Her graceful silence has spoken louder than many words

February 16, 1994|By ALICE STEINBACH

After 35 years and who knows how many thousands of photographs of her face, you'd think one more picture of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis would evoke nothing more than the usual response: fascination and curiosity about the woman now known the world over as Jackie O.

But something about this photograph was different. Different and disturbing.

Certainly it's not the way she looks. In fact, at 64 she looks remarkably like she did at 34. And 44. And 54. The hair is still dark, the wide-set eyes steady, the jaw firm.

What was different and disturbing about last week's photo was its appearance under a headline that read: "Jackie O Is Treated For Cancer."

And although she is a woman whose entire life has been telegraphed through headlines -- many of them shocking and tragic -- the news that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis is undergoing chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma shocked and saddened me.

It was not the shock associated with the memory of the woman in a pink Chanel suit frantically crawling across the back of the presidential limousine on that fateful November day in Dallas.

Or the sadness associated with the image of a young mother in black, her traumatized face shrouded in a heavy veil, walking behind a riderless horse.

Or the unbelievable shock when history repeated itself and we saw her once again mourning the assassination of someone close to her.

Through it all, she remained stoic and dignified. Only the traumatized eyes revealed the pain beneath the veil of composure. The eyes, and the years she reportedly has spent in psychoanalysis.

Of course, she also shocked us in ways that made us angry and judgmental.

We felt betrayed when she married -- for money, it was said -- one of the richest men in the world, the flamboyant Greek shipping magnate, Aristotle Onassis. She became a jet-setter, a woman who seemed to flit from continent to continent, from couturier to couturier. By the middle of the 1970s, her transformation from keeper of the flame to self-indulgent socialite had eroded our admiration and good will.

For a time, it seems, we forgot how few of us were in a position to even imagine -- much less judge -- what terrible fears and memories drove her.

Perhaps if, like many contemporary celebrities, she had sold the story of her private life and innermost thoughts to a publisher or filmmaker, we would have been more accepting. In an age that honors even the slightest pretense to "victimhood," Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis could certainly be viewed as an exemplar of such a philosophy.

But she has never done this. Instead, she never complained and never explained.

And she has never played the Professional Widow, a role that could have made her something close to a national saint. For better or for worse, she moved ahead in her life. She raised her children admirably, went to work in 1976 and is said to be a doting grandmother. She continues to keep her private life as private as possible.

But despite her silence, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis became over the years a screen onto which we projected many images: martyr, gold digger, socialite and, more recently, the betrayed wife of a womanizing president. If she has been hurt by some of the millions of words written about her, she has never expressed it.

Gradually however, by being true to her own life, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis has re-established herself in the collective consciousness of America as a woman worthy of our admiration and respect.

And gradually we have allowed her to resume her rightful place not only in American history but in our personal histories as well.

Every generation has its defining public figures, the people who tell us who we are. In the last 35 years there have been the obvious ones -- John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Robert F. Kennedy, John Lennon and the like.

But there are also certain public figures who, though less visible, still serve to remind us of who we are and where we've been. Their very presence adds continuity to our history and serves to link one generation to another. Sometimes we don't recognize them until it's too late. And sometimes we do.

I felt this shock of recognition last week when I read that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis has cancer. Which is to say: the recognition of just how important she is to our brief moment in history.

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