As the celebrity press eagerly reports on actor Natalie Portman’s second pregnancy, the buzz around her Oscar-worthy portrayal of Jacqueline Kennedy in 2016’s Jackie is mounting. This intersection of life and art has me musing about the passionate and rule-defying mothering Jackie Kennedy brought to her own two children.
Shortly after John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s inauguration as president in 1960, he asked his chief of protocol, Angier Biddle Duke, to speak with Jackie about her new duties. To follow the model of her predecessors, Jackie would be expected to attend lunches, deliver speeches, host teas and accept honorary degrees.
What she told the protocol chief was that she would do as little of that as possible. “My family, they come first,” Jackie responded to Duke’s advising, according to an account in All Too Human by Jackie’s friend Edward Klein. “The children come first in my life. I’ve got a problem: the kids are young and I just want to do as much as I can within the bounds of my responsibility to my children. And however you want to phrase it, that means I want to do as little as I have to do.”
The White House staff was incensed and embarrassed. Jackie refused one invitation after another. However, after the first couple of months, it became clear that her absence was distributed evenhandedly, and Jackie had set a precedent that would-be hosts could accept without feeling too slighted.
Instead, Jackie and the children spent their weekdays at Glen Ora, a 400-acre estate the Kennedys rented in Middleburg, Virginia. There, Caroline rode her pony, Macaroni, and Mom took the kids on picnics, gave them baths and read to them in bed before they fell asleep. In one journal entry, Jackie noted, these were the “things I have no chance to do in the W. House.”
Jackie’s determination to focus on her role as a mother was apparent even during the campaign. Shortly before the election, when Caroline was three and Jackie was pregnant with JFK Jr., she remarked in a TV interview that she needed to be with her children in the White House. “If you bungle raising your children,” she said, “I don’t think whatever else you do matters very much.”
When her husband was brutally assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, Jackie could have been forgiven for withdrawing into her own grief. Instead, raising Caroline and John Jr. kept Jackie moving forward. She invited friends who had worked closely with her late husband Jack to come and speak to her children about their father. Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., presidential adviser Theodore Sorensen and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara were among them. These private seminars These private conversations – seminars, really – continued for years.
Jackie also had her children meet regularly with developmental psychoanalyst Erik Erikson. He served as their therapist in an era when Americans didn’t usually acknowledge children’s emotional pain, much less offer them help. Jackie stepped outside the norm to make sure her kids were well cared for.
In my time, Jacqueline Kennedy’s reputation has come to me as a fabulous figure of fashion and as a material girl whose subsequent marriage to Greek shipping mogul Aristotle Onassis solidified her presence among the cosmopolitan jet set.
Yet this view of her commitment to a normal life for her children makes me feel as though she and I had at least one thing in common. We both cared, all else aside, to be good mothers.
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