How Jackie Kennedy Won An Emmy Award

Maintaining the Kennedy reputation for culture and cool, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis is the only first lady as of 2023 to win an Emmy for her work on a television show. Kennedy won the award for hosting an hour-long White House tour on Valentine's Day in 1962.

According to the Museum of Broadcast Communications, the special was broadcast on CBS and NBC and drew the attention of three in four Americans, a stunning victory for the affable first lady. The show's premiere was followed up by a second showing on ABC four days later, which also pulled in an enormous audience. The program was ultimately so successful it was syndicated to 50 countries around the world and reached almost 100 million viewers, Politico reported.

Kennedy's White House tour was dreamed up following the presidential couple's restoration and redecoration of the White House. The enormous undertaking saw the pair spend their original $50,000 budget in just two weeks. Kennedy's work evidently fascinated audiences, and she presented the glitzy new furnishings herself, rewarding viewers with historical anecdotes along the way.

The Kennedys and the White House

The seeds of Jackie Kennedy's White House restoration ambitions were planted at a young age. As a young girl in 1941, she visited the White House and was allegedly saddened to discover that the tour was lackluster and the furnishings meager (via John F. Kennedy Library). Almost exactly 20 years later, Kennedy herself would give the entire nation a tour of her own. Determined to transform the presidential residence into something more befitting her tastes, she orchestrated a grand restoration project and publicized it in Life magazine in 1961.

The first lady turned out to be a pretty demanding but highly competent decorator. She took on board the advice of historical experts, combed over every minute detail, and removed all traces of her predecessor, Mamie Eisenhower. The canny Kennedy was also able to stack the building with antiques using some impressive bargaining skills — notes found from the making of the CBS special indicate that she named the wealthy donors who had contributed to the restoration during the show. The Kennedys ultimately spent an eye-watering $2 million before their restoration project was done, and even then it was only cut short because of John F. Kennedy's death.

The TV special

Although it was shot over just a couple of days, the CBS special proved to be a fairly large undertaking. According to Politico, 9 tons of equipment were installed by 54 technicians in the making of the program. The show was presented by CBS star Charles Collingwood, but the spotlight, for the most part, focused on the first lady herself, who is even praised by her husband JFK at the end of the program. 

Throughout, Kennedy shuffles from room to room, smiling toothily and repeating anecdotes about items of interest. Although Kennedy did win an Emmy for her efforts, it should be noted that the prize was a special Trustee Award rather than a regular Emmy, and not everyone was impressed by the show or Kennedy's performance. Notably, she was savaged by journalist Norman Mailer, who wrote a brutal takedown of the show in Esquire magazine. He observed, "Somehow it was sympathetic that she [Kennedy] walked through it like a starlet who is utterly without talent. Mrs. Kennedy moved like a wooden horse."