Inside the Remarkable Life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis
| LAST UPDATE 02/09/2022
When 24-year-old Jacqueline Bouvier married a promising politician in 1953, she did so much more than become Mrs. Kennedy. From secrets to successes, America's First Lady led a life as colorful as her pink dress suits. Here's her story.
Today, we know her as the famed socialite who graced the White House with poise and grace. But let's go back to the very beginning - before the Chanel suits and celebrity status. Believe it or not, she, too, had a taste of humble beginnings.
Well, at least her father did. Not only did Mr. Bouvier go from successful stockbroker to struggling divorcee, but his reversal of fortune haunted Jackie for the rest of her life. "We both live and do very well in this world of WASPs and old money... But you and I are not really of it," she once confessed to bandleader Peter Duchin.
She Was Always the Favorite Child
As the years continued to pass and young Jackie's father continued to struggle, there was one thing that remained a constant: His love - well, adoration - for his eldest daughter. In fact, not only was Jacqueline Bouvier the favored child, but the father-of-2 made no problem making it known.
As biographer Tina Flaherty revealed, Jack constantly referred to Jackie as "the most beautiful daughter a man ever had." And her baby sister, Lee, wasn't the only one who noticed: their mother, Janet, eventually paid Jackie's sibling a whopping $750,000 to make up for the favoritism shown behind closed doors.
She Became an Equestrienne at Age 1
Well, what did life behind closed doors look like? Growing up, young Jackie led a life as remarkable as one would expect. By age 1, she was already riding her own horses at the Bouviers' East Hampton estate. And by age 11? The graceful equestrienne was catching nationwide attention.
"Jacqueline Bouvier, an eleven-year-old equestrienne from East Hampton, Long Island, scored a double victory in the horsemanship competition," a 1940 New York Times piece had praised. "Miss Bouvier achieved a rare distinction. The occasions are few when a young rider wins both contests in the same show."
She Spent Summers on a Farm
But if there's perhaps one thing harder to imagine than Jackie O working her way around the stalls? It's her time working a family farm: back in the '40s, as her mother remarried business tycoon Hugh D. Auchincloss, that's exactly what her reality called for.
Granted, the "farm" her new step-father owned belonged to his sprawling Rhode Island mansion. Nonetheless, as Jackie, Lee, and their mother moved into his 75-acre estate, summers began to look very different. The hardworking teen would lend a hand around the house, feeding the farm's 2,000 chickens and gathering their eggs.
Her Childhood Trips to the White House
From sibling rivalries to summers on the farm, Jackie's life before the White House seemed almost... relatable. But when the 12-year-old tourist found herself at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in 1941, nothing would ever be the same. In fact, it was at this very moment that her fate was practically written out before her.
What happened? To put it simply, "She was dismayed to see so few historical furnishings on display and frustrated by the lack of a booklet to inform visitors about the history of the great house," as JFK Library revealed. Sure enough, decades later, she'd finally decide to do something about it.
She Was a Sassy Student
When she wasn't busy visiting the home of our former presidents, Jackie was busy learning about them in school. That is, when she wasn't being kicked out of the classroom. According to Bouvier's former teachers, the young girl (below, left) was always the center of attention. But not always for the best of reasons...
"A darling child, the prettiest little girl, very clever... artistic, and full of the devil," former teacher, Miss Platt, joked of the mischievous girl. As headmistress, Miss Ethel Stringfellow added: "Jacqueline was given a D in Form because her disturbing conduct in her geography class made it necessary to exclude her from the room."
She Spoke Several Languages
But while she might not have gotten an A+ in behavior, the bright young girl certainly made up for it elsewhere. More specifically, when it came to learning new languages. Not only was Jacqueline fluent in French, Spanish, and Italian, but her love for foreign culture went unmatched.
So much so that later in life, she'd channel that very same passion to help with her husband's political ventures. During both JFK's Senate re-election campaign in 1958 and presidential campaign in 1960, the skilled linguist recorded speeches in all 3 languages, encouraging voters to support her man.
She Moved to Paris
But in 1949, the ambitious girl had her sights set completely elsewhere - 3,600+ miles away, to be exact. As 20-year-old Jacqueline touched down in Paris, she embarked on an adventure of a lifetime. Sure enough, her time in the city of love came to mean much more than trips to the Boulangerie or late-night strolls at the Champs-Élysées.
In the following months, the exchange student soaked up the city's language and culture - something that would remain with her for the rest of her life. "I learned not to be ashamed of a real hunger for knowledge, something I had always tried to hide," Jackie confessed.
She Worked as a “Camera-Girl”
Sure enough, the student's time in France - what she later referred to as "her happiest year" - left her hungry for more knowledge. And that's exactly what she set off to attain. After earning her bachelor's degree in French literature from George Washington University in 1951, her career took off at lightning speed.
That Fall, the college grad landed her very first gig: "Inquiring Camera Girl" for the Washington Times-Herald. There, Jackie scurried around the city, scouting for interesting people to interview and photograph. From Richard M. Nixon to her future husband to Queen Elizabeth II's coronation, it was never a dull moment for the bright journalist.
She Turned Down a Dream-Job at Vogue
Safe to say, Jackie was a woman of many talents. And in 1951, it'd catch the attention of those overseas. After submitting a piece for Vogue's Prix de Paris essay competition, the bright writer found herself standing out from a pool of 1,279 candidates. And she was soon met with the offer of her dreams.
As the winner of their sought-after sweepstakes, Jacqueline Bouvier was invited to work for Vogue - six months in their Manhattan office and another six in Paris; a dream come true for the fashion enthusiast. Unfortunately, not for long. After just 1 day on the job, the talented writer quit - allegedly after pressure from her mother.
She Almost Married Another Man
Unfortunately, her mother's hold went far beyond 9 to 5. Long before Jackie became Mrs. Kennedy, her heart actually belonged to another: John Husted. In 1951, the Wall Street businessman and 22-year-old journalist had grand plans to tie the knot. Only that didn't last long.
According to reports, Jackie's mother eventually pressured her to call things off for financial concerns. But according to the former First Lady, she's got no regrets. "I went into it too fast... it seemed very wrong," she later reflected. "If it hadn't affected another person, I'd say it was good that it happened - made me grow up."
She and JFK Were Set Up
Of course, there was another reason one might note the breakup as "good:" it led our poised beauty to the oval office, more specifically JFK. But not without the help of a lending hand. That's right: ever wonder how Washington's golden couple first came to be?
It all started with a simple dinner party. Only the events that followed were anything but. After mutual friends invited both singles over for some cocktails and chicken casserole, it was practically love at first sight. "My brother really was smitten with her right from the very beginning," JFK's brother, Ted, reflected.
She Hated Her Wedding Dress
Sure enough, that same infatuation soon morphed into a full blown love affair. And the rest was history. On September 12, 1953, all eyes were on Jacqueline Bouvier as she officially became Mrs. Kennedy. Only as she made her way down that dreamy aisle, there was one concern on the back of her mind: the dress.
According to Time, Jackie's original gown was actually destroyed about a week before the wedding. And so, a group of loyal designers worked sleepless nights reproducing the tarnished dress. But to no avail. "She bowed to family pressure to wear something more traditional, despite thinking it looked like a lampshade."
Her White House Makeover
20+ years, 1 failed engagement, and endless successes later, the newly Mrs. Kennedy found herself back where it all began: the White House. And she was ready to put her words into action. She was going to make the White House "the most perfect house in the United States." And that's exactly what she did.
In the blink of an eye, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue went from a house to a home. From restoring all the public rooms on the property to enlisting the help of experts, the newly upgraded landmark underwent a makeover like never before. All thanks to a small-town girl with a big dream.
She Opened a School in the White House
But the beautifully framed pictures that now sat on those White House walls weren't the only update made. Mrs. Kennedy was determined to bring life back to her newfound home - a place that celebrated America's rich history, culture, and achievements.
Whether it was another dinner party or glitzy social event - graced by world-renowned musicians, politicians, and scientists - Jackie O went on to accomplish just that. But that's not all she did. She also transformed one of the sun decks into a kindergarten - a safe space for her children and similar youth to, well, be kids.
She Won an Emmy
From the laughing children frolicking across the front lawn to the buzzing corridors, shrouded by diplomats and eager visitors, the White House was almost unrecognizable. And so, when our First Lady finally opened up her doors for a house tour, it was ultimate madness.
In 1962, CBS released a televised tour of the White House - narrated by ours truly, of course. And it was an instant hit. From the 80 million viewers to the 50 countries it aired in, A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy was adored by all. So much so, that it went on to earn Jackie O her very own Emmy Award.
Becoming the “First Lady of Fashion”
Sure, every First Lady has boasted impressive wardrobes. But it was Jackie Kennedy's that truly shaped the way we view fashion. In fact, if there was one thing more noteworthy than her endless accomplishments, it was the daring numbers she wore while ticking them off.
From bright pastel suits to pillbox hats, the chic trendsetter went where no other First Lady ever dare. And it soon earned her the title, "First Lady of Fashion" - as Time perfectly put it. To this very day, Jackie O's mark continues to emanate throughout the fashion world.
Her Famous Pink Suit Was a Knock-Off
The double-breasted stitching, the navy lapel, the matching hat: if there's perhaps one look that goes hand in hand with the First Lady of Fashion? Of course, it's the pink Chanel dress suit. But there's actually a decades-long secret woven into its wool hems.
Despite contrary belief, the 1961 number was actually not Chanel. Instead? It was a "line-by-line copy," as Karl Lagerfeld eventually revealed. As for why Jackie O felt the need to replicate the designer piece? Wearing international designers was forbidden at the time. So, she had Chez Ninon recreate the piece using the same fabric.
She Kept the Suit On After the Assassination
Unfortunately, on November 22, 1963, that very same suit would become synonymous with one of America's most devastating events: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. But while most of us were eager to shed the tragic ambush from our memories, Jackie O's bloodstained outfit wouldn't be shed until the very next day. Why?
"One second later, I thought, 'Why did I wash the blood off?'" she reflected of cleaning up her face shortly after. "I should have left it there. Let them see what they've done." Sure enough, the images of the First Lady in her stained pink 'fit came to be one of the most powerful moments in U.S. history.
Her Secret Engagement Proposal
From the nationwide manhunt to the media frenzy, the weeks that followed called for pure madness. JFK's passing was felt everywhere. But behind closed doors, his grieving widow turned to the oddest of places for comfort: British ambassador David Ormsby-Gore, otherwise known as the late president's closest-confidant.
Unfortunately, shortly after the assassination, he, too, lost his spouse. And it was this mutual sense of pain that brought them together. So much so, that David proposed 4 years later. "If ever I can find some healing... it has to be with somebody... not part of all my world of past and pain," Jackie O explained after turning it down.
She Helped Obtain This Met Exhibit
But the truth was that widowed ambassadors weren't the only things tearing at Mrs. Kennedy's heartstrings. In fact, by 1968, the former First Lady poured her heart into something entirely different: the Metropolitan Museum of Art's famous Dendur Temple exhibit. And the reason behind it was both historic and heartbreaking.
"I want it to be built in the center of Washington as a memorial to Jack," the widowed First Lady allegedly pleaded. Sure enough, on a summer day in 1968, a freight ship set sail from the Mediterranean to New York - a "thank you" to Jackie O for assisting the Egyptian government in the relocation of another temple years prior.
Her Secret Return to the White House
Of course, though, that void in Mrs. Kennedy's heart would never be filled. And just 8 years after her husband's tragic passing, she picked up a pen and paper as she turned to someone for some much-needed comfort: First Lady Pat Nixon. "As you know, the thought of returning to the White House is difficult for me," Jackie O began...
"Perhaps any day… at your convenience, could the children and I slip in unobtrusively to Washington and come to pay our respects to you and to see the pictures privately?" Sure enough, on a late day in January 1971, Jackie O and her children made their way back to Washington for a bittersweet trip down memory lane.
She Got a Restraining Order Against…
Jackie O's return to Pennsylvania Ave. was one of utter secrecy. Unfortunately, where she lacked in media coverage that fateful day was certainly made up for elsewhere. Much to her dismay, her every move was continuing to be documented by paparazzi - more specifically, one man in particular: Ron Galella.
From strolls on the streets to trips to Central Park, Jackie O was under constant watch. And once her children became involved? She had enough. On a summer day in 1972, the former First Lady took Ronald E. Galella to court for harassment. He was eventually ordered to keep 25 feet away, setting the standards for stars that followed.
She Helped Save the Grand Central Terminal
From her famous wardrobe to her fight against paparazzi, Jackie O's impact was undeniable. But how about the time she saved one of America's most famed landmarks from destruction? In 1975, a developer had grand plans to knock down Grand Central Station, instead, swapping it for a skyscraper. That was, until Mrs. Kennedy caught wind.
"If we don't care about our past, we can't have very much hope for our future," the former First Lady protested, garnering an army of troops to protect the historic terminal. Sure enough, after joining the fight with the Municipal Art Society, the famed railway station was saved - and still stands in all its glory to this very day.
She Resumed a Full-Time Job at 46
1975 marked a year of many changes for our former First Lady - highs, lows, and lots of "firsts." "What has been sad for many women of my generation is that they weren't supposed to work if they had families," she explained at the time. Sure enough, after the passing of her 2nd husband, Aristotle Onassis, she decided to change that.
"You have to do something you enjoy. That is the definition of happiness: complete use of one's faculties along the lines leading to excellence," she gushed. And so, roughly 20 years after her last paying job, a mere $42.50/week journalist position, 46-year-old Jackie O headed back to the desk to work as a book editor.
Her Business Deal With Michael Jackson
Mrs. Kennedy's time lobbying had gone unmatched. But how about when Washington met Hollywood? Back in 1984, the former First Lady made history after securing a coveted book deal with one of the world's most famous faces: Michael Jackson. "She was the only person... who could get him on the phone," biographer Stephen Davis recalled.
Sure enough, the idea of a former First Lady and global pop-star collaborating was intriguing enough to put their project on the map. And in 1988, as Moonwalk hit stands, the autobiography took the world by storm. It sold out instantly, landing a spot among both the New York Times Best Sellers list and history books.
She Was a Chain Smoker
Almost as intriguing as Jackie Kennedy and Michael Jackson in a room together? The former First Lady's smoking habits. Believe it or not, the poised political figure was actually a chain smoker. So much so, that she allegedly went through 3 packs a day - a habit that lasted over 40 years.
Of course, though, we wouldn't know any better. In fact, the graceful star made sure to keep her Salem addiction under wraps. Not only were pictures of Jackie O with a cigarette in tow very rare, but it was also never referred to in print. Later in life, though, she became increasingly less concerned of keeping it secret.
Her Net Worth
As the years continued to pass, Mrs. Kennedy's success only continued to grow. At age 46, she'd gone from widowed housewife to working book editor - a feat that went far beyond the $200/week she negotiated. The graceful socialite came to prove that there was no dream too big.
And sure enough, it was that very same belief that put millions in her bank account. From managing 6 global properties to inheriting $26 million upon Onassis' death, Jackie O came to be one of America's wealthiest women. According to Celebrity Net Worth, the former First Lady secured $150 million by the end of her life.
Her Final Moments
On May 19, 1994, the American people lost an icon as their former First Lady took her final breaths. After a months-long battle with Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis had passed away at 64-years-old. But in the wise words of CBS, "just as Jackie taught us how to live, she taught us how to die."
"Jackie choreographed her own husband's funeral so beautifully. When it came time... she began choreographing her own," one biographer noted. From the candles to the music, her final moments were almost surreal. "An otherworldly recording of monks singing, intermingled with sounds of uproarious laughter," musician Carly Simon recalled.
The Legacy Continues...
Just four days later, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was put to rest as she joined her late husband at Arlington National Cemetery. But fast forward almost 30 years, and Mrs. Kennedy's legacy is bound to live on forever. In fact, her presence in the White House has been felt to this very day.
"We stand here in one of the many legacies that she has given, to this house and to our country," then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton reflected at the time. "She will always be more than a great First Lady - she was a great woman and a great friend."