Jacqueline Kennedy helped define the terms history uses about JFK The Mystique of Camelot

May 27, 1995|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

Washington -- On a rainy, tempestuous winter night, a week after cradling her slain husband in her lap in Dallas, Jacqueline Kennedy summoned a trusted journalist friend to her home in Hyannisport, "obsessed," to use her word, with the notion that her husband be remembered as a hero.

With the clarity and political canny of a master spin artist, the 34-year-old widow spoke to the writer, Theodore H. White, for four hours, urging him to tell the world -- via Life magazine -- that Kennedy was truly "a man of magic," that his presidency was truly special, that the era was, to use the words she borrowed from a recent Broadway musical, "one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot."

Yesterday, a year after Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' death from cancer at 64, the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston made public White's notes from that Nov. 29, 1963, interview in which the romantic Camelot myth -- one that would remain fixed in the public's mind despite ensuing revelations of chinks in the Kennedy armor -- was born.

The newly released papers include White's original handwritten notes from the interview and the typed manuscript of the essay -- with editing marks and additions by Mrs. Kennedy -- that appeared in the Dec. 6, 1963, issue of Life. The writer donated the papers to the Kennedy Library in 1969, stipulating that they remain closed until one year after Mrs. Onassis' death.

Called the "Camelot documents," they offer another small piece of the puzzle -- another glimpse into the mind and soul of a private woman who, even in death, has remained a source of endless fascination and mystery to so many.

"I'm not going to be the Widow Kennedy in public," Mrs. Kennedy told Mr. White in what he would later call "our sad conversation." "When this is over I'm going to crawl into the deepest retirement there is."

She said, according to White's notes, that the first thing she thought about on the night of her husband's death was, "Where will I go?" She wanted to go back to the Georgetown home she and Kennedy had lived in before he was elected president.

"But then I thought, how can I go back there to that bedroom? I said to myself, you must never forget Jack, but you mustn't be morbid."

A hand in history

Perhaps most important, the papers reveal the extent to which the sad, wan, yet tearless widow had a hand -- quite literally -- in shaping the extraordinary Kennedy legacy.

"She certainly wanted to take control of history," says presidential historian Stephen E. Ambrose, a critic of the rose-colored portrayals of the Kennedy years, "and in many ways she managed to do so."

Much of the substance of the Camelot interview appeared in the Life essay, "For President Kennedy: An Epilogue." The magazine held the presses that November night, at a cost of $30,000 an hour overtime, while White talked with Mrs. Kennedy. He finally dictated his story to editors from the telephone in the Kennedy kitchen at 2 a.m., with his interview subject hovering nearby.

White, who died in 1986, revealed many more details animpressions from the interview in his 1978 memoir, "In Search of History," in which he admits: "Quite inadvertently, I was her instrument in labeling the myth."

The young widow chose White because, as he would later writehe had been "friendly," a journalist who wrote sympathetically and admiringly of Kennedy, especially in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book documenting his presidential campaign, "The Making of the President, 1960."

She insisted he write the essay for Life, one of several magazines White wrote for, because it had chronicled the Kennedy magic before with layouts of the couple's 1953 wedding, the inauguration, the Kennedy children and even their pets. Reaching more than 7 million readers at the time, the magazine played a key role in creating images of public figures.

In the interview, the first of only a handful Mrs. Kennedy gave soon after her husband's death, she jumps back and forth between graphic, poignant descriptions of the assassination day and "Camelot," her theme for the Kennedy legacy -- all of her remarks laced with what seems like extraordinary devotion, admiration and love for her slain husband.

White's disjointed notes, that he would later type up and send to Mrs. Kennedy with "Love and reverential Kisses," include his impressions -- of her "composure, of her beauty (dressed in black trim slacks, beige pullover sweater, her eyes wider than pools) and of her calm voice and total recall."

She recalled, first of all, the hot day in Dallas, the sun in her face, riding in the motorcade when the fateful shot rang out. She thought it was motorcycle backfire until her husband slumped in her lap. "All the ride to the hospital I kept saying, 'Jack, Jack, can you hear me, I love you, Jack.' I kept holding the top of his head down trying to keep the brains in."

At the hospital, doctors and police tried to keep her out of the operating room, but she protested. "It's my husband, his blood, his brains are all over me."

Blood and roses

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