By Lynn Wooten
October 30, 2014: Since I was in the fifth grade, I have had a deep fascination with the Kennedys and have spent most of my life building a collection of books and memorabilia on them.
I had the great fortune to see Jackie Kennedy Onassis in person several times, beginning at Caroline Kennedy’s wedding on Cape Cod in 1986.
That sighting was simply from being part of the crowd of tourists, fans and media outside the church, as well as putting good use to a zoom lens.
Afterward, when I became a newspaper reporter with a very convenient press pass, I photographed a number of Kennedy events at the JFK Library, around Boston, at Arlington and elsewhere.
Not long after Caroline’s wedding, I mailed Jackie some photos of the event to keep, along with an extra print of her with her mother and stepbrother, and a self-addressed, stamped envelope. In my letter, I asked if she would please personally sign and return the extra photo to me. To my great surprise, many weeks later the envelope arrived in the mailbox containing the photo, inscribed in her distinctive handwriting: “To Lynn Wooten, who was with us all on this happy day – With appreciation and all good wishes, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.” That photo is one of my most prized possessions and later appeared in Jay Mulvaney’s book “Kennedy Weddings.”
I continued to send Jackie photos after I’d photographed her and the children at public events, and I’d always get a polite thank you note from Nancy Tuckerman -- and once from Jackie herself, on her famous powder blue 1040 stationery.
At the events I saw and photographed her, Jackie always was the indisputable star of the show and electrified the crowd with her mere presence. She was the rare individual who exuded the aura of a superstar – a vibe, an energy that I can’t adequately put into words. Once, following the dedication of a statue of President Kennedy in Boston, the family and their guests retired to a private reception in the Statehouse.
Photographers and fans waited outside for them to leave and make their way to their limos. Eventually the doors swung open, and Jackie, Caroline, John Jr. and others began their walk through the gauntlet. I got swept in and crushed by the crowd directly behind Jackie, following in her wake like a pack of worshipping pilgrims, and literally followed in her footsteps down the hallway and out the door.
It was a parting of the sea, a sea of media and excited fans. By being right behind her, I experienced up-close the full force of what Jackie had handled so gracefully for over 30 years – people pressing in and calling out to her, the blinding flashbulbs in your face. It was quite unnerving! The three of them got into their limo, and Jackie angled away from the window. Although I could have pulled a full “paparrazo-style” move by snapping pictures through the glass, I simply couldn’t do it – not only was I rattled by what I’d just experienced, but it also felt far too close and rudely intrusive. The car eased away.
The last time I saw Jackie was the day of the May 1992 Profiles in Courage Award ceremony at the Library. This time my press pass got me to within just a few feet of her and the children during the ceremony, sitting on the floor directly in front of them with other photographers and reporters. I noticed that while it appeared that Jackie was focused on the podium, she also was aware of the photographers in her periphery – those whose positions were angled slightly away from her.
These photographers kept their cameras raised and trained on her, waiting for her to turn their way. One by one, photographers with tired arms lowered their cameras. When the last one dropped, Jackie quickly turned her head in their direction, the cameras shot back up in the air and she swiveled back, with the slightest grin creeping onto her face, knowing she had teased them. She played them, and you could tell it tickled her.
My sister, Ibby, accompanied me that day. At the conclusion of the ceremony, the family, honorees and guests went upstairs for lunch. Ibby and I waited a couple of hours for them to come out so that I could take more photos. Also, I was absolutely determined that when Jackie walked by, I would speak to her and shake her hand. I had always wanted to meet her, and on this day I was going to try. Ibby had her camera ready to capture the moment.
Finally Jackie and John Jr. stepped off the elevator and strolled, unnoticed at first, down the hallway, through the Gift Shop area, toward the front door and their waiting car. As they approached, they passed a woman on the other side of the hall who greeted them and shook John’s hand, not letting go and slowing them down. Jackie just smiled and offered a whispery but cheery “Hello!” She continued a few feet more toward me as John dealt with his admirer, and I somehow got the words out of my mouth, “Mrs. Onassis…,” and stuck my right hand out.
Jackie turned her head and looked me right in the eye, the full force of her attention on me! It truly was like looking into the face of history, and completely overwhelming. She paused, reached out and took hold of my hand in her gloved one, and we shook. I blurted out something like, “I’m Lynn Wooten and have sent you a number of photos of you and your family over the years.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the flash of Ibby’s camera go off just once. At this point, Jackie’s smooth exit to the car was about to fall apart as tourists began to realize she was in their midst. Everyone was looking.
With the flash and the knowing, cutting of her eyes in the direction of Ibby’s camera, Jackie replied with a perky but detached, “Oh, really?” and quickly forged on before she and John got mobbed.
That was it. That was the extent of The Moment – and while the entire thing probably lasted all of 5 seconds, it seemed then, as in memory now, to play out in ultra slow-motion.
Ibby and I photographed the family leaving the building, hopped the shuttle and got a cab back to our hotel. I took her camera, rewound the film and took the cartridge with me to a nearby one-hour photo lab (remember, this was pre-digital photography – and Ibby wasn’t even sure she had successfully captured the encounter on film).
I sat at the photo lab and anxiously waited for the film to be developed and the pictures printed. It took every bit of that hour, but the photo finally popped down the chute – showing me actually shaking hands with Jackie Kennedy Onassis! I’d finally met her and had a photo to remember it by.
Sometimes people ask me what Jackie was like. Of course, I have absolutely no idea – we just shook hands! But from my few one-on-one seconds with her, as well as the times I was in her close proximity at public events, I can tell you this: She was as regal as a royal, with the most graceful, elegant carriage of anyone I’ve ever seen; she was softer in appearance and even thinner in person than she photographed; she was quite tall in high heels; her eyes were very widely spaced and bore right into you when she gave you her attention; and with her gloved hand and Schlumberger-bangled wrist, she had a very firm handshake.
Meeting the legendary Jackie – even so very briefly – was absolutely thrilling, and the thought of it still awes me after all these years.
Photographs copyright of Lynn Wooten.