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.

Listen on Apple Podcasts Listen on Spotify

Episode 4: Jackie's Private Hell

| S:1 E:4

Jacqueline Kennedy’s private hell: the endless loop of crying, drinking, the nightmares, reliving those fateful seconds in Dallas, hearing the fatal shot over and over in her mind… Americans had no idea had bad it was, nor did they know how isolated she was. And so the president’s widow, all alone, spiraled downward and began contemplating the unthinkable.

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.

LARRY SABATO: “I think probably if people don’t know something about Mrs. Kennedy in that period, it’s the degree of pain over and above the assassination, and the lack of a father for her children. She was in terrible shape mentally.”

PAUL: Jacqueline Kennedy’s private hell: the endless loop of crying, drinking, the nightmares, reliving those fateful seconds in Dallas, hearing the fatal shot over and over in her mind… Americans had no idea had bad it was, nor did they know how isolated she was. And so the president’s widow, all alone, spiraled downward and began contemplating the unthinkable.

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.

The irony is that for a family that was as close-knit as the Kennedys were — the assassination of JFK was so overwhelming that it was virtually an untouchable subject. They simply didn’t talk about it.

Kennedy biographer Larry Sabato — a professor at the University of Virginia — says this had the effect of extending Jackie’s pain.

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, that the Kennedys were very sympathetic. They were suffering too, because of the loss of JFK, but this was a more stoic family. You didn’t cry, even when you were beaten up on the football field. And Jackie needed to cry a lot, and she needed to cry to sympathetic figures, and she didn’t have them, and she grew very hardened because of that.

One person who was with Jackie every day — was Clint Hill, her longtime Secret Service agent — the agent who famously jumped on the death car in Dallas.

HILL: “She was very sad. She tried to keep herself as busy as possible with the children’s activities, plus she was starting to deal with building a library in his honor. And all of this was happening at the same time.”

Like Jackie, Hill could not get the assassination out of his mind — he, too, kept playing those dreadful seconds over and over again in his mind. But discussing it with her? Absolutely not.

HILL: “She and I never discussed the assassination. Ever.”

There was one member of the family Jackie could talk to — her brother-in-law Robert Kennedy.

Bobby was suffering deeply as well. The assassination devastated Bobby — just shattered him. People who dealt with him — he was still the Attorney General — thought he was in a trance, he stared off into space all the time. He lost weight, would get up in the middle of a bitterly cold night and drive his convertible to Arlington — and sneak in to visit his brother’s grave.

Larry Sabato noted that Kennedy men did not cry — and Bobby didn’t. Jackie cried for both of them. While she was collapsing during that first terrible winter, Bobby had to tough it out.

Here’s Clint Hill again:

HILL: “Bobby would come by oftentimes at noon, and have lunch, sometimes they’d take a picnic basket to go out by the river. I’m sure, I never heard them talk about it, because she confided in him probably more than anyone else, other than Nancy Tuckerman.”

Nancy Tuckerman was a childhood schoolmate of Jackie’s — later worked for her in the White House and then served as Jackie’s personal secretary until Jackie’s death in 1994. But Robert Kennedy — he was Jackie’s rock— the next best thing to Jack himself.

Robert and Jackie were so close — and spent so much time together that it sparked rumors that perhaps there was more to it than just brother and sister-in-law grieving together.

Some Jackie biographers think they had an affair — some, like Barbara Perry of the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, don’t.

PERRY: “I find it hard to believe in many ways that it would have been consummated, just in that Bobby was such much more devout Catholic than his brother, and he was so loyal to Ethel. If it did happen, in my mind, it would just be that these were two people that were just so shattered that at some point something something may have gotten out of hand, but the way I just see them as being soulmates, because they were so deeply immersed in their mourning for this man they both loved and adored.”

What’s interesting is that the FBI’s all-powerful director — J.Edgar Hoover disliked the Kennedys — and collected dirt on them whenever he could — the G-Man had dirt on everyone — yet FBI files didn’t seem to have anything on an alleged Jackie-Bobby fling.

Here again — Clint Hill:

HILL: “I know that there were the allegations about her having some kind of relationship with Bobby. I never saw that to be true. They consoled each other, they were best friends, but other than that, there was nothing more to it that I knew of.”

There’s also a story about Jackie and one of Hollywood’s leading men of that era — Marlon Brando:

BRANDO: “You know what’s unusual is to find someone as beautiful as you are who’s also a college graduate and seriously interested in world affairs and studying law.”

REPORTER: “That’s very sweet of you.

That’s Brando flirting with a TV interviewer in 1965 — the Oscar-winning actor was a notorious womanizer — said to have a lot of notches on his belt. And he was in Washington in late January 1964 to talk with members of Congress and others about the plight of native Americans. That was his special issue.

One night, Brando and a pal wound up at dinner with Jackie and her sister Lee — remember — Lee was married to a Polish prince, while also having a high-profile affair with Aristotle Onassis.

Brando apparently wanted to discuss a charity event with Jackie. But once the four of them were spotted — word got out and photographers showed up. Jackie and Lee — wound up leaving —the men soon followed, and they wound up at Jackie’s house.

You know who else was there? Clint Hill.

HILL: “The only thing about Marlon Brando was that I think they had dinner once. I think it was at the Jockey Club. But he was never around, so there was certainly no relationship with Marlon Brando.”

As was the case with Robert Kennedy, some Jackie biographers think there was more to this. But — there’s no proof.

What’s interesting here is that Brando himself, years later, wrote in a rough draft of his memoirs, that he and Jackie later had a brief affair AFTER Jackie moved to New York — in a suite the Kennedys maintained at the Carlyle Hotel.

But you won’t find this anecdote in Brando’s book though — and the story is that’s because his editor cast Random House — a guy named Joe Fox — also happened to be a friend of Jackie’s — and persuaded Brando to remove it.

All this reflected the fact that there was enormous speculation about Jackie — how was she really doing? She was on the cover of tons of magazines — but the articles were usually just fluff, with journalists writing articles that were thinly-sourced — if sourced at all. And they were thinly-sourced because no one close to Jackie was talking. They were completely protective of her.

In March, Robert Kennedy — who himself had been quiet since the assassination, decided that it was time to speak in public. He chose the Jack Paar show on NBC. Now — if you’ve never heard of Jack Paar — he’d been host of the Tonight Show, and when he got burned out and quit in 1962 — it paved the way for a young guy named Johnny Carson. But Paar now had ANOTHER show — and it was here that Robert Kennedy decided to break his silence. Here’s Paar introducing him:

PAAR: “I feel deeply honored tonight to share some of that lifetime with you, and to discuss it with a man whose ow life reminds us of what ‘brother’ really means. The distinguished attorney of the United States, Robert Kennedy.”


There was a long standing ovation. Bobby looked like a ghost — thin, subdued, downcast.

PARR: “It’s a great honor to have you here, sir.”

RFK: “Thank you.”

PARR: “Uh, we’ll wait until the folks just sit down, quietly for a moment. And we’re just gonna talk about… I know the thing closest to your heart at this very moment is the memorial library. And may I just ask some personal questions about how Mrs Kennedy… how is Mrs. John Kennedy?”

RFK: “She’s fine really, making an adjustment and doing it well, spends most all of her time with her children now, and uh, I think she’s… she’s making a great deal of progress.”

Of course this was not true. Jackie was NOT making progress. But her private suffering was meant to be just that - private. What she was going through was NOT the business of the American people.

A few days after that, Jackie, Bobby and some others flew down to Antigua — to celebrate Easter at the estate of her friend Bunny Mellon.

Now, Bunny Mellon was an amazing woman — philanthropist, art collector, designer — and even though she was 19 years older than Jackie — they became fast friends in the late ‘50s. Jackie looked up to Bunny — thought her taste and style were perfect — Bunny helped Jackie with her famous redecoration of the White House — and also designed the Rose Garden.

Jackie brought a book with her. She’d been reading a lot that winter — looking for answers. Why was her husband killed? What was the meaning of it? If there was God and God was just how come Jack had to die?

The book was “The Greek Way” by Edith Hamilton. It was about the fall of Troy some 25-centuries ago — and how the battle had turned so many wives into widows. One line said — quote — “The women have flung themselves on lifeless bodies, husbands…” — unquote.

THAT got Jackie’s attention. So did Hamilton’s focus on what she called quote “the depth of human agony” and — the “mystery of evil.”

So here was Jackie — going back 25-centuries — in her search for meaning.

She knew that Lincoln was killed because he won the Civil War and freed the slaves. But John F. Kennedy’s murder — a crime so vast — seemed beyond reason. There was no explanation then — there’s no explanation now.

He “didn’t even have the satisfaction of being killed for civil rights,” Jackie said after the assassination. It had to be some silly little Communist.”

So like the ancient Greeks — Jackie never found closure — and this served to prolong her suffering.

The Spring of ’64 also saw Jackie do something extraordinary for her — give an interview. Yes, she spoke with Theodore White a week after the assassination — the so-called “Camelot” interview I told you about. But Camelot was fabricated.

Now, though now she really opened up — for what would be the final time in her life — with two men: Between March and June she gave seven interviews to Arthur Schlesinger, the historian who had worked in the Kennedy White House. And five more to William Manchester between April and July.

These were very different interviews. In Schlesinger’s case, they largely dealt largely with President Kennedy’s life and career. These tapes were released with the permission of Caroline Kennedy in 2011. She spoke about them that year at her father’s library in Boston:

CAROLINE KENNEDY: “ People have been surprised that my mother, who was so famously private, participated in this project and gave it her full commitment. But to me, it makes perfect sense. My parents shared a love of history… so she brought to the oral history interviews a respect or accuracy and historical scholarship. that’s why she chose to be interviewed by Arthur Schlesinger, the Pulitzer prize-winning history who had served as a special assistant to my father. It took a good deal of courage to be as honest as she was, but her own reading of the chronicles of the past convinced her that future generations would benefit from her commitment to tell the truth as she saw it. It was’t easy, but she felt that she was dong this for my father’s sake, and for history.”

Caroline says it wasn’t easy on her Mom — which is an understatement — after her final interview with Schlesinger, on June 3 — Jackie called the ordeal quote — “excruciating.”

An example of why it was so painful was the time when John Jr. wandered into the room in the middle of one interview:

SCHLESINGER : “John, what happened to your father?

JFK JR.: “He’s gone to heaven.”

SCHLESINGER: “He’s gone to heaven?”

JFK JR.: “Yeah.”

SCHLESINGER: “Do you remember him?”

JFK JR.: “Yeah.”

SCHLESINGER: “What do you remember?”

JFK JR.: “I don’t remember anything!”

The three-year old boy knew — that his father was in heaven — and that he didn’t remember a thing about him.

But as painful as the Schlesinger interviews were — it was nothing —nothing compared to the other series of interviews she was also giving at the same time to Manchester. His focus wasn’t on President Kennedy’s life — it was on his death.

The Schlesinger book dealing with Kennedy’s entire life was just 349 pages, but Manchester’s — dealing with just five days in November 1963 — was twice as long. It was incredibly granular and vivid.

Think about Jackie’s dilemma here. Her interviews with White and Schlesinger were an effort to remember and honor — even mythologize — her husband’s life. All but its last day. THAT day she’s desperate to forget.

I mentioned Lincoln before — and how at least his death had meaning. Manchester understood that Kennedy’s death had no meaning — which made it even worse — and prolonged Jackie’s suffering. He alluded to it in an interview years later:

MANCHESTER: “Jack’s death was a tragedy, but his life was a triumph. And I think we should remember more than the tragedy, we should remember the triumph. Lincoln’s death was tragic too, but we remember what he did as president. Kennedy didn’t do as much as Lincoln, he didn’t have time… but he did do a lot more than people think. And so I want that point made. I think that when we think of Kennedy we should not just think of Dallas.”

And yet here’s Manchester asking question after question about Dallas. He wanted to know — every — little detail. And when you read his book — the Death of a President — today you feel like you are there. In the car. In the emergency room at Parkland. In the morgue a few hours later. On and on and on. Absolutely nothing is spared. It is an immensely powerful, book. Terrifying in parts, haunting.

Manchester later wrote that Jackie was in quote — deep emotional distress — every time they spoke. She refused to meet with him when there was light outside — the assassination happened when there was light outside — so they only got together after sundown.

Unlike the Schlesinger tapes, the Manchester tapes are still sealed — and will be until 2067.

Whoever listens to the tapes will find some odd clunking noises. They’re ice cubes. Manchester said they could only get through their agonizing sessions by drinking pitchers of daiquiris. There’s also the sound of matches being struck — Jackie was a chain smoker and lit up constantly during their interviews.

Manchester himself had quit smoking — but the stress of the Jackie interviews caused him to start smoking again — it would be nearly a decade before he could kick the habit for good.

By now it’s six months since the assassination, and Americans are beginning to move on. The Beatles swept the country by storm. The World’s Fair opened in New York. “Mary Poppins” was the big movie that year. And Ford rolled out one of the iconic cars of the 1960s.

The shock of Dallas was fading — and life slowly returned to normal.

But not for Jackie. This was the widow’s low point. She continued to live like a prisoner in Georgetown. Tourists right outside her door; no privacy, and minimal security for her and her children.

It was too much. Jackie — began to consider ending her life. She made this confession to a priest — Father Richard McSorley. According to McSorley, who — and let’s be honest — betrayed Jackie by keeping — and years later releasing — notes of their private confessions — said that at one point Jackie asked about killing herself.

The priest reminded her that the Catholic church did not condone this. But remember — Jackie’s faith had been badly shaken since Jack’s murder. According to McSorley she told told him “Father, I understand. I know it’s wrong. I wouldn’t do it. But it’s so lonely out there.’ ”

In the end, what kept Jackie going, Clint Hill told me, was her two surviving children:

HILL : “I never heard the conversation if there was such a conversation. I had no indication that she was thinking in those terms at all. That thought may have passed through her mind, but she was so loyal and so concerned about her children, I don’t think it would have ever really been a serious thought for her.”

Larry Sabato weighs in on this too:

SABATO: “The children saved her. She didn’t do it because of the children. But inn some ways, you can see given her PTSD and depression and extensive use of alcohol why suicide might have come into her mind. Thank goodness she didn’t, but I think we all would have understood had it happened that way, and thank God it didn’t.”

In our next episode: The best way to forget Washington and its now painful memories — is to leave the city. But Jackie finds that’s easier said than done.

View Less

Recent Episodes

View All

Episode 11: Mrs. Onassis

From First Lady to Jackie O | S:1 E:11
After yet another tragic loss, Jackie was ready to live life on her own terms....
Listen to Episode 11: Mrs. Onassis

Episode 10: Shattered Again

From First Lady to Jackie O | S:1 E:10
The assassination was now four years in the rear view mirror and she was in a new relationship. She was happy and life was good... but not for lon...
Listen to Episode 10: Shattered Again

Episode 9: A Brush with Death

From First Lady to Jackie O | S:1 E:9
By 1966, Jackie wasn’t ON the A-list— she WAS the A-list....
Listen to Episode 9: A Brush with Death

Episode 8: The Lioness

From First Lady to Jackie O | S:1 E:8
For Jackie, looming publication of "The Death of a President" would bring new troubles and the first dent in her once untouchable image....
Listen to Episode 8: The Lioness