Onassis' image anchored, and haunted, a nation

May 22, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

In the last three decades of her life, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis withdrew into public silence and left those of a certain age to remember her in that instant when our hearts were all breaking.

In Dallas, with her husband dying in her lap, she cried, "Jack, what have they done to you?" By "they," she might have meant all of us who live in this brawling, embattled nation, which seems the very antithesis of such a reserved and dignified woman.

In her 31-year cocoon of privacy, which sometimes felt like an extended silent treatment imposed by a mother whose boisterous child has misbehaved, she achieved the modern impossible: She was a public figure who could have had the embrace of the world, but decided she didn't want it. By the age of 34, she'd already had too much of it and didn't wish to remember what she'd seen.

This is the time of the unblinking camera. We're awash each day in fleeting images, which last only until the next click of the remote control. Andy Warhol was wrong when he said we'd all have 15 minutes of fame: Who could hold an audience for such a long time anymore?

Jackie Kennedy could, by giving us glimpses of a memory. Hers was the final snapshot of a lost age: the grieving widow in black, fTC with her little boy saluting not only his father, but the vanishing past.

In Dallas, everything changed. The country turned to its television sets that weekend as never before, a primitive culture suddenly discovering it had fire, and finding it a place to gather, and becoming forever transfixed.

It was the last time we got a clear fix on Jackie, and we found the image so compelling we spent the rest of her life recycling it in our heads, no matter what else happened to her.

The newspapers today remember Jackie standing at the airport in her pink, blood-spattered suit that terrible night of the assassination, next to her husband's coffin. But the newspapers are remembering in revised hindsight. We recall everything from that weekend in black and white and, thus, in our Technicolor world of today, remember yesterday more starkly.

And there she is, suspended forever in our collective consciousness: teaching us all how to grieve, showing us how a civilized people can conduct themselves and making us see ourselves in her image. And then, having done that, bidding us adieu as much as we would let her.

We wanted to hold onto her because we think we remember Camelot. We don't, of course. The reference only arrived after John Kennedy's death, and it came from Jackie's own lips, from an interview she gave Theodore White for Life magazine just days after the assassination, in one of the only interviews she ever gave after Dallas.

Here's what she said:

"At night, before we'd go to sleep, Jack liked to play some records; and the song he loved most came at the very end of this record. The lines he loved to hear were: 'Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.'

"There'll be great presidents again," she went on, "but there'll never be another Camelot again."

She was already bestowing immortality on her husband, and we rushed to join her. But, in retrospect, we see not only the flaws of an administration but also the flaws of the man who was her husband. Thus, Jackie becomes ever more vulnerable. She was not only the widow who grieved, but the wife who didn't know, or didn't let on, what her husband was doing behind her back.

To read of Camelot now in the Life magazine interview is also to edit selectively. In the same interview, the woman who would later marry the shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis on his private Greek island said, "I'm never going to live in Europe. I'm not going to 'travel extensively abroad.' That's a desecration. I'm going to live in the places I lived with Jack. In Georgetown, and with the Kennedys at the Cape. They're my family. I'm going to bring up my children. I want John to grow up to be a good boy."

By all outward signs, her children have grown up well. In a world where other Kennedy children have not, John and Caroline's successes gave us another piece of Jacqueline to appreciate.

Over time, we pushed aside the business with Onassis. It was an aberration in her life, and in our embrace of her, and we wanted to pretend it hadn't happened. What we sought from her for the last three decades was a retrieval of her White House life, and the weekend in Dallas, where we'd lost what felt like innocence.

She was the only one who could confirm what it was really like back there, back when the world might have become beautiful, back when we'd invested so much emotion in two fairy tale people. Her death is the passing of the final illusion.

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