Jacqueline Kennedy helped define the terms history uses about JFK The Mystique of Camelot


Washington -- On a rainy, tempestuous winter night, a week after cradling her slain husband in her lap in Dallas, Jacqueline Kennedy summoned a trusted journalist friend to her home in Hyannisport, "obsessed," to use her word, with the notion that her husband be remembered as a hero.

With the clarity and political canny of a master spin artist, the 34-year-old widow spoke to the writer, Theodore H. White, for four hours, urging him to tell the world -- via Life magazine -- that Kennedy was truly "a man of magic," that his presidency was truly special, that the era was, to use the words she borrowed from a recent Broadway musical, "one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot."

Yesterday, a year after Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' death from cancer at 64, the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston made public White's notes from that Nov. 29, 1963, interview in which the romantic Camelot myth -- one that would remain fixed in the public's mind despite ensuing revelations of chinks in the Kennedy armor -- was born.

The newly released papers include White's original handwritten notes from the interview and the typed manuscript of the essay -- with editing marks and additions by Mrs. Kennedy -- that appeared in the Dec. 6, 1963, issue of Life. The writer donated the papers to the Kennedy Library in 1969, stipulating that they remain closed until one year after Mrs. Onassis' death.

Called the "Camelot documents," they offer another small piece of the puzzle -- another glimpse into the mind and soul of a private woman who, even in death, has remained a source of endless fascination and mystery to so many.

"I'm not going to be the Widow Kennedy in public," Mrs. Kennedy told Mr. White in what he would later call "our sad conversation." "When this is over I'm going to crawl into the deepest retirement there is."

She said, according to White's notes, that the first thing she thought about on the night of her husband's death was, "Where will I go?" She wanted to go back to the Georgetown home she and Kennedy had lived in before he was elected president.

"But then I thought, how can I go back there to that bedroom? I said to myself, you must never forget Jack, but you mustn't be morbid."

A hand in history

Perhaps most important, the papers reveal the extent to which the sad, wan, yet tearless widow had a hand -- quite literally -- in shaping the extraordinary Kennedy legacy.

"She certainly wanted to take control of history," says presidential historian Stephen E. Ambrose, a critic of the rose-colored portrayals of the Kennedy years, "and in many ways she managed to do so."

Much of the substance of the Camelot interview appeared in the Life essay, "For President Kennedy: An Epilogue." The magazine held the presses that November night, at a cost of $30,000 an hour overtime, while White talked with Mrs. Kennedy. He finally dictated his story to editors from the telephone in the Kennedy kitchen at 2 a.m., with his interview subject hovering nearby.

White, who died in 1986, revealed many more details animpressions from the interview in his 1978 memoir, "In Search of History," in which he admits: "Quite inadvertently, I was her instrument in labeling the myth."

The young widow chose White because, as he would later writehe had been "friendly," a journalist who wrote sympathetically and admiringly of Kennedy, especially in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book documenting his presidential campaign, "The Making of the President, 1960."

She insisted he write the essay for Life, one of several magazines White wrote for, because it had chronicled the Kennedy magic before with layouts of the couple's 1953 wedding, the inauguration, the Kennedy children and even their pets. Reaching more than 7 million readers at the time, the magazine played a key role in creating images of public figures.

In the interview, the first of only a handful Mrs. Kennedy gave soon after her husband's death, she jumps back and forth between graphic, poignant descriptions of the assassination day and "Camelot," her theme for the Kennedy legacy -- all of her remarks laced with what seems like extraordinary devotion, admiration and love for her slain husband.

White's disjointed notes, that he would later type up and send to Mrs. Kennedy with "Love and reverential Kisses," include his impressions -- of her "composure, of her beauty (dressed in black trim slacks, beige pullover sweater, her eyes wider than pools) and of her calm voice and total recall."

She recalled, first of all, the hot day in Dallas, the sun in her face, riding in the motorcade when the fateful shot rang out. She thought it was motorcycle backfire until her husband slumped in her lap. "All the ride to the hospital I kept saying, 'Jack, Jack, can you hear me, I love you, Jack.' I kept holding the top of his head down trying to keep the brains in."

At the hospital, doctors and police tried to keep her out of the operating room, but she protested. "It's my husband, his blood, his brains are all over me."

Blood and roses

She told White, "It wasn't repulsive to me for one moment -- nothing was repulsive to me." And she recalled that, arriving in other parts of the state that day, she had been given the trademark yellow roses of Texas. "But in Dallas they gave me red roses. I thought how funny, red roses -- so the seat was full of blood and red roses."

A doctor gave her two of the red roses found under Kennedy's shirt. She later gave one back to him.

"But," she said to her journalist friend, turning to the topic that she said had transfixed her, "there's this one thing I wanted to say. I'm so ashamed of myself. Jack . . . everything he ever quoted was Greek or Roman . . . no, don't protect me now . . . one thought kept going though my mind -- the line from a musical comedy.

"I kept saying to Bobby, I've got to talk to somebody, I've got to see somebody. I want to say this one thing. It's been almost an obsession with me. This line from the musical comedy's been almost an obsession with me.

"At night before going to bed . . . we had an old Victrola. He'd play a couple of records. I'd get out of bed at night and play it for him when it was so cold getting out of bed. It was a song he loved. He loved 'Camelot.' It was the song he loved most at the end . . . 'don't let it be forgot that for one brief shining moment there was Camelot.' "

On the typed manuscript for the essay, which White composed in 45 minutes in a servant's room after the lengthy interview, Mrs. Kennedy scribbled in an additional line after the "Camelot" quote: "and it will never be that way again!"

At the end of the essay, she penciled in the sentiment again: "And all she could think of was tell people there will never be that Camelot again."

Most of her discussion of "Camelot" appeared in the Life article, with the famous line from the song quoted more accurately and her point that "it will never be that way again" repeated twice.

Remarkable today, but perhaps not so 32 years ago, is the extent to which White allowed himself to be used as a vehicle for historical interpretation.

Mrs. Kennedy not only read over the manuscript and penciled in changes, but when editors suggested to White that he had overplayed the "Camelot" theme, his "collaborator," overhearing the phone conversation, shook her head. And she prevailed.

White wrote in his memoir that Mrs. Kennedy wanted him to "rescue Jack from all these 'bitter people' who were going to write about him in history. She did not want Jack left to the


Worried about the press

The notes released yesterday show that Mrs. Kennedy was apprehensive about what Arthur Krock of the New York Times and Merriman Smith, who was United Press International's White House correspondent, might write about her husband.

Historians say they can only speculate about why the grief-ridden widow -- whose marriage to Kennedy, a reputed womanizer, was far from ideal -- was so concerned, so "obsessed," about her husband's place in history.

"She was sensitive to history," says first lady historian Lewis Gould, a professor at the University of Texas. "She knew that the sooner you can shape the way history portrays someone, the more impact you have."

He theorizes that, "If the marriage and her experience had not been as fulfilling as she thought it would be, now she was in control of how the marriage, the experience and his presidency would be seen. And it would be seen her way from that time into the future."

Mr. Ambrose notes that Jackie's reputation was at stake along with her husband's.

What's more, he says, "One might be tempted to speculate that, since she knew so much about the sordid side, she was preparing the barricade before the assault began."

Intended or not, he adds, that, indeed, was the effect.

But Carl S. Anthony, author of the two-volume "First Ladies" and a new book on Mrs. Onassis, disputes the notion that the Kennedy widow was a cunning strategist trying to manipulate history or create a legend.

"It was certainly not a case of her saying, on the weekend after her husband was killed, 'Let me think of a mythical, allegorical reference that will forever label my husband's presidency,' " says Mr. Anthony. Instead, he sees her "Camelot" musings as "the ramblings of a distraught widow trying to compare her husband's presidency, in an artistic way, with something bright that the public would know from the pop culture of the time."

But the author does not dispute that the former first lady was greatly interested in history, legacies and perceptions. He said Mrs. Onassis "edited and contributed very discreetly" to his chapters on her in "First Ladies" in 1987, and "had some interesting notions on how she wanted to be perceived."

For one thing, she wanted her ideas or accomplishments -- such as enlisting Robert Frost to recite a poem at Mr. Kennedy's inauguration or inviting artists to the White House -- to be seen as her husband's achievements, Mr. Anthony says.

He and other historians say that Mrs. Kennedy never intended the Arthurian metaphor to grow to such legendary proportions, and came to believe, in later years, that it was overdone.

Mr. Gould, in fact, believes the lofty imagery "backfired" for the former first lady, setting absurdly high standards for an era whose reality could only pale by comparison.

Although the public has remained true to the majestic myth and mystique -- John F. Kennedy is still rated by the public as one of the great American presidents of all times -- no serious Kennedy scholar, says Mr. Gould, would today speak of the Kennedy presidency as "Camelot."

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