May 21, 1994

How many times have Americans relived those terrible moments of death in Dallas, of the muted march of a flag-draped coffin behind a riderless horse up Pennsylvania Avenue, of the first flickering of a perpetual light at the grave of a president rendered forever young?

Yet when those moments were in "real time," as we would say today, when they first thudded into our consciousness never to be forgotten, the central figure in the wrenching drama was the young widow scrambling frantically over the trunk of the assassination car, her husband's blood and brains splattered on her clothing; the young widow standing numbly as her husband's successor took his oath of office; the young widow walking hand-in-hand with her two small children up the long steps of the Capitol, there to kneel by the catafalque under the dome as a black veil hid her emotions.

There were many more images to follow in the life of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis that were to make her an icon of a whole age, but none so touched the nation as those days when she embodied a whole people's grief. Her dignity, her unerring feel for the appropriate, her ability to maintain personal privacy in the glare of total TV intrusion -- these were the elements of class, integrity and toughness that were to endure during all 30 years of her widowhood.

Of all First Ladies in this century, she had the greatest capacity to dazzle and to fascinate. Her controversial marriage to a Greek shipping magnate; her life in the luxurious settings of country estates, yachts and Fifth Avenue suites; her style-setting clothes; her hobnobbing with the literati; her raising two stable children somewhat apart from the embrace of the Kennedy clan; her picture on the cover of countless magazines -- all this prolonged the aura of her White House years.

She was an inspiration to a whole generation of women roughly her own age, not least because of her stoicism in the face of marital tribulations. Yet she was a woman of her time, fascinated by the arts and style, a woman barely at the beginning of a lib movement that was to produce a Yale-trained lawyer and policy wonk named Hillary Clinton.

Like the death of Richard Nixon only 27 days earlier, the passing of Mrs. Onassis on Thursday came as a personal blow to millions of Americans. The most enduring public figures of this half-century, they were part of our lives. As they aged, their contemporaries aged with them, only to be reminded in the end of their own mortality.

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