Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Jacqueline Kennedy's Japanese Wife Act

A prime-time TV special introduces new generations to “the most mysterious, fascinating--and feline--woman in American political history” through 47-year-old audiotapes made soon after JFK’s assassination.

For those possibly confused by abject adoration of her husband and bitchiness toward most other political figures of their time, some first-hand footnotes on the apparent contradictions.

In the tapes, Jacqueline Kennedy describes her marriage as “a rather terribly Victorian or Asiatic relationship,” and when Arthur Schlesinger suggests, “A Japanese wife,” she agrees. But it was more complicated than that.

When Mrs. Kennedy was about to become First Lady, she sounded more like a Stepford wife, telling a reporter I sent to interview her, "The most important thing for successful marriage is for a husband to do what he likes best and does well...If the wife is happy, full credit should be given to the husband because the marriage is her entire life."

When the reporter put away his notebook, Mrs. Kennedy looked him in the eye and said, "But I'm smarter than Jack, and don't you forget it."

This kind of ambivalence goes a long way toward explaining the Mona Lisa smile that eventually captivated a nation and the world.

It did not start that way. “I was always a liability to him until we got to the White House,” she tells Schlesinger. “And he never asked me to change or said anything about it. Everyone thought I was a snob from Newport, who had bouffant hair and had French clothes and hated politics...Sometimes I’d say, ‘Oh, Jack, I wish--you know I’m sorry for you that I’m just such a dud.’”

But half a century ago, before Feminist ideas had challenged the ideal of the happy housewife, Jacqueline Kennedy had not resolved for herself the contradictions between who she was and who she felt she needed to appear to be.

A year after the assassination, when I became editor of McCalls, then the world’s largest women’s magazine, I asked her to become an Editor at Large, to help keep alive the political, social and cultural ideas JFK had stood for, pointing out that Eleanor Roosevelt had been a columnist for the magazine for years.

“Oh, no,” she answered. “If I could do it through some man—-Robert Kennedy would be perfect, but that’s not possible...”

It took decades before Jacqueline Kennedy could see herself as more than a Japanese wife and become a book editor pursuing a career in her own right. The tapes are a reminder of how far she--and millions of other American women--had to go in the intervening years.

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