Ask Not What Your Husband Can Do For You, But What You Can Cover Up For Your Husband

by Lauren Nilles

Nearly 50 years after the end of their reign, John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy have resurfaced thanks to Shannon Perich  of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History who released a collection of seldom seen photographs of the first family in her book, The Kennedys: Portrait of a Family.  Photographer Richard Avedon donated these pictures to the Smithsonian soon after their development in 1961, but they remained mostly unseen until this book’s release in 2007 (Perich).

Both John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline Kennedy came from prestigious families that were in the spotlight long before President Kennedy’s 1960 election. According to Glenys Roberts, in the article “Intimate Pictures Hidden for 40 Years Capture the Innocence of the Kennedy Era”: “Kennedy’s father, a former ambassador to Britain, had groomed his son like a prince while Jackie’s family lavished money on her education and appearance.” Kennedy eventually became the youngest president elected to office, taking over a crisis-plagued White House with fresh ideas and youthful optimism. This Kennedy charisma carried over from the political scene into the social realm of the early1960s, making the couple icons of United States government and high-society.  Roberts writes: “Kennedy exuded masculine confidence” while Jackie, with “her unique sense of style and immaculate couture clothes soon” received a Hollywood-type following. This duality in the realms of political and social life earned the Kennedy family a spot in the headlines of news-based media outlets and tabloid magazines alike. For the first time, society looked upon a central political figure as both a decision maker and a celebrity.

Their striking good looks, celebrity status, and glamorous lifestyle led Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy to dominate nearly every aspect of American life in the elegant era Jacqueline Kennedy later deemed “Camelot.” The inspiration for the administration’s nickname came from a lyric of President Kennedy’s favorite musical, Camelot: “Don’t let it be forgot, once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot” (Smith). Only a few weeks before the American Camelot era officially began, Harper’s Bazaar commissioned photographer Richard Avedon to shoot a lifestyle piece about the soon-to-be first family. “Richard Avedon arrived at the Kennedy home in Palm Beach, Fla,” writes Shannon Perich. “There he set up his famous white paper background, loaded his Rollieflex cameras with 2 1/4 –inch film, pulled up the piano bench and began to photograph the president-elect, John F. Kennedy, and his young family.” Along with being the subject of Avedon’s photo shoot, President-elect Kennedy juggled many other responsibilities at the January 1961 shoot. As Perich puts it, “the photographs are focused an intense, but the environment must have been swirling outside of the frame.” Kennedy was in the process of working with secretaries on his inaugural address, fulfilling his diplomatic duty by speaking with administrative members about the pending Cuban Missile Crisis, handling several other media obligations, and doing his best to be a good patriarch for family who was equally as busy (Perich).  The photographs taken that day, only a few weeks before the inauguration, captured still images of a family that rarely stopped moving.

The pictures used in the Harper’s Bazaar issue went along with an upbeat lifestyle piece celebrating the new first family. The publication published only 17 photographs out of the hundreds that were taken that day. Avedon donated the rejected prints to the Smithsonian. Only recently revealed, these photographs tell a very different story than those chosen for publication (Roberts). They might even tell the story of the actual, imperfect side of the first family, and challenge the perceptions of the Kennedys as a powerful, happy couple as shown in Bazaar’s post-inauguration issue.

At the beginning of the Kennedy administration, both political and tabloid media sources celebrated the first family. However, during the latter part of his time in office President Kennedy became the center of scandal. Several sources began reporting that Kennedy was having affairs with several women ranging from young White House interns to Marilyn Monroe according to allegations from a sensational article by Liz Thomas, “Explosive Jackie O Tapes reveal How She Believed Lyndon B Johnson Killed JFK and Had Affair with Movie Star.” The country became fascinated by these allegations and the media fed their interest by continuing to run sensationalist stories about the country’s leader. While these allegations shocked the country, it is highly possible that President Kennedy’s unfaithfulness came as no surprise to the First Lady, and also possible that Mrs. Kennedy knew exactly what she was signing up for when she married President Kennedy: she would pose as his wife in the spotlight, reap the benefits of being the First Lady, and cover up her husband’s infidelity.

A particular series of the rejected Avedon photographs tells this story. The prints are labeled 135-140, 142-143, with 141 missing from the count. Throughout the recently released prints, Jacqueline Kennedy is physically affectionate towards her husband. Mrs. Kennedy appears interested in the man next to her, constantly clutching his arm and gazing towards him in half the photographs. In contrast, President Kennedy looks at his wife only once and when he does so he leans away, creating a distance between the two. The president’s coldness is seen throughout the photographs as he avoids returning his wife’s touch and sits with his arms crossed and shoulders raised. The tension his posture shows is understandable, as Kennedy dealt with a diplomatic crisis during this photo shoot. However, if there were ever a time or place to put on a happy face, it would be in posing for a picture. To give the president credit, he does appear happy in a different series of photos taken that day—without his wife.

The same day Avedon took photos 135-140 and 142-143, Avedon had President Kennedy pose with his young daughter Caroline. Throughout this father/daughter series, Kennedy seems comfortable and happy. He is holding Caroline, looking at her, and smiling at her when she tries to hide her face from the camera. It is well known that JFK adored his first-born child, and this shows through his body language in these photographs. President Kennedy seems to be a more relaxed and pleasant man in the photos with his daughter than in those with his wife.

It is worth noting that the president does flash one genuine smile in the photographs with Jacqueline Kennedy. Interestingly enough, it is in the same frame that his wife sports a blank, uncomfortable look. It will never be known what comment was made or activity occurred behind the camera to elicit such a response from her husband, but whatever it was, Mrs. Kennedy did not have the same reaction. Neither the facial expressions nor the postures of the couple match in any frame, indicating that the couple just did not harmonize. Perhaps these previously hidden photographs are representative of the Kennedy’s function outside of the public eye.

In these telling photos, Jacqueline Kennedy is attached to the president’s arm as if she is an extension of him. Without her husband’s title of president, Jacqueline Kennedy would be just another wealthy housewife of the 1960s. Her association to her husband gave Mrs. Kennedy a certain level of prestige that any woman would be a fool to give up, even if it meant putting on a happy face in the midst of marital trouble. Many assumed that the First Lady was well aware of her husband’s infidelity. In fact, according to Thomas, years after the death of Jacqueline Kennedy, daughter Caroline Kennedy released tapes of her mother confirming President Kennedy’s rumored affairs. These confessions explained that Mrs. Kennedy knew of her husband’s womanizing in the years leading up to and throughout the presidency, even going so far as to suggest that “Mr. Kennedy was having an affair with a 19-year-old White House intern, with his wife … claiming that she found knickers in their bedroom” (Thomas). Thomas also writes that, in these tapes, Mrs. Kennedy admits to participating in adulterous behavior as a sort of retaliation for her husband’s behavior. Nevertheless, during the presidency, the First Lady maintained a calm public persona and carried on as if she was blind to the evidence that her husband had relations with other women. To maintain her status, Jacqueline Kennedy may have latched onto her husband and put up a cheery front—similar to the face she put on in Avedon’s photographs.

In the Avedon photographs Jacqueline Kennedy appears to be in love with the president, without anyone else but him on her mind. Perhaps this pre-administration photo shoot served as great practice for what the future First Lady would be doing for the next 2 years and 10 months that her husband was in office. Jacqueline Kennedy succeeded in her role of putting up fronts in order to preserve the perception of her family as healthy and fortunate, despite the numerous inner-family conflicts. The benefits of being wealthy, prestigious, and admired may have motivated Jacqueline Kennedy to put on a happy face in the midst of strife in the not so magical world of “Camelot.”


Works Cited

Avedon, Richard. 1961. Photograph. Smithsonian Museum of
       American History, n.p.

Perich, Shannon. “Today In History: Richard Avedon Photographs
       The Kennedys.” NPR. NPR, 3 Jan. 2011. Web.

Roberts, Glenys. “Intimate Pictures Hidden for 40 Years
        Capture the Innocence of the Kennedy Era” Mail Online. Associated
       Newspapers Ltd, 20 Nov. 2007. Web.

Smith, Sally Bedell. Grace and Power: The Private World of the
       Kennedy White House. New York: Random House, 2004. Print.

Thomas, Liz. “Explosive Jackie O Tapes ‘reveal How She Believed
       Lyndon B Johnson Killed JFK and Had Affair with Movie Star'”
       Daily Mail. Associated Newspapers Ltd, 8 Aug. 2011. Web