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Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis -- With her quiet dignity, the former First Lady captured the attention of the world for a lifetime

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis was an avatar of elegance and good breeding. Television is a medium of the common. She was a lover of all that is fine, beautiful, quiet. Television promotes noise and clutter. She insisted on privacy. Television thrives on barging right in. Yet through the force of her mysteriously compelling personality, Jackie Onassis, who died at 64 of non- Hodgkin’s lymphoma on May 19, managed to tame television to respect her own dignified reserve.

In doing so, she taught the media a whole new vocabulary of good manners.

One of the last times we heard her speak, actually speak to the camera, was during the televised tour of the White House she gave in 1962 to show off the historic home she had redecorated. She had a cool bearing and a feathery, girlish voice, easy to imitate and parody. A best-selling comedy album, The First Family, had fun with her wispy sound. Nearly two years later, her husband the President was dead, assassinated, and his widow did not have to say a word into any microphone to speak the grief of a nation. Long stretches of time passed as cameras concentrated on the young mother and her two children. Commentators did not babble to fill the eloquent silence.

In the three decades that followed, Jackie the private citizen influenced popular culture in countless ways. Her fashions were imitated, her sunglasses were copied, her beautiful face and lithe figure were reproduced as paper dolls for little girls who knew nothing about Dallas, 1963. She edited books; she involved herself in architectural preservation. She was the subject of books and TV dramatizations. She was famous for the notes she wrote as an editor and for the letters she wrote as a friend.

But she never gave the One Big Interview to Barbara or Oprah or 60 Minutes or Ladies’ Home Journal. She never wrote the One Big Memoir, never gave the One Big Speech, never raised her breathy voice. It was her way of keeping the hubbub at bay. When camera lenses goggled too close, she demanded that they stay away. What a novel idea for a world-famous person, perhaps the most photographed woman in the world! Keeping quiet, doing one’s work, playing with one’s grandchildren, and not going on TV or appearing in print to advertise the importance of working or playing or any of those wholesome things that former First Ladies are encouraged to hawk in the name of influencing American culture!

In fact, Jackie did tape two extensive interviews, one soon after the assassination with Theodore H. White, who wrote The Making of the President, and one in 1967 with William Manchester, who wrote The Death of a President. But the White interview will not be made public until next year and the Manchester interview is sealed until 2067. She requested the dignity of silence even beyond her death. And at her burial, chattering TV commentators were moved to honor Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis with the ambient sound of grass blowing in a warm spring wind.