Inside John F. Kennedy's Marriage To Jackie

Call them the first family. Call them America's golden couple. Fold them into the romance of Camelot. Whatever description is preferred, the underlying truth is the same: The union of John and Jackie Kennedy is a fixture in American history and culture. Their relative youth at the time of John's election to the presidency lent them a glamor and influence within the media and fashion worlds not often seen in politicians before, and the sense of promise in John's administration was matched only by the sense of tragedy following his assassination in the prime of life. Jackie's long life after her husband's death inspired fascination and controversy of its own.

Even before reaching the heights of American political power, the Kennedys were a fixture in the national spotlight. Their relationship was catching attention as early as 1953, according to People. In the years since John's assassination, that attention has shifted focus somewhat, onto the gap between contemporary perceptions of the Kennedys as an ideal family and the more complicated realities behind closed doors. John's affairs and ill health, Jackie's private thoughts and doubts, and the couple's struggles with fertility cast long shadows across their marriage. Yet they remained in love and committed to one another, in their way, until the end.

They each had early alleged love affairs

Neither John F. Kennedy nor Jacqueline "Jackie" Bouvier came to their relationship a stranger to love. In Bouvier's case, she almost tied the knot. In private correspondence with Irish priest Joseph Leonard (via the Irish Times), she wrote of her intense attraction to John Husted, a New York stockbroker, in 1952. They became engaged that very year, and Bouvier told Leonard that she was sure Husted was the one for her. But she broke off the engagement after only two months. "I'm ashamed we both went into it so quickly and gaily," she wrote to Leonard, "but I think the suffering it brought us both for a while afterwards was the best thing — we both need something of a shock to make us grow up."

As for Kennedy, there have been scandalous reports on one of his alleged early relationships. Seymour Hersh, author of "The Dark Side of Camelot," told the New York Daily News (via the Orlando Sentinel) that Kennedy had eloped in 1939 with a woman named Durie Malcolm, a claim also found in files kept by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover's file claims that they quietly divorced in 1953, the year of Kennedy's marriage to Bouvier, while Hersh claimed that priests had told him the Vatican arranged an annulment. It's worth noting that Malcolm and Kennedy both denied any relationship, and that Hersh's reporting has been called into serious question, in the Los Angeles Times among other outlets.

An interview came before the courtship

Charles Bartlett isn't a household name, but he left behind a significant journalistic and political legacy when he died in 2017. Per his 2017 Politico obituary, he broke a story of scandal in the Eisenhower Administration, co-founded a notable integrated dining club in Washington during the civil rights era, and was a close friend and confidante of George H. W. Bush and John F. Kennedy. He was particularly close to Kennedy, even in an era where members of the fourth estate regularly engaged with the political class as friends. And in 1951, Bartlett played matchmaker for one of America's most famous couples.

It was at Bartlett's 1951 dinner party that Kennedy first met Jackie Bouvier. At the time, Bouvier was working as a reporter for the Washington Times-Herald (via the JFK Library). As she later explained to Edward R. Murrow (via Face the Nation), professional interests came before any romantic ones. Shortly after meeting Kennedy, Bouvier interviewed him for her paper. When Murrow asked whether marriage or interviews with a politician required more diplomacy, Bouvier let her husband answer: marriage.

Bartlett remained close to the Kennedys for the rest of their lives. His own journalistic career was sometimes complicated by the degree of confidence Kennedy had in him as a discrete ear, but Bartlett largely kept his secrets. He did muse publicly, once Kennedy's affairs came to light, that his friend may never have been suited to marriage, but that he never would have become president without Bouvier, as per Politico.

Just how did John Kennedy propose?

John F. Kennedy and Jackie Bouvier dated for two years before announcing their engagement on June 24, 1953 (per History). As both were members of prominent families in American high society, the announcement was a notable affair, and its significance only increased as the Kennedys rose up the levers of political power. So it's perhaps understandable that a venue would desire to claim to be the spot where Kennedy first popped the question — and that there might be some competition for that claim.

Two stories exist around where and how Kennedy proposed to Bouvier. The Omni Hotels and Resorts chain claims on their blog that one of their hotels was the site. According to this version, the couple was staying at Omni Parker House in Boston, Massachusetts, and eating in the hotel restaurant when Kennedy got down on one knee and presented Bouvier with a custom-made emerald and diamond ring. Omni claims it as the most romantic moment in the hotel's history.

Against this is the story told by Martin's Tavern (via The Washington Post). Martin's is a historic restaurant in Georgetown, Washington, D.C., and was frequently patronized by Kennedy and Bouvier. They claim that their Booth Three is where the proposal happened. They even got the statement of a witness: former ambassador Marion Smoak. But Smoak never claimed to have seen the proposal, only that he saw the couple at Martin's on June 24 and that news of the engagement circulated through the restaurant.

John and Jackie had cold feet before the wedding

The relationship between John F. Kennedy and Jackie Bouvier had its complications from the beginning. They had similar backgrounds, shared a knack for social engagements, and had a genuine attraction and affection for one another. But their engagement and marriage was as much a political consideration as a personal commitment. Per Robert Dallek's "An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963," Kennedy would have been happy to remain a bachelor, and at least one close friend suspected he would have had his 1952 Senate bid failed. But it didn't, and the realities of the time required any senator intent on higher office to be married. And Kennedy was determined even then, though his father worried that his son would still get cold feet on the way to the altar.

For her part, Bouvier was under no illusions about the political component to her relationship with Kennedy. In letters to the Irish priest Joseph Leonard (via the Irish Times), she reported amazement at the level of ambition on display among the political class she encountered through Kennedy and compared her fiancé to Macbeth for the size of his appetite for high office. Bouvier also confided in Leonard personal reservations she had about her impending marriage. Her own father was a notorious philanderer whose cheating took a heavy toll on his wife, and Bouvier saw the same quality in Kennedy.

Their wedding was on an epic scale

When John F. Kennedy and Jackie Bouvier became Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy on September 12, 1953, they did so in style. Their wedding was held at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Newport, Rhode Island, and the reception at the Victorian Hammersmith Farm estate, according to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Both boasted a massive attendance — the wedding had over 800 guests, the reception over 1,200. Pope Pius XII sent a blessing to be read, Robert F. Kennedy was the best man, and the wedding cake was over 4-feet tall. Musical entertainment included noted tenor Luigi Vena and the Meyer Davis orchestra.

As a big society wedding, fashion was also noted. Jackie's dress, accentuated by her grandmother's veil and a few choice pieces of jewelry gifted by John, remains a model for wedding gowns to this day, according to Vogue. The dress was designed by Ann Lowe, who built a career out of creating fashions for women of the social register. For how celebrated the look has become, it was actually a hastily assembled replacement for the original dress, destroyed by a burst pipe. Lowe's closest collaborator on the dress wasn't the bride, but Joseph Kennedy, who subsequently let Lowe's name be left out of the wedding coverage he arranged.

The Kennedys honeymooned in Acapulco. John messaged his parents from there to report that everything was going well. "At last I know the true meaning of rapture," he said (via "JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956," by Fredrik Logevall).

How did Jackie Kennedy feel about the affairs?

It's no secret by now that John F. Kennedy was not a faithful husband. Within 15 months of marrying Jackie Bouvier Kennedy, he was back to the womanizing ways of his bachelorhood, according to Robert Dalleck's "An Unfinished Life: John F Kennedy, 1917-1963." So wandering was his eye that he reportedly left his wife alone at parties to fool around with female guests, and he carried on with several women on his yacht even as Jackie suffered a stillborn birth in 1956.

To what extent Jackie knew about John's infidelity, and how she felt about them, is a matter of some contention among journalists and historians. Author Sally Bedell Smith wrote in Vanity Fair that, while Jackie was well aware of the affairs, she was often happy to feign ignorance. She would occasionally make private jokes or, in more unhappy moments, seek discreet counseling from cardiologist friend Frank Finnerty, but she was resigned to it. "I don't care how many girls [Jack sleeps with]," she reportedly told Adlai Stevenson, "as long as I know he knows it's wrong."

Others have reported that Jackie was more confrontational about the affairs. Author J. Randy Taraborrelli told People that tensions over the dalliances became so pitched that Jackie considered divorce in 1956, after the stillborn birth. Her sister and her mother — both aware of John's affairs — convinced her otherwise. They considered it an occupational hazard of being married to a powerful man.

They struggled to conceive

In a letter to Fletcher Knebel (via Vanity Fair), Jackie Kennedy described herself and her husband as icebergs: a small portion of their lives visible, the greater mass submerged. Among the matters kept below was how difficult it was for them to conceive a child. Jackie suffered a miscarriage in 1955 and delivered a stillborn daughter in 1956, a heartbreak compounded by John F. Kennedy's absence from her side over an affair. When they did have a son, John Jr., he was born prematurely and suffered from weak lungs in early life (per The Washington Post).

By the time John Jr. and their daughter, Caroline, came into the world, JFK was far less callous about his wife and children. He was at Jackie's side with her favorite flowers for Caroline's birth and noticeably swelled with emotion when discussing his daughter, as per Vanity Fair. The couple were expecting a third child in 1963. But on August 7 — 20 years to the day that JFK was rescued during World War II — Jackie went into premature labor. Their son, Patrick, came six weeks early and, despite the best efforts of doctors, died of hyaline membrane disease within days.

Both parents were devastated, but family and friends reported that the tragedy did leave one positive legacy. In the months remaining to them before JFK's assassination, he and Jackie were seen to be much more publicly affectionate with one another. Some of the ice, it seemed, had come up from the depths.

JFK's health was precarious

As the youngest man ever elected to the presidency, John F. Kennedy was taken by the public as a healthy, clean-cut shot of energy into the highest levels of power. But contrary to the image he projected, John's presidency — and his marriage — were dogged by his myriad health conditions. In 2019, PBS published a list of all the physical ailments he suffered, including many that were kept well-hidden from the public eye during John's lifetime.

Besides a bout of scarlet fever in his youth, the president suffered from spastic colitis, prostate and unirary tract issues, allergies, such severe lower back pain that he was initially rejected from military service in World War II, and Addison's disease, a life-threatening hormonal deficiency. The steroids used to treat his Addison's led to osteoporosis, which only further damaged John's back. Seven surgeries between 1944 and 1957 couldn't put his back right, and he fell so ill after one procedure that a priest was called to administer last rites.

Besides the steroids, other medications carried side effects, as Jackie Kennedy observed. In 1962, according to The Atlantic, she complained to her husband's gastroenterologist that the antihistamines used for his allergies resulted in depression. The doctor's answer was a two-day treatment with the anti-psychotic Stelazine, with reported total success. But the rest of John's many ailments would follow him to the end of his days.

They didn't like LBJ

It might well be assumed that a president and vice president would get along, or at least have confidence in one another. After all, the president must have confidence that, should anything happen to them, their running mate could serve as chief executive of the world's most powerful country. But according to Jackie Kennedy in a series of 1964 interviews (via ABC News), neither she nor her husband John F. Kennedy thought much of Lyndon B. Johnson.

According to Jackie, John not only didn't like Johnson but never wanted him as a running mate and actively feared for the country if he should become president. John discussed his worries with his wife and his brother and attorney general Robert Kennedy. No thought was given, according to Jackie, of dropping Johnson from the 1964 ticket, but the Kennedy brothers discussed ways they might maneuver around Johnson to find a new standard-bearer for the Democratic party for the 1968 presidential election.

The same interviews, kept private by the Kennedy family for decades, revealed Jackie's thoughts about the second lady too. Via the Daily Beast, she described Lady Bird Johnson as so devoted and obedient to her husband that she seemed more like a hunting dog than a marriage partner. But important context for these interviews is that they were recorded during tensions between Johnson and Robert Kennedy, and Jackie separated Johnson's deficient political skills, in her view, from his personal qualities.

Jackie Kennedy's faith helped her through marital woes

A marriage connected to a demanding job, let alone the presidency, will inevitably have to endure some stress. The ongoing health woes and extramarital affairs of John F. Kennedy only made things more difficult for Jackie Kennedy. The degree of independence he maintained shocked her in the early days of their marriage, according to Robert Dalleck's "An Unfinished Life: John F Kennedy, 1917-1963," and in private correspondence with the Irish priest Joseph Leonard (via the Irish Times), Jackie confided that life with a powerful figure was taking its toll. "Maybe I'm just dazzled," she wrote, "and picture myself in a glittering world of crowned heads and Men of Destiny — and not just a sad little housewife ... That world can be very glamorous from the outside — but if you're in it — and you're lonely — it could be a Hell."

Despite the many tensions and complications in their marriage, John and Jackie were always able to reconcile. Helping Jackie was the Catholic faith that she shared with her husband. In one of her letters to Leonard (via the National Catholic Reporter), Jackie cited her faith as helping her to find some good after the tragedy of her stillborn daughter Arabella; she and John grew closer together. But after John's assassination, she suffered a crisis of faith. She told Leonard that she felt bitter and that only the hope of seeing her husband again sustained her belief.