Although she would one day be considered American royalty by many of her admirers, Jacqueline Lee Bouvier's family tree had decidedly common and middle-class roots. The Lee patriarch in America had fled nineteenth-century Ireland to escape starvation and disease. His hard-working descendants slowly climbed up the social ladder, never quite losing their scrappy blue-collar mentality.
Considered nouveau riche, the Lees struggled to find acceptance among old-money New York aristocrats — such as the Bouviers, one of the few Catholic families included in New York's Protestant-heavy Social Register.
What was the Social Register and who was in it?
The original New York Social Register was a list of the city's most prominent and influential families. It was first compiled by Louis Keller in 1887. Being wealthy was only one criterion; families also had to be socially acceptable. As such, blacks, Jews, and Catholics were seldom included.
James Thomas Lee was an overachiever. His grandparents, Thomas and Frances, had come to America from County Cork, Ireland, and went to work at a rubber company to support their six children. His father, James Lee, had been a teacher and his mother, Mary Norton, a nurse. James Thomas, called Jim, had much loftier goals.
Born in 1877, he received an engineering degree from New York's City College and earned a law degree three years later from Columbia University. Jim was a short, impatient man who kept fit by boxing for a half hour every day. He was also ambitious. He quit his job as a law clerk and opened his own practice.
In 1903 Jim married Margaret Merritt, described by acquaintances as a gentle woman whose parents were also Irish immigrants. Jim and Margaret had three daughters: Marion, Janet, and Winifred. Jim gave up law and went into real estate. A shrewd and daring businessman, he became a multimillionaire by building and renting out luxury apartment buildings.
Overall, 1.8 million people left Ireland between 1846 and 1855. Out of the emigrants, nine-tenths of those migrated to the United States. Seventy-five percent of those immigrants settled in New York. By 1850, New York City had more Irish-born citizens than Dublin.
Being rich wasn't enough for Jim, though; he also wanted respect. Despite his position as chairman of New York Central Savings Bank and his wealth, which by 1922 was estimated to be in excess of $35 million, the Lees remained on the outer fringes of high society, lacking the right “pedigree.”
Not long after Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo in 1815, Michel Bouvier, a young cabinetmaker from Provence, arrived in Philadelphia and amassed a fortune as a talented cabinetmaker and designer. He used his money to buy more than 150,000 acres of land in coal-rich West Virginia as well as real estate in Philadelphia's posh Main Line neighborhood. After his first wife died, Michel married Louise Vernou.
Of Michel's nine children, only two survived to adulthood: Michel (called M. C.) and John Vernou. After their father died in 1874, the Bouvier brothers invested the family money in real estate and the stock market. By 1914, they had amassed a fortune equivalent to $40 million in today's dollars. They were readily accepted by New York's society elite and were listed in the Social Register despite their Catholic faith.
One of Michel's first customers was Napoleon Bonaparte's older brother, Joseph. After Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, Joseph moved to the United States. He first settled in Philadelphia but later moved to an estate in New Jersey, which he named Point Breeze. Although he used the pseudonym Count de Survilliers, his neighbors called him Mr. Bonaparte.
John Vernou Bouvier married Caroline Ewing, one of New York's most beautiful socialites. Their son, John Vernou Jr., earned his law degree at Columbia and was a well-regarded trial attorney. In 1890 he married Maude Sergeant and they raised five children: John Vernou III, William Sergeant, Edith, and the twins Maude and Michelle. They grew up in a twenty-four-room apartment on Park Avenue. During the summer, the Bouviers relocated to their East Hampton estate, Lasata, where they stayed until the pumpkin harvest.
During World War I, John was appointed major judge advocate for the army by Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo. From then on, John Vernou Jr. preferred being addressed as “The Major.”After the war ended, he gave up his private practice and went to work for his Uncle Michel's Wall Street firm.