Parallel Gallery
and Journal

By the Light of the Eternal Flame David Broker

1. When Jacqueline Lee Bouvier was born in 1929 there was no star to guide wise men in the direction of her gilded bassinette. Her death in May 1994 however, was widely pronounced as the 'passing of an icon' and notwithstanding the argument that icons don't pass, it is clear that during the 64 years in between something extraordinary had happened.

2. In her lifetime she had become a work of art, an elegantly crafted commodity for public consumption, the living (breathy) creation of a myriad of artists. She was of course, the subject of many artworks manifest in a variety of media. Overwhelmingly however, she was an object mounted in the gallery of mass imagination to be looked at, appreciated, and analysed.

3. We have become accustomed to the view that the way a work of art is received is never static and that the many variables at work render representation impossible. Even with this in mind Jackie was no Mona Lisa whose single image functions within the discourses pertinent to the traditional portrait. For a meaningful comparison it is necessary to consider Oscar Wilde's portentous fantasy The Portrait of Dorian Gray. As her life became disengaged from her continually-changing likeness a vast audience hungry for her image invented the persona of Jacqueline Kennedy, First Lady of the United States and (until Diana Princess of Wales) the most photographed woman in the world.

4. Camelot existed before Jackie took up residence in Pennsylvania Avenue transforming the White House into a meeting place for the 'knights of the realm'. Joseph P. Kennedy, patriarch and architect of his family's elevation from Irish Catholic immigrants to a dynasty worthy of an American royalty, had long looked upon the presidential dwelling as something of a Holy Grail. For Joseph Kennedy the supremacy that accompanied a huge fortune was trifling, only the glory sustained by political power could satisfy his insatiable lust.

5. Jacqueline Bouvier had not so much been accepted as a member of the Kennedy family as considered an appropriate foil for the rise of Kennedy's eldest living son John F. Kennedy. Thus her image was nurtured in an environment where actuality and public presence had been dislocated. Kennedy senior had instilled in his exceedingly publicity-conscious family the philosophy that it's not what you are, but what people think you are. Jackie brought the appearance of grace and beauty into the fold of what she viewed initially as a bunch of 'gorillas'.

6. Said Anita Fay: "From the first time I met her I felt I was in the presence of a very great actress."(1)

7. In the beginning Jackie's public persona was the product of photography and text with a plethora of high-profile magazines and books recording and interpreting her every move. As a member of the Kennedy family she gained a leading role in a living soap opera which represented the American Dream at a time when the dream was more than slightly tarnished. The Kennedys stood for a new beginning where youth, beauty, power and wealth seemed to be the way of the future. In offering her image as a complement to their artifice she also acquiesced to their burgeoning tragedy.

8. Greater than the texts unleashed by the camera however were those of television, the ascendancy of which paralleled that of the Kennedys. Marshall McLuhan recognised the forces at work citing a theory of synesthesia, or "unified sense and imaginative life."(2) John F. Kennedy exploited this power in an orgy of image manipulation which sealed his quest for political dominance. And Jackie, exemplar of the 1960s dream hostess, soon after his narrow victory in 1960 presidential race, secured a place in American mythology through her mega-rating special tour of the White House.

9. While Jackie was popular at home and idolised abroad, especially in France where her French connection was seen as significant, throughout 'the one thousand day presidency' she had remained largely a counterpoint to her husband's political prowess. It was not until his assassination in Dallas in November of 1963 that, when suddenly alone, her sense of drama became abundantly clear. Indelible images, as she climbed on to the back of the presidential limousine to shield her bullet-ridden husband from further assault(3) and her chilling disembarkation from Air Force One in the opprobrious brain-splattered pink suit (minus the matching hat), became etched onto an American (and global) psyche.

10. Before an estimated 180,000,000 viewers her 'performance' throughout the funeral of the century was superlative. Stoicism seemed to percolate through the opacity of the black veil which concealed her tears from a widowed world. "Mourning became this American Electra."(4)

11. In his essay The Holy Family Gore Vidal solidified Jackie's trajectory of mythologization in the reified moulds of Isis, Aphrodite and the Madonna.(5) Soon after JFK's funeral President Lyndon Johnson was compelled to comment: "On that unforgettable weekend in November, 1963, television provided a personal experience which all could share, a vast religious service which all could attend, a unifying bond which all could feel."(6) In short, TV had provided the opportunity for a catharsis on a scale the ancient Greek tragedian could only have dreamed.

12. Tragedy stalks the demi-god. Following the assassination of Bobby Kennedy at the Californian Primary of 1968 Jackie seemed to tire of her exalted role in American mythology. Before she left for Greece to be with a shipping magnate named Aristotle she was heard to 'whisper', "I despise America ...". To the horror of all, the icon had descended, expressed her displeasure to the congregation, and gone on a spending spree with an unattractive and arguably more common man than any produced by the Kennedys.

13. Many commentators have regarded the flight to Greece as something of a fall from grace. In retrospect however, Jackie's image was not rejected; rather, her representation moved into a phase of transition. Anonymity remained elusive and a new mask emerged, feverishly assembled by the same media that had beatified her only a few years hence. Thus Mrs Kennedy became Jackie O, Queen of the Jet Set, proclaiming a shift in the production of previous desires. Having been freed from the shackles of saintliness, she became, absolutely, famous.

14. It was this pervasive fame that fascinated Andy Warhol who saw that in what ever guise, Jackie was pure POP. In his works where she is the object Warhol recognises her steadfast representational function and while that changes, as a living artwork she continued to be a saleable item on the market of desire. In Andy Warhol's Exposures he recalls a visit to the Brooklyn Museum accompanied by Jackie and her sister Lee. "As we walked through the galleries every person recognised Jackie. They didn't come too close. They stopped for a minute, looked, and whispered. You could hear her name in the air: "Jackie, Jackie.""(7) In the museum, artifice became artefact.

15. If there was any doubt in respect of the continuing popularity of Jackie's image, death and the supervening emphasis on biography brought about reconciliation. Poisonous eulogies such as that of iconoclast Julie Burchill's The Ice Queen which describe her as "... snooty, cold, selfish and greedy" have little effect in holding back the tide of legend.(8) While Burchill, and indeed others, attempt to consider their subject as a real person, ironically it is only those who have immersed themselves in the myth who seem to be telling the 'true' story.

16. She died, we are told, as she had lived "... the most private of public persons, a delicate glow in the harshly lit landscape of American celebrity."(9) Her final partner of ten years Maurice Templesman was relegated a position of irrelevance as the body of Jacqueline Bouvier-Kennedy-Onassis was returned to the 'Kennedy compound'. And so, by the light of the eternal flame at Arlington National Cemetery, Jackie went back to Jack.

1. Peter Collier and David Horowitz, The Kennedys, An American Drama, USA, Pan, 1984 p. 241
2. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, London: Abacus, 1964, p. 336
3. Less generous commentators have suggested that she was actually making a run for it.
4. Julie Burchill, The Ice Queen, The Courier-Mail, Saturday, June 11, 1994
5. Gore Vidal, Collected Essays 1952-1971, London: Heinemann, 1969, p. 236
6. Jay S. Harris (ed), America's Long Vigil, TV Guide: The First 25 Years, New York: New American Library, 1978, p. 82
7. Andy Warhol, Andy Warhol's Exposures, London: Hutchinson & Co, 1979
8. Burchill, ibid.
9. Martha Duffy, A Profile in Courage, Time Magazine, May 30 1994, No. 22
David Broker is an Adelaide-based writer. This piece was first published in CT Arts 9, Melbourne, 1994.