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Exploring America’s ever-enduring fascination with Jack and Jackie Kennedy

I understand the romance about the Lancelot president and his Guinevere wife. But I know there are other reasons people continue to be so taken with the Kennedys.

Jack, lower right, and Jackie Kennedy, lower left, on their wedding day, surrounded by relatives.
Public domain photo by Toni Frissell

Half a century has passed since that terrible, very, very, very much documented day of Nov. 22, 1963. Even those who weren’t glimmers in anyone’s eyes in 1993, much less 1963, and who don’t know Jack Kennedy the president from Jack Kennedy the disco musician, can’t not know that this is going to be a month of almost overwhelming, often maudlin, remembrance.  Remembrance of a young, dashing president taken down before his time in a garish Texas sun, his blood spattered all over his beautiful wife’s pink wool suit and white gloves.  Remembrance of all that America used to be, and, to many, what it was supposed to be, if only those bullets had not been fired.

Mary Stanik

And with new information being revealed almost daily regarding facts, near-facts, and wild-eyed ideas that the Warren Commission and others may or may not have missed or ignored during their investigations of the Kennedy assassination, it seems as if those who do not believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in carrying out the assassination will ready themselves and their heirs to continue examining the assassination for the next 50 years.

As an amateur Kennedy historian (I did a thesis on the Cuban Missile Crisis), I’ve read or watched just about everything produced about the Kennedys, and all of the Camelot magic that was snuffed out in November 1963. I understand the romance about the Lancelot president and his Guinevere wife. I admit to being interested in a lot of the assassination conspiracy theories. But I know there are other reasons so many people continue to be beyond fascinated with the Kennedy times and culture. 

From fashion to ‘Mad Men’ popularity …

Think about it. In 1963, there were few people not under psychiatric care who wanted to party like it was 1913. Yet, here we are, 50 years after Dallas, and so many of us look not that much different from how people looked in 1963. Look at any of the photos of Jack and Jackie Kennedy and their friends. Many of us would (and do) wear shoes, clothes and accessories that are very similar to those they wore, down to Jack’s Ray-Bans and polo shirts and Jackie’s sleeveless silk sheaths, pearl chokers, and bug-eyed sunglasses. 

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We made a show like “Mad Men” popular because even though most of us schlepping off to Costco or soccer practice may not be able to live idealized, glamorous early 1960s lives in all respects, we like the idea of slim suits and ties, organ-heavy lounge music, slinky black velvet evening gowns in the afternoon, strong daiquiris at almost any time of day, massive steaks, and seduction by cigarette. I can think of almost no one who would want almost any American car made in the 1970s or 80s. But a shiny red 1963 Thunderbird with leather bucket seats? Get on line. Even Air Force One looks almost exactly as it did when Jackie redesigned it.

We yearn for those days and imitate the accoutrements of those days, even though the 1960s were not such good times for a whole lot of people. It was very rough to be an African-American or other minority. It was only in August 1963 that the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others finally convinced President Kennedy that a broad, strong civil-rights law was in order. In June 1963, Jack Kennedy signed a law guaranteeing women equal pay for equal work, but it was very difficult for a woman who wanted to be, say, a doctor and get paid the same as male doctors when she was told she should be happy to remain a nurse, secretary or teacher. And especially when a lot of Mad (or just, mad) Men thought women were better used as black velvet gown-clad instruments of seduction or housewives worried about clean ovens and floor wax that didn’t yellow. We now know Jack Kennedy was rather much like one of those men, though I doubt he really cared if the oven was dirty.

Looking back with soft-focus glasses

But despite the definite and serious flaws of those times and that president, we look back at them with soft-focus glasses that are very deeply rose-colored. In some ways, we can’t be blamed. We lost a dashing president who seemed to hold so very much promise. We sainted his widow and then scorned her when she married a billionaire many thought was more toad than worthy consort. The years that followed 1963 have been full of horrible things: more assassinations; hugely expensive, unwanted wars; a president who couldn’t resist tricks or deleted expletives; wide-scale energy shortages; more than one devastating economic recession. And much more.

Even I almost want to put on a black velvet gown and drink a daiquiri while I stare back at those days when a lot of us were sure Jack Kennedy would, as one-time Kennedy buddy Frank Sinatra sang, fly us to the moon and let us play among the stars.

Almost.

Mary Stanik, a writer and public-relations professional, lives in Minneapolis. She is the author of the recently released novel “Life Erupted.”

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