Jacqueline Kennedy: First Lady of the United States

On January 20, 1961, John Fitzgerald Kennedy took the oath of office to become the nation's 35th president. At age 31, Jacqueline Kennedy was the first lady. With her gracious personal style and her passion for history and the arts, she worked hard to be worthy of her new role. While she had a deep sense of obligation to her country, her first priorities were to be a good wife to her husband and mother to her children. She told a reporter that "if you bungle raising your children, I don't think whatever else you do well matters very much."

Restoring the White House

Mrs. Kennedy soon set about making the White House into a real home for her family. She turned the sun porch on the third floor into a kindergarten school for Caroline and 12 to 15 other children, who came every morning at 9:30. There was also a swimming pool, a swing set, and a tree house on the White House lawn for Caroline and John Jr. White House Blue Room after restoration, 24 January 1963.

Mrs. Kennedy also thought about what the White House represented to its many visitors and to citizens everywhere. She wanted people to have a greater appreciation of the history of America's most famous residence and its past inhabitants. Her first major project as first lady was to restore and preserve the White House. She enlisted the aid of many experts, established a White House Fine Arts Committee, and created the post of White House curator. Gathering outstanding examples of American art and furniture from around the United States (including many items that had belonged to former presidents and their families), she restored all the public rooms in the White House. CBS Television asked Mrs. Kennedy to present a televised tour of the newly restored White House. Eighty million Americans watched the broadcast, and it earned Jacqueline Kennedy an honorary Emmy Award.

Promoting the Arts

The Kennedys brought a new, youthful spirit to the White House, which they believed should be a place to celebrate American history, culture, and achievement. As first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy planned important dinners and events at the White House and invited artists, writers, scientists, poets, and musicians to mingle with politicians, diplomats, and statesmen. After a visit to the White House, the world-renowned violinist Isaac Stern wrote to Mrs. Kennedy to thank her. "It would be difficult to tell you," he wrote, "how refreshing, how heartening it is to find such serious attention and respect for the arts in the White House. To many of us it is one of the most exciting developments on the present American cultural scene." Mrs. Kennedy also influenced the world of fashion. Her unique and refined sense of style made her a trendsetter, although she discouraged the excessive focus on her appearance by magazines, newspapers, and the general public.

Mrs. Kennedy: Ambassador of Good Will

Mrs. Kennedy on a boat cruise on Lake Pichola, Udaipur, India, 17 March 1962. Mrs. Kennedy also traveled with her husband, representing the United States abroad. Clark Clifford, a respected lawyer and advisor to President Kennedy, was so pleased with Mrs. Kennedy after her trip to Paris, Vienna, and Greece that he sent her a note of appreciation, "Once in a great while, an individual will capture the imagination of people all over the world. You have done this; and what is more important, through your graciousness and tact, you have transformed this rare accomplishment into an incredibly important asset to this nation."

As first lady, Mrs. Kennedy also traveled to Italy, India, and Pakistan. Her interest in other cultures and her ability to speak several foreign languages, including French, Spanish, and Italian, brought her good will and admiration around the world.

A Time of Loss

On August 7, 1963, Mrs. Kennedy gave birth to their third child, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy. He suffered from a serious lung ailment and was rushed to the Children's Hospital in Boston, where he died two days later. While still recovering from this loss, another terrible tragedy befell her. On November 22, 1963, President and Mrs. Kennedy were in Dallas, Texas. As their car drove slowly past cheering crowds, shots rang out. President Kennedy was killed and Jacqueline Kennedy became a widow at age 34. She planned the president's state funeral. As it was broadcast around the world, millions of people shared her grief and admired her courage and dignity.

Kennedy Family members leave the Capitol Building, 24 November 1963.Soon after President Kennedy’s death, Mrs. Kennedy began the work of creating the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum as a memorial to her husband. She chose the architect I.M. Pei to design the building, which now stands as a landmark overlooking Boston Harbor.

In 1968, Jacqueline Kennedy married a Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. When Mr. Onassis died in 1975, she became a widow a second time. Now that her children were older, Jacqueline decided to begin a new career. She accepted a job as an editor at Viking Press in New York City and later moved to Doubleday as a senior editor. She enjoyed a successful career in publishing until her death on May 19, 1994. Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis was laid to rest beside President Kennedy in Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington, D.C.

The Legacy of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy

Throughout her life, Jacqueline Kennedy sought to preserve and protect America’s cultural heritage. The results of her work are still visible in Lafayette Square, across from the White House in Washington, D.C. While she was first lady, she helped to stop the destruction of historic buildings along the square, including the Renwick Building, now part of the Smithsonian Institution. In New York City, she led a campaign to save and renovate Grand Central Station. Today, more than 500,000 people pass through each day and enjoy its restored beauty, thanks to her efforts.

Jacqueline Kennedy captivated the nation and the rest of the world with her intelligence, beauty, and grace. With a deep sense of devotion to her family and country, she dedicated herself to raising her children and to making the world a better place through art, literature, and a respect for history and public service.


Picture Book Biography of Jacqueline B. Kennedy

Jacqueline Bouvier, 1935

For younger readers and families: view a slide show or read a picture book on the life of Jacqueline B. Kennedy. Includes poems and drawings, family photographs and special artifacts.

Jacqueline Kennedy Entertains

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Media Gallery

JFKWHP-AR6933-A (crop): First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Holds Silver Pitcher, 5 December 1961

First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy