If you were alive in February 1962, there’s a good chance you saw first lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s tour of the newly-restored White House, which was broadcast on all three TV networks to an audience of about 80 million. But people who knew her well say that the real Jackie was not at all like the flawless figurine who appeared on screen.
Smith asked, “Seemed that some people assumed that the most interesting thing about Jacqueline Bouvier is that she married a Kennedy?”
Writer Carl Sferazza Anthony said, “I think the presumption has been that her life only became interesting after she married him, when in fact, because she was so interesting, he married her.”
Anthony is author of a dozen books about first ladies. His latest, “Camera Girl: The Coming of Age of Jackie Bouvier Kennedy” (published by Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, part of our parent company, Paramount Global), is about Jacqueline Bouvier before everything – a young woman who once wrote that her ambition was “not to be a housewife.”
“She had a rather dim view of marriage,” Anthony said. “She felt very strongly, even as a young woman in the early 1950s, she should not marry before she had somehow established herself.”
What Bouvier wanted was to be a writer, and she was willing to start at the bottom, and back then, the bottom was a column in the Washington Times-Herald called the “Inquiring Photographer” (later changed to “Inquiring Camera Girl”). Her job was to take pictures of passers-by and ask their opinions about random topics, like women in politics, or how a wolf-whistle made them feel.
“She’s asking strangers on the streets of Washington, ten years before becoming the world’s most famous woman,” said Anthony.
She was fearless, charming, and single. And some of Jackie’s friends, like newsman Charles Bartlett and his wife, Martha, thought she’d be a perfect match for the most eligible bachelor in town: a certain congressman from Massachusetts. The Bartletts were close friends of both Jackie and JFK, and they would stay close: Charles and Martha stood godfather and godmother to John Jr. But back in 1951, they just wanted those two to meet, so one night in May they threw a dinner party at their Georgetown home.
Now, this is the part where we’d usually say that’s ancient history – that no one alive today remembers what really happened on that night 72 years ago. But in this case, there is someone who remembers it all. Martha Bartlett, the hostess of the dinner party where Jackie met JFK, is still very much alive, thank you, and at age 97, her memories of what happened back in 1951 are still alive as well.
What does she remember about that first dinner where Jack met Jackie? “Well, I wasn’t too sure that he would enjoy Jackie, or that she would enjoy him,” she said. “So, I had my other good friend, Loretta Summers. We had an extra woman, which was very peculiar. But we had it anyway! And so, if he didn’t like one, at least he wouldn’t be bored. Because he did show boredom.”
Smith asked, “Do you remember the menu?”
“Probably, as usual, it was my same old chicken casserole.”
“Chicken casserole? That was what you served at these parties?”
“I’m afraid so. You could name the menu before you sat down!” Bartlett laughed.
Years later Jackie shared her memories of that night, and according to author Carl Anthony, JFK made quite an impression: “She wrote about the first time she met John F. Kennedy and how she knew, as she put it, ‘He would have a disturbing effect on my life.’ And she says she almost felt like running, but she knew that whatever heartbreak he was going to inevitably bring her, it would be worth it.”
And privately, according to Bartlett, Jackie was in hot pursuit.
Smith asked, “Jackie even said that the two of you were shamelessly matchmaking, trying to get her and Jack together.
“I’d say she was the shameful one, if there was anybody,” Bartlett replied.
Why? “Well, she would goad me on. She would see an opening at a dance or something that we could invite Jack to. Or, she’d cancel her European friend so she could see Jack instead. You know, if we hadn’t been so close I would’ve said she used me. It was as much her idea as mine.”
And it seems she did whatever it took to improve her chances, like paying a visit to family patriarch Joseph Kennedy.
Anthony said, “Whether it’s a coincidence or not, several days after she visits Joe Kennedy, for the first time the names Jackie Bouvier and John F. Kennedy are linked together in the gossip columns, with a prediction that a wedding in the next year will be Bouvier and Kennedy. You know, she was never sort of gaga, crazy, doe-eyed, in love with him, that kind. They do begin to date. But he still kinda drags his feet. And she’s a little bit disappointed that it’s taking so long.”
Smith asked, “Wait, wait, wait: She’s disappointed? What’s interesting is that this is the young woman who said, ‘I’m not interested in marriage.'”
“She said, ‘I’m not interested in marriage’; she never said she wasn’t interested in an adventure that might take her to the White House.”
What happened from then on is well-documented: The Kennedy-Bouvier wedding in 1953 in Newport, R.I., was one of the social events of the season, maybe the century. Charles Bartlett was an usher. Martha Bartlett was one of more than a dozen bridesmaids.
When asked what she remembers leading up to the wedding, Martha Bartlett said, “I don’t know why, but she was not a happy bride, particularly. I think it was due to the fact that her father couldn’t give her away. He was there. He’d got totally intoxicated the night before, and couldn’t get up the next morning.”
And so began a union that still fascinates today.
Martha Bartlett was there for a lot of it, but for her (as with many of us), the Kennedy saga brings mixed emotions about a glamorous couple and a dream unfulfilled.
Smith asked, “When you look back on your matchmaking, you and your husband’s matchmaking, do you think job well done?”
“No, because I find it terribly sad,” Bartlett replied. “It’s a sad tale. You don’t think so?”
“In the end. But I think we all liked to believe that the beginning was magical.”
“Yeah. And we all love fairy stories.”
Martha’s husband, who died in 2017, had put it more simply: Talking about his role introducing JFK to his future bride, Charles said, “He needed a gal. And we found him a hell of a gal.”
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Story produced by John D’Amelio. Editor: Steven Tyler.
- Jackie Kennedy: America’s first lady