In early 1964, Jacqueline Kennedy opened up to historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. about life with John F. Kennedy, only months after his assassination. In a series of seven interviews, Mrs. Kennedy, known for her singular style, manners, and poise, offered up “tart commentary on former presidents, heads of state, her husband’s aides, powerful women, women reporters, even her mother-in-law,” according to The New York Times. With today’s release of Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy, we get to learn private details about the iconic couple’s life from a surprisingly candid, sharply opinionated Mrs. Kennedy in written and audio form. Historian Michael Beschloss pored over and annotated the 8.5 hours of interview, in addition to writing the book’s introduction. We asked Beschloss a few questions about the newly released recordings, which had been sealed for 47 years.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What surprised you most while studying the recordings for the first time?
I was surprised that she seemed to have so much influence on JFK’s attitudes toward the people who worked for him. For instance, she she says she disliked Secretary of State Dean Rusk and wished JFK would fire him. He told her he intended to do so in 1964. Others she admired, like Robert McNamara, the Defense Secretary, did extremely well in the Kennedy government. She may not have been the only reason, but what she privately told JFK didn’t hurt. There are many other instances of this in the book.
What do you think is the value of presenting Mrs. Kennedy’s recollections in the format of an oral history as opposed to another book based on the conversations?
Her voice has been virtually missing from the thousands of books written about the Kennedys in the past half-century. After all that’s been written about her, it’s illuminating to listen to her speak for herself without that kind of filter.
It’s remarkable how forthcoming Mrs. Kennedy seems to be in the recordings; was there conversation or debate about editing some of the potentially controversial sections?
She occasionally would stop the recorder and ask Schlesinger if she should discuss such-and-such. As he later recalled, he almost always told her, “Say everything — you control the tape.”