October 26, 2014: My introduction to Jacqueline Kennedy came early. It all started with a series of events – a poster of the presidents outside the door of my first grade classroom circa 1980, the gift of “The White House: An Historic Guide”, and a book about the first ladies.
My first grade teacher, Mrs. Parker, was big on history. We sang “My Country 'Tis of Thee” and “America the Beautiful” virtually every morning after the flag salute, and we were to have memorized our presidents and state capitols by the end of the year. The poster outside the door served as a daily reminder of this expectation but, to me, the most captivating images on the poster were those of the White House and the rooms within.
Consulting my 1964 World Book Encyclopedia, I learned a bit about the history of the president's house and, more importantly, the role that Jacqueline Kennedy played in restoring it in the early 1960's. One picture – a still from Mrs. Kennedy's tour of the White House, caught my eye, and I was off.
My brother was responsible for the next step in the process of “meeting” Jackie. Following a trip to Washington, D.C., he returned with a copy of the official guide to the White House, instituted by Mrs. Kennedy in 1962, as well as a book from the White House Historical Association about the wives of the presidents. I was mesmerized by both volumes, sitting for hours, staring at the pictures with some wonder. I still experience the same warm, excited feelings when I open these books today.
Of the portraits of the first ladies, a few stood out particularly. The painting of Edith Wilson with it's dark brown furs, deep purples and that giant orchid captured my imagination, as did the very grand looking Edith Roosevelt and Helen Taft with her tiara. But the two that seemed to hold my attention most completely were those of Mamie Eisenhower and Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.
Mamie's portrait for the vivid and rather straightforward colors – bright red lips, pink dress and deep blue eyes – and Mrs. Kennedy's for it's mystery and otherworldliness. Perhaps, also, because it was so different from the one that came before – Mamie – and the one that followed, Lady Bird. No first lady in modern times could have been more unlike those that had occupied the same position – before or after.
I can't pretend that I fully understood just who Jackie Kennedy was at this point. I was impacted more by images than information. But, Mrs. Kennedy certainly had a profound influence on the future of my education and interests. It is largely because of her that I started to learn more about the presidency, first ladies and the White House itself. With “Upstairs at the White House” by J.B. West, the 1963 National Geographic article “The Last Full Measure” and Mary Van Rensselaer Thayer's “Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy”, my enlightenment began.
From West, most of all, we see Jacqueline Kennedy as a whole person – curious, opinionated, kind, sometimes demanding, devoted, mischievous and, most delightfully, great fun! Over time, I began to feel that I knew Jackie Kennedy and, somehow, this gave me a great deal of comfort in a sometimes lonely childhood. I read everything I could find on my chosen subjects and, always, Mrs. Kennedy was there in the background, beckoning me on. In her introduction to the first edition of the White House guide book, Jackie Kennedy suggested that “it never hurt a child to read above his head”. This was certainly true in my case, and she provided a subject that has, over thirty years later, kept my attention.
Jacqueline Kennedy's influence had more practical ramifications as well. I suspect that few landlords received letters from the ten year old son of a renter, requesting funds to “restore” the 1970's built duplex in which they lived. You'd also be hard-pressed to imagine many other teenagers in the 1990's trying to replicate recipes from Rene Verdon's cookbook for groups of high school friends. Jackie even led me to a mini crime spree – picking an armful of county-owned tulips from our local fairgrounds, in the dark of night, to replicate one of those famed Kennedy White House floral arrangements for the above mentioned dinner party. Imagine using the excuse, “Mrs. Kennedy made me do it!” when confronted by the local sheriff!
A few years ago, I decided to turn my attention to a new endeavor – illustration. With no training and a bare minimum of natural talent, I started by drawing the gowns of Jacqueline Kennedy. The lines were deceptively simple, and the style was unmistakable. It proved a rewarding and popular decision, and I was able to sell some of my work to museum gift shops across the United States. My work based on Mrs. Kennedy's wardrobe continues to be among my most popular images, and I never really tire of trying to find new ways and reasons to chronicle it. The same is true of many of her decorative contributions to the White House. Jackie Kennedy is, quite simply, one of my most powerful muses.
Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis has legions of admirers, many of whom were born after her untimely death in 1994. She continues to enthrall, to puzzle and to inspire. More than virtually any other American woman of our time, her image and style seem timeless. And, for some reason, we feel a very personal connection to her – perhaps even a sense of protectiveness. She is, quite simply, one of the most fascinating women in our history and I'm glad that I discovered her for myself.