Vaughn Davis Bornet: Review of Clint Hill's and Lisa McCubbin's "Mrs. Kennedy and Me: An Intimate Memoir" (Gallery Books, 2012)
Vaughn Davis Bornet is the author of "The Presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson," "Herbert Hoover: President of the United States" (soon to be reissued in paperback), and "Speaking Up for America."
It will do most of us in the history profession good to read the intimate details of the lives lived by Jackie Bouvier Kennedy, on the one hand, and Clint Hill, North Dakota’s contribution to the U. S. Secret Service in the early 1960s, on the other. The lives of both are embraced in close detail in Gallery Books’ 343-page book about presidential life, Mrs. Kennedy and Me.
Idly, I thought this book was going to be beneath me as I glanced at the photos monopolizing its cover, front and back. Half a century ago I had bypassed the wife of President Kennedy enroute to a prolonged study of President Lyndon Johnson (although at the same time I had fully embraced Lady Bird as a serious historical figure). At the time I rather doubted that “Jackie” could be made historically important, or maybe even historically interesting. Now as I glanced at the photos embracing my brand new book I was still uncertain about the self-imposed task. It was not reassuring that the probable effort to glorify JFK’s spouse was clearly by a secret service agent plus a ghostwriter. Finding she is one of the best in the genre still didn’t mollify.
Au contraire. The intimate details of this First Lady, as I began to pursue her through the high points of her life, turned out to be quite moving -- tears were sometimes hard to avoid. Empathy with her emotions was not beyond this masculine reader as 1960 evolved into 1961, 1962, that awful November of 1963, and briefly 1964. But the standard story is not the whole story; rather, Jackie’s hopes to use her life and “office” to advance U.S.-India and U.S.-Pakistan relations against the odds, and to use relatively brief visits to Paris and Athens, even Marrakesh, to win new friends for her country turned out to be quite realistic. What is the expression? “It just goes to show you.”
Much will astonish the reader who has lived something of a pedestrian life in middle-class America. The central figure of this book lived, as they say, at “a whole other level.” She gave upper class a new meaning. As nearly countless thousands turned out to see her in places seven thousand or so milies from her home base, she offered a dressed and coifed individual who was indisputably a pacesetter.
Jackie Kennedy as First Lady clearly tried mightily to avoid living a life anywhere near the White House that is provided by the taxpayers for her family life. True, she spent time early on retrieving artifacts from old administrations and converting the People’s House to an artsy stature it had never enjoyed before. That is well known. But it is also all too true that she avoided the White House as much as she possibly could, spending weeks and months as a resident of that impressive and very public building.
Let’s see: how many residences did she occupy in those years and for how long? The answer takes a bit of doing. Let’s eliminate at the outset the 28-room Newport mansion Hammersmith, the Auchincloss family home on 48 acres in which Jackie spent many childhood years and where she was married before 1,200 people in 1953. Next in line has to be the traditional Kennedy family home in Hyannis Port, where Ambassador Joe and Rose Kennedy raised their family, a place of endless JFK recreation over the years and a routine destination even after the patriarch fell ill.
Next would be the traditional Kennedy home in Palm Beach, since 1933 a place for Kennedy rendezvous on holidays and to escape winter’s blasts. Here were six bedrooms on two acres. Still another residence was developed. Convenient to the capitol was the town of Middleburg, Virginia, where the Kennedys early established the home Glen Ora. Here were six bedrooms and five baths. Nor was this all. Atoka, a residence built for the Kennedys at Rattlesnake Moutain, Virgina, was completed in the years when the White House was casually thought by the public to be the official residence. The absolutely first class place for the executive branch leadership at Camp David, a traditional presidential retreat, outdid the latest Kennedy retreat in luxury, it is judged. Jackie was surprised at the quality of this retreat enjoyed traditionally by various presidents.
Finally (more or less) there was the luxurious apartment at the Hotel Carlyle in New York City, hard off Park Avenue, an urban home in which one could spread out. Really finally were the several yachts they owned and the ones on which Jackie, at least, settled for several weeks at a time. The presidential yacht Honey Fizz, renamed by the new executive, was a comfortable accommodation for the new first family, which was nothing if not nautical. And there were the yachts of others. All in all, the nation’s new first lady displayed first to last a distaste for the White House as a place to live and have her being. As for Jack, the first citizen, he was often on the move between weekends, spending endless time in helicopters and official aircraft going and coming; always, gratifying his needs.
This reviewer is going to resist at this point any rumination on just how roue John F. Kennedy was able, first to last, to utilize the chaotic living actualities of his wife to facilitate his intricate life of never ending liaisons with women who appealed to his bodily needs. It has been no time at all since I gave Judith Exner’s book account a careful examination, and I reviewed Mimi Alford’s 2012 memoir painstakingly on HNN quite recently.
Enroute, I duly picked up on -- but didn’t quote -- the definitive remarks made in passing in the autobiography of JFK’s close friend the famous Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee. Wrote he, “It is now accepted history that Kennedy jumped from bed to bed with a wide variety of women.” (p. 216) The record left him “appalled.” And journalist sophisticate observes in final conclusion, “We can all wish he hadn’t, but we cannot change history.” (p.261) Do consider these finally emplaced judgments.
A moment, and we’ll be done with this sad matter. There isn’t a single syllable in the Clint Hill book about President Kennedy’s sexual activities on all those Mondays through Fridays when it is now abundantly clear that he spent innumerable rewarding afternoons in bed with women other than Jackie. Not one word. At first, the knowledgable reader wonders at this and virtually resents it. The feeling subsides, and pages pass as she organizes the days of her years. It becomes clearer to the alert reader of our charming yet disturbing book that Jackie Kennedy’s life was lived by her in such a way that she made herself totally oblivious to the intimate details of how her husband was choosing to live his totally routine, sometimes medically challenging -- but oh so gratifying life. So be it.
Jackie Kennedy’s spouse was obviously dedicated to the Kennedy children. And clearly, he seemed in public to be always regardful of one Jackie Kennedy. This almost unthinkable adjustment was enough at the time to satisfy intimates and astute observers alike! His private life was his own, and some form of acceptance of that fact was part of his perception of the way things are, and her fully considered view of the universe.
Moving on. Mrs. Kennedy brought a degree of class to the job of First Lady. No, she was at a higher level than that. When she traveled in diplomatic circles, as when she hosted the leaders of India and Pakstan with or without career diplomats present, she seems to have been flawless as hostess, as one who planned, and one who enacted on the scene. She always looked the part, said the right things, spoke the language of diplomacy as it should be, and made visitors feel more than at home. Visitors to Jackie environs gave the appearance of being totally at peace with the passing scene. The vision in prose and pictures the reader of Mrs. Kennedy and Me gets of First Lady Jackie astride the horse Sardar given to her by Ayub Kahn is a highlight of Hill’s book. He was a beautifully marked bay gelding with a diamond-shaped white spot on his forehead. A horse lover’s horse lover, Jackie adored him first to last.
Agent Clint Hill was greatly affected, no, annihilated, by the events of 1963 in Dallas; there can be no doubt of that. The outsider finds it hard to share in the sense of total failure he feels as his president and ours is murdered. This loyal agent is stationed on the rear bumper, but it makes no difference as JFK brain material is scattered over those adjacent to America’s leader. Hill will worry permanently whether a step or a movement on his part might have changed the outcome! No, it wouldn’t; we are sure. His concern, let it be said, is focused laser like on Mrs. Kennedy before, then, and afterward.
“We had been through so much together, Mrs. Kennedy and me. More than anyone can imagine. More than anyone can ever know.” Read these words twice, for they are the lifeblood of the book.
The outsider has to say that this account of our Secret Service in action makes one feel that our government has as often as not failed to place these public servants at the proper level. Hill and his associates seem to this reader to have been underpaid, abused with unconscionably long hours, and mistreated as men who retain their own family responsibilities. Those were grossly undervalued by those who ran things in those years. That their marriages -- with their virtually ignored wives and children -- held together at some level or other is a wonder, for sure. (The reader of Mrs. Kennedy and Me is not likely to be swayed very far by recent accounts of agent hotel room recreation overseas in our day.)
From page 1 on, the skill of Lisa McCubbin, a well-grounded professional at her craft, is totally evident as this moving account of a leading woman of our lifetimes works its way forward. The prose is flawless in my critical estimation, and the tact exerted time and again is entirely appropriate. Maybe I do wish to have available someday, to read in detail, a spritely account of all the Kennedy breasted companions. Yet one seeks, even demands, that Jackie enjoy total exemption from knowing of its very existence.
Somehow, I would much rather wish for this little gem of a narrative we have at hand a most successful trip through the existing literature on our presidency and those who experienced some kind of life in it.
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