Authors: Tina Cassidy
One Remarkable Year When
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Defied
Expectations and Rediscovered Her Dreams
For my father
And my grandmother Genevieve Damaschi,
whose own third act still inspires
merica. 1975. The Watergate trials ended, finding the defendants guilty and creating a generation of cynics. The United States was laboring to recover from a crippling oil crisis but had finally withdrawn from Vietnam. Tammy Wynette had a new hit song called “Stand By Your Man,” while women still campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment as they entered the workforce in record numbers and divorced in record numbers.
It was a year when Americans were drained by politics, war, and a bad economy. Yet they were hopeful, as if they knew things could not get any worse. Two young men launched a company called Microsoft. From coast to coast, people flocked to discos to do the Hustle. In England, a band named the Sex Pistols gave birth to punk and the British Conservative Party had chosen its first female leader, Margaret Thatcher, as Parliament passed the Sex Discrimination and Equal Pay Act.
Jacqueline Onassis was forty-five, living in New York, and going through her own confusing metamorphosis. The health of her much older husband, the millionaire Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, was rapidly declining, as was the diseased state of what was a second marriage for both of them. Her daughter, Caroline, was in her last year of high school. Jackie's younger child, John Jr., was a high school freshman, busy with his own friends and interests. Much of her day-to-day work as a parent was done, and aside from dabbling in charities and being the almost-estranged wife of a man who lived abroad, she had few other responsibilities outside of her very regular hair appointments, which happened to be once a week at Kenneth.
Like so many parents of grown children who find themselves suddenly singleâor just unhappy at midlifeâJackie had begun to think more about herself and how, despite having such a full closet, she felt empty. She had enough money to continue living a life of leisure, albeit one where she was always trying to escape the haunting assassination of her first husband, President John F. Kennedy. But what ambitions and talents had she tucked away two decades earlier, to becomeâin successionâa wife, the First Lady, an international fashion icon, a grieving widow, a single parent, and later, a stepmother and jet-setter?
The world knew she was beautiful, stoic, and rich, with impeccable taste and a soft, little-girl voice that turned out marvelous French. It did not know, or perhaps did not care, that she was interested in history and architecture, that she was a talented writer, a voracious reader, and a person of ambitions of her own. Now, on the precipice of 1975, when society all around her was changing, Jackie was beginning to wonder how she should spend the rest of her life. What would make her truly happy? These were especially difficult questions for a woman whose preâWorld War II generation and social stratum had bred her for nothing more than marriage and motherhood and the attendant accessory decorating and volunteering opportunities.
The simple title she had earnedâtruly earnedâtwice, was wife. Now, she was about to become something else.
n 1953, Jack Kennedy was a freshman senator from Massachusetts with a bothersome back and enormous aspirations. He had just married a young woman named Jacqueline Bouvier, whom he had met at the home of mutual friends in Washington, DC, the city where Jackie, with wavy, short brown hair, had been working as a newspaper photographer, taking headshots for a brief question-and-answer column she wrote about her subjects.
Jack wasn't the only Kennedy busy in the capital. His younger brother Robert was assistant counsel to Roy Cohn, the chief investigator working for Senator Joseph McCarthy's anti-Communist crusade. Bobby had begun digging through records in an attempt to uncover those who might have been trading with Communist China, and he suspected a mysterious Greek, Aristotle Onassis, was among them. Bobby could not find proof of any red links, but he instead found that using a front corporation in America five years earlier Onassis had illegally bought ten US surplus tankers that were forbidden for purchase by foreigners. Bobby had a win; soon a federal grand jury handed down an indictment of Onassis, who was ordered to pay a $7 million fine.
“This Irish fuck wants to bury me,” Onassis complained to a friend.
But instead of avoiding the Kennedys, Onassis pulled them into his orbit.
A few years after the indictment, Jack and his bride were on vacation in Cannes visiting Jack's fatherâJoseph P. Kennedy, the former ambassador to the United Kingdomâand doing what fine young things did in the Riviera then: they basked on the beach and went out to dinner with the head of Fiat, Gianni Agnelli, and his wife, Marella. But one of the nights was even more special. Winston Churchill was aboard Onassis's ship, anchored off Monaco, where the Greek also based his family and business. Churchill sprung the idea to invite the Kennedys, to see if JFK was indeed presidential material, as he had been hearing.
Jack was eager to meet Churchill, a hero of his since the war. He had devoured the former prime minister's books, even giving a nod to a 1938 Churchill title,
While England Slept
, when he published his Harvard thesis,
Why England Slept
, two years later. But Churchill, by the time Jack met him, was a round and confused octogenarian who had no idea which guest Jack was when he arrived for cocktails aboard the lavish
with Jackie and the Agnellis.
“I knew your father so well,” Churchill said, leaning in to the wrong person on the boat. Jackie realized that the old man was “gaga” and felt sorry her husband was meeting him “too late.”
While Jack struggled to make conversation with the old man, Onassis absorbed Jackie with his eyes, noting her expensive but simple white suit as he gave her a tour of his 315-foot yacht. The ship was a former Canadian frigate on which he had spent more than $4 million to install forty-two extension telephones, a surgical operating room, Siena marble baths, a mosaic dance floor that could open to a pool, and bar stools covered in whale scrotum.
(He used to ask women if they enjoyed “sitting on the largest balls in the world.”