Clever, artistic and full of the devil … then Jackie met JFK

Clever, artistic and full of the devil … then Jackie met JFK

July 28, 2023

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Camera Girl: The Coming of Age of Jackie Bouvier Kennedy
Carl Sferrazza Anthony
Gallery Books, $49.99

A confession is a good place to start. Here is mine: I assumed Jacqueline Kennedy was nothing more, or less, than a pillbox hat and a charming pink suit. This is untrue, or mostly untrue; she did look pretty chic in the pillbox and the pink. Chic is admirable in any time zone. This book, Camera Girl: The Coming of Age of Jackie Bouvier Kennedy, has alerted me to all the other reasons I should admire and like – tremendously like – Carl Sferrazza Anthony’s subject.

Jacqueline Bouvier at the Kennedy home in Cape Cod a few months before her marriage to John F. Kennedy.Credit: Getty

Anthony is the author of a dozen books that concentrate on the women connected to the White House. One could worry about hagiography, but most of the time this is fresh, straight-up, detailed – at times overdetailed – biography.

In the 1960s, Jacqueline Kennedy was as starry as Diana Spencer was in the 1980s, and for much the same reasons. Both were partners of powerful men; both created a style that was instantly recognisable and relentlessly imitated. Jackie was only 24 when she married the upcoming Democratic senator Jack Kennedy. He was from a close Irish Boston family, she from a divorced pair of socialites whose political bent was Republican.

The well-publicised 1953 wedding was the beginning of the Jackie that the historians of last century kept buffing up, the woman known for the vaunted, essentially female virtues of grace, charm, culture. All true, but here is the young woman Jackie Bouvier was before she became Kennedy or later Aristotle Onassis, growing up in days when intelligence in a woman was not valued.

The epigraph from a 1972 interview, reflects this: “People often forget that I was Jacqueline Bouvier, before being Mrs Kennedy or Mrs Onassis. Throughout my life I have tried to remain true to myself.”

Jacqueline Bouvier was the first daughter of two difficult people who, after a decade of unhappy marriage, divorced, then detested one another the rest of their lives. Childish, vain, selfish, both parents misused their two daughters, seeing them not as individuals but as weapons to be used against the other parent. Her mother was a mighty social climber, her father a serial adulterer, or as the news of the day blousily put it “a commuter in love”. He was also chronically short of money.

Jackie’s mother was intent on containing a certain “wildness” (that is, intelligence) in her daughter and marrying well, but her father was more interested in her achievements. He seems to have had a warmer heart than her mother and was the favoured parent. As she was the favoured daughter. There does not seem to have been a time in Jackie’s young life when she was unaware of the tensions in her family.

Her brio, like her intelligence, flourished early but instead of crippling her, she adapted, growing up to know her own worth and to calculate it in terms of what she might want. She was a precocious child, a constant reader and a handful for teachers. One teacher described six-year-old Jackie as: very clever, very artistic, full of the devil. An accurate assessment throughout her life.

Jacqueline Bouvier at work as a photojournalist in 1952.Credit: Getty

At only 19, she and three other young women more interested in brain than brawn went to France to study French. It was part of a university program and designed to train language teachers. In France, the eager young woman not only discovered who she was but who she wasn’t.

She was not the socialite destined for an early marriage but a lively young woman who wanted to eat up the world. She was always more interested in culture and education, in the aesthetics of things and the processes of learning than she was in the next young man.

Europe was a revelation, and she did everything she could not to return home. When she did, she didn’t return to Vassar but took a job as a camera girl for a newspaper. Then she wrote columns. Witty, bright, sometimes bold pieces that often crossed lines but revealed her hunger to know everything she could about everybody.

Her confidence, along with her connections, social and political, opened doors, and she was well on her way to becoming a skilled photojournalist when Kennedy crossed her line of vision. And, in many ways, that was that. Her life had to merge with his.

This dense account of what it was to be a very smart and very entitled young woman in the heady days of mid-century America is fascinating purely as a historical document, but it is also a sharp and still relevant psychological portrait of a captivating woman who always had to be her own mentor.

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