Remembered for her impeccable fashion sense, cosmopolitan lifestyle and repeated brushes with tragedy, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis captivated the American public both during and after her time in the White House. Check out 10 surprising facts about the life and work of one of America’s most iconic first ladies.
She worked as a reporter and photographer.
After attending Vassar University, the Sorbonne and George Washington University, Onassis got her first job working as a reporter for the Washington Times-Herald in 1952. As the paper’s “Inquiring Photographer,” the future first lady roamed the streets of the nation’s capital asking strangers their opinions on everything from personal finance (“Do you approve of joint bank accounts?”) to politics and relationships (“Do you think a wife should let her husband think he’s smarter than she is?”). Among the many people she interviewed was Richard Nixon, the man John F. Kennedy would later defeat in the 1960 presidential election.
She was briefly engaged to another man before marrying John F. Kennedy.
Before ever going on her first date with Kennedy, Onassis very nearly married another man. In January 1952, the society pages of the Washington Times-Herald announced her engagement to a Yale grad, World War II vet and Wall Street banker named John Husted. The 22-year-old Onassis soon began having doubts about the match, and supposedly expressed reservations about becoming a housewife. In March 1952, she abruptly called off the wedding. Only a few months later, she began dating Kennedy—then a U.S. congressman—after meeting him at a dinner party. The two were married in September 1953.
She was both admired and criticized for her fashionable clothing.
Onassis was one of the defining fashion trendsetters of the 1960s. American women eagerly sought out the famous “Jackie look,” and department stores scrambled to produce affordable imitations of her sleek, classy dresses. Nevertheless, her chic sensibility was often a point of contention. Her obsession with pricy French couture was criticized during the 1960 presidential campaign, and after she became first lady, the Kennedy camp worried her taste for foreign clothing could make the family seem out of touch. To solve the problem, her father-in-law, Joseph Kennedy, helped pair her with American-based designer Oleg Cassini. Cassini went on to design more than 300 of Onassis’ most iconic outfits, and later dubbed himself the First Lady’s “Secretary of Style.”
She launched a massive renovation of the White House.
Shortly after Kennedy won the 1960 presidential election, Onassis turned her famous eye for style toward overhauling the shabby décor of the White House. After burning through her $50,000 budget in a matter of days, she created the Fine Arts Committee for the White House, courted private donors and went to work acquiring pieces of historically significant furniture from museums and collectors. She soon transformed the presidential mansion into a more elegant space adorned with antiques and artifacts once owned by the likes of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. In February 1962, she gave a famous televised tour of the renovated White House to Charles Collingwood of CBS-TV. The performance won her a special Emmy Award, and helped cement her celebrity status.
She opened a school in the White House.
Despite her own background as a reporter, Onassis strived to shield her two children from the media during her time in the White House. When press scrutiny and security concerns made it difficult for her young daughter Caroline to travel into the city, Onassis turned the White House’s third floor solarium into a nursery school and invited other kids—some of them children of Kennedy administration staff—to attend. The school later grew into a fully operational kindergarten complete with around ten students, professional teachers and even a small collection of rabbits, guinea pigs and other animals.
She spoke multiple languages.
Onassis was a lifelong student of foreign cultures, and became fluent in French, Spanish and Italian during her school days and European travels. Her facility with languages often proved a valuable asset to her husband’s political career. She translated French books on Southeast Asia for Kennedy when he was still in the senate, and later wowed campaign audiences by speaking French to voters in Louisiana and Spanish in Texas. Following a 1961 visit to France, where Onassis won over the public with her ability to speak the local tongue, her husband jokingly introduced himself as “the man who accompanied Jackie Kennedy to Paris.” President Lyndon Johnson—no doubt conscious of her fluency in Spanish—later considered making her the U.S. ambassador to Mexico.
She refused to change her bloodstained pink dress on the day of the JFK assassination.
On November 22, 1963, Onassis was sitting alongside her husband when he was killed by an assassin’s bullet while traveling in an open car through Dallas. Her iconic pink wool suit was spattered with blood, but the stunned first lady continued wearing the garment even during Lyndon Johnson’s swearing in as the new president. Lady Bird Johnson asked if she wanted a fresh outfit, but Onassis supposedly declined, saying, “Oh no, I want them to see what they’ve done to Jack.” The bloodstained suit is now held in the National Archives, but its matching pillbox hat was lost on the day of the assassination and has never been recovered.
She was the first to refer to the Kennedy administration as “Camelot.”
In an interview with Life Magazine a week after her husband’s death, Onassis described his love for “Camelot,” a musical based on the popular Arthurian novel “The Once and Future King.” She noted that the president enjoyed playing a recording of the musical’s title song, which featured the line, “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief, shining moment, that was known as Camelot.” After quoting the lyrics, Onassis went on to say, “There will be great presidents again, but there will never be another Camelot.” The interview proved hugely popular, and “Camelot” soon became shorthand for the myth and glamour of the Kennedy administration.
She won a famous court case against a member of the paparazzi.
Following her 1968 marriage to Greek billionaire Aristotle Onassis, “Jackie O” became a favorite target of the paparazzi. Her most persistent admirer was Ron Galella, a notorious photographer who spent several years trailing her through the streets of New York to get candid snaps of her daily life. In 1973, Onassis sued the paparazzo for harassment and invasion of privacy. After a high profile trial, she won a court order forbidding him to step within 25 feet of her or 30 feet of her children. Galella paid little attention to the injunction, and even began carrying a measuring tape so he could ensure he wasn’t breaking the law. He only gave up his pursuit in the 1980s, after Onassis took him to court a second time.
She was a successful book editor.
Onassis had literary ambitions from an early age, and following Aristotle Onassis’s death in 1975, she moved to New York to pursue a career as a book editor. The former first lady started out as a consulting editor at Viking Press before moving to Doubleday, where she worked as a senior editor until her death in 1994. During her time in the publishing world she had a hand in several popular books including the Michael Jackson autobiography “Moonwalk,” Larry Gonick’s “The Cartoon History of the Universe” and translations of Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s “Cairo Trilogy.”
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