Jackie Kennedy

Artwork by Susie Steinfield

Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy once said, “Once you can express yourself, you can tell the world what you want from it.” The first lady, better known by her nicknames “Jackie O,” or simply “Jackie,” lived her life to express herself, which she did through her clothing style, interior decorating flare and her interest in literature, music and the arts.

Bouvier Kennedy, was one of the most unique, intelligent and iconic first ladies that the U.S. has ever seen. Even decades after her death on May 9, 1994, Bouvier Kennedy’s legacy lives on.

According to historian at the National First Ladies’ Museum Carl Sferrazza Anthony, Bouvier Kennedy’s style and creative voice came from a troubled childhood. Her parents did not embrace the young, scholarly woman’s interests in literature and creativity, focusing more on her appearances. Anthony said her father treated her as a woman confidante.

“Both parents scrutinized Jackie’s every word and deed; like many parents, they were motivated by a desire to help her ‘improve’ to become their own idea of a ‘perfect’ young woman, but their blunt assessments and analysis of her left the young woman feeling extremely self-conscious,” Anthony said in email.

Bouvier Kennedy dreamed of being a writer and used her craft as an escape from outside pressures.

“From an early age, Jackie Kennedy found her only safe place was her imagination and that the characters of novels or figures of history were the people she could feign a sense of intimacy and friendship with in her mind,” Anthony said. “In an era when depression and anxiety were considered embarrassing signs of a potentially larger mental illness and seeking professional help to resolve it was avoided as a social taboo, it was through her writing of poetry and short stories that Jackie Bouvier transferred much of her emotional pain.”

A large part of Bouvier Kennedy’s legacy and personality was her relationship with fashion, according to Brookline resident Shaari Mittel, who has vivid memories of the first lady.

“She was a trendsetter. I am not a fashionista, but she set the style of the pillbox hat,” Mittel said. “It became quite the ‘in’ thing. Those were the days when women wore hats. She did set a style; she was a very fashionable lady. She was rather conservative and not flamboyant at all. I found her delightful.”

Many noted current first lady Melania Trump’s sophisticated powder blue dress and jacket that she wore to the 45th presidential inauguration, which was similar to the outfit Bouvier Kennedy wore to her own husband’s inauguration.

Another Brookline resident with clear memories of Bouvier Kennedy, Rita McNally, saw the first lady as a figure of beauty and grace.

“It was like there was a light above her. It could have been the style of clothes, which were simple: A-line dresses, hats, shoes, stockings. She had an elegance about her; you were drawn to her,” McNally said. “She stood out even when she was not standing out. You could look into a group of women, and you could always pick out her.”

McNally also recalls Bouvier Kennedy as being a rather reserved and quietly respectful first lady.

“She did not have the same kind of warmth around people that John F. Kennedy did. She hung back a little, as though not expecting people to accept her at first, but people were very drawn to her because of her beauty,” McNally said. “Also her diction; she spoke very softly and very precise, carefully thinking of the words she would pick. She would always hold her hands down in front of her, crossed, sort of waiting to be told what to do. But she was very lovely when she talked to people. She would ask about their health and their families. She was a real asset to her husband.”

According to Anthony, Bouvier Kennedy kept her position as first lady professional and took her job seriously.

“She gave consideration to where she was going, who she would be with, the nature and even the mood of the event or incident, even if it was a mundane task,” Anthony said.

Because Bouvier Kennedy made the decision to be a more“traditional” woman, according to Anthony, many have questioned whether or not her actions have classified her as a feminist.

“Of her time, I believe that Jackie was a feminist. I think she was a role model,” Mittel said. “She was a very intelligent woman, with her own style, following the beat of her own drummer, but all the while, she was loving towards her husband and did all the protocol things that she had to follow. But yes, I think she set the style for women at the time.”

It was not until Bouvier Kennedy became a separate entity from her husband that she embraced women’s rights. According to Anthony, in the 1970s, she seemed to lack interest in the women’s movement. But, after being widowed twice and going back to work, her true views became prevalent.

“Her resentment at gender inequality often emerged with witty but sarcastic observations,” Anthony said. “She supported the Equal Rights Amendment and the Supreme Court decision of Roe vs. Wade, which gave women the right to choose on abortion. She showed her support by contributing to fundraisers on feminist issues but otherwise became a symbol of feminism in the last period of her life by conducting herself as an independent woman.”

According to McNally, Bouvier Kennedy left a lasting and inspiring example for future women and served as a source of American pride.

“You could not bend her. She had a standard of life, and she lived by those standards, and you could tell that. She had a gentleness about her speech that you knew that you could not push her or intimidate her,” McNally said. “The whole world seemed impressed by her and by John F. Kennedy. Her, because of her style, quiet dignity, but this absolute monarchical kind of charm. The two of them together made me feel so proud to be an American.”