How Jackie Kennedy dealt with her husband's compulsive affairs

Jackie, the film by Chilean director Pablo Larrain, hit American screens this weekend, accompanied by scores of stories resurrecting speculation about the experiences of former First Lady Jackie Kennedy. One question writers and film reviewers ask is, what did she know about her husband’s infidelities?

I was interested to find that the filmmakers agreed with my research for “Why They Stay”: that Jacqueline Kennedy was by turns pragmatic and bereft about her husband’s seemingly compulsive sex outside of their marriage.

When Jack Kennedy took office in 1961, the couple had been married for seven years. As president, he became consumed with almost daily sexual liaisons, according to the many accounts of their White House days. Both Jack Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier had been raised to regard philandering outside of marriage as a natural male privilege.

Even so, there’s evidence that JFK’s philandering hurt Jackie deeply.

Jackie’s father, “Black Jack” Bouvier, confided in his daughter about his seductions. According to Kennedy biographer Edward Klein, Bouvier told Jackie that on his honeymoon, on his way over to England with her mother on the Aquitania, he slipped away and slept with tobacco heiress Doris Duke. Years later, when her father visited Jackie at boarding school in Farmington, Conn., the two would play a game where she would point to the mother of one of her classmates, and Black Jack would respond “yes” or “not yet” – to indicate whether he had bedded the woman in question. He was said to be capable of sleeping with two or three women in an evening.

Little wonder then that Jackie, who saw her dad as a man of great style and sophistication, would respond this way when warned about her future husband’s playboy ways: “All men are like that. Just look at my father,” according to historian Sally Bedell Smith. Jackie echoed this in later years when trying to reassure her sister-in-law, Joan Bennett Kennedy, who was upset by her husband Teddy Kennedy’s affairs. “All Kennedy men are like that,” Jackie said. “You can’t let it get to you because you shouldn’t take it personally.”

Similarly, Jackie’s husband had grown up with the idea that powerful men weren’t required to be faithful to their wives. His father Joe Kennedy’s many affairs – especially with glamour girl Gloria Swanson – were publicized in newspaper gossip columns. And yet Joe’s wife Rose Kennedy ignored it all, choosing family togetherness, social status, great houses and money over confrontation.

Possibly Jackie saw JFK’s appeal to other women as tantalizing. She may have thought, they could want him, but she had him. She had won. However, it’s also likely that she underestimated her husband’s near-constant pursuit of sexual reassurance and release. Author Klein reports this observation by Kirk LeMoyne “Lem” Billings, Jack’s prep school roommate and lifelong friend. “While on one level Jackie must have known what she was getting into by marrying a thirty-six-year-old playboy, she never suspected the depth of Jack’s need for other women,” Billing said. “Nor was she prepared for the humiliation she would suffer when she found herself stranded at parties while Jack would suddenly disappear with some pretty young girl.”

The First Lady also tried dealing with her husband’s needs directly. She met a cardiologist, Dr. Frank Finnerty, through her brother-in-law Bobby Kennedy, according to a story retold by Bedell Smith. Finnerty was a friend and neighbor. Jackie and he struck up a telephone friendship, where she began calling him twice a week for consolation and advice. She told him she knew what was going on with Jack, and that the Secret Service covered for him. “She was also sure that Jack felt no love or any kind of affection” for these women, Finnerty has said. “He was just getting rid of some hormonal surge,” Jackie rationalized, that he had “undoubtedly inherited from his father.”

With the doctor, Jackie learned about foreplay and other ways that she and Jack could discover more pleasure with each other in bed. The phone consultations included a script Jackie could present to her husband to raise the issue of changing their bedroom routine without offending his masculine ego. Jack’s philandering didn’t stop, but as least his wife could reassure herself that it wasn’t because they lacked intimacy in the bedroom.

This version of Jackie -- vulnerable, nurturing a closer marriage -- is so at odds with her public persona, where she always seemed cool and in charge of her emotions. This window into her world as a wife causes me to admire her even more.