To use one of Jacqueline Kennedy’s words: ghastly.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art has yielded its authority to
Condé Nast and the dastardly, foppish Hamish Bowles so as to present Mrs.
Kennedy as a simp. Sadly, the late First Lady’s words and actions in her early
30’s are accessible to such a view, and so you walk out of the Metropolitan
with a sense-surely a false one-that she was
the most superficial woman ever to live in the White House.
The muse to this blockbuster show would seem to be Vogue cover girl Gwyneth Paltrow. Oddly
sexless, passive, larval, shadowed by her husband’s seriousness of mind, Mrs.
Kennedy is in the thrall of fashion magazines and “Oleg,” the second-rate
Cassini, who used the prestige association Mrs. Kennedy gave him to go
downmarket the rest of his career. Like Ms. Paltrow, Mrs. Kennedy comes off
here as a well-connected snob without anything to say, who seems to insult
common people every time she would address them and is surrounded by flatterers
in bow ties, from John Kenneth Galbraith to Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who demean
everyone by talking about how smart she is.
It reminds me of my 11-year-old friend who had dinner with
Cameron Diaz on a movie set not long ago. The two chattered away. Later she was
asked what Ms. Diaz is like. “She’s getting hair extensions!” came the
That is in essence Hamish Bowles’ take. The surprise is that
Vogue ‘s European editor-at-large’s
view of Mrs. Kennedy as a coy and vacuous clotheshorse has been endorsed by the
Metropolitan and, worse, the Kennedy Library in Boston.
“What does my hairdo have
to do with my husband’s ability to be President?” she says in a “Campaign Wife”
newspaper column. “Actually I’ve always loved clothes, and when I’ve had the
time I’ve enjoyed the universal feminine sport of shopping around from store to
store and looking for new styles in the women’s magazines.”
When she has the time … it is all that Mrs. Kennedy, or her
puppet master, care about. The choice of her dresser, in December 1960,
precipitates a crisis.
“Thank heaven all the furor is over,” she says to Mr.
Cassini in a letter embarking on their partnership. “Now I know how Jack feels
when he has told three people they can be Sec at State! … ARE YOU SURE YOU ARE
UP TO IT OLEG? PLEASE SAY YES.”
This letter is laid out in a vitrine, for nine pages,
providing the mob the sort of detail that only a fashion editor could relish.
“1. I wired Bergdorf to send you my measurements ….
“3. Diana Vreeland will call you …. “
Later, the trip to India is empty of all concerns but what
“I must play Holi with Nehru which means squirting colored
water at each other …,” Mrs. Kennedy titters, growing serious when she receives
the typewritten itinerary, which she goes over fastidiously with a pen, to say
what she will wear on every occasion.
“Chanel brocade … Cotton Tassell print … Mauve Zuckerman
The designer Gustave Tassell was a come-down born of crisis.
“I wouldn’t have gotten involved
with Tassell if at one point I was leaving for India in about three weeks and
Oh, but she will take the long view.
“It is really harder than organising the Pentagon to
organise all these clothes.”
Note the continental spelling. And the Paris-centered world
view. And the somberly pompous tones of French-born Philippe de Montebello on
the audiophone. Francophiles haven’t had it so good since they gave us the
The curators say Mrs.
Kennedy furthered American diplomacy. But in spite of the Tassell print, India
and Pakistan went to war, and the sleeveless bodice in leaf green cannot
prevent the wearer from kissing the ass of a dictator, and kissing it
“I know that the wife of a politician should be discrete and
learn to qualify every statement,” Mrs. Kennedy writes to the Mexican
president. “But I keep wishing that some little man with a microphone would run
up to me and ask, which is your favorite country and people in the world?-and I
would throw discretion to the winds and say ‘Mexico’….
“Now I think your face is noble and sad-and I have seen
earlier pictures where you were always laughing …. It always hurts me to see
how hard is the life of great men-but then I think that no true man is happy
unless he does with his life something of value. That must be your consolation
You will say it is about clothes; it’s a show about clothes
And yes, Mrs. Kennedy had incredible style. That is
undeniable. Impeccable taste. Ravishing beauty. Cobra-cold instincts. Her
decisions about the White House decor were dead-on, a point Mr. Bowles drives
home humorously in the catalog with a photograph of the Eisenhower’s Sun
Parlor, which might as well have been in Boca. (“I wish the British would burn
the White House again so that we could start all over,” Mrs. Kennedy sighs when
she is done.)
The show captures the feeling of giddy liberation that Mrs.
Kennedy brought to the nation after a long rain of dowdiness. Mamie Eisenhower,
Bess Truman, Eleanor, Lou Hoover, Grace Coolidge.
But if you press the
point, Mrs. Kennedy’s style had its limitations. And this show presses the
point, insists so much that Clothes Made the Woman that by insisting it exposes
those limits. The pillbox hats grew boring and relentless. All the waist bows
came to seem prim and chaste: Don’t-open-me-till-Christmas. The Empire waist
was not a signature but a failure of imagination. So formal and stiff. There
was rarely a moment of spontaneity or humor.
And so perfect: The show’s belief that Mrs. Kennedy never
made a mistake underlines that point. She never made a mistake. Creative people
make mistakes. Her style was not especially creative.
Besides, the show is not just about clothes. It’s called Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years .
It purports to describe a prominent woman and her era, with the help of the
Kennedy Library and Museum. By accepting that charge, then forcing so many of
Mrs. Kennedy’s sheltered asides in our face, the museum has made those years
out as shallow. And made Eleanor Roosevelt look like a goddess, and Hillary
Clinton look sage.
The Clintons. Their
shadow is here, too. How can you move through these rooms and watch Mrs.
Kennedy leave privileged girlhood and recede into an adult, coldly opaque
privacy; observe the famous appearance with Charles Collingwood on CBS
describing her changes to the White House, in which she seems affectless, her
voice a bare peep; and at last come on her wooden letter to her husband
recruiting him in the saving of the Abu Simbel site in Egypt-“Memo to JFK …
Opinion of Mrs. Kennedy … I think they will now be satisfied with an expression
of the President’s support”-how can you move through these rooms without
wondering about the ravages of that relationship?
After all, our country
has just now concluded a White House tour in which former girlfriends talked
about sexual addiction and cigars. Too much, yes-still, there was a kind of
insight there about the First Couple.
Now Hamish Bowles has
walked in on the primal scene and covered his eyes. That doesn’t mean we can.
When Mrs. Kennedy’s society secretary, Letitia Baldrige, seems to steer Mrs.
Kennedy one way or another in her firm and icy voice (also on the audiophone),
I hear the harbinger of Evelyn Lieberman, patrolling the hallways against
Monica Lewinsky. Mrs. Kennedy at the end of this show is a starkly different
woman from the Campaign Wife at the beginning, and the improvements are not
just the pale blue tablecloths that in Mrs. Baldrige’s understanding “caused a
revolution,” but Mrs. Kennedy’s awareness of the marriage she was in.
I have no idea how large that awareness was; still, it gives
this person, and her show, some gravity.
That oversight may be excused in the name of discretion, but
Mr. Bowles makes a truly grave error in eliminating all discussion of the
assassination, except for a photograph of the First Couple in the open car
which-placed as it is at the end of the exhibit-he would like to be haunting
and tasteful. It only serves to remind us of what he has left out.
The assassination occasioned Mrs. Kennedy’s noblest moments
as First Lady. The Mrs. Kennedy who flew with her husband’s body back from
Dallas was a far more compelling person than the lady who panicked over the
wrong Bessarabian carpet. This is the Mrs. Kennedy who supremely coordinated
the state funeral, which is nowhere depicted here, and helped not only her
family but the nation stumble forward; a woman who, in the throes of grief,
studied Lincoln’s funeral so that she might serve us.
And the same woman who, stripped of silliness and
entitlement, saved Grand Central Station by throwing herself down before little
“Is it not cruel to let
our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud monuments, until there will
be nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children?” she
wrote to the Mayor.
“History and beauty”-such thrilling words. The Metropolitan