Saturday 21 October 2017

The woman and the myth: Jackie - how the former first lady shaped her husband's legacy

A new film illustrates how Jackie Kennedy rewrote her husband's legacy in the days after his death

Creating the legend of Camelot: President John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Jacqueline ready for one of the many gatherings at the White House
Creating the legend of Camelot: President John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Jacqueline ready for one of the many gatherings at the White House
Amazing Grace: Portman in her role as Jackie, dances with JFK
Jackie Kennedy
Bruce Greenwood in Thirteen Days

Paul Whitington

While most critics have praised Pablo Larrain's new biopic Jackie, some have been troubled by Natalie Portman's accent. Her Jackie Kennedy speaks in a breathless, ingratiating whisper that sounds like an unlikely cross between Marilyn Monroe, a southern belle and an obscure member of the British royal family. That can't be right, can it?

It can. If you go to YouTube and type in 'Jackie Kennedy, White House' you can watch a TV tour of the president's residence that she recorded in 1962. And there it is, that weird, grating, oddly compelling voice.

Just 31 when her husband came to office, Jackie was one of the youngest first ladies ever, and looks demure but confidently stylish as she shows the reporter around.

He, a creature of his age, treats her at times like the 'little woman', an attitude she both panders to and subtly subverts. Because while Jackie Kennedy had social anxiety and craved male approval, she was no fool: she played a large role in shaping the public image of the Kennedy White House, and after her husband's death preserved his legacy by almost single-handedly creating the 'Camelot' myth.

Jackie is set in the week after JFK's assassination, and built around an extraordinary interview she gave to Life reporter Theodore H White. She did so just days after emerging shell-shocked and hysterical from the presidential car covered in her husband's blood and brains, and knew exactly what she was at. Jackie's world, which she'd so painstakingly crafted, was collapsing around her. As the president's widow she was a person without position or function, and JFK's successor Lyndon Johnson was pushing her to vacate the White House forthwith.

A week before, she'd had everything, but now she had nothing, which must have made her and Kennedy's shared past seem all the more mythic, and important. With Theodore White's help, she was about to turn the Kennedy White House into a legend.

In a sense, Jacqueline Bouvier had been on the run from reality for decades. Born in 1929, she was the eldest child of a colourful Wall Street stockbroker called Jack Bouvier III, and Janet Norton Lee, a socialite with Irish roots. She was doted on, particularly by her father, but the Bouviers were hit hard by the Wall Street crash of 1929: Jack was a drinker and a ladies' man, and by the time Jackie was seven, her parents had separated.

Their divorce a few years later hit her hard, and though her mother remarried a man wealthy enough to guarantee Jackie the private education and Ivy League college she expected, she was left with an ongoing anxiety about her social standing and place in the world.

Jackie's cousin through marriage and Camelot regular, Gore Vidal, was scathing about her snobbery and social climbing. In his memoir, Palimpsest, Vidal rather unkindly claimed that she'd "lost her virginity in a lift to a writer from the Paris Review", and mocked her royal pretentions.

But Gore, who once said "every time a friend succeeds, I die a little", was prone to bitchiness. And to be fair to Jackie, she was always determined not to become "some housewife", and fought hard to find an elevated place for herself in American society.

Marrying Joe Kennedy's heir apparent was a good economic match for Jackie, but arguably a better one socially for JFK. She had the class the rough and ready Kennedys sometimes lacked, and would become a major asset during Jack's political rise, conducting herself at all times with eye-catching decorum. And when he got to the White House, she was the one who filled it with writers and artists and classical music soirees.

She also devoted herself to restoring the neglected pile, adding to her husband's concerns over her prodigious spending.

Her wardrobe could have clothed a small army, but Jackie's sense of style became a story in itself, a feel-good adjunct to Jack Kennedy's sometimes bumpy presidency. Their marriage wasn't exactly plain sailing either: there was a miscarriage, two infant deaths, and Kennedy's numerous affairs.

Jackie does seem to have loved JFK, however, and when he died he took her dream world with him. To ensure that everyone would remember it, she agreed to be interviewed by Ted White at Hyannis Port.

During that talk she contrasted the horror of witnessing her husband's assassination with the light and culture of their life together in the White House. She recalled her Jack's affection for the Lerner and Loewe Broadway musical Camelot, and his habit of playing the title song before he went to bed. She even quoted one of Guinevere's lines from the show, 'don't let it be forgot, that there was once a sport, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot'. "There'll be great presidents again," she told White, "but there will never be another Camelot."

At that point Life magazine had a readership of 30 million. The idea of Camelot caught public imagination and stuck, giving JFK a posthumous aura of sainthood. Many historians will argue that Lyndon Johnson - and even Richard Nixon - were more effective presidents, but thanks to Jackie, that's not how everyone remembers it.

In the film, Natalie Portman does a remarkable job of catching the essence of a very complex person. Portman worked hard to get Jackie's voice right, because in a strange way it contains everything you need to know about her. It was partly a result of her private education, but also perhaps, part of the persona that Jackie invented for herself.

And as you watch Jackie, all you can do is admire her.

The Kennedys on screen

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Bruce Greenwood in Thirteen Days

Thanks to his untimely death and his wife's dexterous myth-making, John F Kennedy has always fascinated filmmakers. But he's a hard character to pin down, and it could be argued that the definitive Kennedy biopic has yet to be made. There've been some brave attempts: Martin Sheen, though a little short for the role, was excellent as JFK in the solid but rather hagiographic 1983 TV mini-series Kennedy. Bruce Greenwood (above) was pretty good as the young president dealing with the Cuban Missile crisis in the gripping 2000 thriller Thirteen Days. And James Marsden, looking a little callow, depicted Jack as an entitled prince discovering a social conscience in The Butler (2013). The most famous Kennedy film of all, of course, is Oliver Stone's JFK, an unreliable but extremely effective piece of paranoid propaganda. But it gives us none of the substance or romance of the Kennedy administration, a task that Jackie has fulfilled wonderfully.

Irish Independent

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