From First Lady to Jackie O

Everyone knows Jackie Kennedy Onassis was married to two of the 20th century’s most powerful men, but lesser known are the five incredible years between those marriages when she was on her own.

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Episode 3: The Dark, Lonely Winter

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The Kennedy era began with such high hopes— no one could have predicted that it would have ended with Jackie burying two of her four children alongside their murdered father. It was time to leave the White House— but where would Jackie and her kids go next?

This podcast is a companion to Paul Brandus's new book, "Jackie: Her Transformation from First Lady to Jackie O," now available in stores and online.

Follow host Paul Brandus on Twitter here.

EARL WARREN: “You, John Fitzgerald Kennedy do solemnly swear..."

JFK: "I, John Fitzgerald Kennedy do solemnly swear..."

EARL WARREN: "That you will faithfully execute office of President of the United States."

JFK: "That I will faithfully execute office of President of the United States."

EARL WARREN: "And will to the best of your ability..."

JFK: "And will, to the best of my ability..."

EARL WARREN: "...Preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States..."

JFK: "...Preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States..."

EARL WARREN: "So help you god."

JFK: "So help me god."

Inauguration Day, 1961 — the Kennedy era began with — such high hopes.

For Jacqueline Kennedy — that first night in the White House — had been so happy and optimistic.

But now — it was over.

And her final night — December 5, 1963 — was spent burying two of her four children — next to their murdered father.


I’m Paul Brandus — you’re listening to “Jackie” — a podcast about my book that explores Jacqueline Kennedy’s life from November 1963 to October 1968 — her transformation from First Lady to Jackie O.

After the assassination, Jackie was determined to leave the White House — and its now painful memories — as soon as possible. She set a goal: Two weeks.

She packed furiously — going through— Jack’s belongings and giving clothes, assorted knick-knacks.

Meantime, the new president — Lyndon Johnson — checked in to see how she was doing.

JK: "Mr. President?"

LBJ: "I just wanted you to know that you are loved by so many and so much and I'm one of them."

JK: "Oh, Mr. President."

LBJ and the new First Lady — Lady Bird Johnson — began inviting Jackie for dinner and various events — this would go on for months. Johnson, knowing of Jackie’s immense popularity, said she could have any job she wanted — Ambassador to Mexico or France — anything. She just wanted to leave.

But first, there was some business to attend to:

NEWCASTER: "Mrs. John F Kennedy accompanies Secret Service agent Clinton J. Hill and his family to ceremonies in Washington."

She attended a ceremony honoring her Secret Service agent — Clint Hill.

NEWSCASTER: "Secretary of the Treasury Douglas Dillon acts for the nation, as he commends Mr. Hill for his heroism during those tragic moments in Dallas where the President was assassinated. He was presented with the treasury's gold medal. During those moments in Dallas, he jumped onto the President's car to shield the president and his wife."

[Sounds of applause]

Hill didn’t want the award — after all the president was dead — and the Secret Service had failed. But Jackie insisted that his bravery be honored — and as Hill got his gold medal, she stood there with a blank, distant look on her face.

She also had a joint birthday party for Caroline and John — John turned three the day of his father’s funeral. Caroline turned six the day before Thanksgiving. The adults tried to make them happy and they did — but when John put on one his gifts — a little soldier’s uniform — and saluted again — like he famously did at his father’s funeral — several of them broke down.

But the night wasn’t over. After everyone had left and the kids had gone to bed — Jackie, along with Robert and Edward Kennedy, and her sister Lee — went to Arlington — where two tiny white coffins lay — one on either side of JFK’s grave.

If you visit Arlington today, the gravestone of one child simply says “Daughter” — the stillborn child who died in 1956. Jackie later informally would call her “Arabella” - and the other Patrick Bouvier Kennedy — who had died just four months before — aged two days.

Now, on this cold, quiet night, with her husband’s eternal flame flickering in the dark, Jackie brought them all together.

The Bishop presiding over the service — saw the distress Jackie was in and kept the service short — a brief prayer and that was it. Jackie let out a loud sigh snd the coffins were put into the cold ground next to their father.

That — was her final night.

The next day — Friday, December 6 — It was time to go. But where? Where would Jackie and her kids go?

The Georgetown home that she and Jack had lived in prior to the presidency had been sold.

Fortunately, Averell Harriman, the former governor of New York and longtime Washington insider — had offered his mansion on N Street in Georgetown —to her.

She accepted.

Those last moments in the White House were difficult. Clint Hill — her loyal agent — remembers it like it was yesterday.

HILL: "Earlier before they left, the kids posed for a photo on one of the back stairways in the house with two of the agents that were assigned to them, and their nanny. And they said goodbye to the entire staff, the domestic staff. And that was a little bit tearful for the staff, mostly. She held up very well. But uh, we got into the car and out the southwest gate."

As they drove away, Jackie never looked back — never said a word.

HILL: "It was a quiet ride. You know, they were sad that they were leaving obviously, adn when they got to the Harriman house, John went in first before Mrs. Kennedy and Caroline, and the agents were there with him. And I opened the door for Mrs. Kennedy and let her out of the car and escorted her into the house. The Harrimans had moved to a hotel so they could provide the whole house to her, and they left behind a small staff of a maid, a butler, and a cook."

It was a gorgeous home — still is — dates back to 1812 — one of the oldest structures in the city.

But it was hardly the White House.

And it was Christmas.

And here was Jackie — in a strange house, devastated, grieving and alone — with two young kids excited about Santa. Needless to say — it was a difficult time. The nation was reeling from the assassination — stumbling — and yet adults were trying to make things as normal as possible for their kids.

I asked Clint Hill to describe Jackie’s mood in one word:

HILL: "Somber."

She took them to Palm Beach — where the Kennedys usually spent Christmas.

HILL: 6:10 - 6:56 “Christmas in Florida was a very difficult time for all the agents. Myself, any of us that'd been around her a lot, because she and the kids, were you know... it wasn't a normal Christmas. And her sister was there, and her sister's husband Prince Radziwill, and their two kids. But it was still... they tried to make it as pleasant as possible, like for John, he was only three, so he didn't know what was going on, but Caroline was six. So she had an understanding of what had transpired and because of that she was somewhat sad all the time. She missed her father."


TIMES SQUARE NEWSCASTER: "When that ball starts to move, it'll take about forty seconds to move, and when it hits bottom, it's 1964."

For Jackie — 1963 — couldn’t end soon enough. It was the year she lost a son — and gazed into her husband’s eyes — as he was put to death.

TIMES SQUARE NEWSCASTER: “A strange portentous year. A year laden with heavy history of tragedy. The year of a Presidential assassination. The passing of the Pope. A year of bombings in Alabama, the year of the Tresher tragedy at sea, and the Spokje earthquake."

Jackie went to bed early that night — perhaps lulled to sleep by the ocean outside her window.

TIMES SQUARE NEWSCASTER: "The ball's moving, moving... it's almost at the bottom of the pole... there it is! 1964!"


Finally — it was over. A new year had arrived.

The local newspaper — the Palm Beach Post — did a cute thing in those days — it ran tiny little messages — cheerful and upbeat — just a line or two — in the upper corner of its front page.

Had Jackie seen it when she woke up on New Year’s morning — it might have given her a lift.

“Looking back at 1963,” it said, “gives a feeling of confidence that 1964 will be better.”

It was almost as if it was written just for her.

Whether it was or not, a lot of things WERE written just for Jackie — she was bombarded with letters and telegrams — from all over the world. 45-thousand in the first few days after the assassination. 800-thousand by early January. One-and-a-half million in two years.

Everyone wrote to Jackie. Kings and Queens, Presidents and Prime Ministers Hollywood stars — titans of business and industry. But most of all — ordinary people and not just from the United States, but all around the world — who just wanted to say I’m sorry — and God bless you.

Perhaps the most touching of all — the most poignant — were the letters from children.

NANCY TAYLOR: “Dear Mrs. Kennedy…I was shocked to hear of your husband’s death.”

Like this letter — written by Nancy Taylor — of Hazelpark, Michigan. Nearly six decades after she wrote to Jackie — she read her letter again:

NANCY TAYLOR: "I was coming home from school and was feeling fine. My mother had tears in her eyes when I saw her. I asked her what was the matter. They didn't tell me about the tragedy at school. My first thought was that it wasn't true. I wished that it wasn't. But I turned to her and her eyes had truth in them. I broke down and cried. It was like a nightmare for the whole nation. The world died a little with John Fitzgerald Kennedy died. This is somebody I will never forget. I'm 11 years old. I wrote Mr. Kennedy a letter to tell him how happy I was he had won, and when I was looking at the funeral on television I cried through the whole thing. It was so sad. I still have the letter he sent me. I will show it to my children when I grow up. President Kennedy will never be forgotten in the United States of America. Yours truly, Nancy Taylor."

PAUL: "Nancy, when you read that all these years later — what goes through your mind?"

NANCY TAYLOR: "It's like you can see it like it's in front of you. I can see it so vividly."

A million and a half letters.

On January 14th, Jackie decided to say thank you. It was the first time she had spoken in public since her husband’s murder:

JACKIE: "I want to take this opportunity to express my appreciation for the hundreds of thousands of messages, nearly 800,000 in all, which my children and I have recieved over the past few weeks. The knowledge of the affection in which my husband was held by all of you has sustained me, and the warmth of these tributes in something I shall never forget. Whenever I can bare to, I read them."

The letters were well-intentioned, of course — cathartic for the writers. But

for Jackie — perhaps not. This was a common dynamic at this point in her life — she was trying to forget Dallas, put the pain behind her — and yet she’s deluged by all these letters. Again, here’s the key sentence from her statement:

JACKIE: "Whenever I can bare to, I read them."

Whenever she could bare to, she read them. But she couldn’t bare to.

Jackie’s personal secretary during this period was a woman named Mary Gallagher — who told me years ago how much Jackie was suffering. I didn’t record that conversation — but in 1969 Gallagher wrote about it — and said Jackie was lonely and deeply depressed. There’s a Jackie quote: “At night,” she said, “I just drown my sorrows in vodka.”

Meantime, here’s another Jackie biographer, Barbara Leaming:

LEAMING: "The other thing that was terrible for her, she suffered, like many of the soldiers do, from survivor's guilt. She couldn't understand why she had survived and Jack had not. And she was overwhelmed with a sense that she should have been able to save him. She woulld endlessly go over things, saying 'if only I had turned my head a second earlier, if only I had recognized that it wasn't a backfire from one of the motorcycles of the policemen and that it was a gunshot, I could've saved him. Well, of course she couldn't have saved him. But with trauma, it's easier sometimes for somebody to beileve that they were guilty of failing to save someone than realizing that you were absolutely helpless to do anything."

Jackie would drink to forget. She sleep long hours. But sleep brought no respite. There were flashbacks, and nightmares — and the nightmare was real, it happened, it was burned into her brain. There was no escape. It was a horrible time.

This was all playing out behind closed doors — Americans understood that Jackie was going through a painful time — they did NOT understand, however, how completely overwhelming it was.

She kept reliving the assassination over and over again — an endless loop in her mind. Day and night.

Meantime, she left the Harriman house — her temporary home — and bought a house just across the street — 30-17 N Street NW. She needed some financial help from the Kennedy family — and moved in late January. She made some renovations — the prior owners had a gun mounted over a fireplace — that came down.

It was a lovely home — but not for long. If you’ve ever seen the house — it sits on a narrow street — you can peer into the windows. So the privacy and security that Jackie and her kids needed — was elusive.

Here’s Clint Hill:

HILL: "The press wasn't that intrusive, I didn't think, and the general public initially wasn't too bad, but it grew worse. It got worse and worse and worse and then when the tours started it really got bad. The agents would have to be sure that no one would come up the steps, because at the front of the house there were ten or twelve steps up to the ground level of the house itself. So there was a good point where you could prevent people from coming up there, but it just got to the point where if you walked out that front door, you were confronted by this large number of people."

Jackie was terrified. Kennedy biographer Larry Sabato says she felt like a prisoner:

SABATO: "She was being smothered! She's trying to live in that house over in Georgetownand the public, with great sympathy for her and great affection, was practically smothering her. They were trying to see in the windows. She had to keep the curtains closed constantly because someone would pop up in her window. It's horrible. And of course celebrities will tell you this all the time, that the public goes way too far and that they don't quite understand, and yet celebrities today at least, and really for decades, had had enough money to have a small army of guards to maintain their privacy. Jackie Kennedy had just Clint Hill. She had one secret service agent for about a year. That was it!"

And these people hung out for hours — waiting for a glimpse of Jackie or her kids. Their cameras hanging from their necks. Some would have picnics, others climbed trees trying to get a better view. One person even managed to steal the house number off the front porch.

Jackie was stuck She was inside — dealing with nightmares day and night, crying all the time. Her depression got worse. We’ll hear more about this later.

In that first terrible winter, Jackie had another problem. She knew that books would be written about the assassination.

She couldn’t stop anyone from writing a book. But she could refuse to cooperate with authors. She and Robert Kennedy then came up with an idea: Why not select one author and cooperate ONLY with that person?

Theodore White — the reporter from LIFE magazine — who had helped Jackie craft the Camelot imagery — that I talked about in a prior episode — he declined. So did Walter Lord — who had written best-sellers about Pearl Harbor and the Titanic.

Then they approached a professor at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. His name was William Manchester.

Manchester had written a book about JFK in 1961 — Portrait of a President — which both JFK and Jackie liked.

You know who else liked that book, by the way? Lee Harvey Oswald - who checked it out of the New Orleans library when he was living there — and bouncing from job to job. But I digress.

At first Manchester didn’t want the job — he was up to his neck with another book. He asked his secretary — how can I say no to Mrs. Kennedy?

The answer: You can’t.

And so began a three-year saga — that resulted in one of the best-selling books of the entire decade — but also a book that sparked a nasty fight that nearly killed Manchester— and dented Jackie’s once untouchable reputation. We’ll hear more about this — in a future episode.

As for our NEXT episode:

SABATO: "It was a horrible period, and she couldn't share this with many people, and I have to say this, I don't think other than Bobby Kennedy, the Kennedies were very sympathetic.They were suffering too because of the loss of JFK, but this was a stoic family."

Jackie — on her own — isolated and depressed — contemplates ending it all.

Special thanks this week to Clint Hill, Nancy Taylor, Larry Sabato, and Joan Hermann — host of the radio show Conversations with Joan - for the segments with Barbara Leaming.

Thanks for listening — and I hope you’ll check out my new book on Jackie’s between her two marriages — it’s called — “Jackie: Her Transformation from First Lady to Jackie O.” Available everywhere — and if you’re enjoying THIS show, make sure to leave us a review on Apple Podcasts to help other history fans find it

“Jackie” is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. My special thanks to producer Hannah Rae Leach, sound designer and engineer Sean Rule-Hoffman, and executive producers Michael DeAloia and Gerardo Orlando. Theme music is by Josh Perelman-Hall.

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