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NEW YORK — Jackie Kennedy’s style icon status needs no explanation, but her intellectual and political prowess was proven again and again by her daughter Caroline during a public appearance Thursday night at the 92nd Street Y here.
Kennedy drew back the curtains on the Camelot years with candor, wit and ease while discussing “Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy.” The former first daughter told colorful anecdotes about her history-changing parents and then many in the 900-strong crowd waited to have her sign copies of the book.
During the program, Kennedy said, “It is sometimes difficult for me to reconcile that people feel they know her because they have a sense of her image or sense of style. But they haven’t really been able to appreciate her intellectual curiosity, her sense of mischief, her deep engagement with people and events around her and her fierce loyalty to my father.”
The book’s content was drawn from just-released audio tapes of 1964 interviews Jacqueline Kennedy did with historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Once completed, the tapes were sealed at the Kennedy Library and the manuscript was stowed away in a safe deposit box in Manhattan. The former first lady often spoke of this oral history with her daughter and son John Jr., but hardly anyone else knew of their existence until recently.
“They give a glimpse of the human side of people serving in the White House and remind us that they are just as imperfect as the rest of us,” Caroline Kennedy said.
Much has been made about the former first lady referring to Charles de Gaulle as an “egomaniac” and Indira Gandhi as “a prune,” but Kennedy kept her comments almost entirely above the fray. “In today’s world of cautious political memoirs, it’s hard to imagine a contemporary public figure writing such a forthright book,” she said. “But it was fun when she knocked Dick Cheney off the number-one spot on the best-seller list.”
Only 31 and the mother of two when John Kennedy became president, Jacqueline Kennedy, like her husband, was an extensive reader and history buff. “She read ‘War and Peace’ during the Wisconsin primary — ‘two bleak winter landscapes’ — and always said the best preparation for living in the White House was reading the memoir of the Duke de Saint-Simon,” her daughter said. When her parents were engaged, Kennedy translated “countless French books for JFK about the struggles for independence in French colonies like Algeria, Tunisia and Cambodia,” Caroline Kennedy said.
Her mother was intent on redesigning the White House — “redecorating was a word she didn’t like” — to make it one of the country’s premier museums for art, decorative art and history, she said. “She shared my father’s belief that American civilization should come of age and was determined to project the very best of American history, art and culture to the world.”
Jacqueline Kennedy also set up a fine arts committee, founded the White House historical association, organized the White House Library to showcase American literature, created and mostly wrote the first guidebook and had Schlesinger help her with the book of one-page presidential biographies (both of which are still sold today). She championed the design of Air Force One and convinced her husband to support UNESCO’s effort to save the Egyptian temples that were going to be flooded by the construction of Aswan High Dam. The Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was a gift of appreciation for that. After leaving the White House, Kennedy created her own identity as an individual and continued to work towards “a new kind of America,” leading the fight to save Grand Central Terminal, among other things.
“Most of all my mother was a patriot. She believed that her time in the White House was the greatest privilege of her life and worked hard to be worthy of the honor. She loved my father and her courage brought this country together after his death. And when it was all over, she resumed her life as a private citizen, a status she cherished. She found the strength to create a new life for herself in a brave new world. Although John and I would have far preferred to stay near the penny candy store in Hyannis, she remarried, moved to Greece and expanded our horizons tremendously. She devoured everything she could about ancient civilizations and remained unsuccessful at teaching us French.”