Today, May 19, is the 25th anniversary of the death of the most iconic First Lady, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. She remains revered as a paragon of style, of hospitality, of strength under pressure - but now in a remote way. In the 21st century Jackie is admired from a safe distance, in a niche: something to be admired, but not to be emulated. Etiquetteer frankly thinks we could all stand to be better Jackie Exemplars in our daily lives. Let’s consider how she made such a lasting impression, and how we might follow her example now.
As First Lady, Jackie was known for her success as an official hostess because she chose to focus less on protocol and official form and more on the experience of the guests. Formality was not sacrificed - it is so important to emphasize this; so many people now would just as soon wear track suits as tuxedos to a formal dinner - but form was. Jackie famously abandoned the large E-shaped table in the State Dining Room in favor of small round tables for eight or ten. Seating at the former was bound by protocol. But with the smaller tables, compatibility could be considered more than rank, making for more enjoyable conversation. She reduced and lightened the menus so that guests wouldn’t leave the table feeling heavy, and she changed the lighting to be more flattering to the guests. (“Wrinkles take on wrinkles under this harsh light” she was quoted as saying.)
But where she most excelled, in Etiquetteer’s view, was in private entertaining at the White House. Among many other things, the Kennedys became famous for their small dinners for eight to 12 people in the newly-created second floor President’s Dining Room. Jackie created these dinners for “stimulating people” from all fields. “If you put busy men in an attractive atmosphere where the surroundings are comfortable, the food, is good, you relax, you unwind, there’s some stimulating conversation. You know, sometimes quite a lot can happen, contacts can be made . . . It’s part of the art of living in Washington.”* These intimate gatherings were much more conducive than cocktail parties, in Jackie’s view, to relaxation and productive connections. (That’s what a well-planned guest list can do. Joan Crawford also knew this.) Why aren’t we doing more of this ourselves in our own homes?
Jackie was famous for her clothes, but Etiquetteer wants especially to praise how she wore them. She dressed appropriately for every occasion from magnificent but simple gowns for evening occasions to jodphurs or jeans and sweaters to unpack antiques. And never a spot, stain, rip, or tear to be seen, and certainly not even the shadow of a bra strap - such a contrast to nowadays! And Jackie carried herself so well. Do any of you remember deportment class? Yes, once upon a time there were classes in posture! When you see pictures of people (usually girls) trying to balance a book on their heads while walking, that’s part of deportment class. And we could use some. Ladies and gentlemen, slouching does nothing for you. It does NOT help make a Perfectly Proper Impression on others. Straighten up! (Etiquetteer used to be awfully fond of double-breasted jackets because you cannot slouch in them.)
Jackie’s most enduring example, of course, will always be her impressive bearing following the assassination. Within her own grief, she knew she had to show herself as an example not only for her children, but for the nation and the world.
Most important, Jackie embodied sophisticated discretion. She was aggressive about protecting the privacy of her family and herself and made no bones about it. Her instructions to Pam Turnure say it all: “The minimum of information with the maximum of politeness.” How, Etiquetteer is inclined to wonder, would Jackie take to social media? Since her death just after the availability of the Internet 25 years ago, we’ve gone from being the Me Generation to the Me Me Me Now Now Now Generation. Would Jackie even see the need to have a Twitter account herself? With that in mind, could we not all be more - how to say this - more considered in what we post and less hasty?
On this milestone anniversary, Etiquetteer encourages you to consider how to take the example of Jackie into your own daily living to create a life of Perfect Propriety.
*Quoted in Sally Bedell Smith’s wonderful Grace and Power: The Private World of the Kennedy White House.