Jacqueline Kennedy's oral history: audio tapes show a sassier first lady

What Women Really Think
Sept. 14 2011 7:43 AM

Jacqueline Kennedy's Recorded Diss List

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As a First lady, Jacqueline Kennedy is remembered by most as chic and polished—the demure Vassar girl with the breathy voice who redecorated the White House and looked like a movie star. But in newly released audio recorded in 1964, which has been featured in a recent New York Times exclusive and an ABC special last night hosted by Diane Sawyer called Jacqueline Kennedy: In Her Own Words, a fuller picture emerges of the future Jackie O. She was certainly well-bred and very beautiful, but she was also whip-smart, and she wasn't afraid to give historian and interviewer Arthur Schlesinger brutally honest, even catty assessments of various politicians (Indira Gandhi was a "pushy, horrible woman"), nationalities (French people are "all out for themselves") and her fellow women (too emotional for politics). P.S., she hated the term first lady, she thought it sounded like a race horse, her daughter Caroline told Sawyer.

Though Kennedy's various jabs were certainly entertaining, they are particularly fascinating when you contrast them with the way she spoke about JFK. Her voice would get extremely breathy and small, and, at least in the audio aired by ABC, she spoke of her relationship with him in the way a daughter would speak about a father. In fact, she even described the dynamic as paternal, which is particularly resonant because of the president's archetypal role as father to the country. When asked about her husband's inauguration, Jackie said that after he was elected, "In this childish way I thought I wouldn't have to be afraid," because Jack would make everything ok. She says that when she would ask her husband about his work early on in the adminstration, he would call her "kid" and tell her that he didn't want to be reminded of work. As Janny Scott pointed out in the New York Times, perhaps Jackie was just projecting what she thought was expected of women at the time, but the level of infantilization that she not only accepted—but also valorized—was surprising.

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Speaking of what was expected of women: Back in 1964 Jackie was not what one would call a feminist. In addition to saying that women were unsuited for politics, she whispered that Congresswoman Clare Booth Luce was possibly a lesbian because she wanted something for herself. "Why do they have this queer thing for power?" Jackie asked Schlesinger, referring to Luce and Madame Nhu, the sister-in-law of the South Vietnamese president. Because they resented getting their power from men, Jackie posited, they must hate men. Diane Sawyer asked Caroline Kennedy about these sorts of comments. Caroline said that wasn't the mother she remembered, and that Jackie was extremely supportive of women in politics later on in her life. Like many women of the era, her views evolved in the post-'60s era.

Certainly Jackie's more caustic comments were delicious to hear (I especially enjoyed her undermine-y jabs at Pat Nixon: "She could be really New York chic when she wanted," and even better, she worried that the American public wanted her to be frumpy, to get a "Frizzy perm and be like Pat Nixon"), but ultimately they just made her more human, less of the Camelot heroine people like to valorize. And even with these little barbs, when it counted, Jackie was extremely discreet and always classy. Though she must have known about the affairs that her husband had, and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin says as much on the ABC special, she never, ever spoke about them. Diane Sawyer asked Caroline—who looked like she was sitting on a chair of barbed wire throughout the interview, that's how uncomfortable and sad she seemed discussing her mother's legacy—whether Jackie ever spoke about her husband's other women. "I wouldn't be her daughter if I would share all that," Caroline said.

Jessica Grose is a frequent Slate contributor and the author of the novel Sad Desk Salad. Follow her on Twitter.

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