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Rating the First Ladies: The Women Who Influenced the Presidency

Jackie Kennedy

First Lady: 1961-1963

Siena Research Institute Rating: 7

 

 

Not since Elizabeth Monroe and Louisa Adams in the early nineteenth century had the White House so resembled a royal court. It was even given the nickname "Camelot," the royal household of Arthurian legend. Throughout the history of the republic, there had been two dramatically different approaches to the job of First Lady: There were the "democratic" first ladies like Abigail Fillmore and Frances Cleveland; and there were the "four year queens" like Harriet Lane and Helen Taft. Then there was Jacqueline Kennedy. Arguably, no first lady had ever achieved her level of glamour, erudition, and cosmopolitan savoir faire.

 

Jacqueline Lee Bouvier's early life was characterized by affluence and privilege. She was born on July 28, 1929, in Southampton, New York. Her father, John Bouvier, was a well-to-do stockbroker who claimed to be descended from French aristocracy. Because of his womanizing, her parents divorced when Jacqueline was eight years old. In 1942, her mother, Janet Lee Bouvier, married Hugh Auchincloss, a wealthy, twice-divorced stockbroker who welcomed Jacqueline and her younger sister, Lee, into his life. Jackie began dividing her year between summers at the Auchincloss estates in Virginia and Rhode Island and the academic year at Miss Porter's school, a private boarding facility in Farmington, Connecticut. Her peers at Miss Porter's gave her the cruel nickname "Jacqueline Borgia," for the infamous Borgia family known during the Renaissance for their ruthlessness toward rivals, but perhaps their intention was merely to highlight something regal in the teenage Jackie's bearing.

 

Jackie was tutored in all the social graces expected from a young lady of the upper class at the time. She had riding lessons – English, not Western – and became an accomplished equestrienne. She was taught ballet, given art lessons, and learned dances suitable for cotillion and the coming-out parties of young debutantes. The polishing paid off. She was named Debutante of the Year for the 1947-1948 social season in New York.

 

After Miss Porter's school, Jacqueline went to Vassar. She made the dean's list, but reportedly focused more of her attention on boys and dating than academic pursuits. Her junior year was spent abroad in Paris, studying at the Sorbonne and perfecting her French. For the first time in her life, she enjoyed a degree of independence. Later she would call this year in Paris – not the White House, not her time with multimillionaire shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, nor her days working in publishing in New York – the high point of her life. She dated a young Bohemian with few prospects and dreamed of living in Paris. When she returned to the States to complete her senior year in college, she attended George Washington University instead of Vassar.

 

The following year, Jacqueline made an effort to relive her dream. Vogue magazine held a Prix de Paris contest in which winning essays would be rewarded with a year's scholarship to the Sorbonne. She succeeded, but Jacqueline's parents opposed her choice, fearing that if she returned to Paris she might become entranced by the life of an expatriate and never return to the States. They wanted Jackie to take her place in American society. As a consolation prize from her parents after she agreed not to go to the Sorbonne, Jacqueline and her younger sister were given an all-expenses paid summer vacation in Europe.

 

With her stepfather's help, Jacqueline landed a job with the Washington Times Herald as a photojournalist. It gave her invaluable perspective into the workings of the press – knowledge that would serve her well not only in the White House but also in her later life, when dealing with inquisitive reporters and intrusive paparazzi. Between 1951 and 1953, she had her own daily column in the paper. Called "The Inquiring Photographer," it featured light questions such as "Do women marry because they are too lazy to go to work?" along with a photograph of the person being featured. One of her subjects was six-year-old Tricia Nixon, whose father was then Eisenhower's vice president.

 

She was twenty-three when she began dating Congressman Jack Kennedy in 1952. He was a rich, handsome World War II veteran twelve years her senior. It was the kind of match her parents, and, more important Kennedy patriarch Joseph, approved of readily. Joe Kennedy saw in the refined, elegant Jackie the ideal mate to match his son's political ambitions. The couple married on September 15, 1953, in a large ceremony followed by a reception at an Auchincloss estate. Jackie's father, John Bouvier, was supposed to walk her down the aisle but reportedly was too drunk.  Her stepfather, Hugh Auchincloss, stepped in to give away the bride. They honeymooned in a villa at Acapulco owned by the president of Mexico.

 

Jacqueline quickly became an asset to Jack's political career...