A wife's insight on JFK
Two questions I heard again and again growing up: “Where we you when they walked on the moon?” and, “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?”
I was leaving my sixth-grade classroom when we were told the news from Dallas and the Camelot that captured our curiosity was crumbling. We sat for days around our small black-and-white television, and we were watching as they moved Lee Harvey Oswald from police headquarters to the county jail and my stepfather jumped up, pointed at the screen, said, “That man has a gun!” and seconds later Jack Ruby had killed Oswald.
When everyone imagined the despair of the first family, my mother thought of the Oswalds who suffered poverty as well as shame and horror. She sent money to Marina Oswald and we got back a handwritten thank you letter in Russian. My mother found someone who translated it, “On behalf of the children and myself,” she wrote, “I am sending sincerest thanks for your kindness.” It was like my mother to see sorrow and take an uncommon action.
Maybe my own memories are what made me listen again recently to one of the most affecting audios I ever heard, “Jacqueline Kennedy’s Historic Conversations on the Life of John F. Kennedy” (Hyperion, unabridged, 9 hours, 16 minutes).It’s haunting me as his assassination once did. Maybe one never recovers from a historic moment that becomes personal.
It seemed fitting that the audio begins with an introduction by Caroline Kennedy who sets the tone of wondering that continues throughout the interviews as she voices her own dilemma in releasing audios that her mother put under lock and key for 50 years. When she first read the transcripts in 1994 after her mother’s death, Caroline felt overwhelmed with the decisions that had needed to be made 50 years earlier and how 50 years later she felt a weight of responsibility.
Of the few interviews Jackie gave after JFK’s death, Caroline found this was the only one in which “my mother willingly recalled the span of her married life and shared her insights into my father’s private and public political personality.” Caroline does well at citing the contrasts of her mother’s life. Everyone recognized her instantly, for example, but didn’t know at all “her intellectual curiosity, her sense of the ridiculous, her sense of adventure or her sense of what was right.”
Caroline knew that at the time of the recordings her mother was a young widow in early stages of grief, only four months after she’d lost her husband, home and sense of purpose. She worried that some statements she might have considered too personal, others too harsh, because her views evolved over time. “I struggled with editing — but decided to leave it as a primary source … guided by the immediacy and informality of the conversations…” which capture “a person and a moment in time.”
All that comes across so clearly in the interviews that perhaps making them public came down to deciding, as her mother must have that the moment had arrived “when does someone no longer belong to you, but belongs to history.”
There follows a second, less personal introduction by Presidential Historian Michael Beschloss. He begins with a biography, considers how Jackie saw her role and views how this “oral history constitutes a fresh expansive internal narrative for John Kennedy’s life as senator, candidate and president and his wife’s experience of those years provide new details on what JFK and Jacqueline privately said to each other, her backstage role in his political life, diplomacy and world crisis and her definite and consistently original views of the changing cast of characters that surrounded them both.” This shows “she knew considerably more about John Kennedy’s political life than she ever let on to outsiders and her influence on his official relationships was substantial.”
The interviews between Jacqueline Kennedy and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. took place only four months after her husband was killed. Schlesinger, a Pulitzer Prize winner, Harvard professor and special assistant to Kennedy, knew much about the era and there’s a sense of both in these audios of the two of them reconstructing the past as much as his discovering the insides of the Kennedy marriage, her thoughts about her husband, and very intimate views of him throughout his political career.
One of the amazing set-ups of the seven conversations is that Schlesinger both knew current politics well and JFK from their Harvard days together. It is indeed more conversation than interview for Jacqueline and Art are putting together the sequence of events, remembering people, expressing different perspectives, and trying to determine the facts. The audio gives you that fly-on-the-wall feeling. It’s easy to picture the two of them talking into an antiquated recorder, reminiscing in quiet moments when the nation was still trying to find its footing. Jackie’s voice has a tremolo and then strengthens. In the background ice clinks in glasses, they light cigarettes, the children squeal and once John-John bursts in to hijack the microphone for a couple seconds. Almost like it must have been in the busy White House I’d once imagined.
Read more at Susie Wilde’s website, ignitingwriting.com.