Jackie Kennedy Onassis’ Dark Side

Juicy bits from hours of interviews have emerged, revealing a harsh and petty first lady.

People are always going to care about the Kennedys, and as the years stretch on from that mythical time in politics we called Camelot, memories can be tested. How else to explain the widespread reaction to the release of a set of taped interviews recorded 47 years ago by Jackie Kennedy that reveal a woman who sounds more like one of the Real Housewives of (pick your city) than the Jackie we knew, or thought we knew?

Our Jackie is embodied forever in that bloodstained pink suit. She bore the grief of a nation with such dignity, and then guarded her privacy until she died in 1994 at age 64. This Jackie is harshly judgmental, dispensing petty opinions that say as much about her as they do the objects of her disdain. She calls Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “a phony” who the FBI had discovered was arranging trysts with women even as he proclaimed himself a man of the cloth. She describes Lady Bird Johnson as so deferential to her husband “she was sort of like a trained hunting dog,” and she denigrates her brother-in-law, Edward M. Kennedy, for being the best politician in the family. “Jack never—he never said, ‘Hi fella,’ or put his fat palm under your armpit, or, you know, any of that sort of business. It was embarrassing to him.”

These juicy tidbits and many others emerge from eight and a half hours of an oral-history project that the former first lady participated in with her trusted friend, historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. President Kennedy had been assassinated just months earlier, and Jackie, still in the depths of grief, lashed out in a way that reveals the anger she must have felt at her husband’s presidency, and their dreams, being so tragically aborted. ABC's Diane Sawyer is anchoring a special on the new material Tuesday night.

Daughter Caroline Kennedy made the decision to publish the tapes in a book (Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy), explaining in the forward, according to an account in The New York Times, that she wanted her mother’s perspective to be part of the public and scholarly debate. In fairness, a reading of the transcribed tapes in full should help to put the gossipy excerpts in context. Still, it is jarring to anyone who remembers the baby-voiced, breathy Jackie, who was barely 30 when she became first lady, to believe this is the same woman.

Given the guarded life Jackie led after leaving the White House, no one would have suspected she would be the one to reveal intimate secrets. On the night of her husband’s inauguration as president, she was recovering from the Caesarean birth of her son. Exhausted, she was roused from bed with the help of an orange pill, given to her by the doctor who would become the White House physician. It was Dexadrine, Jackie reports.

Thrust into the public eye, she became increasingly confident, sounding a bit amazed at how welcoming everyone was once the election was over and her husband had won. “Suddenly, everything that’d been a liability before—your hair, that you spoke French, that you didn’t just adore to campaign, and you didn’t bake bread with flour up to your arms—you know, everybody thought I was a snob, and hated politics,” she recounted, adding that she was “so happy for Jack, especially now that it was only three years together that he could be proud of me then … so those were our happiest years.”

She underscores the distaste the Kennedy clan had for Lyndon B. Johnson, who Kennedy had chosen as vice president in order to bring Texas into the Democratic column. Jackie quotes JFK lamenting, “Oh, God, can you ever imagine what would happen to the country if Lyndon was president.” The hostility toward LBJ was well known; the surprise in these tapes is JFK’s take on another Democratic icon, Franklin D. Roosevelt. “Charlatan is an unfair word,” Kennedy opined, but “he did an awful lot for effect.”

Feminism was just beginning to find its voice with Betty Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique, appearing the year before these tapes. To the degree that Jackie discusses her marriage, it’s to bolster the image of herself as a supportive wife, “rather terribly Victorian or Asiatic,” she remarks in an aside that she may have meant to be somewhat humorous. She shrinks from women she considers perhaps too daring, like Clare Boothe Luce, a playwright, socialite, and former member of Congress, confiding, “I wouldn’t be surprised if they were lesbians.”

Jackie did more to create Camelot and keep the eternal flame burning for the legacy of her husband than anybody else, and JFK’s image is further burnished in these tapes even as her own is roughed up a bit. She describes him crying in their bedroom after the bungled Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961. In response to a question from Schlesinger asking if JFK was religious, she says he never missed church on Sunday, but she used to think it was part “superstition … I mean, he wasn’t quite sure, but if it was that way, he wanted to have that on his side.”

She describes Kennedy taking about three seconds to say his prayers at night, and to cross himself, “like a little childish mannerism, I suppose like brushing your teeth or something,” she says. “But I thought that was so sweet. It used to amuse me so, standing there.” Jackie was an astute observer, and it’s a tribute to her good judgment that she wanted these tapes kept private as long as they were.