Jacqueline Kennedy lived for 30 years after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, but she’ll always be engraved into the collective American memory for how she looked and acted on Nov. 22, 1963.
In her pink Chanel suit and matching pillbox hat, she evoked an image that will never fade.
That day in Texas, which started so engagingly in Fort Worth before the short flight to Dallas, was a campaign lap for her husband’s re-election the following year, as well as a showcase for the young, vibrant president and his stylish wife.
It was also a moment for Jacqueline Kennedy to shine as a political asset. The tragic day that followed, however, became her defining moment, when she showed courage and grace through an event that wrenched the country.
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Usually a reluctant campaigner, she emerged at a breakfast that morning in Fort Worth, fashionably late – reportedly by design – the better to stand out in her pink wool boucle suit with the navy lapels among the rows of Texans in their gray and brown suits.
The president, asked beforehand outside the Hotel Texas where she was, said, “Mrs. Kennedy is organizing herself. It takes longer. But of course she looks better than we do after she does it.” At the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce breakfast, sitting with Vice President Lyndon Johnson, he quipped, “Nobody asks what Lyndon and I wear.”
John Kennedy had actually asked her to wear the suit – a licensed version of a Chanel creation bought in a New York boutique – according to first lady expert Carl Sferrazza Anthony. The media-conscious president realized that she’d be eye-catching in pink during the motorcade and at televised events.
Indeed, she was, but in ways no one could have anticipated.
From the moment the first couple arrived at Dallas Love Field, Jacqueline Kennedy, framed by a bouquet of red roses, was the focus of attention, instantly noticed by the crowd as the limousine made its way through the city to Dealey Plaza, where, on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, Lee Harvey Oswald was about to change the course of history
“It was a beautiful suit. She had a clear sense of pageantry,” said Pamela Keogh, the author of the book “Jackie Style.” “Jackie’s style was upper-class American, Eastern seaboard, athletic and sporty.”
When the shots echoed across Dealey Plaza, the first lady reached for the president, and after the third shot, which struck his head, she crawled out on the rear of the car. According to “A Cruel and Shocking Act,” by Philip Shenon, a Warren Commission interview of Secret Service agent Clint Hill – who jumped on the car and pushed her down – reveals that she was trying to grab what was apparently a piece of the president’s skull. Hill said they retrieved the “portion of the president’s head” the next day from a Dallas street.
Jacqueline Kennedy kept her composure, and insisted on wearing the stained pink suit with her husband’s blood and brain matter on it for the rest of the day; for the swearing-in of Johnson on Air Force One, the flight home and the return to the White House.
“Let them see what they have done to Jack,” she told Lady Bird Johnson and others.
“She became a figure of tragedy, as did the suit,” said Keogh, who called it “a tragic talisman.”
Today, the suit, never cleaned, is held by the National Archives in College Park, Md., not to be displayed for 100 years, according to the deed signed by daughter Caroline Kennedy in 2003. The suit, her blue blouse, stockings, blue shoes and blue purse, are, according to a National Archives release, “stored in a custom made acid-free box in a temperature- and humidity-controlled storage area.”
The custom-made pillbox hat disappeared, although it was last known to be in the possession of Jackie Kennedy’s personal secretary, Mary Gallagher.
“Mrs. Kennedy had already established herself with her televised tour and restoration of the White House, and she was clearly one of the most beautiful first ladies in American history,” said Larry Sabato, a presidential scholar who’s the author of “The Kennedy Half Century.” “But her greatest contribution came on those four tragic days in November 1963. On the flight back from Dallas, despite her shock and grief, she began planning three days of services that were exquisite.”
She based the service and regal burial on the rites for President Abraham Lincoln, also felled by an assassin’s bullet. With the riderless horse and procession through the capital, it was a symbolic connection that resonated with the public. She added a French touch: the eternal flame that burns from a gas line at the grave site. The first lady had seen it at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
“She was already on her way to iconization,” said Nancy Beck Young, a University of Houston historian who specializes in 20th-century political history and first ladies. “The assassination solidifies it and makes her into a tragic figure.”
The day of the killing and Jacqueline Kennedy’s image are intertwined in the American memory. “She’s this gorgeous woman, immaculately dressed in a very attractive suit,” Young said. “Her husband’s brains are splattered on her suit and she purposely doesn’t change clothes. She’s making a statement.”
Jacqueline Kennedy wanted the public never to forget the president or how he died. In so doing, she remains unforgettable.