Answer Man: Jackie and Onassis? Oh, my

News-DemocratNovember 25, 2013 

Why did Jackie Kennedy stoop to marrying Aristotle Onassis? What did the Kennedy family think of this?

-- Joseph Reichert

It did seem a curious choice for someone who captured the nation's love and admiration as the beautiful queen of Camelot.

Here she was -- cultured, sleek, classy and, according to reports from the time, pursued by a star-studded list of suitors that included Philip Roth, Frank Sinatra and Mike Nichols, to name a few.

"She had more men per square inch than any woman I've ever seen," Letitia Baldrige, her confidant and White House adviser, once said.

Yet she wound up engaged to Onassis, a short, rumpled and reportedly sometimes vulgar Greek shipping tycoon 23 years her senior. Why? The answer, experts say, is simple: the desire for privacy and physical security.

She once said her most important goal in life was to raise her two children -- John Jr. and Caroline (now the ambassador to Japan) -- to be good people.

"If you bungle raising your children, I don't think whatever else you do matters very much," she said once.

Easier said than done. After the assassination, she bought the Newton Baker House at 3017 N St. NW in Georgetown and tried to settle in for a quiet period of grieving before moving on with her life. But tour guides added it to their routes, and reporters and tourists were always watching for her.

"The world is pouring terrible adoration at the feet of my children," she once told her decorator Billy Baldwin. "And I fear for them, for this awful exposure. How can I bring them up normally?"

Life didn't improve when after just six months she moved to New York City. There, she said she found her children weren't being invited to playdates and parties because people were intimidated by the Kennedy name.

The final straw, though, came when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated on June 5, 1968, moments after winning the California presidential primary.

"I despise America," Jackie reportedly told a friend soon after, according to a People magazine retrospective on her life after she died in 1994. "If they are killing Kennedys, my children are the No. 1 targets. I want to get out of this country."

By that time, her most serious suitor was Onassis, which, according to the People story and other historians, appalled and angered many in the Kennedy clan. Bobby reportedly asked her to end the romance, and Jackie agreed to delay any wedding until at least after the 1968 presidential election.

The enmity went both ways, according to investigative journalist Peter Evans. In his book "Nemesis: The True Story of Aristotle Onassis, Jackie O, and the Love Triangle That Brought Down the Kennedys," he claims Onassis financed Bobby's assassination. Onassis supposedly thought, among other things, that if Bobby were elected president, his oil tankers might no longer be welcome in American ports.

But on Oct. 20 -- five months after Sirhan Sirhan shot her brother-in-law -- Jackie married Onassis in a small, private ceremony on Skorpios, a 13-acre Greek island that Onassis had purchased in 1963 for $15 million. She was 39; he was 62.

Much of the world's media reacted with shock and anger. "Jack Kennedy Dies Today for a Second Time," a Rome newspaper headline read. "Jackie Weds Blank Check," a London paper ridiculed.

But those who knew her best said Onassis' checkbook had little to do with it.

"Jackie did not marry Ari for his money," Joan Braden, a close friend, said. "He was fun and different and felt safe, and she was always looking for protection."

"I find Ari charming, kind and considerate," actress Liz Taylor, no stranger to controversial romances herself, said. "I think that Jackie made an excellent choice."

And, accounts say, many in the Kennedy clan eventually came to terms with it. Sen. Ted Kennedy, for example, helped negotiate a prenup agreement that gave Jackie $3 million in cash before the wedding plus $1 million for each of her children. Two of JFK's sisters attended the ceremony.

The marriage, however, meant the loss of Secret Service protection, and the paparazzi continued to hound her relentlessly as she and Ari constantly jetted from Paris to New York to Greece.

Then, more tragedy: After his son, Alexander, died in a plane crash in 1973, Onassis' health soon began to fail, and he died in 1975 at age 69. Because of Greek law that limits how much a non-Greek surviving spouse can inherit, Jackie after a two-year legal fight reportedly accepted a $26 million settlement from his daughter, Christina. Christina, who reportedly disliked her stepmother, inherited an estimated $2.7 billion.

Today's trivia

What did Jackie Onassis once say was a good experience for her son, John Jr.?

Answer to Sunday's trivia: In the ancient Greek Olympics, chariot races were 12 laps around the hippodrome. But the Romans shortened them to seven laps (and, eventually, five) so they could get in more races, during which there was widespread betting among spectators.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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