Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, Barbara Leaming

Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis: The Untold Story

Barbara Leaming

Category: Nonfiction: Biography; Politics & Washington, D.C.; Death & Grief

Synopsis: Leaming gives an account of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis’s life, focusing on her suffering from PTSD.

Date finished: 28 November 2014

Rating: ****

Even a couple weeks after finishing this book, I’m unsure what I think of it. I have no quibbles with the writing, but the voice was a little too distant, perhaps too analytical, and the information included, and especially, what was excluded, was a little surprising. I left the book with a very unsettled feeling, and I wonder if perhaps the author put the emphasis on the wrong syllable.

Leaming’s thesis seemed to be that Jacqueline Kennedy suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and that the assassination of President Kennedy was something she never recovered from. While this may in fact be true, the hypothesis definitely colors the book overall. It was a somber, dark, depressing picture of the First Lady.

Leaming covers all aspects of Jackie’s life from her privileged upbringing and coming out days, to her White House years, to her puzzling second marriage to Aristotle Onassis, to her career in book publishing. Only one chapter was devoted to the assassination that changed her life. Hardly any mention was made at all of Jackie as a mother. Likewise, Jackie’s feelings about JFK’s adultery were not discussed. It’s hard to believe their marriage had as little going for it as Leaming would have us believe.

I was struck by just how long it took for Jackie to process her grief at Jack’s passing—if, in fact, she ever did. It went on so long that the American public turned on her. With our troops suffering and dying in Vietnam, how could she still be carrying around the grief as if the assassination just happened, they demanded. And when she tried to prevent a book (written by an author she’d hand-picked) about JFK from being published, Americans lay into her unmercifully. Her pain wasn’t the only pain. She wasn’t that special.

I was also struck by Bobby Kennedy’s treatment of her from the moment she became a widow to the moment he died. Was his watchfulness protection or manipulation? Was it nothing more than convenient political posturing as he honed in on the presidency? Was she a beloved family member or a prop?

I came away from this in-depth study without a clear sense of who Jackie was—other than a shattered woman who held her dying husband in her lap in the backseat of a car in Dallas, 1963. Although I learned a great deal about various aspects of Jackie’s life, I don’t feel like this book gives a fully-fleshed portrait of her.

Would you recommend this to a friend?
Well, I think there might be more balanced books out there than this.

You might also enjoy:
Killing Kennedy
Mrs. Kennedy and Me


  1. The book does sound a bit incomplete. I've read other biographies of her where it seemed she was quite a cold woman who was able to pick up the pieces and move on pretty quickly. I guess we"ll never know, right? she seems to have been quite the enigma.

    1. You're right. I just can't get a handle on her. Everything I read differs greatly. I can imagine she'd set up some spectacular defense mechanisms to deal with Jack's cheating, being in the public eye, and being a Kennedy in general. I hope she wasn't the woman portrayed in this bio. I would hope she was not that broken.