Author’s program note. I am writing this article because my father, Donald Marshall Lant, asked me to. Like millions of people, he — and I — have been fascinated by the candid memories of the Queen of Camelot. They are mesmerizing and make us wish that other consorts had had the equipment and chutzpah to do the same. Think of Anne Boleyn, for example, or Marie Antoinette.
Then be glad that Mrs. Kennedy, as she then was and as we all expected her to remain, iconic widow of her sexy, philandering man, be glad, I say, that she permitted herself the luxury to be herself and open up in a way which has horrified many who think the lady was indiscrete.
But these tapes, and even my encounter with Mrs. Onassis (as she then was), make her human… and very much the kind of engaging company one would like to spend an afternoon with, as I luckily did.
For this article, I have selected the theme music from Lerner and Loewe’s “Camelot“ (1960). You’ll find it in any search engine. Both husband and wife liked the music and were perfectly willing to be cast in the leading, royal, roles… but let’s be clear: the actualities are quite different.
In the musical, King Arthur loved his queen and none other; loved her so much he was willing to sacrifice what he most loved, so that she could be truly happy with his best friend, the man he most loved and admired.
In real life, JFK had a randy obsession with a multitude of women, dalliances which embarrassed and humiliated his wife. In Camelot the queen found profound love and satisfaction with Lancelot. In reality, Jackie stood by her man and tried to make the best of an unabashed hedonism which only the discretion of the media kept from becoming a national scandal.
The lady, her objective, and herself.
In 1964 Mrs. Kennedy was, as she would remain, the most celebrated woman on earth. She was known by all, revered by most, a by-word for chic, style, classical elegance, and, yes, frosty detachment. But this was just the public woman… and the public woman was not the most interesting part. That was saved for those with entree… and, now, for auditors to these tapes.
Item: Here’s a quote from the time of the Cuban missile crisis (October, 1962) when official Washington, D.C., including the most senior White House officials, were quite convinced Götterdämmerung was about to obliterate their world.
“Please don’t send me away to Camp David… Please don’t send me anywhere,” she implored JFK. “If anything happens, we’re all going to stay right here with you… even if there’s not room in the bomb shelter in the White House… I just want to be with you and I want to die with you.”
At such a moment, death creeping close and menacing, one tells the truth… and means it. Jackie Kennedy loved her man, perhaps to distraction, and so we understand her better, and wish he had, too.
Item: “Bobby told me this later, and I know Jack said it to me sometimes, he said ‘Oh, god, can you ever imagine what would happen to the country if Lyndon was president?’… I mean, he didn’t like that idea that Lyndon would go on to be president because he was worried for the country.”
Quotes like this are telling; there’s a “he said, she said” frat house quality about them… (First Brother Robert Kennedy) Bobby agonizing about Lyndon Johnson… then (Vice President) Lyndon sitting in his office agonizing about how the brothers hated him… and (First Lady) Jackie parroting back her husband’s line, oblivious to what it meant and just how silly it reads and how fatuous. This is most assuredly not the language of great Shakespeare; it’s more like the “telephone hour” from “Bye-Bye, Birdie” (1960), a musical about teen-age love, hot, smoldering, obsessive.
Item: “Jack told me of a tape that the FBI had of Martin Luther King when he was here for the freedom march. And he said this with no bitterness or anything, how he was calling up all these girls and arranging for a party of men and women… And I said, ‘But Jack, oh that’s so terrible, I mean, that man, you know, is such a phony then’.”
Consider this remark for a moment. A great philanderer’s comments about another leader with sexual peccadilloes gets his wife to call that leader a “phony,” and our mouths drop with amazement at the double standard, the pot calling the kettle black… the wife seemingly unaware of the gall and irony. Yes, these tapes are eye-opening all right.
History will out, compliments of Caroline Kennedy, once First Daughter.
Stalwart partisans of Camelot, afflicted by age and gnawing uncertainties about the people they elevated to near god-like status, must be chagrined and dismayed by these tapes. Advocates for women’s rights will be disappointed, too, by the former First Lady’s almost geisha-like obeisance to her lord and master. It reminds one of another character, Lady Thiang, in “The King and I” (1956), the Number One wife whose vocation was tolerance.
“This is a man you’ll forgive and forgive, And help protect, as long as you live… He will not always say What you would have him say, But now and then he’ll do Something Wonderful.”
This is not the Jackie Kennedy we thought we knew… and it was most assuredly not the lady I met in New York in 1977 at a high octane fund raising party at the home of Lally Weymouth in aid of Radcliffe College, where I then worked. The guest list was small, exclusive, and studded with celebrities, starting with Weymouth’s mother Katherine Graham, owner of the Washington Post, Barbara Walters, Sam Spiegel, John Chancellor, all stars, the most celestial being Mrs. Onassis, there as mother of Radcliffe undergraduate Caroline… and I was her designated go-fer of the day. As a Harvard-educated historian, I was ecstatic to be in the presence of History… and I was determined to note and remember everything.
Scrutinizing Jackie O.
I can see in my mind’s eye the room in which we met and can still feel the frisson when our hands touched. She spoke to me in that celebrated whisper all her own. I offered to get her a drink, not just now, she said, and maneuvered us towards the couch. “When you have the chance to sit down, take it”, she said… thus spoke a woman who knew how to stay comfortable. The words were followed by the slightest pressure on my right arm, indicating I was to sit down, too. This was careful strategy. She rightly supposed I would follow her lead and me in the place beside her meant none of the media stars, always searching for a story, could do so. Smart.
She was a lady who loved books, and we would have chatted about them, including my first book about the British monarchy then in preparation (Insubstantial Pageant: Ceremony and Confusion at Queen Victoria’s Court). She expressed polite interest; after I saw her collection of books years later, I knew why. My subject and approach were right up her alley.
In due course, the almost regal presentations to Mrs. Onassis commenced, but she made it clear I was not to move… and so I began my intense scrutiny, as if she were out of a portrait by Whistler, “Rose and Silver: The Princess from the Land of Porcelain.” (1864) Her skin was a skein of veins, a delicate mosaic. I looked… but did not wish to be seen looking. However, I could not take my eyes away. She must have accepted the fact that everyone would look, stare, unable to stop, but few of those looking ever had as good a vantage point as I.
After a time, my space was needed for bigger fish, and my hostess needed assistance. In due course, Mrs. Onassis, having done her bit for Radcliffe, prepared to leave. I got my final reward when she thanked me and, again, I felt the frisson as we shook hands in farewell. It must have been the same with Cleopatra… the Lady Livia… the Empress Alexandra of All the Russias. She looked directly into my eyes as she spoke… and I looked into hers.
I saw these famous eyes again the next day when she graced the cover of “Women’s Wear Daily.” It was one of the famous “Jackie-O” photos, no sign of mosaic, just wide set eyes and a look to wow by. Next to her in that photo there was, said the caption, an “unidentified man.” You can, I think, guess who that unidentified man might be….
About the Author
Harvard-educated Dr. Jeffrey Lant is CEO of Worldprofit, Inc. at www.worldprofit.com, providing a wide range of online services for small and-home based businesses.
Republished with author’s permission by Graham Lee – The Income Zone
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