It was, her friends warned, a match made not in heaven, but she said he was saving her from darkness, so on Oct. 20, 1968 Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, widowed only five years when her husband, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, married Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis, who had wanted to stick it to the Americans.
Even in the time before social media, it was the buzz of the world, an odd pairing to many who didn’t see what she did in the much smaller Onassis, leading to American newspaper headlines declaring shock, dismay, and weeping that the United States had lost an icon to a foreigner.
The news was greeted almost with grief, not joy, in America when Jackie, as she was known, put on a simple wedding dress, entered a candlelit chapel on the island of Skorpios that Onassis owned, took her vows and instantly became Jackie O.
It was a still tumultuous time, the wedding coming only six months after JFK’s brother, Robert Kennedy, was assassinated in Los Angeles after winning the California primary, seemingly on a path to succeed his brother and become the next President Kennedy, and, with many children in the extended family, setting up an American political dynasty.
It was not to be and despite her claims that Onassis rescued her from loneliness and near-despair, Jackie looked anything but happy as, at age 38, she was pictured towering over Onassis as the vows were taken, family and friends crowded behind them.
In an instant, the world’s most beloved widow became almost a pariah to those who still loved her but not her marriage.
Onassis was one of the richest men of his times, owning Olympic Airlines, a shipping empire and with vast holdings in oil, gold, and real estate and was engaged in a long-term love affair with opera singer Maria Callas, who was devastated he deserted her for Jackie Kennedy, with rumors flying he had also bedded her younger sister, Lee Radziwill, who took her to Onassis’ yacht in 1963, before JFK’s killing in Dallas.
Jackie was depressed and she looked it, losing her husband and third child, Patrick, who was born prematurely but JFK didn’t like the idea of Jackie going on the trip, The Washington Post said in a recall of the wedding anniversary, as the President thought it would be unseemly, giving in when he hoped that some time in the Aegean off Greece would help restore her spirits.
Then came Nov. 22, 1963 in Dallas and the President was taken by the sniper’s bullets from Lee Harvey Oswald, the frozen horror image of her blood-soaked pink Chanel suit as she scrambled to see what had happened to her husband.
She was 34 and refused to take off the suit saying, “I want them to see what they have done to Jack,” earning her the admiration and respect of a nation for her strength before the marriage to Onassis turned it to scorn for many.
The country had idolized her, and now the country needed her to hold all people together,” wrote Donald Spoto, one of her many biographers. “Her sense of history, her dignity, and her refusal to think only of herself: it was she who brought order to the chaos,” the Post reported.
Life, of course, goes on and time and tide and politics and social gossip stop for no man – or woman – and Jackie moved into the uncomfortable position of Widow Emeritus, her every moment still watched by a fascinated world as she moved from the White House to the Upper East Side of New York City, trying to find her fit in a world without Jack and raise their children.
“Her legion of admirers kept her like a butterfly in amber and never wanted her to do anything that would change their adoration of a brave, bereaved woman who was dedicated to her children,” Spoto wrote.
Then came Onassis. To his vilifiers, he was a hyena who pounced on her when she was weak – she said otherwise, and he fit into the odd position of courting the world’s most famous woman whose style he couldn’t match but whose money he could, and surpass.
The paper cited journalist Peter Evans’s book Nemesis: The True Story, describing a long-running love pentagon and power struggle among Onassis, Jackie, her sister Lee, JFK and brother, Bobby, a/k/a RFK, claiming Radziwill’s alleged affair with Onassis sparked a business-related grudge with Bobby who, along with JFK, couldn’t stand the Greek tycoon.
Four months after Bobby too was taken by an assassin’s bullet, rumors started spreading about Jackie and Onassis and her friends quivered. “Not a single friend thought Jackie should marry Onassis,” Evans wrote. “But now that Bobby was gone, there was no one who could stop her.”
The buzz was that Jackie wanted Onassis’ money more than him but those close to her said she felt lonely, especially at night, and longed for a partner and someone to be with as she raised her children in the incessant spotlight of Being Jackie.
Her personal assistant at the time, Kathy McKeon, told the paper that, “A lot of people said, ‘Oh, my God, what did she marry that guy for? But he was a good father to John and Caroline,” Jackie’s children, McKeon remembered. “He would sit with them at the dining room table and ask how was school. He might have been an older man, but he paid attention to them, and they loved him.”
Before she knew what happened, McKeon said she was on a plane to Greece and to Skorpios for the wedding before a close cadre of family and friends, Jackie wearing flat shoes so as not to tower even more over the diminutive who stood only 5-5 to her 5-7. What couldn’t be disguised was the 23-year age difference nor the heartbreak the wedding brought Callas.
Jackie told McKeon about the surprise wedding just 72 hours ahead of time, her assistant told People magazine. After she helped Caroline and John pack for the trip, McKeon told her boss she didn’t have anything to wear on the trip and Jackie gave her a white coat, which McKeon later recognized as one Jackie had been photographed wearing.
When the family finally arrived in Greece, McKeon remembers Onassis clasping some blue worry beads, rubbing them back and forth in his hands, as he greeted them.
Once on Skorpios, they took golf carts to the chapel, which was too crowded for McKeon to go inside, so she waited in the hallway with the Secret Service.
For two people of such world stature, the ceremony was simple and in a small chapel lit only by candles, with guests then boarding Onassis’ yacht for a floating reception as US newspapers wondered whether the now Jackie O would be excommunicated by the Catholic Church for her marriage in a Greek Orthodox setting and ceremony, to a divorced man whose first wife was still alive, his legendary philandering notwithstanding.
“Jackie, How Could You?” one headline put it but she later defended her decision, and him, saying that Onassis “rescued me at a moment when my life was engulfed in shadows,” the world not understanding her loneliness. Despite that, the odd couple pairing and her almost stony countenance led to endless speculation of how much genuine happiness, if any, was involved as they quickly returned to what seemed like separate lives although McKeon told The Post that when they were together they’d sit together in the evenings drinking champagne and eating Jiffy Pop popcorn.
Then the lives unraveled again when in 1973 Onassis’ son died in a plane crash, sucking the life out of Onassis, whose health deteriorated and he lasted only until 1975, dying of respiratory failure and Jackie O was a widow again, still only 45 years old.
She settled back into New York, which embraced her, recognized her, and left her alone, becoming a book editor who avoided the press, taking another partner, diamond merchant Maurice Tempelsman but never marrying again.