Living on after JFK assassination: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

Lys Anzia – WNN Breaking commentary

Jacqueline Kennedy at her desk at The White House
Jacqueline Kennedy sits at her desk as she hand-writes letters, often letters expressing thanks and appreciation from her and from The White House. Image: JFK Library

(WNN) Denver, Colorado, UNITED STATES, AMERICAS: As the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination is remembered inside the United States today, the deeper story of one of the main survivors of the crisis goes relatively unreported.

Witnessing the horror in the assassination death of a loved one up-close was, for a 34-year-old wife of a standing U.S. president, something that cannot be outlined simply. Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, known as “Jackie” to her friends, was at the time a ‘painfully’ private person. In contrast to what the media portrayed she often preferred and wanted to stay far away from the limelight.

In fact she battled terribly with stage fright nausea whenever she was asked to speak or appear in public.

Instead of being allowed to stay inside her private world Jacqueline was brought into the center of one of the most controversial and talked-about events in our time, the assassination of U.S. President John [Jack] Fitzgerald Kennedy on November 22, 1963.

“One must not let oneself be overwhelmed by sadness,” said Jacqueline only days following the assassination of her husband.

Often misunderstood by the media who described her as a woman with “style and no substance,” the young Jackie worked at the age of 22 as a newspaper reporter, columnist and photographer for the Washington Times-Herald. As she began her first job out of college her first job for the Times-Herald took shape in a column titled, “Inquiring Photographer.”

Later as the column’s popularity began to rise Jackie’s column took on the name, “Inquiring Camera Girl.”

It wasn’t an easy task for Jacqueline, as a woman, to also get the go-ahead as a photographer also for her column. The Washington Times-Herald Editor-in-Chief Frank Waldrop wanted the young female college grad to answer phones instead. It wasn’t long though that Wadrop became impressed by Jackie’s push to become a reporter and her ability to observe her surroundings.

Interviewing people on the streets of Washington D.C. Jacqueline’s job included asking questions like: “If you found out your spouse was a former Communist, what would you do?” or “When did you discover women are not the weaker sex?” Jackie worked to bring everyday discussions to a deeper public level.

Surprisingly people did respond to talk with the roaming rep0rter on Capitol Hill.

With a paycheck of $42.50 a week the Inquiring Camera Girl’s job began by asking simple questions. Later her questions would became more political with hard hitting social justice overtones. Little did Jacqueline know at the time that politics in the United States would end up completely ruling the first half of her life. And along with that came her tie to one of the most popular presidents of the United States.

This tie with President Kennedy would follow Jackie for the rest of her life.

“I want above all to become a working girl who earns her own living,” outlined Jackie when she was 22 as she outlined her job for the Washington Times-Herald.

Twelve years later no one today knows exactly what thoughts ran across Mrs. Kennedy’s mind as she sat there alone in the hallway outside of Parkland Memorial Hospital emergency trauma room No. 1 in November 1963. Her life up to that moment before the President’s death had been one of relative isolation often away from friends and family while she lived as First Lady in The White House with her husband and her children.

“Mrs. Kennedy was walking beside the stretcher and the roses that she had been given at the airport were lying on top of the President and her hat was also lying on top of the President as he was brought into the emergency room,” outlined Doris Mae Nelson, the Registered Nurse Supervisor who was overseeing the emergency room at Parkland Hospital the day President Kennedy died in Dallas.

A detailed description by Nelson later became part of the formal testimony she would give U.S. legislators who were trying to find out the truth on the assassination on March 20, 1964. Doris Mae tried her best to answer the questions attorney Mr. Arlen Specter, who would later become U.S. Senator Arlen Specter, would give her. As assistant counsel of the President’s Commission Specter would later be known as one of the key investigative voices at The Warren Commission.

On the day of the President’s death, it was supervising nurse Nelson herself who gently asked Mrs. Kennedy to leave her husband’s side as his body lay covered and unmoving on a stretcher. Nelson asked the young wife of the President to sit in the hallway and wait so she wouldn’t have to view what biographers have described as the ‘gory’ medical intervention and surgical exploration of Kennedy’s head wounds in the hospital would occur that day.

In a quick instant Mrs. Kennedy’s life, as the wife of a an international leader and president, vaporized as the 34-year-old sat alone in complete shock under the neon lights of a hospital hallway.

“Suddenly I found myself face to face with Jackie in a small hallway…,” described Lady Bird Johnson, the wife of the next incoming U.S. President Lyndon Johnson.

In a special audio diary she described the hospital scene that day in detail.

“You always think of someone like her [Mrs. Kennedy] as being insulated, protected. She was quite alone. I don’t think I ever saw someone so much alone in my life…I went up to her; put my arms around her; and said something to her. I’m sure it was something like ‘God, help us all,’ because my feelings for her were too tumultuous to put into words.”

With immediacy and candor Lady Bird continued, “I looked at her. Mrs. Kennedy’s dress was stained with blood. One leg was almost entirely covered with it and her right glove was caked, it was caked with blood, her husband’s blood. Somehow that was one of the most poignant sights, that immaculate woman exquisitely dressed and caked in blood.”

Only a little more than one and a half hours after the President was officially declared dead Jackie found herself standing next to Vice President Johnson in the President’s plane, Airforce One, as it flew swiftly from Dallas back to Washington D.C. Recognizing the State of Emergency for the leadership of the U.S. the Vice President was swiftly sworn in as acting U.S. President.

During the swearing-in on Airforce One President Jack Kennedy’s dead body lay close by in a makeshift casket only a few feet away from his wife Mrs. Kennedy.

At that moment Jacqueline was not so different than all the other wives who would later lose their husbands as they died too young during military action in the Vietnam war.

Jackie’s worry in that moment was not how she could manage to live from that point on, but how she could live without an identity she never wanted to have in the first place, as the wife of a U.S. president. From that moment on she would never again be defined or boxed-in by American politics.

Her desire for privacy would later bring her to remarry and leave the U.S. completely, then return again to the U.S. wiser and older as a single woman and working editor much later for Doubleday books in New York.

A few months before her 64th birthday in July, on May 18, 1994, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis died from an aggressive form of lymphatic cancer. She was buried a few days later on May 23 next to the eternal flame in Arlington, Virginia where she carefully and deliberately designed her husband Jack’s burial 31 years earlier.

Today next to them at Arlington National Cemetery are buried the Kennedy’s stillborn first daughter Arabella along with their second son Patrick Bouvier Kennedy who died in infancy only 39 hours after being born. Even after the subsequent death and burial at sea of the Kennedy’s first son John Kennedy Jr., who died at the age of 38 with his wife Carolyn in a 1999 plane crash, Jacqueline’s reach toward the future through the eternal flame in Arlington remains burning.

Caroline, the only living child and only living survivor of the Presidential Kennedy family, remains dedicated to the same things her mother was dedicated to all those years so long ago: “growing up and growing old.”

“I have been through life and I have suffered a great deal, but I have had happy moments, as well,” said Jacqueline in later life to biographer Greg Lawrence in his January 2011 book release “Jackie as Editor: The Literary Life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.”

“Every moment one lives is different from the other. The good, the bad, the joy, the hardship, the tragedy, love and happiness are all interwoven into one single, indescribable whole that is called life. You cannot separate the good and the bad, and perhaps there is no need to do so,” continued Jackie to author Greg Lawrence. “Even though people may be well known, they hold in their hearts the emotions of a simple person for the moments that are the most important of those we know on earth: birth, marriage and death,” she added.


For more information on this topic:

First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Memorial Tributes in the One Hundred Third Congress of the United States,” U.S. Congress August 2001 (modified July 2012).


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