When Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy moved into the White House with her husband, she was only 31 years old – which made her the youngest first lady of the twentieth century.
Jackie, coming from an elitist New York family background, had received an excellent education both in the United States and in Paris. She had worked as a journalist in Washington D.C. before getting married. She enjoyed history, poetry, painting, and horseback riding – passions that would not only shape her time in the White House, but help to reshape the White House itself.
President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Attend Arrival Ceremonies for President of Honduras, Dr. Ramón Villeda Morales. 30 November 1962. Robert Knudsen. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.
After meeting her future husband John F. Kennedy in 1951, Jackie devoted much of her time to supporting him in his political career. She later remembered that ”everyone thought I was a snob from Newport, who had bouffant hair and had French clothes and hated politics.“ The press, initially critical of her extravagant habits and lack of political interest, certainly did not prevent her from joining Jack’s mother Rose and his sisters in actively supporting his election campaign for the Senate and later for the presidency. She attended political rallies and used her ability to speak different languages to address ethnic Americans in their native language, which secured important votes in JFK’s elections.
In the September 1961 issue of LIFE, Jackie announced her plans to bring back history and taste to the White House – and America: "All these people come to see the White House and they see practically nothing that dates back before 1948.“ Together with a committee of selected experts in the field of arts, the building was restored with significant furniture and antiques. Her successful work was brought to the American people through a televised tour of the renovated rooms in February 1962 and the production of a guide book which also helped finance the project.
First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy attends the opening of the Mona Lisa exhibit at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. with French Ambassador to the United States, Hervé Alphand. 8 January 1963. Abbie Rowe. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.
Together with her husband, Jackie fostered progress in the American arts in many more ways, hoping to thereby induce more appreciation for its role in American culture. She was part of the advisory board of the American Symphony Orchestra and supported the creation of the National Cultural Center, later named the Kennedy Center in honor of her deceased husband. Famous scholars and artists performed at glamorous receptions and ballet performances that became part of the Kennedy White House entertainment. Even Catalan cellist Pablo Casals, who had refused to play in countries which recognized the regime of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, accepted an invitation to play in the White House.
Cellist Pablo Casals bows to First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy after performing at a White House dinner party in honor of Governor Marín of Puerto Rico. 13 November 1961. Robert Knudsen. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.
At her husband’s inauguration, Jackie wore a wool coat and a pillbox hat – a look that, together with her bouffant hairstyle, became known as the ”Jackie Look.“ American women started learning French and reading poetry, inspired by their pop icon, the First Lady. During travels and state visits, Jackie pleased the media and crowds by adapting her fashion to the country, thereby paying homage to each respective foreign culture. Her designer Oleg Cassini explained that ”for the First Lady’s official and semi-official tours, every country is a campaign.“ Apart from that, Jackie was able to mitigate critical state visits through her high cultural knowledge, as well as her wit and appeal. At the Vienna Summit in 1961, she charmed the Soviet leader, and JFK’s biggest rival at that time, Nikita Khrushchev by inquiring about the dogs which had been sent into space in the Soviet satellite Sputnik 2:
”Oh, and then I knew that one of those dogs that had puppies, one of those space dogs – I knew all the names of those dogs – Stralkin, Belka and Laika. So I said, ”I see one of your space dogs just had puppies. Why don’t you send me one?“ And he just sort of laughed. And by God, we were back in Washington about two months later, and two absolutely sweating, ashen-faced Russians come staggering into the Oval Room with the ambassador carrying this poor terrified puppy who’d obviously never been out of a laboratory, with needles in every vein. And Jack said to me – I had forgotten to tell him that – he said, ”How did this dog get here?“ And I said, ”Well, I’m afraid I asked Khrushchev for it in Vienna. I was just running out of things to say.“ And he said, ”You played right into his hands, reminding him of the space effort.“ But he laughed.“
India’s Prime Minister Nehru was impressed by Jackie too, when he met her on a state visit to the United States. This prompted him to invite the First Lady on a trip to India, one of her most popular journey, where Indian crowds welcomed her as the ”Queen of America.“ She helped to establish a stronger relationship between the U.S. and India, which was especially important in times of ideological competition with the Soviet Union. Her husband encouraged her to take trips on her own after he understood Jackie’s political value and witnessed her incredible reception abroad. He famously said at a press conference at the end of their state visit to France:
”Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, I do not think it altogether inappropriate to introduce myself to this audience. I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris – and I have enjoyed it.“
Jackie's trip to India. John Fitzgerald Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston/Cecil Stoughton, White House.
After her husband’s death, Jackie made sure that the period of glamour and elegance during JFK’s administration would be well remembered. She aggressively defended the popular Camelot myth, helped establish the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and put their children Caroline and John Jr. in contact with Kennedy’s friends and advisors so that they got a sense of pride in what their father had accomplished.
10. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and her children, Caroline Kennedy and John F. Kennedy, Jr., exit the U.S. Capitol Building where the late President John F. Kennedy lies in state. 24 November 1963. Abbie Rowe. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.