I think about Jackie Kennedy several times a day.
I have no choice. Tour groups come by my house in Georgetown to see John Kennedy’s bachelor pad, where he was living when he met Jacqueline Bouvier at a dinner party.
I eavesdropped at the window once and heard a tour guide spin the romantic yarn about how the handsome senator met the beautiful debutante, and they decided to live happily ever after. Somewhere else. “Jackie told Jack he needed to get out of this dump,” the guide said. “By the time he was elected president, they were living in a beautiful house down the block, which we’ll go see now.”
As a tonic to the coarseness of Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis, I have been escaping to the cultured world of Jacqueline Bouvier in the period when Jack was diffidently courting her. (Never a Heathcliff type, Jack sometimes treated her, as Jackie once told Gore Vidal, as if she were a campaign asset, like Rhode Island.)
Carl Sferrazza Anthony’s new biography, Camera Girl, offers a lovely snapshot of Jackie’s single years in DC, working at The Washington Times-Herald.
In 1951, Jackie, who had just graduated from George Washington University with a degree in French literature, joined the paper as a gofer, answering the phone and fetching coffee. Her wealthy stepfather was friends with Arthur Krock, the Washington bureau chief of The New York Times. Krock called Frank Waldrop, the executive editor of the Washington Times-Herald, and asked, “Are you still hiring little girls?” because he knew a “round-eyed, clever” one.
Waldrop would recount the story many times after Jackie became an icon. When she came to meet him, he bluntly asked her, “Do you really want to go into journalism, or do you want to hang around here until you get married?” Jackie, who fantasised about being a famous writer, replied, “No, sir, I want to make a career.”
He emphasised that his paper was not a waiting room for aspiring brides. “I’d seen her type,” he would later say. “Little society girls with dreams of writing the great American novel, who drop it the minute they find the great American husband.”
As Anthony recounts, Jackie was so charming, witty and eager that eventually, Waldrop gave her the “Inquiring Photographer” column, which none of the men wanted. Paying $25 (870 baht) a week, it was a six-days-a-week column where she would ask people a question and snap their pictures with a bulky Speed Graflex. She drove a black Mercury convertible with a red interior that she “stole” from her dashing dad, Black Jack Bouvier. She called it Zelda — because, like Zelda Fitzgerald, “she was an unreliable beauty”.
She had moxie. At the door of the Washington Senators’ locker room, she asked players about their hitting slump. Then they snapped their losing streak, and Jackie was hailed as a good-luck mascot.
JFK once called her fey, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “displaying magical, fairylike, or unearthly qualities”, as if you’d had breakfast with a leprechaun.
The format suited her. She could display that whimsical side and even draw cartoons for the column. Waldrop gave her a byline and renamed the column “Inquiring Camera Girl”. John Husted, her fiancee for three months in 1952, dismissed it as “an insipid little job,” but Jackie would later say she “loved every minute”.
She won over gruff male colleagues who had been sceptical of her finishing school ways. One reporter was so impressed he offered to take her to an execution. She relished provocative questions: “Would you rather have men respect or whistle at you?” “What would you talk about if you had a date with Marilyn Monroe?”
She asked truck drivers, shouting to them when they stopped for a red light, “What do you think of Dior’s spring fashion line?” At times, Anthony said, questions reflected anxieties about JFK: “The Irish author, Sean O’Faolain, claims that the Irish are deficient in the art of love. Do you agree?”
She did not hesitate to ask esoteric questions: “In The Doctor’s Dilemma, George Bernard Shaw asks if it’s better to save the life of a great artist who is a scoundrel, or a commonplace, honest family man. What do you think?” And she did not talk down to working-class subjects, recalling that she sought out “salty” characters.
That’s probably how she found my larger-than-life dad, who was a DC police detective in charge of Senate security.
One night, he came home and told the family that The Herald’s Inquiring Camera Girl had approached him in the Capitol, but he had been called to his office and couldn’t answer her question.
Her name, he said, was Jacqueline Bouvier. ©2023 The New York Times
Maureen Dowd is a New York Times columnist.