue. Many close to Kennedy laughed at the idea of him enjoying the Camelot musical, a made up scenario to further Jackie's agenda. The show was based on the extremely popular novel The Once and Future King, also turned into the Disney film The Sword and the Stone. It differed from other adaptations of Arthurian legend in that it mocked traditional representations of chivalrous knighthood and critiqued militarism and blind nationalism. King Arthur, rather than a valiant warrior, was presented as a thwarted peacemaker, struggling to suppress pointless war. This message very likely resonated with Jackie and fit well with the image she wished to present, and so was harnessed in what James Swanson, writer of End of Days, called her “tour de force, her finest hour — actually more than five hours — of press manipulation”.
James Piereson agreed, “One must admire Mrs. Kennedy for the skill with which she deployed these images in the difficult aftermath of her husband’s death. Our retrospective view of President Kennedy is now filtered through the legends and symbols she put forward at that time. The hard headed politician devoted to step-by-step progress was transformed in death into the consummate liberal idealist.” This image he argues is more a reflection of Jackie’s romanticised perspective, or at least the view she wanted imprinted on history, rather than reality.
Theodore White later said he regretted his part in bringing the Camelot legend to life. Nevertheless, the vision of the Kennedy administration as a “brief shining moment” entered public consciousness, the Camelot legend pre-eminent to the current day – with Jackie’s agency largely unknown.