Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy Onassis (1929- 1994):
“There are two kinds of women, those who want power in the world and those who want power in bed.“
Except for that one brief moment with Pat Nixon, the former Melania Knav has the only First Lady vulva I have ever seen. In summer 2020, that charming third wife of the mango-hued, twice impeached, traitorous, sexually-assaulting 45th president provided as her cultural contribution to the country: a redo of the White House Rose Garden.
The White House Rose Garden borders the Oval Office and the West Wing. The garden is 125 feet long and 60 feet wide. This garden was established in 1913 by Ellen Wilson, wife of Woodrow Wilson, on the site of a colonial garden established by First Lady Edith Roosevelt (wife of Theodore Roosevelt) in 1902. Before that, the area contained stables, housing horses and coaches.
In 1961, during the John F. Kennedy administration, the garden was largely redesigned by horticulturalist, gardener, philanthropist, art collector Bunny Mellon. She created a space with a more defined central lawn, bordered by flower beds that were planted in a French style but using American plants. The garden that the Slovenian minx wanted to fool around with has the same layout designed by Mellon, where each flower bed is planted with a series of crabapples and lindens bordered by diamond-shaped hedges of thyme. The outer edges to the beds that face the central lawn are edged with boxwood, and each of the four corners to the garden have Magnolias; specifically, obtaining specimens that were found growing along the banks of the Tidal Basin by Mellon. Ever since then, roses have been the focus in the garden.
It is not unprecedented that a First Lady would take on redecorating the White House or planting a garden. Even before she moved into the White House, Kennedy wasn’t impressed by the place. She felt it “looked like it’s been furnished by discount stores,” and she wasn’t having it with garden features like water fountains on the walls. Her look repeated her predecessor Mamie Eisenhower‘s love of pink; and this was pre-Barbie.
Beautiful, gracious Michelle Obama has my vote for Best First Spouse ever. But, Kennedy-Onassis comes close. In 2009, showing her White House vegetable garden for the first time, Obama told reporters:
“I am hopeful that future first families will cherish this garden like we have.“
After the White Nationalists took power in January 2017, the right-wingers gleefully anticipated the new bloated blob of a president would get busy erasing everything “Obama” from the White House. Two days after the election, the always charming Ann Coulter wrote:
“I respectfully suggest a new name for Michelle’s White House vegetable garden: ‘Putting green’.”
Most First Ladies have brought real class to the White House. Certainly our current First Lady, the first to work fulltime outside the White House, brings class to make up from her predecessor’s crass. Kennedy-Onassis lived during an era when I was always aware of her celebrated enigmatic personality. During my long lifetime, she was always a subject of some magazine article or news feature. From the time that she was the beautiful young bride of a handsome young U.S. Senator, to chic First Lady, to anguished widow, to bikini clad wife of a Greek shipping tycoon, to New York City career woman, her life was always being scrutinized by the press.
Poor Kennedy-Onassis, the men in her life were such scoundrels; her Wall Street broker father, John Vernou “Black Jack” Bouvier III was too drunk to walk her down the aisle on her wedding day; John Fitzgerald Kennedy enjoyed a bevy of breathless bimbos that are still being talked about decades later; Aristotle Socrates Onassis had his yacht’s bar stools covered in the skin of whale testicles to impress her, but he made her sign a prenuptial contract. None of them broke her spirit.
Kennedy-Onassis was not the sort of woman to fall apart from bad news or bad press. She always had kept it together. She learned how to negotiate the requirements of marriage. She used her formidable gifts when dealing with the men in her life and the public’s perception of those relationships.
Kennedy-Onassis was elegant, educated, smart, and sophisticated. She also held real power because of her connections to powerful men. She was flawed, of course, and she could be a snob (I can be a bit of a snob, so I have an affinity for her).
After audio tapes of her 1964 conversations with historian and friend Arthur Schlesinger Jr. were released in 2011, and hearing her voice again, I still found her to be vague and veiled.
Whoever she really was, Kennedy-Onassis remains a Gay Icon and a Style Icon, a revered First Lady, and she holds a special place in the history of the USA. She wouldn’t care if you liked her or not. But, if you don’t think much of her, you would be in the minority; she remains one of the most admired women of all time.
She lost a baby, a husband, and a brother-in-law in the span of a half decade, yet, somehow, she found a way to live the life so many people seek, a life of privilege, glamour, and a lots and lots of money.
Her husband’s brains were blown out all over her pink Chanel suit, but she remained strong for the entire nation, all of that when she was just 34 years old. Can you imagine? She had balls and brains.
Watching videos to prepare this column, I felt her whispery voice was something that she would put on and use to her advantage. Like her nemesis, Marilyn Monroe, she invented that voice and her mystique. She rarely did interviews. She seemed unreachable and untouchable to the public. This made her even more fascinating. She kept it going her entire life, never allowing photographs of her smoking cigarettes or any recordings of her swearing, both which she did often.
In the 1960s, her pal, designer Oleg Cassini, provided her with those clean suits, with skirt hems down to middle of the knee, 3/4 sleeves on notch-collared jackets, sleeveless A-line dresses, above-the-elbow gloves, low-heel pumps, plus the famous pillbox hats atop that bouffant hair that became known as the “Jackie Look”.
In the 1970s, she moved to wide-leg pantsuits, large lapel jackets, bohemian skirts, silk Hermès scarves, and large, round, dark sunglasses. She even wore jeans in public. Okay, they were white jeans with a wide belt paired with an untucked black turtleneck pulled down over her hips. That was how she was dressed the one time I caught a glimpse of her at St. Ignatius Loyola Church at East 84th and Park Avenue where I sometimes went to mass in the mid-1970s. She once quipped:
“Sex is a bad thing because it rumples the clothes.“
A true Gay Icon’s qualities include glamour, flamboyance, and strength through adversity. Gay Icons are often tragic or martyred figures, or prominent pop culture people. Kennedy-Onassis was all that. But, she was also a woman of her own era. Who knows how she would have felt about the changes in the lives of LGBTQ citizens or if she would have been all in on Marriage Equality. I like to think so; she certainly knew plenty of gay people. After all, she was a very close friend (and cousin) of gay writer Gore Vidal, and she hung out with Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote. Yet, she still shut down her son John F. Kennedy Jr.’s fledgling acting career, his one true passion, because she feared that he would “become a fruit”. I am certain she would have not been happy if JFK Jr. had married me as I had once planned. She wrote:
“I want minimum information given with maximum politeness.“
She described those short White House years as the happiest time of her life. During that controversial era when she took on the remodel of the Presidential residence, her best friend was White House Chief Usher J.B. West, a gay man who she adored. She called him: “The Miracle Maker of the White House”. They enjoyed cigarette breaks together, and they loved gossip and gifts. West writes in his memoir, Upstairs At The White House: My Life With The First Ladies (1973), that she gave him a vermeil cigarette case inscribed: “With deep appreciation for Jan. 20, 1961 – Nov. 22, 1963“.
In January 1994, Kennedy-Onassis was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, the same cancer that I would spend two year doing battle a decade ago. I’m still here, but she only made it to May 1994, two months short of her 64th birthday.