Lives and Limits of the Known and Unknown

In spring of 1951, during the semester at whose end she would graduate from George Washington University, Jacqueline Bouvier competed in the Prix de Paris contest put on by Vogue magazine. This competition was no joke. Contestants submitted a personal profile, four papers on various fashion-related questions, an outline for a full issue of Vogue, and an essay on three people the applicant wished she had known. The winner’s prize: a yearlong trainee position at the magazine – six months in the Paris office, followed by six months in the New York headquarters. Bouvier, fresh from a junior year in France, which had inspired, for all intents and purpose, a growing interest in fashion, culture, and writing, submitted the winning application. Out of nearly 1300 applications, hers was the best.

Historians love the Prix de Paris application materials. As Jacqueline Bouvier became Jacqueline Kennedy (and then Onassis), she was not a figure known for her transparency. But in these documents, she is forthright and open. She recalls, as a child, pretending to sleep when in reality she was reading the Chekov and Shaw she found upon the shelves in the room appointed for napping. She suggests an advertising campaign to link perfume with wine, given that “both are liquids that act upon the closely related sense of taste and smell to produce an intoxicating effect.” She wishes she’d known, among others, Oscar Wilde, revealing an admiration for the power of his wit: “with the flash of an epigram,” she wrote, he could “bring about what serious reformers had for years been trying to accomplish.” She reveals, in this personal writing, something of the “real” Jackie.

prixdeparispictureJacqueline Bouvier’s picture as winner of the Prix de Paris competition.

When I read Bouvier’s materials, they communicate the time and thought and care put into the application. They reveal a keen but also pragmatic mind, showing an understanding of the need to blend one’s esteem for the arts with the practicalities of publication. I imagine there are those who would dismiss Vogue as not a site of serious publishing – but those people are wrong, especially about Vogue in the 1950s. There was the fashion, but the publication was also a bastion of high culture, publishing essays by and about great artists of varying fields. When I imagine Bouvier taking this opportunity at Vogue, I wonder what the experience might’ve meant to her.

But I can only imagine Bouvier in Paris at the Vogue offices. She turned down the prize, later noting “I guess I was too scared to go to Paris again. I felt then that if I went back, I’d live there forever. I loved Paris so much. That’s such a formative year when you get out of college.” The inside scoop – or at least the theory that is most often bandied about – is that her mother and stepfather dissuaded her from accepting the Vogue position, afraid, indeed, that Jacqueline would become an expatriate and live forever outside the United States. And so in Washington, D.C. she remained, becoming the Inquiring Camera Girl at the Washington Times-Herald in 1952 and marrying Senator John Kennedy in 1953. And so on.

I’ve now spent a decent amount of time thinking about a) American women at mid-century and b) Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. And I now here declare that the Prix de Paris turn of events make me mad. Admittedly, it’s impossible to test the veracity of the “we remember Jackie when” sentiments that came in the years after the American public “knew” Jackie, but across the board, the reminiscences of friends, of classmates, of teachers identified in Bouvier intelligence, wit, curiosity, and, possibly most importantly, potential. I want her parents to get out of her way. I want her to take a chance, rebel, and GO. Who knows what she might have done? All I can think: what a missed opportunity. These feelings are not for my professional consideration of the past, but they are there, and I’m grappling with them.

To that end, I communicated my indignation to the other historian of the household. From him, I get a decent amount of the devil’s advocate, and I’m pushed (Intentionally? For fun?) to defend my points of view. When it comes to regretting historical figures’ missed opportunities, I’ve thought about Hillary Clinton in this way, too, and I brought this up. Years ago, I read the early chapters of William Chafe’s Bill and Hillary: The Politics of the Personal. In those early chapters about Hillary Rodham, the underlying sentiment is “Holy shit. This woman.” She was a force, and people saw it. But then there was the relationship with Clinton and her efforts to support him and what this meant for her own ambitions. When they moved to Arkansas for his political ambitions, I had to stop reading. In thinking about Bouvier and Rodham (eventually Kennedy and Clinton) my devil’s advocate suggests I’m fighting an uphill battle in suggesting they deserve sympathy or indignation at opportunities missed and paths not taken. The fame, the wealth, the privilege as a whole – and for HRC, obviously, the political power outside her time as FLOTUS. In so many ways, and in comparison to so many women (in the US and around the globe), they win. And I know that. (Sidenote: there are so many opportunities to talk about the personal sacrifices these women made inside their marriages – but that’s a topic for another time. I just want people to know that I know that’s there.)

But then I also think about how, even in their privileged positions, they faced and in many ways capitulated to the social and cultural expectations of their times and places. Back specifically to Bouvier here – she had the education and the connections and the status (the money was more complicated) enough that she might have achieved cultural and intellectual and professional success outside the confines of her link to any man. But the expectation of the link to a man was THE expectation – even for someone of her elite standing (and maybe especially for someone of her standing?). In many ways, I think her giving in to her parents’ wishes, staying stateside, finding a man, and marrying well speaks volumes about the powers of convention on women during the 1950s – and the limits of alternative possible roles they imagined for themselves. Do I wish that she would have bucked the trend, accepted the prize without parental approval, and found out what she could do on her own? YES (as previously noted). But I am (big time) of the post-Port Huron generation, where fulfillment of personal desire is of the utmost importance. In 1951, that was not the norm, and particularly not for a person of Jackie Bouvier’s station.

I know as I wonder what sort of voice and what sort of influence Bouvier would’ve developed I’m asking for people to remind me of the influence she had as First Lady. And then as National Widow. And as cultural icon. And as publisher. Etc. Etc. Etc. And again, to remind me of the power and the privilege of her many roles. Am I privileging too much the idea that the development of voice and influence on one’s own and by one’s own merit is more natural or more satisfying? Is it wrong to speculate that she may have enjoyed her position more were it to come from her own efforts? And even if she’d not become “A Voice,” would it have been more satisfying to have followed personal predilection? Am I projecting too much of here and now onto the past? I don’t know. Maybe? Could be.

In the course of working through this (thank you for your patience), I maybe end up here: Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis is a famous case, a person who was and is known. So privilege is definitely going to be there. For me, when I think in terms of the famous and the known (a limited population), I think, too, about all those many more unnamed and unknown people of the past. For women’s historians, there are many, many unknown figures. Perhaps it is best for me to frame my indignation at the missed opportunities of one who ultimately had so many opportunities in this way: the power of convention, the dictates of family, the expectations of her time limited even Jacqueline Bouvier, someone who had so much. If that’s true, than what of those without? The power of convention, the dictates of family, the expectations of their time, not to mention the factors of their race, their religion, their class, their region, influenced so many unknown women – and who knows what they might have been and done?

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One thought on “Lives and Limits of the Known and Unknown

  1. I was reading about bridezillas and came across your blog. It is lovely. As a 30 year old woman working in India, your blog posts resonated with me. The more I read and choose to say no to cultural expectations of me…the lesser friends I seem to have. And you know what is the best thing…at some level, it has slowly started feeling liberating. If there are any missed opportunities…they would be missed based on my sole discretion 😊.
    Please keep writing.

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