The Despair of Jackie Kennedy

With Oscar buzz swarming around Natalie Portman's performance in 'Jackie,' we explore the real accounts of the First Lady's private unraveling over President JFK's assassination.
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With Oscar buzz swarming around Natalie Portman's performance in 'Jackie,' we explore the real accounts of the First Lady's private unraveling over President JFK's assassination.
Jackie Kennedy JFK Funeral Photo

Robert Kennedy and Edward Kennedy with their sister-in-law Jacqueline Kennedy during the funeral of President John F Kennedy on November 25, 1963 in Washington DC, United States.

Jackie Kennedy was more than a fashion and cultural icon who ushered in the Camelot mythology into the American consciousness. Her moment in presidential history amid the most tragic and public of circumstances, coupled with her elusive quality made her one of the most captivating women of the 20th century.

In Pablo Larrain's Jackie, a piercing psychological portrait of the First Lady upon the aftermath of JFK's assassination, actress Natalie Portman depicts the intense suffering of a private woman who was forced to perform her public duty to a nation in mourning.

Despite being lauded as a national symbol of resilience in the face of tragedy, Jackie, in reality, was coming undone, drinking heavily and suffering from reoccurring nightmares. Although there was no name for it at the time, she had all the hallmarks of post traumatic stress disorder.

Here are some revelations about the First Lady shortly after her husband's assassination.

Jackie offered both gory reality and patriotic pageantry amid the president's death. Hours after her husband was assassinated, many advisers urged Jackie to wipe the blood stains off of her face and legs, as well as her famous Chanel suit. But she refused. “I want them to see what they’ve done,” she said.

But President Kennedy's funeral arrangements were a different matter. Carefully staging every aspect of the event, Jackie modeled JFK's funeral procession after that of President Lincoln's, understanding how its visual impact would elevate her husband's stature and effect the nation's collective mourning.

Jackie wanted her family buried together. She transferred the remains of her two deceased infants from Holyhood Cemetery in Brookline, Massachusetts to Arlington Cemetery to be laid to rest with the president.

Jackie couldn't stop obsessing over how she could have prevented JFK's assassination. She would run the scenarios over and over again in her head — if only she recognized the sound of the first gun shot, if only she pulled him down into the car, if only she kept his brains intact. Her survivor's guilt would continually haunt her.

In reality Jackie resented the public's expectations of her to act as a surrogate to their grief. She rejected the praise she received for being so emotionally composed at President Kennedy's funeral. “I don’t like to hear people say that I am poised and maintaining a good appearance,” she resentfully told a bishop. "I am not a movie actress."

It was too painful for Jackie to see images of her husband's face. Upon receiving two portraits of JFK from a friend, she placed them outside her bedroom door with plans on returning them. One evening, young John spotted one of the portraits and gave it a kiss, saying “Good night, Daddy.”

Jackie was angry with God and contemplated suicide many times. She wrote Irish priest Joseph Leonard, confessing her bitterness towards God for such a senseless death. Obsessed with suicidal thoughts, she asked another priest, Father Richard McSorley, "if God would separate her from her husband if she killed herself."

In yet another instance, Jackie told Father McSorley that "death is great," and that she "was glad that Marilyn Monroe got out of her misery,” alluding to the actress' suicide. “If God is going to make such a to-do about judging people because they take their own lives, then someone ought to punish Him.”

Jackie would not publicly admit to Jack's failures as a husband. In a seven-part recorded interview with historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., she would often whisper and pause when discussing the details of her marriage, knowing full well that Schlesinger knew of the president's philandering. In one instance she accidentally refers to a “civilized side of Jack” and “sort of a crude side.” But she quickly adjusts her statement: “Not that Jack had the crude side.”

In a Life interview shortly after her husband's death, Jackie revealed she found no comfort in collective mourning. “Most people think having the world share in your grief lessens your burden. It magnifies it . . .When this is over, I am going to crawl into the deepest retirement there is.”