In Tapes, Candid Talk by Young Kennedy Widow

1 October 2011

In the early days of the Cuban missile crisis, before the world knew that the cold war seemed to be sliding toward nuclear conflict, President John F. Kennedy telephoned his wife, Jacqueline, at their weekend house in Virginia. From his voice, she would say later, she could tell that something was wrong. Why don’t you come back to Washington? he asked, without explanation.

“From then on, it seemed there was no waking or sleeping,” Mrs. Kennedy recalls in an oral history scheduled to be released Wednesday, 47 years after the interviews were conducted. When she learned that the Soviets were installing missiles in Cuba aimed at American cities, she begged her husband not to send her away. “If anything happens, we’re all going to stay right here with you,” she says she told him in October 1962. “I just want to be with you, and I want to die with you, and the children do, too — than live without you.”

The seven-part interview conducted in early 1964 — one of only three that Mrs. Kennedy gave after Mr. Kennedy’s assassination — is being published as a book and an audio recording. In it, the young widow speaks with Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., the historian and Kennedy aide, about her husband’s presidency, their marriage and her role in his political life. They do not discuss his death. The eight and a half hours of interviews had been kept private at the request of Mrs. Kennedy, who never spoke publicly about those years again before she died in 1994. The transcript and recording, obtained by The New York Times, offer an extraordinary immersion in the thoughts and feelings of one of the most enigmatic figures of the second half of the 20th century — the woman who, as much as anyone, helped shape a heroic narrative of the Kennedy years. Though the interviews seem unlikely to redraw the contours of Mr. Kennedy or his presidency, they are packed with intimate observations and insights of the sort that historians treasure.

At just 34, and in what her daughter, Caroline Kennedy, describes in a foreword to the book as “the extreme stages of grief,” Mrs. Kennedy displays a cool self-possession and a sharp, somewhat unforgiving eye. In her distinctive breathy cadences, an intimate tone and the impeccable diction of women of her era and class, she delivers tart commentary on former presidents, heads of state, her husband’s aides, powerful women, women reporters, even her mother-in-law.

Charles DeGaulle, the French president, is “that egomaniac.” The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is “a phony” whom electronic eavesdropping has found arranging encounters with women. Indira Gandhi, the future prime minister of India, is “a real prune — bitter, kind of pushy, horrible woman.”

The White House social secretary, Letitia Baldrige, Mrs. Kennedy tells Mr. Schlesinger, loved to pick up the phone and say things like “Send all the White House china on the plane to Costa Rica” or tell them they had to fly string beans in to a state dinner. She quotes Mr. Kennedy saying of Lyndon B. Johnson, his vice president, “Oh, God, can you ever imagine what would happen to the country if Lyndon was president?” And Mr. Kennedy on Franklin D. Roosevelt: “Charlatan is an unfair word,” but “he did an awful lot for effect.”

She suggests that “violently liberal women in politics” preferred Adlai Stevenson, the former Democratic presidential nominee, to Mr. Kennedy because they “were scared of sex.” Of Madame Nhu, the sister-in-law of the president of South Vietnam, and Clare Boothe Luce, a former member of Congress, she tells Mr. Schlesinger, in a stage whisper, “I wouldn’t be surprised if they were lesbians.”

Any shortcomings on the part of her husband are not mentioned. She speaks of his loyalty, sensitivity, courage — traits consistent with the Camelot template she had been the first to invoke. She presents herself as adoring, eager for his approval and deeply moved by the man. There is no talk of his extramarital affairs or secret struggle with Addison’s disease, though she does speak in detail about his back pain and the 1954 back surgery that almost killed him.

He was, she says, kind, conciliatory, forgiving, a gentleman, a man of taste in people, furniture, books. Fondly, she recalls him ever reading — while walking, dining, bathing, doing his tie. She remembers with amusement how he would change into pajamas for his 45-minute afternoon nap in the White House. She lets slip a reference to a “civilized side of Jack” and “sort of a crude side,” but she clarifies: “Not that Jack had the crude side.”

He wept in her presence a handful of times. Mrs. Kennedy describes how he cried in his bedroom, head in hands, over the debacle of the attempted invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 by Cuban exiles opposed to Fidel Castro and trained by the Central Intelligence Agency.

On the subject of her marriage, she presents herself in many ways as a traditional wife — one year after the publication of “The Feminine Mystique” by Betty Friedan had helped inspire a wave of rethinking of that role. Her marriage, she remarks, was “rather terribly Victorian or Asiatic.” Her aim was to provide “a climate of affection and comfort and détente” — and the children in good moods. She suggests the couple never really had a fight. She insists she got her opinions from her husband. On that last point, at least, Michael Beschloss, the historian, who was enlisted to write an introduction and annotations to the book, said in an interview, “I would take that with a warehouse of salt.”

In fact, he said, he found “a very high correlation” between the people Mrs. Kennedy runs down in the interviews and those known to have had difficulty in the Kennedy administration. In some cases, they were in danger of being fired. Those she praises, Mr. Beschloss said, tend to have flourished. To what extent that correlation reflects Mrs. Kennedy’s influence on her husband, or vice versa, is open to interpretation and is likely to vary from case to case.

Recalling a trip to India and Pakistan with her sister, Lee Radziwill, in 1962, Mrs. Kennedy says she was so appalled by what she considered to be the gaucherie of the newly appointed United States ambassador to Pakistan, Walter McConaughy, that before even completing her descent from the Khyber Pass, she wrote a letter to her husband alerting him to “what a hopeless ambassador McConaughy was for Pakistan, and all the reasons and all the things I thought the ambassador should be.”

She even named possible replacements.

“And Jack was so impressed by that letter,” she tells Mr. Schlesinger, that he showed it to Dean Rusk, the secretary of state (whom Mrs. Kennedy disparages as apathetic and indecisive). According to her account, Mr. Kennedy said to Mr. Rusk, “This is the kind of letter I should be getting from the inspectors of embassies.”

Even so, Mr. McConaughy, a career diplomat, remained ambassador to Pakistan until 1966.

There are men she praises, too, in the book, which is titled “Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life With John F. Kennedy” and published by Hyperion. She credits Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., the president’s father, as the dominant influence in inculcating a sense of discipline in his children. Among the administration figures she admires are Robert F. Kennedy, the president’s brother; Robert S. McNamara, the defense secretary; and McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser. She calls André Malraux, the French novelist, “the most fascinating man I’ve ever talked to.” She says she was impressed above all by the Colombian president, Alberto Lleras Camargo, whom she finds “Nordic in his sadness.”

In many of her accounts of her marriage, the grieving widow in her early 30s appears to bear little resemblance to the woman who married Aristotle Onassis, the Greek shipping magnate, four years later, or who, after his death, embarked upon a career as a book editor in New York and later told a friend she had come to realize she could not expect to live primarily through a husband. Doris Kearns Goodwin, the historian and wife of Richard Goodwin, a Kennedy aide, said in an interview on Friday, “It’s certainly not the Jackie that we knew later on.”

But, she added, “By then, she’s a different woman.”

Mrs. Kennedy might have been intentionally projecting the image expected of women at the time. She also knew that she was speaking for the historical record, since the conversations were part of a larger oral history of the Kennedy presidency. But her self-confidence seems to have grown in the White House. For the first time, she became one of her husband’s most visible assets. Her televised tour of the White House restoration that she had initiated was watched by 56 million viewers.

“Suddenly, everything that’d been a liability before — your hair, that you spoke French, that you didn’t just adore to campaign, and you didn’t bake bread with flour up to your arms — you know, everybody thought I was a snob and hated politics,” she tells Mr. Schlesinger. All of that changed. “I was so happy for Jack, especially now that it was only three years together that he could be proud of me then,” she says. “Because it made him so happy — it made me so happy. So those were our happiest years.”

She humorously recounts a visit from Sukarno, the president of Indonesia, to the Kennedys’ private sitting room. The briefing papers she had read in preparation had mentioned that Sukarno had been flattered by Mao’s decision to publish his art collection. To impress Sukarno, Mrs. Kennedy asked the State Department for the volume, positioned it prominently on the table and invited him to sit on the sofa between her and Mr. Kennedy and admire the paintings.

Every single one turned out to be of a woman — “naked to the waist with a hibiscus in her hair,” Mrs. Kennedy tells Mr. Schlesinger, who bursts out laughing. She says she could not believe what she was seeing. “I caught Jack’s eye, and we were trying not to laugh at each other.” Sukarno was “so terribly happy, and he’d say, ‘This is my second wife, and this was.’...” Mrs. Kennedy says. “He had a sort of lecherous look” and “left a bad taste in your mouth.”

Describing the night of the inauguration, she recalls that she was both recovering from a Caesarean section and exhausted. She skips dinner and takes a nap. But she finds herself unable to get out of bed to attend the inaugural balls until Dr. Janet Travell, who would become the White House physician, materializes and hands her an orange pill.

“And then she told me it was Dexedrine,” Mrs. Kennedy says

Asked if Mr. Kennedy was religious, she tells Mr. Schlesinger, “Oh, yes,” then appends a revealing qualification: “Well, I mean, he never missed church one Sunday that we were married or all that, but you could see partly — I often used to think whether it was superstition or not — I mean, he wasn’t quite sure, but if it was that way, he wanted to have that on his side.”

He would say his prayers kneeling on the edge of the bed, taking about three seconds and crossing himself. “It was just like a little childish mannerism, I suppose like brushing your teeth or something,” she says. Then she adds: “But I thought that was so sweet. It used to amuse me so, standing there.”

In her foreword to the book, Caroline Kennedy says her decision to publish was prompted by the 50th anniversary of her father’s presidency. It would be a disservice, she said, to allow her mother’s perspective to be absent from the public and scholarly debate.

People have certain impressions of her mother, Ms. Kennedy suggests in a video accompanying the electronic version of the book, but "they really don’t know her at all." In her printed foreword, she says, “they don’t always appreciate her intellectual curiosity, her sense of the ridiculous, her sense of adventure, or her unerring sense of what was right.”

By Janny Scott

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