NEW YORK — She was, quite simply, the chicest First Lady ever.
But Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis was far more. She became a cultural icon like no other, bigger than any movie star and indelibly imprinted on the American psyche. And she carefully preserved her status to the end.
She wasn’t the most beautiful woman. In fact, there were many who didn’t find her particularly attractive. She was also said to be tight with a dollar — at least until she met Aristotle Onassis. She could be snobbish, especially with people she didn’t consider intellectually or socially significant. And the whispery, little-girl voice that forced her listeners to stand close made some men crumble and others laugh.
But God, did she have style! She came along at just the right moment in history, when the country was just emerging from the staid, stolid Fifties. Decades younger than her two immediate predecessors, Bess Truman and Mamie Eisenhower, she was a breath of fashion fresh air. From the beige Halston pillbox she wore to John F. Kennedy’s inauguration — with a fawn Oleg Cassini dress and coat trimmed in sable — to the sleek white Carolina Herrera pantsuit she sported only a few months ago, Jackie O always looked impeccable.
“She was American style at its best,” said Karl Lagerfeld Thursday. “She had magnetism. Everything looked wonderful on her. She gave a really top-class look a timeless elegance.” Though Mrs. Onassis had been suffering from cancer for some time, her passing seemed to take everyone by surprise. Shock, disbelief and sadness were the dominant reactions. There was a sense that she would go on forever, just as she had reinvented herself repeatedly during her life. While those around her stumbled and passed from the world stage, Jackie always managed to keep her footing and stay on top.
And that wasn’t easy. In the years following the assassination of President Kennedy, his reputation took an unrelenting nose dive as stories of marital infidelity and ill-considered White House policies filled book after book. And Jackie’s marriage to Aristotle Onassis drove nearly everyone crazy, especially those who thought she should stay the lily-white widow of a martyred President.
Onassis was viewed as nasty, crass and ugly — not to mention much too old. The rumors of Jackie’s unbridled spending convinced many that she was a fortune-hunter. Certainly her stepdaughter Christina thought so. She dismissively bought Jackie off with $23 million when Aristotle Onassis died in 1976 — estranged from his wife.
But Jackie ignored it all, and recreated herself as a career woman, first at Viking and then at Doubleday. Then there was her work on behalf of several charities, particularly those preserving historic buildings and benefiting the American Ballet Theater. She built a house on Martha’s Vineyard, and bought another in New Jersey horse country, where she indulged her passion for riding.
She also took a new lover — multimillionaire diamond mogul Maurice Templesman, who happened to be married. Her style changed, too. Though she was certainly still glamourous, her new look was notably low-key. Yet anybody who ever went to an event she attended was startled by the waves and waves of flashes from the paparazzi.
Everyone, regardless of age, has an image of Jackie O, whether it’s in the pink Chez Ninon copy of a Chanel suit she wore on the day JFK was shot in Dallas or the pale green crepe Herrera dress she wore to Caroline’s 1986 wedding. There were the boxy little suits and coats that were Jackie’s White House signature; the sleek, sleeveless evening gown she wore to the Paris Opera on a state visit to France, and the simple, skinny little T-shirts in every color of the rainbow and soft Valentino dresses that were her Seventies trademarks. She was a major source of inspiration for fashion designers.
“She was a great lady in our history and has been a model for American women for years, such an example of elegance and discretion,” said Valentino, adding, “She was the star of my career.”
“Jackie was American style for the past 30 years,” said Carolina Herrera. “She was brave, beautiful and classical, and a model for millions of people around the world. And Jackie was as beautiful inside as out. Her manners were impeccable, just as her loyalty and friendship were to her friends.”
“She really was an extraordinary person,” said Oscar de la Renta. “Annette has been sick, and as little as three weeks ago, Jackie called me twice to see how she was doing. That, to me, is just unbelievable — that at this time in her life she would take the trouble to be so concerned. She had the best manners of anyone I know.
“I think, probably unwillingly, she became the sweetheart of America, an example to every American woman of how to look and conduct oneself,” de la Renta added. “The fascination stayed strong because, as she retreated into private life, there was more and more curiosity about her, and more admiration. She always behaved beautifully — a wonderful mother, with a tremendous sense of family.”
“In one of my memories of her,” said Ralph Lauren, “she called because she wanted to do a book with me. She came to my office and we talked, and ended up sitting on the floor discussing things that we liked and looking at pictures. I then walked her out and kissed her goodbye. It was just such a nice meeting and a unique memory.”
“She did more for American fashion than everybody else before or after her in recent history,” said Isaac Mizrahi. “I feel like I was formatively influenced by her just because my mother was inspired by her. She was probably the first and last real First Lady. She was a perfect American symbol. Even 8 years ago, when Caroline was married, she looked unbelievable — so impeccable. And five years ago, I saw her at a movie premiere and it was the same.”
“I remember being in Australia; she was the first one to have style that I was aware of,” recalled Richard Tyler. “She had such an impact on my generation — she really made an impression. She made American fashion understandable with her hats, the whole Halston thing, her suits. She gave you confidence about the future, because all the other First Ladies had been these sort of fussy old ladies.”
“Growing up in Mexico, I read about her all the time, and on my first trip to New York — my first day in New York — I was walking into Bergdorf Goodman as she was walking out,” said Victor Alfaro. “It was her presence you noticed, and that’s the way it should be. There are very few women who have had that kind of impact all over the world, not just in terms of fashion, but the grace and aura that go beyond words.”
“She was our princess,” said Todd Oldham. “She was really one of the true beacons of taste, style and hope. I think she will forever influence people in that way, even if she’s not on the planet. She had impeccable style — it comes no cleaner and no more beautiful than hers. She looked fabulous in just trousers and a turtleneck. She was a great example that style is the way you carry yourself.”
“She was never obvious or overdone. She had really clean, simple, elegant taste and style,” said Marc Jacobs. “She’s influenced everybody. When you talk about all those awful, cliched words that people think of in terms of fashion — style, elegance, taste, quality — well, she was the plus side of those things.”
“She had a very personal style, very modern, but also casual,” said Gianfranco Ferre. “She always looked good at every moment, without being ostentatious — but she and the President were both like that, very natural.”
“I liked her immensely,” said Adolfo. “She was a marvelous, charming lady with great style and great taste. She had a great impact on the style of a generation of women.”
“She did for the American fashion image what no one else has done,” said Gianni Versace. “She created a real pure gold image for America. To me, she was always perfect — she refused to be in the spotlight, but she was anyway, and that’s a real star. She was never out of fashion. She dressed and moved with a natural star quality.”