Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy was the most famous American first lady because she had the rare ability to combine fashion, diplomacy, history, family, culture, and legacy into one moment, Camelot.
The vision of her pink suit and pillbox hat forever etched in our minds was not the endnote to her public persona, it was in many ways the crescendo to an intentional life on the world’s stage. Sixty years ago, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy channeled her profound private sorrow into a prolific public display of American pomp pageantry, and circumstance for a state funeral and to honor the death of her late husband, the President, John Fitzgerald Kennedy and help a nation move forward.
Her image continues to cover countless magazines, newspapers, and daily social media posts. Her effortless style, grace, and glamour have been emulated for decades. She is as relevant today as she was then, but as we acknowledge our nation’s loss on this 60th anniversary, it is important to acknowledge this young first lady was so much more than the images we so idolize.
And there is no greater example of strength and fortitude than her actions following one of our country’s greatest tragedies.
While we rightfully credit her for creating the White House Historical Association, Mrs. Kennedy being steeped in history, not only began the restoration of the historic home itself, she also transformed the style in which visiting heads of state were received and the way presidents and first ladies would entertain and cemented the way American presidents are funeralized before the world because of the plans she made in just three short days in November of 1963.
Before arriving in Washington, D.C., from Dallas, Texas, on Air Force One, with her husband laying in the rear of the plane now in a casket, this grieving wife, and mother was able to put country first not only solidifying her husband’s legacy but also helping America heal. Despite her brief time as first lady, barely a thousand days, Mrs. Kennedy mastered the power of symbolism through imagery.
Mrs. Kennedy refused to change out of her now historic blood-stained pink suit because it was a visual symbol of the carnage. Her response to a request to change out of the bloody clothes was firm: “Let them see what they have done.”
The 1960s ushered in a new era of television for American presidents, starting with the now iconic Kennedy/Nixon TV debate. And then, for the first time in history, a national tragedy played out on live television.
C.D. Jackson, publisher of Life magazine wrote, “Never before in the republic’s history have so many people been informed so swiftly of an event that profoundly affected their daily lives.”
Everyone would be impacted by what they heard on the radio, read in the papers and magazines, and now saw on the television. Mrs. Kennedy understood this and orchestrated the first State Funeral covered live on TV from start to finish, lasting nearly 70 hours.
Mrs. Kennedy ordered staffers to immediately research the funeral of President Abraham Lincoln, aware of the parallels and in some ways, wanting her husband to be revered the same way in death. A team of staff members descended upon the National Archives and the Library of Congress to research and assist the now-former first lady in making plans for the memorial pageantry that would commence over the next few days.
The actions of Mrs. Kennedy were probably best described by Michael Beschloss who wrote in the introduction to the release of Jacqueline Kennedy’s interviews with Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.:
“Jacqueline Kennedy's acute sense of how symbols and ceremony could shape American history was never more evident than during the long nightmare weekend after her husband's assassination….. the stunned widow improvised three unforgettable days of tone-perfect ceremony-the ritual in the East Room and Capitol Rotunda, the foreign leaders walking to the strangely intimate old cathedral, JFK's beloved Air Force One flying in salute above the burial, the lighting of an eternal flame (like the one she had seen in Paris as a Sorbonne student).”
It was Mrs. Kennedy who orchestrated remarkable visual moments during the funeral, from using the Lincoln catafalque, having hundreds of world leaders walk behind her and the caisson in the funeral processional, the riderless horse carrying a pair of boots, the eternal flame at the Arlington National Cemetery graveside, having her young son John Jr., salute his father’s casket and days later even carry an American flag as they departed the White House for the final time to lesser-known personal touches in memory of her slain husband like asking The Black Watch Highland Regiment to participate in the ceremonies.
Just days before leaving for Texas the touring Scottish regiment had performed for the Kennedys at the White House and President Kennedy had really enjoyed their performance. She also requested the Irish Brigade to perform the Queen Anne Drill (or Funeral Drill) that the President had so enjoyed when he had borne witness to it earlier that year in Ireland (marking the only state funeral in the United States to feature foreign military forces).
The now iconic visual moments, we remember from that funeral, and what we have seen in many subsequent presidential funeral traditions, are thanks to the historical reverence, creativity, and soft visual diplomacy of a grieving young widow.
Mrs. Kennedy was intentional in giving the world a lasting memory of what she called Camelot. Sixty years later, as a nation pauses to reflect and continue the healing process, we are still grateful and say, thank you, Mrs. Kennedy.
Jennifer B. Pickens (@JenniferBPickens) is a White House historian and first lady expert. She is a public speaker the author of three books on the White House: "Christmas at the White House," "Pets at the White House," and her latest book "Entertaining at the White House: Decades of Presidential Traditions." Read more of her reports — More Here.
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