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Jacqueline Kennedy's Memories of John F. Kennedy Are Riveting as History -- and as Therapy

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Put yourself in her place.

Your husband was murdered -- in public, sitting right next to you -- just four months ago. You want to go off in a corner and grieve, but he was America's greatest star and you are the most celebrated woman in the world. Privacy? Out of the question.

Now someone comes to your house and asks you to describe what it was like to be the woman you'll never be again.

Mandatory? Hardly. Yet you spend hour after hour with your interrogator as your young son wanders in and out.

Courage? Above and beyond.

But also, I think, therapy -- the talking cure. Arthur Schlesinger, a noted historian and close family friend, gets Jacqueline Kennedy reminiscing about the old times, the good times, the campaigns and dinners and trips. And she responds, knowing that he'll never contradict her, never breach the boundaries of this walk down memory lane --- that is, he'll never ask her what happened in Dallas and what it was really like to be married to John F. Kennedy.

And so she talks. In a breathy voice that's a second cousin to the whispery speech of her husband's lover, Marilyn Monroe, she weaves a riveting tale. I could not have done what Jacqueline Kennedy did here --- render, without tears, the tale of a courtship, marriage and a presidency. [To buy Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy from Amazon, click here. There will be a Kindle edition, but not until January, 2012.]

She claims she has no opinions -- she was a Japanese wife, she says, who adopted her husband's views -- but in fact, she has many:

Martin Luther King: "I just can't see a picture of Martin Luther King without thinking, you know, that man's terrible.... [John F. Kennedy] told me of a tape that the FBI had of Martin Luther King when he was here for the freedom march. And he said this with no bitterness or anything, how he was calling up all these girls and arranging for a party of men and women, I mean, sort of an orgy in the hotel, and everything."

Charles DeGaulle, French general and president: "That egomaniac."

Lady Bird Johnson: "She was sort of like a trained hunting dog."

Franklin D. Roosevelt: "Charlatan is an unfair word..."

Adlai Stevenson, the former Democratic presidential nominee: "Violently liberal women in politics" preferred him because they "were scared of sex."

Indira Gandhi, the future prime minister of India: "She is a real prune -- bitter, kind of pushy, horrible woman."

André Malraux, the French novelist: "the most fascinating man I've ever talked to.

John F. Kennedy: close to a perfect husband. At the height of the Cuban missile crisis, when America had good reason to fear atomic war, she told him: "If anything happens, we're all going to stay right here with you. I just want to be with you, and I want to die with you, and the children do, too -- than live without you."

So while 54 million Americans watched her televised tour of the White House, only one mattered: "Suddenly, everything that'd been a liability before -- your hair, that you spoke French, that you didn't just adore to campaign, and you didn't bake bread with flour up to your arms -- you know, everybody thought I was a snob and hated politics. All of that changed. I was so happy for Jack, especially now that it was only three years together that he could be proud of me then. Because it made him so happy -- it made me so happy."

Those tapes were made 47 years ago. Caroline Kennedy decided that the 50th anniversary of her father's presidency was a good time to release them, so now we have these 350 pages and eight CDs. If you are obsessed with Jacqueline Kennedy, admired her husband or just can't get enough of Presidential politics, you will find this book addictive.

You will also be forced to confront the gulf between what she knew at that time about her husband and what we know now.

Start with the fact that John F. Kennedy was the most flagrantly promiscuous president in the last century. He allegedly spent 15 minutes with a prostitute a few hours before the first televised Presidential debate. In the White House, he and his wife had separate bedrooms; he hired one of his lovers to be her secretary and avoided Jackie as much as possible. ("That first winter [in the White House], I couldn't sleep very well," she tells Schlesinger, with touching innocence. "He'd always send you away and -- when he knew you were tired. And then you'd come back so happy again. I always think our whole married life was renewals of love after, you know, brief separations.") The last weekend of JFK's life? He spent it with two female assistants in Palm Beach.

We become what we behold. He was the son of an imperious philanderer; she was the daughter of a notorious man about town. In their aristocratic circles, monogamy was the exception, a fluke, and wives put up with the wandering husbands. Appearance was all. That Pulitzer Prize that Kennedy won for Profiles in Courage -- his father bought it for him. And, it is widely believed, Joe Kennedy was willing to pay Jackie $1 million to stay with the President in his second term.

And yet you only have to look at the final picture in this book to know that, whatever love meant for them, Jack and Jacqueline Kennedy did love one another. In death, she gave him the greatest gift a widow can -- she created a legend, Camelot. We know better. And yet the legend endures.

What matters much more than the marketing of her lost husband is how his widow digs deep into people and places and events. Her tart observations point the way to the independent woman she would eventually become. A kind of greatness lay behind her. But a better kind of greatness lay ahead.

[Cross-posted from HeadButler.com]