Surprising Facts About Jackie Kennedy, America's Savvy First Lady
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (a.k.a Jackie Kennedy) was far more than the widow of President John F. Kennedy. She was also an extremely bright, savvy, skilled communicator and a fierce advocate for historic preservation.
As First Lady, she left behind as much of a legacy in the White House as her husband. Take a look at some of the most surprising facts about former First Lady Jackie Kennedy.
She Was a Headstrong Kid
Jackie was a confident child who was bright beyond her years when compared to many other children her age. While her brilliance sometimes caused her to have issues with her teachers — their classes often bored her — her self-assurance did not go unnoticed.
In Bill Adler's biography, The Eloquent Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis: A Portrait in Her Own Words, he says, "When Jackie was just 4 years old, she, her newborn sister, Lee, and their nanny went out...Jackie wandered off. Just as a police officer spotted her walking alone, she...said firmly, 'My nurse and baby sister seem to be lost.'"
She Excelled at Horseback Riding
When Jackie was only a year old, her mother plopped her down on a horse — and the rest is history. Jackie fell in love with the challenges of horseback riding at a very young age. How skilled was she? The New York Times ran a story on her when she was only a girl of 11.
In 1940, the Times wrote, "Jacqueline Bouvier, an 11-year-old equestrienne from East Hampton, Long Island, scored a double victory in the horsemanship competition. Miss Bouvier achieved a rare distinction. The occasions are few when a young rider wins both contests in the same show."
She Was a Total Bookworm
Jackie loved horses, but she wasn't bound to a single hobby. She was a savvy reader who could already read most of the books in her room before she even began school. In America's Queen: The Life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Jackie is quoted as saying:
"I read a lot when I was little, much of which was too old for me. There were Chekhov and Shaw in the room where I had to take naps, and I never slept but sat on the windowsill reading, then scrubbed the soles of my feet so the nurse would not see I had been out of bed."
She Was Every Teacher's Nightmare
In 1935, after wrapping up kindergarten, Jackie was enrolled in Manhattan’s elite, rigorous Chapin School. Unfortunately, the restrictive, slow-paced environment was a nightmare for her. She often acted out in class, probably out of sheer boredom.
In America's Angel, her childhood friend Janet Felton said, "She was as naughty as everything. She would disrupt whatever she could...We would be taken on these ghastly bird walks...we had to tiptoe, and, of course, Jackie would scream and yell...and I mean, she'd be sent to the headmistress every second week because she was so naughty!"
Her Parents Had a Rough Relationship
Jackie's parents, John Vernou Bouvier III and Janet Lee Bouvier, had an extremely tumultuous relationship throughout their marriage. In public, Bouvier was a popular stockbroker on Wall Street. Behind the scenes, he was an alcoholic who frequently cheated on his wife. Their conflict worsened when the stock market crashed in 1929, and the family lost much of their former riches.
In 1936, Jackie's parents announced their divorce, and a media circus ensued. Not only did the press shame Janet, but the divorce also affected Jackie and her sister, Lee, in profound ways. Both girls struggled to cope with the publicized conflict.
She Was a Young Poet
From a young age, Jackie Kennedy gravitated toward writing. Her mother always believed she could make writing her career in the future. Her strong writing talent and bright mind eventually helped her launch a career in journalism before ultimately serving in the White House.
At 10 years old, Jackie published some of her poetry under her name, including her iconic "Sea Joy." The sweet poem begins: "When I go down by the sandy shore/I can think of nothing I want more/Than to live by the booming blue sea/As the seagulls flutter round about me."
She Was Fluent in Multiple Languages
Despite struggling to remain well-behaved in a school environment, Jackie loved one part of her school curriculum — learning a host of new languages. Before she even started school, she showed an interest in French, and her parents encouraged this unique fascination.
Jackie respected even the most controlling teachers if they were speaking in another language. By the end of her educational career, she was fluent in French, Spanish and Italian. How did this aid her in the White House? She could serve as an interpreter for her husband as well as produce campaign commercials in other languages.
She Abandoned an Internship at Vogue
When Jackie was only 22 years old, she received the opportunity of a lifetime — a chance to work for Vogue. She was studying at George Washington University when she submitted an essay application for a 12-month internship at the world-famous women's magazine.
However, the managing editor was wary, noting that if she signed on for magazine work and neglected her social life, she could struggle to find a suitor for marriage. On day one, the editor encouraged Jackie to quit and go back to Washington, and she obliged (sadly). Fortunately, Jackie wasn't so passive in the future.
She Worked as a Newspaper Reporter
In 1951, Jackie scored her first real job: a secretarial post at the Washington Times-Herald. The job quickly bored her, and she responded by asking editor Frank Waldrop for a more challenging position. Within a week, she was promoted to Inquiring Photographer.
What did the job entail? Jackie spent her days stopping strangers, photographing them and recording their responses to questions about marriage, beauty, philosophy and more. From abstract theories to simple questions, she always had a fascinating topic prepared. She reported the responses (along with the photos) in her daily column, Inquiring Camera Girl, from 1951 to 1953.
She Interviewed Her Husband Before They Dated
On a column assignment for the Washington Times-Herald in 1953, Jackie interviewed her future husband. She sat down with John Kennedy — then a Massachusetts senator — to ask him a question about politics and the media: "What's it like observing the pages at close range?"
His response? "I've often thought that the country might be better off if we senators and the pages traded jobs." Jackie appreciated his charisma. The couple had already met a year before at a dinner party, where they bonded over shared interests, religious values and past experiences. Fate had brought them back together.
She Almost Married Another Man
Before Jackie dated John, she had her heart set on another man: John Husted Jr. The New York stockbroker made quite an impression on her, and she wrote to a friend, Father Joseph Leonard, to say she was "so terribly much in love — for the first time — and I want to get married. And I KNOW I will marry this boy. I don’t have to think and wonder..."
The couple got engaged in 1952 and set a wedding date for June. However, by March, Jackie broke off the engagement. Plenty of theories exist for the reason she called it quits, including the possibility that her mother insisted she find a richer suitor.
She Took 30 Days to Accept Kennedy's Proposal
Although Jackie and John had a solid relationship, she didn't immediately say yes to his marriage proposal. It's understandable that with one broken engagement, she would want to think things over and make sure she was ready to marry. Additionally, she still worked for the Washington Times-Herald and was about to travel overseas to cover the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
Jackie placed her answer on hold and left John behind for a month to report from London. After 30 days, she returned to the States and accepted his proposal.
She Held on to Her Journalistic Roots
As a child, Jackie swore off any future that involved becoming a housewife. This didn't change as John ran for re-election in the Senate, and she joined the campaign to work and travel with her husband. In turn, he recognized that crowds loved Jackie, and she helped his efforts.
Her desire for involvement became even more significant when John was nominated to run for the presidency in 1960. Despite missing the nomination ceremony due to her pregnancy, Jackie worked from home, unwilling to rest in bed. She started a new column called "Campaign Wife" and frequently replied to campaign-related mail and conducted interviews.
She Renovated the White House
After her first visit to the White House at age 12, Jackie was unimpressed with the tour. When John took office in 1961, she was eager to make improvements, and those changes included updating and preserving the interior of the historic home.
Within her first day inside the walls of the White House, Jackie spent more than $50,000 on renovations. She hired a variety of designers, artists and curators to bring in antique furniture and art to decorate the rooms in the mansion. Her efforts helped earn the White House its status as a premier museum.
She Struggled with Her Pregnancies
Jackie and John had two surviving children: Caroline and John Junior. Jackie was a stellar mother to her two children, but her path to becoming that mother was painful. She suffered a miscarriage (1955) and a stillbirth (1956) before giving birth to Caroline in 1957.
JFK's advisor and friend Ken O'Donnell shared that during Jackie's first pregnancy, she quickly "learned that carrying a child would always be difficult for her." To add to the tragedy, the couple's fifth child, Patrick, was born prematurely in 1963 and died within 39 hours of birth.
She Got Her Best Friend a Job
What better way to celebrate a new occupation than to invite your best friend to come work with you and help with your achievements? Thanks to her position as First Lady, Jackie was able to hire one of her closest pals.
When finding a person to fill the role of White House social secretary, she knew the perfect lady for the job — Nancy Tuckerman. The two met during her tumultuous and wild years at Manhattan’s Chapin School, where they became dear friends. Jackie assigned the social secretary role to Tuckerman, and she continued as her personal secretary until Jackie passed away in 1994.
She Made the White House Kid-Friendly
Jackie remodeled the entire third floor of the White House, making it into a nursery — a costly yet spectacular endeavor — for her children. She also added slides, a pool, a treehouse and other kid-friendly features to the White House for her children and visitors to use.
She always valued education, and she wanted her children to be stimulated by new knowledge the way she was during childhood, so she constructed a personal school for them. She converted the third-floor sun porch into a gorgeous kindergarten, where her kids and other kids belonging to others in the administration could learn.
She Was Known for Her Sense of Style
Jackie was dressed to the nines on every occasion, and she tended to favor French brands, sophisticated gowns and dresses, and pillbox hats. Many American women idealized her fashion sense as the style to achieve, which made her propensity to wear expensive, foreign brands a bit off-putting at times.
In order to get Jackie into clothing more relatable to the American public, Joseph Kennedy introduced her to designer Oleg Cassini. The designer had named a young Jackie "Debutante of the year" in her youth, and he began to design outfits for her, ultimately producing more than 300 designs for her as First Lady. He was dubbed the "Secretary of Style."
She Won an Emmy Award
If you think the First Lady was already successful enough before moving into the White House, it gets better. Her renovations of the historic household caught the interest of a variety of publications and news stations, including CBS. They asked for permission to film a tour of the new and improved White House, and Jackie happily agreed.
When the tour aired, 56 million people across the U.S. tuned in to see the historic updates and celebrate Jackie's designs. Not only did the program earn her praise, but it also won her a coveted Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Trustees Award.
She Invented a New Job
After witnessing the gripping power of the media on an individual's public image (particularly during the stressful time of her father's downfall), Jackie decided to hire her own press secretary. She viewed the position as vital in protecting her image and the image of her children.
Jackie worked closely with Press Secretary Pamela Turnure to develop a positive, thoughtful, empathetic, relatable and confident public image. She also concentrated on leaving her children alone so they could enjoy privacy. She wanted to ensure the press didn't report constantly on her vulnerable kids.
She Knew That John Was Cheating
Jackie knew about many of John’s affairs. While she was very upset by his many indiscretions, she never seemed too surprised. She even pointed out the women her husband was sleeping with at social events, apathetic about their presence.
Unfortunately, infidelity wasn’t uncommon for men in the mid-1900s — particularly powerful men — who tended to mess around with other women, despite being in love with their girlfriends or wives. Jackie had seen her father exhibit that behavior, which may have made John’s cheating easier to dismiss. As long as he always came home to her, it was enough for her.
She Dealt with Postpartum Depression
After giving birth to Patrick, who passed away less than two days after birth, Jackie was devastated and seriously depressed. In her sadness, she wanted nothing to do with her family, her life, her responsibilities or the media. Her grieving continued for quite some time, and her friends began to worry about her wellbeing.
Even her friend Aristotle Onassis tried to help by inviting Jackie to relax on his yacht until she was feeling rested enough to return to her role as First Lady. Although John wasn't initially happy with the idea, he understood that his wife needed time to heal, and he approved of her trip.
She Didn't Change Her Outfit After the Assassination
On the day that President Kennedy was assassinated, Jackie was wearing her most famous outfit — a pink suit and matching pillbox hat. When he was shot next to her in the car, her outfit was splattered with blood. Shockingly, she kept the suit on for Lyndon B. Johnson's swearing-in ceremony later in the day.
Why didn't she change out of the ruined outfit? She wanted to ensure those who had harmed her husband could not ignore the horrendous deed they had committed. At the ceremony, she told Johnson's wife, "I want them to see what they have done to Jack."
Her Suit Wasn't Actually Chanel
One of the biggest misconceptions about Jackie's famous pink suit, which she had worn on prior occasions, is that it was created by Chanel. In reality, the outfit was designed by Chanel, but Jackie's version was produced by a New York fashion salon called Chez Ninon.
For her outfit, the salon had reproduced the entirety of Chanel's design, piece by piece. Why not buy it straight from the source? Chanel is a French company, and when the stunning suit was made, Jackie was focused on purchasing from relatable American brands. So, her seemingly "Chanel" outfit was really a well-produced knock off.
She Was Friends with Andy Warhol
Artist Andy Warhol was intrigued by the horrific death of John F. Kennedy. He searched through magazines and newspapers to find photographs that encompassed the event, and his attention was riveted by the grief-filled photographs of Jackie Kennedy at events following the assassination.
Warhol used the photos to produce more than 300 paint pieces. While Jackie hated the media, she loved artists, and she seemed to respect Warhol’s accomplishment. She began to visit him in Montauk, New York, frequently. After he died, archivists found a nude, signed photo of Jackie in his home, inscribed: "For Andy, with enduring affection, Jackie Montauk."
Her Pictures Were in Hustler Magazine
After marrying Aristotle Onassis, Jackie experienced the privacy and other perks that came with her new relationship. Besides companionship, she lived overseas and enjoyed Onassis' security detail, never fearing for the safety of herself and her children as she did in the U.S.
Unfortunately, she sometimes put a little too much faith in her security team. While on one of Onassis' private beaches on Skorpios, Jackie decided to sunbathe nude. Unfortunately, paparazzi photographers managed to snap pictures from a nearby boat, and five color photos appeared in Hustler magazine.
She Saved Grand Central Station
What would New York be without one of its most famous landmarks, Grand Central Station? Without Jackie's help, the station’s destruction could have been a reality. In 1975, an office redevelopment project threatened the existence of the iconic Grand Central terminal. They planned to rip out the exterior of the landmark to build over the beloved station.
Jackie, who had spent much of her young life in New York, was enraged. She quickly organized a protest group and took the matter all the way to the Supreme Court. Fortunately, the Court recognized the significance of the location and ruled in favor of preserving the spot as a historic site.
She Worked as an Editor Later in Life
Jackie had plenty of resources and funds at her disposal to live on until she died. However, instead of remaining idle, she got back to work writing, reading and editing. She started working at the New York editorial office of Viking Press in 1975.
Jackie served as a novel editor for approximately two decades and helped perfect more than 100 books throughout her career. Her coworkers loved her, and her bosses admired her. She always remained focused on the author, refusing to capitalize on the fact that the former First Lady had edited a work.
She Edited Michael Jackson's Autobiography
When Michael Jackson was at the height of his pop music career, he probably wasn't thinking about writing. However, Jackie was intent on getting him to allow her to work as an editor on a detailed autobiography about his life. She flew out to California and offered the star a massive advance for the rights to his story.
She also agreed to write an introduction for the nonfiction novel. Jackson agreed to Jackie's conditions, happy to have a famous editor signed on for his book. Together, they produced Jackson's autobiography, Moonwalk, which was released in 1988.
She Gave Kennedy His "Camelot" Legacy
Kennedy's presidential administration was fondly referred to by many as "Camelot." Where did the nickname come from? Jackie. In an interview with Life Magazine, she discussed how she and her husband used to listen to Camelot at night. She referred to it in a haunting sentiment about the loss of her husband:
"There'll be great presidents again — and the Johnsons are wonderful. They've been wonderful to me — but there'll never be another Camelot again. Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot — and it will never be that way again."