A Legacy of Art and Style It was still dark outside when my grandparents woke us to break the news: President

Kennedy had been assassinated. The fact that an elderly couple in the Philippines considered it necessary to rouse family members just to share the sad tidings shows that the tragic event affected people all over the world. I still remember how serious my grandfather’s face was and how my mother stared blankly up at the ceiling. Thinking about that night, I now realize that this was actually my earliest dateable memory: November, 1963. In the days that followed, I was part of the global audience which witnessed the funeral of an American President on television. I even recall being quite moved when I saw John Jr. salute as his father’s coffin passed by. I also recall that throughout the ceremony, everyone’s attention was focused on one figure who was a paragon of dignity and grace: the President’s young widow, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. Her image, so composed, so stately despite her sorrow, would be indelibly etched in the minds of those who had seen her. Lady Jean Campbell would report to the London Evening Standard that Jacqueline had “given the American people from this day on, the one thing they always lacked — majesty.” In some ways, it is almost absurd that many Filipinos like myself have always been and continue to be fascinated by Jackie. It probably says something about how our minds have been so captivated by American culture. It seems hard to believe, for example, how Mercy, a young woman from Negros who had taken care of me when I was a child, had a huge scrapbook on Mrs. Kennedy. Even when she was still living on a sugarcane farm, Mercy was already collecting anything she could find on the former First Lady! Yet, we Filipinos are not the only ones who have this on-going romance with Jacqueline. So great was the French people’s enthusiasm for his radiant wife that President Kennedy is supposed to have said that he was “the man who had accompanied Jackie to Paris.” Apparently, Jackie had always cultivated an image of style and glamour. When she went on a trip to Europe with her younger sister, Lee, in 1951, one can already see in her pictures a hint of what was to come. The Bouvier sisters published in 1974, a facsimile of the album that they had presented to their mother about their European vacation. I consider myself lucky that I found a copy of this book in a thrift shop in Manila. It is a wonderful tome, filled with photos, write-ups by Lee, as well as drawings by Jackie which sparkle with wit polished by a sense of mischief. One snapshot comes with a caption insisting that the sisters only went out in respectable attire that would be appropriate for attending church services in Newport. It turns out to be a joke as shorts and sandals are very much in evidence! Charming sketches by Jackie show our young maidens jitterbugging beneath the icy stares of Medieval paintings or attending a cacophonic music lesson in Venice. Much of the album is in this light-hearted vein as the “two Bouviers” poke fun at themselves and the sometimes pretentious world around them without losing the sense of wonder that such a trip must have also inspired. One can already discern the qualities of irreverence and playfulness which her associates would find so endearing in Jackie, qualities that would sustain her during the White House years. More importantly, one gets from the memento of that faraway summer, a

glimpse of the future First Lady’s evolving sense of personal elegance. After the sisters returned from their European trip, Jacqueline would date dashing Congressman Kennedy and the course would be set leading her to the world stage. Seven years into her marriage, the young Mrs Kennedy would find herself in the presidential mansion of the most powerful nation on Earth. As Arthur Schlesinger wrote with regard to her new role as First Lady, Jackie “hit the ground running.” Even before she moved, her friend, Rachel Lambert Mellon, would recall already being consulted about how to refurbish the White House. Jacqueline was always conscious that the president’s residence belonged to the whole nation and must reflect the things that Americans should take pride in. Jackie prepared for her task of reinventing the White House by reading up on its history. She stressed that what she was doing was not redecorating but restoration which she pointed out required scholarship. She assembled distinguished panels of experts to collect furnishings and art works. She saw to it that a curator was appointed and that a guidebook was produced. She invited not just politicians but artists to the Presidential parties which under her aegis became exquisite events filled with glorious table settings, fine food and wine, good music. She also came out on television to explain her project. The public responded with great enthusiasm. In July of 1962, House and Garden magazine would gush that the White House as transformed represented “a shrine of elegance and historical associations” that had “won the approval of the whole country”. Yet, for all her achievements, on the day she was leaving the White House for good, Mrs Kennedy is supposed to have turned to a member of the staff to ask, “My children are good children, aren’t they? They’re not spoiled.?” Beyond her refurbishing of the Presidential residence, it was Jacqueline’s fashion choices which are still celebrated even today. In May of 2001, I had the good fortune of seeing a comprehensive exhibit at the Met in New York, Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years. I still recall the hundreds of visitors waiting to get in. In the spirit of camaraderie that develops among those that are sharing a long wait, I was soon chatting freely with the people around me. Suddenly, from somewhere along the line, someone asked when the exhibition was closing. Hearing the answer, “July 29”, I found myself saying out loud “That’s the day after her birthday!” I know it is silly, but I must admit that I take some pride in the fact that many heads had turned around to see the pathetic creature who had nothing better to do than to memorize Mrs Kennedy’s bio-data. The exhibit was fascinating and yet also a little strange. People crowded around the individual displays, looking worshipfully at the clothes on headless mannequins atop pedestals – like beholding the decapitated statue of the Goddess Nike! Clearly, this was not, for many, simply a museum show. It was a pilgrimage. Perhaps a number in the audience may have been recalling what they were doing at the time these dresses and gowns were being worn by the First Lady. What were their thoughts and dreams in those years? The exhibition catalogue mentions the criticism generated because Jackie was seen to favor European designers and how she turned to patronizing American couturiers as a result. One learns that a gown was confectioned from fabric presented by the King of Saudi Arabia. There is also the fact that for her India trip, Jackie knew to choose hot pink,

a stunning yellow and the orange of saffron to match the teeming cityscapes of Jaipur and Udaipur. The Givency gown in which, at the great dinner in Versailles, Jackie would win over De Gaulle and the French nation, is described in a way that makes it clear that what was involved was not just taste but anthropology: “Like its wearer, it managed to register as both a vision of modernity and a palimpsest of historical references, suggesting by turns a Venetian domino, a Kabuki robe, and … a costume in a Watteau painting”. One went away from the exhibit with a sense that, for Jacqueline, style was hard work. What did Mrs Kennedy’s husband make of all of this? There was, at first, the cliché of manly bemusement at the excesses of a young wife. His mother-in-law recalls his comment when she came upon him in the midst of one of Jackie’s makeovers involving whole rooms being redone in a sandy hue: “Mrs. Auchincloss, do you think we're prisoners of beige?” Eventually, President Kennedy would prove to be keenly aware of the importance of Jackie’s artistic programs. Roy Caroll Jr, head of the American Institute of Architects, praised him for being one of the few presidents who “ had a vision of what architecture and its allied arts can mean to the people of the nation”. Kennedy, himself, would intone in a speech that he saw “little of more importance to the future of our country…than full recognition of the place of the artist.” He went on to say that “I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty… which will preserve the great old American houses and squares…and which will build… balanced cities in the future. I look forward to an America that will reward accomplishment in the arts as we reward achievement in business….” During the Kennedy administration, steps were taken that would lead to the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts. It is the Kennedy couple’s support for cultural programs that is one of their most enduring legacies. How wonderful to see a president and a first lady that deeply cared about arts promotion and heritage preservation as main planks of their administration platform. In contrast, concern for the arts is still seen as being politically inexpedient in our own country. I recall being part of a promotional trip where one of the highest tourism officials in our country said that going near museums made him feverish. Although I can fully understand that seeing exhibits may not be at the top of everyone’s list, I think that it is completely unacceptable that a globally savvy public servant would dare say such a thing in the 21st century. In a way, John and Jackie helped establish the standard for such matters. As expressed by Diana Vreeland, they “released a positive attitude toward culture, toward style… and since then we’ve never gone back.” Fifteen years after her death, one understands better that Mrs Kennedy’s carefully nurtured image was the result of her own efforts as well as an artifact fabricated by the broader culture in which she was embedded. The existence of so many versions of events in her life is a tell-tale sign that so much about Jackie was a myth, propagated by the media. For example, the New York Times and the Kennedy Center cite different dates for the now legendary initial meeting of the future First Couple. Roland Barthes, in his seminal analysis of the fashion system, describes what he calls the Woman of Fashion as someone who vacations in foreign climes, travels with her husband

and knows little of budgets. She represents the “compromise between mass culture and its consumers” in that she projects an image of innocence which helps attract readers who feel that she represents them even as she also represents who they want to become. Ironically, much of what Barthes says rings true for Jackie. Her manufactured persona was actually a powerful weapon that America may use to assert its dominance in world affairs. Mrs Kennedy could be deployed to project an image of a victorious country capable of going anywhere it wanted, conquering hearts and markets. Just like Graham Greene’s Quiet American who secretly spoke Vietnamese, Jackie was presented in news accounts as felling whole nations with her knowledge of community history and a few whispered words in the native tongue. America was mastering the global by winning over the local. In this light, my smugness at knowing her birthday could now be seen as a manifestation of how I had been led to feel that I had a connection with Jackie. Yet, what I was unwittingly revealing was that, just like her millions of fans all over the planet, I was now fertile ground for the commercial messages which she also represented. Jackie’s image is, after all, a potent instrument of the consumerist world machine, exploited, beyond her control, by fashion empires. This is best illustrated by the fact that her fake pearls which she had bought for 35 dollars would, after her death, be sold at auction for more than 200,000. Moreover, the buyer would later parlay ownership of this iconic piece of jewelry to build a great fortune, selling duplicates to the tune of 26 million more dollars. To her credit, Jackie tried to distance herself from this global orgy of mass media and consumption. Later in life, she refused to give interviews, fiercely guarding her privacy and that of her family. Perhaps she knew that interviews would only add to the global industry that had sprung up around her. She fought those that tried to benefit commercially from her husband’s legacy. She even sued a writer who she had initially agreed to assist, possibly because he may not have disclosed that he would earn more than half of a million dollars from his work on the Kennedy assassination. Mrs Kennedy, the ultimate fashion icon, came to favor the simplest of clothes to the extent that she went to the office in slacks and sweaters. I myself am too young to recall what she wore while at the White House. What I vividly remember instead is this luminous image of a Jackie resplendent in modest jeans, hair disheveled, energized by the wind. Future generations will be kind to Jacqueline Kennedy. For she was a woman who made history because she tried her best to assure that history would not unmake her and all that she stood for.