Photographer. Philanthropist. Editor.
These are not the words you normally associate with Jacqueline Kennedy.
In fact, you probably don’t associated any words with “Jackie.” The First Lady of Camelot inhabits a level of celebrity few icons ever achieve. Her face, her clothing, her (apologies for the hackneyed word) “style,” in short- her image exists in the lexicon of cultural symbology inherently understood by past, present, and most-likely, future generations of Americans.
Despite the years, and the multitudes of stars and starlets who have occupied the pages of tabloids and the national psyche since Jacqueline Kennedy resided at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, “Jackie” has endured.
Even in her own time, Jackie Kennedy was a cult icon. In the early 60’s Andy Warhol’s silk-screen prints exploited the international preoccupation with the brunette beauty. Her wholesome smile and perfect coifs were printed and reprinted for an audience who could not get enough of her. The viewer no longer sees a celebrity or a beautiful model, but a true “beau ideal,” transformed from a flesh and blood human into an idea, a cultural trope, a portrait of our own mass consumption.
Even now, society continues to perpetually devour the image of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
Pablo Larrain’s recent “bio-pic,” Jackie, staring Natalie Portman is a testament society’s continued preoccupation with Ms. Kennedy Onassis. To put it crudely:
“Jackie,” still “sells.”
Despite dying over two decades ago, there is always an ever ready coterie of preteen girls who don over-sized sun glasses, dream of owning their own pony, and know that there is only one correct answer to the perennial query: “Marilyn or Jackie?”
Year after year, movies and mini-series, novels and biographies, even t-shirts bearing Kennedy’s image keep the memory of this past FLOTUS alive and relevant in contemporary culture.
Hero-worship is a natural aspect of humanity. And the creation of idols and heroes is important. It gives humanity a standard (impossible or not) to strive for. A hero can act as a “true north” on a community’s moral compass.
But sometimes, in our attempt to hoist our idols onto the proverbial pedestal we pervert, categorize, and simplify them to such an extent that they are stripped of their humanity, their complexities, and their true histories.
Jacqueline Kennedy stopped being a flesh and blood person decades ago. “Jackie” is an American pictograph: a perfectly tailored Chanel suit sporting a perfectly demure smile. “Jackie”is a cultural cipher, the embodiment of a more gentile, simpler America that no longer exists, and arguably never really existed.
Jackie Kennedy is an America, an aesthetic, and an age which we can only be read in a book, or played by actors.
Who was Jackie, really? It’s impossible to say. But here are some things we do know:
In 1975 Jacqueline Onassis played an integral role in preserving the masterpiece of Beaux-Arts architecture, Grand Central Terminal. In 1966 she spearheaded fundraisers and committees to restore priceless Renaissance frescoes after the city of Florence was devastated by massive flooding. She was a successful editor. She was a mother. Like any human, she was many things.
But these are the things we don’t talk about. Instead we dress like her. We daydream about rubbing shoulder with the elite at the Hyannis Compound like American royalty. We simplify.
So, idolize Jackie.
But, remember, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was (and is) so very much more than a sartorial choice.