Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis once said she considered herself a woman first. To her admirers, she is nothing less than an iconic American figure. Over the course of her life, the woman known as Jackie O lived many roles: high society debutante, adventurous professional woman, politician's wife, young mother, First Lady, widow, reluctant public figure, role model, billionaire's wife, dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, benefactor of the arts, editor, and avid conservationist. But for someone who lived such a public life, she remained an enigma, her carefully polished poise a sometimes impenetrable shield to the woman beneath. Everybody knows of Jackie, but few knew her.
How did an unassuming young woman who dreamed of being a photojournalist become one of the most influential women of the twentieth century, one who forever changed the way we look at the presidency — and ourselves? Part of it was serendipity. At a dinner party thrown by a journalist associate, she happened to meet a young congressman from Massachusetts named John F. Kennedy, who later joked that he'd leaned across the asparagus to ask her out.
Part was opportunistic. Just thirty-one years old when her husband was sworn in as president, Jackie saw an opportunity. She set out to reinvent the public image of the president's wife. She orchestrated a renovation of the White House and invited Americans into her home by hosting a televised tour of the presidential residence. Jackie also became a vocal supporter of the arts, frequently hosting elegant dinner parties that featured some of the most renowned musicians and performers of the day.
Part was fate. During an otherwise unremarkable trip to Dallas, Texas, to drum up Democratic support in a traditionally Republican state, President Kennedy was assassinated. Photographs of a numbed Jackie in her bloodstained suit and her dignified grief turned her into an American symbol of loss, courage, and, ultimately, survival.
Part was calculated. It was no secret that money and financial security were important to Jackie — more important than the approval of the public or the Kennedy clan. After Robert Kennedy's assassination, Jackie's priority became her children's safety. While her marriage to Aristotle Onassis four months later may not have been born from great passion, it provided what Jackie needed: the finances to raise her children in a protected and sheltered environment.
Most of Jackie's legacy came from a unique combination of charisma, intelligence, ambition, and unapologetic determination to live life on her terms. That single-mindedness was greatly influenced by her upbringing: in particular, her close relationship with her charming but roguish father, “Black Jack” Bouvier, which was warm and loving and her cool and emotionally distant relationships with her mother and sister. Hers was a family where appearances often meant everything and the importance of maintaining an appropriate public face was imperative. At the same time, Jackie's parents fostered the independence that led her to pursue an education and career at a time when women were expected to be little more than housewives and mothers.
Even when Jackie was married with children, she refused to disappear into the background, carving out a public persona that overtly promoted the arts and inadvertently made her a fashion trendsetter. Her ability to project deference to her husband's office while remaining a clear partner in their marriage endeared her to people the world over and made her a role model for a generation of young women. President Kennedy once proudly observed that he was becoming best known as the man who married Jackie.
Her popularity may have waxed and waned over the decades, but her influence came to be part of the American fabric. Jackie's lifetime spanned some of the nation's most volatile and transforming eras. Through it all, she transcended the changing social, cultural, and political mores to emerge as the ultimate and enduring symbol of style, class, dignity, and grace under fire. Her story remains timely and her legacy timeless.