For those of us who came of age in the ‘60s, the realization that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis is human — and capable of gossip, pettiness, and insecurity — does little to change the impact she had on how we lived. Her style, her class, and her fortitude inspired all of us. They became calcified in our memories long before the 47-year-old tapes released this month had the chance to re-mold them.
The hats my mother wore to Sunday Mass, the camel double-breasted coats we wore every winter, the tartan plaid lunchboxes we carried to the school bus stop (when everybody else had Flintstones lunchboxes), were all influenced by Jackie’s understated style.
Moreover, her classy bearing was an inspiration even to those of us who were not raised in Newport, who grew up in working-class mill towns like mine. Whenever we struggled with the inevitable cruelties of the playground and schoolyard, whenever we faced slights that had us hanging on to dignity by our fingernails, my mom gently reminded us to do what Jackie would do.
Hold up your head. Sweep right past them. Say nothing. Be as regal as a queen, as impenetrable as a Sphinx.
I wonder how Jackie would have fared if she were a young First Lady today, married to an achingly attractive, charismatic president with a wandering eye. As years went by she had her struggles with paparazzo Ron Galella and author Kitty Kelly. But could Camelot and her regal image have survived Rupert Murdoch?
Would the New York Post have trained a long lens on Jackie as she sunbathed on Onassis’s yacht — looking for signs of cellulite, wrinkles, and frizz that can be circled in red on page one? Would a Murdoch minion have tapped her cell phone? Would her secrets, her self-doubts, her faux pas, her makeup-free days be fair game for the front cover of “In Touch” magazine? Just imagine the headlines that could have resulted if those taped conversations had been captured in real time.
I’d like to think that some public figures like Jackie are beyond the reach of meddlers who feel nobody is entitled to a private life. I’d like to think that her class, her contributions as First Lady, and her accomplishments would put her in a different category than the long list of public figures ruined by their private slips of the tongue and indiscretions. Today the pedestal of public admiration is as precarious as a stilt, and in a heartbeat can turn into a rail for a tarred-and-feathered fallen hero.
Something tells me that it’s a good thing that Jackie lived in an earlier, more respectful era, so that in our minds she can remain like the heroine of a silent movie: beautiful, brave, classy, perfect…and silent.
Catherine Buday is writer in Hopkinton. An earlier version of this article appeared on her blog, http://catherinebuday.wordpress.com/.
AFP photo: Jacqueline Kennedy in 1961.