Dignity

May 23, 1994|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston. -- She went home to die. There would be no strangers coming down her hospital corridor, whispering outside her door. No paparazzi angling to get at her bedside.

The spokesman for the hospital had said, as spokesmen have said so many times before, ''Mrs. Onassis and her family have asked that her privacy be respected at this time.'' The reporters, the curious, the well-wishers were kept at arm's length for one last time.

Jacqueline Bouvier. Jacqueline Kennedy. Jackie O. It was a malignant cancer indeed that killed this most private of public women at 64 years old.

The woman's image was seared into our national photo album half her lifetime ago. She was 34 years old -- only 34 -- on that day when she flew back from Dallas, still dressed in a pink suit stained with the blood of her husband.

In the days that followed, Jacqueline Kennedy become the icon of national mourning. She set a standard for the stoicism we call dignity in the face of death. She did this as she did everything -- with courage, in public, under a veil.

Jacqueline Bouvier. The daughter of Black Jack. The 18-year-old who was chosen the Debutante of 1947. The diffident Vassar and George Washington student who became the ''inquiring camera girl'' for the old Washington Times Herald. The wife of the young senator from Massachusetts. The first lady.

At times, she looked like a deer caught in the Kennedy headlights. She hadn't voted before her marriage, didn't care much for politics, was more attracted to art than policy, and liked shopping more than touch football.

We thought we knew her. We thought she belonged to us. She has been on more magazine covers than Madonna. We followed every move, every hairstyle and lifestyle change. We knew her favorite diet dinner -- baked potatoes with caviar -- and her favorite designers.

It was a compliment that she didn't return, an intrusion she lived with but didn't welcome. As a single mother, the most famous widow of the most famous children in America, she chose to raise Caroline and John as well and as far from the spotlight as possible.

''I was reading [essayist Thomas] Carlyle,'' she said once after Jack died, ''and he said you should do the duty that lies nearest you. The thing that lies nearest me is the children.'' She did that duty and had that pleasure.

Years later, when her son John made a toast at his sister's engagement, he said, ''There were always just the three of us. Now there will be four.'' And now there will be one less.

America wanted Jacqueline Kennedy to remain frozen in time, circa 1963, circa 34 years old. When she married Aristotle Onassis the country reacted as if some marauding Visigoth had made off with America's trophy widow. But she did what she wanted.

When she went to work as an editor, she was criticized as a rich woman who had gone slumming at the workplace. But she made her own coffee, xeroxed her own pages, edited her own books. She made her own life.

The world changed enormously in the years after Jackie was first lady. Gradually the zone of privacy we allow public figures became smaller than a stall shower.

Judith Exner and the girls showed up in Camelot revisions. The president's widow became the extravagant wife of a ship magnate feuding with her stepchildren. Unauthorized biographers came along slinging their stuff in the name of openness and the right to know . . . the worst.

Now psychobiographies written in psychobabble fill the shelves and turn lives into miniseries. Fame means living long enough to have an actress play you in someone else's script about your life. Jackie Oh.

In the 1990s even politicians are expected to reveal their childhood traumas to talk-show hosts. Wives are called upon to do confessional interviews about their inner feelings about everything including their marriage. Everyday people line up for the chance to discuss dysfunctional families and 12-step horror stories in the name of ''sharing.''

But Jackie didn't ''share.'' Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis remained the most famous and the most private of women. She didn't comment. She didn't write her memoirs, or do interviews about her disappointments.

Call it distance. Call it shyness. Call it reserve, aloofness. Chose your word on the continuum of privacy. May I suggest dignity? At this very end of an era, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis did it her way. She died with dignity.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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