Kennedy charisma still looms large

Corocoran exhibit: more evidence that we just can't get enough of the clan.

Pop Culture

April 07, 2002|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- There she is, Billboard Jackie. The towering photograph is the first thing visitors see when entering the new exhibit on Jacqueline Kennedy's style, the former first lady looming so large in her shimmering gown that she leaves spectators at her feet, quite literally.

It's telling that the show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art begins this way, genuflecting before the Kennedy era as much as reflecting on it. The exhibit, which opened yesterday after blockbuster runs in New York and Boston, is ample proof that the Kennedy mystique did not end with the 20th century that gave rise to it but continues today.

Even as the age of Camelot recedes deeper into history and the population born after John F. Kennedy's presidency grows larger, the country still demands its Kennedy fix. This time, the obsession takes the form of pillbox hats and wool suits, long white gloves and empire-waist gowns, grosgrain ribbons and cloth-covered buttons -- all the details that made Jackie Kennedy a style sensation and influenced future trends.

But the bigger star, beyond Jackie and her fashions, is the mystique of the Kennedy dynasty itself. A close look reveals Kennedys everywhere, wallpapering the background of American life. A story in the latest Newsweek shows former President Bill Clinton relaxing with a book: a John F. Kennedy biography. The current issue of TV Guide marking its 50th anniversary features only one president on its cover: Kennedy.

Even while interest in the Kennedys has waned after the death of John F. Kennedy Jr., the slain president's only son and the embodiment of Camelot's next generation, the memory of the Kennedys in their heyday still dominates pop culture in a way the current Bush dynasty never has.

The Best-Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis sat on the New York Times bestseller list for months earlier this year. Recently, competing publishing houses bid six-figure advances for two different books, both focusing on the Kennedys and Hollywood. And now, American Son, a controversial tell-all about John F. Kennedy Jr. by Richard Blow, a former colleague at JFK Jr.'s George magazine, hit No. 15 in the sales ranking one day last week, even though it has yet to be released.

In Maryland, there is a Kennedy running for governor (Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend) and a Kennedy running for Congress (Mark K. Shriver -- the "K" is for Kennedy) and a Kennedy exhibit opening today at the Johns Hopkins University's Evergreen House (a rare collection of photographs taken when Jack and Jackie were newlyweds in Washington; it runs through June 30).

Capitalizing on nostalgia

Though Kennedys still populate politics -- led by Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy, the brother of John and Bobby Kennedy -- many believe it is the bygone Kennedy era that really mesmerizes.

"I'm not sure that the living Kennedys, Senator Kennedy aside, have anything like the claim on public attention that the memory of President Kennedy has," says Alan Brinkley, who chairs the history department at Columbia University. "Students and people who are much too young to have any direct memory of John or Robert Kennedy have a fascination with them. In a time of diminished expectations of the public world, they provide an image of a more hopeful and optimistic and expansive time."

Now Washington is taking that Kennedy nostalgia and super-sizing it, using the Jackie Kennedy show, which runs at the Corcoran through Sept. 30, as a springboard for a Kennedy celebration at cultural venues across the city.

To lure visitors back to the district after Sept. 11, Washington tourism officials have created a "role-model workshop" for teens interested in fashion design, a high tea celebrating Jackie's style, a walking tour of Jack and Jackie's old Georgetown neighborhood, a concert of music played at the Kennedy White House. Some restaurants will offer a champagne toast or slice of cake on the former first lady's July 28 birthday. And one downtown eatery, Red Sage, is offering a new dessert this summer: "Jackie O's Pillbox Hat," a concoction the size of an actual hat made of pink meringue, filled with almond cream and topped with a pulled-sugar veil.

Hype begets more hype. The exhibit prompted an Oprah segment on Jackie's fashions. Visitors to the Corcoran can buy replicas of Jackie's accessories in the gift shop: oversized sunglasses, $19.95, triple-strand of pearls, $95. Before they sold out, limited-edition $175 Jackie makeup kits were available (Bergdorf Goodman's "Camelot Collection," offering blush, pale pink lipstick and false eyelashes for women hoping to Jackie-fy themselves).

"It wasn't just the clothes that people respond to as much as it is that Jackie Kennedy singlehandedly created the whole idea of Camelot," says Vogue editor at large Andre Leon Talley. "She lived life as if she were in a film."

Living the image

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