Sept. 14, 2011 — -- The Kennedy family continues to fascinate America, long after the death of President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy.
For the first time, people are getting the chance to hear Jacqueline Kennedy describe -- in her own words -- what life was like for her in the White House.
In 1964, just four months after her husband's assassination, she recorded a series of interviews with friend and longtime Kennedy aide Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.
The tapes were kept under seal by the Kennedy Library until this month. Audio and transcripts of the interviews are being released in book form today in "Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy," with a personal foreword by Kennedy's daughter, Caroline Kennedy, and annotations by historian Michael Beschloss.
The book includes the original audio tapes from these historic interviews, disclosing intimate moments of the Kennedy family at a time when fascination with them -- and with Jacqueline Kennedy, in particular -- was high.
It gives insight into some of the tensest moments in the nation's history. Mrs. Kennedy, in her distinctive voice, reveals how her husband reacted to the failed invasion at Cuba's Bay of Pigs.
"He came back over to the White House to his bedroom and he started to cry, just with me. You know, just for one -- just put his head in his hands and sort of wept," she said. "It was so sad, because all his first 100 days and all his dreams, and then this awful thing to happen. And he cared so much."
She also reveals her frank feelings about the newsmakers of the day, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Charles de Gaulle.
Read an excerpt from "Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy" below, then check out some other books in the "GMA" library
In 1964, as part of an oral history project on the life and career of John F. Kennedy, my mother sat down with Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., to share her memories and insights. Recorded less than four months after the death of her husband, they represent a gift to history and a labor of love on her part. In order to treat them with the appropriate respect, my children and I took very seriously the decision to publish them now, in connection with the fiftieth anniversary of my father's presidency. The moment seems right—enough time has passed so that they can be appreciated for their unique insight, yet the Kennedy presidency is still within living memory for many who will find her observations illuminating. I hope too that younger generations who are just learning about the 1960s will find these reminiscences a useful introduction to how history is made, and will be inspired to give back to this country that has given us all so much.
When I was growing up, my mother spent much of her time meeting behind closed doors with members of my father's administration, planning his gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery, making sure that the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts would reflect his commitment to our country's cultural heritage, executing his wishes for the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and the Institute of Politics, and making countless decisions on the disposition of my father's official papers, personal effects, mementos, and memorabilia. She was determined that the Kennedy Library would be a living memorial, a place where students would be inspired to pursue careers in public service, where scholars would have access to the historical record, and where families could learn about the ideals that animated my father's career and his vision for America. These meetings were somewhat mysterious, but my brother and I had a sense that nothing was more important than the "oral history" that we heard about from time to time.
My parents shared a love of history. To them, the past was not an academic concern, but a gathering of the most fascinating people you could ever hope to meet. My father's interests were political—I still have his books on the Civil War and English parliamentary history, as well as his annotated copy of The Federalist Papers. My mother thought there weren't enough women in American history to make it as interesting as reading novels and diaries from the courts of Europe. She read War and Peace during the Wisconsin primary, and maintained that reading the Memoirs of the Duc de Saint-Simon about life at Versailles was the most valuable preparation she received for life in the White House.
After my father's death, my mother resolved to do everything she could to make sure that the record of his administration was preserved. She had confidence that his decisions would stand the test of time and wanted future generations to learn what an extraordinary man he was. She helped set in motion one of the most extensive oral history projects ever conducted up to that time, in which more than one thousand people were interviewed about their life and work with John F. Kennedy. Although it was painful for my mother to relive the life since shattered, she knew it was important that she participate. She always told us that she chose to be interviewed by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., the Pulitzer Prize–winning historian, former Harvard professor, and special assistant to President Kennedy, because she was doing this for future generations, and that was why she put the tapes in a vault to be sealed for fifty years.
I first read transcripts of these conversations a few weeks after my mother's death in 1994 when the vault was opened and her lawyer gave me a copy. Everything about that time was overwhelming for me as I found myself faced with the same sorts of decisions about her possessions that she had made thirty years earlier. Knowing her wishes for the oral history made it easy—I knew I was reading something that wasn't supposed to be seen yet—and although I found it fascinating, I put it back in the vault to await its time.
A few years ago, my family began thinking about how to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of my father's presidency. We decided to concentrate our efforts on projects that would make his legacy accessible worldwide. Working with the staff of the John F. Kennedy Library and Foundation and generous private partners, my husband led the effort to create the largest existing digital archive of a presidency, as well as online curricula, downloadable exhibits, and a Web site—www.jfk50.org—intended to renew my father's call to service for today's generation.
The publication of these interviews is an important contribution to this commemorative effort, and one with its own story. When the director of the Kennedy Library first approached me with the idea, I asked him to search the archives to confirm my mother's wishes regarding the date of publication. Surprisingly, given the importance of the material, there was no deed of gift or transfer, nor a letter of intent regarding the date at which the interviews were to be opened. There was only a brief notation by a former government archivist that these interviews were "subject to the same restrictions as the Manchester interviews."By way of background, there are three significant interviews that my mother gave after my father's death. The first was to Theodore H. White in Hyannis Port on November 29, 1963, only a few days after my father's funeral. In that interview, my mother famously told White that she and my father used to listen to the record of the Broadway musical Camelot in the evening before they went to bed, and looking back, "that one brief shining moment" reminded her of his presidency. White's article was published a week later in Life magazine, but the notes of his interview were sealed until one year after my mother's death. They are now open to researchers at the Kennedy Library in Boston.
The second set of conversations was with William Manchester, who was writing a book called The Death of a President. During the sessions my mother said more about my father's assassination than she had intended. Subsequently, she became so upset at the thought of her personal memories becoming public that she sued the author and publisher to keep them out of the book. A settlement was reached, and although much of the content made its way into the public sphere, the notes of the interviews were sealed for 100 years—that is, until 2067.
By far the most important were these oral history conversations with Arthur Schlesinger 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. The archivist's notation regarding the date of publication was not consistent with my memory, nor did it seem to reflect my mother's wishes. I checked with former members of her staff in the White House and afterward, as well as other friends and attorneys. No one had a recollection that differed from mine, and they were enthusiastic about the idea of publication.
So I was faced with a dilemma that I have confronted numerous times in connection with my mother's personal papers and correspondence. On one hand, she was a famously private person who gave no on-the-record interviews (other than these three) about life in the White House, and requested in her will that my brother and I make every effort to prevent publication of her personal papers, letters, and writings.
However, she also saved every scrap of paper that came her way—every birthday card or telegram, every letter from her parents, every date book and diary, every draft letter or memo she ever wrote. She knew that living in the White House was an enormous privilege and she was proud of the part she had played. Early on, when she discovered that one of her secretaries was throwing out notes and internal correspondence that chronicled both daily life and the official workings of the mansion, she wrote a steaming rebuke—directing everyone on her staff to save even the smallest scribbles. Her deep immersion in memoirs of the past informed her belief that she had an obligation to preserve everything that happened during her time in the White House. In the years since her death, I have asked myself the question, When does someone no longer belong to you, but belong to history? Few people have been written about more than my mother, and I grew up feeling I needed to protect her—just as she had protected us. So at first I thought it best to leave these interviews sealed for another fifty years, rather than to expose her memory to one more round of gossip and speculation. But I also understand that the continuing interest in her life is a tribute to the immense admiration and goodwill she still commands, and I believe that open access to government is an important American value.
Over the years, I have received multiple requests to publish my mother's memos and correspondence. At times, it has been difficult to balance her wish for privacy against her public role and pay proper respect to both. Although I agonize over each request, I know that my mother trusted my judgment and felt that I understood her outlook on life. As the years pass, it has become less painful to share her with the world, and in fact, it is a privilege. As her child, it has sometimes been hard for me to reconcile that most people can identify my mother instantly, but they really don't know her at all. They may have a sense of her style and her dignified persona, but 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. Over time, I have tried to draw the line between her public and private life much as I think she did—I try to accommodate requests that pertain to my father's career, life in the White House, historic events and historic preservation, while denying permission for publication of her writings as a private citizen—whether as a young woman or a working editor.
These conversations are not in the same category as her personal writings, because they were recorded with the intention that they would be made accessible one day. So it was not a question of whether to publish but a question of when, and the decision was up to me. My experience with other requests informed my decision that the time was right.
In reaching this conclusion, I found it helpful to remember the context in which the interviews were conducted, and the timing of when they occurred. The goal was to create a record of my father's life and career from the memories of those who knew and worked with him. Accordingly, the questions follow a loosely chronological sequence beginning with my father's early political battles in Massachusetts, his 1956 fight for the vice-presidential nomination, the 1960 campaign, the transition to the presidency, the Inauguration, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, official and family life in the White House, and plans for the 1964 campaign and a second term. Along the way, there are discussions that reveal much about the central characters and events of the time in both domestic politics and international affairs.
The decision was complicated by my conviction that if my mother had reviewed the transcripts, I have no doubt she would have made revisions. She was a young widow in the extreme stages of grief. The interviews were conducted only four months after she had lost her husband, her home, and her sense of purpose. She had two young children to raise alone. It isn't surprising that there are some statements she would later have considered too personal, and others too harsh. There are things I am sure she would have added, and her views certainly evolved over time. I struggled with the question of whether to delete remarks that might be taken out of context. I was aware that my intentions might be misinterpreted, even if the edited version was a more "accurate" reflection of how she really felt. After much deliberation, I decided to maintain the integrity of the audio interviews as a primary source while editing the text slightly for readability, not content, as has been done with other presidential transcripts and oral history interviews.
My reservations were mitigated by the remarkable immediacy and the informality of the conversations. Knowing my mother so well, I can hear her voice in my mind when I read her words on a page. I can tell when she is emotional, when she is enjoying herself, or is getting annoyed—though she is unfailingly polite. Even though most of her answers are about my father, by listening to the audio, people will learn a great deal about the person that she was. Much is revealed by her tone, and by her pauses as well as by her statements. I trust that readers and listeners will place her views in context to build an accurate and composite portrait of a person and a moment in time, and that her devotion to her husband will come through to others as it does to me.
In addition to their passion for history, my parents shared a conviction that American civilization had come of age. Today this seems an unremarkable proposition, but at the time the United States was just emerging as a global power, and people still looked to Europe for direction and leadership. My parents believed America should lead with her ideals, not just with economic or military power, and they wanted to share our artistic and cultural achievements with the world. My mother played a critical role in the development of what is now called "soft diplomacy." She traveled with my father and on her own, often speaking the language of the countries she visited. She was an international sensation.
She also understood that the White House itself was a powerful symbol of our democracy, and wanted to make sure it projected the best of America to students and families who visited, as well as to foreign heads of state who were entertained there. She worked hard—not to "redecorate," a word she hated—but to "restore" the White House so that the legacy of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Abraham Lincoln would be visible. She recast the White House Library to showcase classic works of American history and literature. She established the Fine Arts Committee and White House Historical Association to assemble a permanent collection of American paintings and decorative arts that would become one of the nation's finest. She made the White House the world's greatest stage and invited the world's foremost artists to perform there. She welcomed young musicians, emerging African-American opera singers, jazz musicians, and modern dancers—all to awaken and expand appreciation for American arts and culture.
She felt strongly that as our capital city, Washington, D.C., should reflect America's newly prominent place in the world. She fought to preserve Lafayette Square, and launched the effort to rehabilitate Pennsylvania Avenue—an effort that has been sustained ever since. My mother understood that the past was a source of pride for people around the world, just as it is in America, and convinced my father that the United States could build goodwill among countries like Egypt, with which we had political differences, by assisting in their historic preservation efforts. Her persistence resulted in a generous U.S. contribution to the UNESCO rescue of the temples of Abu Simbel, which were threatened by the construction of the Aswan Dam, and favorably impressed the Nasser regime. In another example of cultural diplomacy, my mother was responsible for the Mona Lisa's visit to the United States, the only time the painting has ever left the Louvre.
Most important, she believed her responsibility was to help my father in every way she could. Although she became a diplomatic and even a political asset, she never thought she deserved the title "First Lady," which she disliked anyway, claiming it sounded like the name of a racehorse. But she was deeply patriotic and proud of what she accomplished, and my father was proud of her too. Their time in the White House was the happiest of her life.
Given the important role Jacqueline Kennedy played in the presidency of John F. Kennedy and its aftermath, it seemed a disservice to let her perspective remain absent from the public and scholarly debate that would accompany the fiftieth anniversary of the Kennedy administration. Fifty years seems a sufficient time for passions to have cooled, yet recent enough that the world described still has much to teach us. The sense of time passing was made more acute by the loss of my uncle Teddy and my aunt Eunice in 2009, by Ted Sorensen in 2010, and my uncle Sarge in January 2011.
But, before making the final decision, I asked my children to read the transcripts and tell me what they thought. Their reactions were not so different from my own. They found the conversations dated in many ways—but fascinating in many more. They loved the stories about their grandfather, and how insightful yet irreverent their grandmother was. They were puzzled by some of Arthur Schlesinger's questions—personal rivalries he pursued and particular issues that have not stood the test of time. They wished that he had asked more questions about her.
But they came away with the same conclusions that I had reached—there was no significant reason to put off publication and no one speaks better for my mother than she does herself.
—NEW YORK, 2011