x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Previously unreleased conversations with Jacqueline Kennedy

The recordings released to mark the 50th anniversary of the late John F Kennedy's inauguration as US president give a glimpse of the former first lady beyond the dark days of her husband's assassination.

In the chaotic hours that followed the assassination of John F Kennedy on November 22, 1963, the image of Jacqueline, his uncomprehending widow, is flashed around the globe, her blood-stained pink suit and her faraway gaze frozen in time, etched into the memory of a world unable to come to terms what it had just witnessed.

JFK's state funeral followed three days later, when the first lady appeared - cloaked from head to foot in black, her face screened from the public gaze by a heavy veil - outside St Matthew's Cathedral in Washington DC as her husband's coffin began its slow journey towards Arlington Cemetery. She stood motionless as it passed, flanked by Teddy and Bobby Kennedy, and by her two young children, Caroline and John Junior, the latter just three years old, saluting his departed father.

It is in this veiled guise that Jackie Kennedy largely remained until her death in July 1994. At least that is, in the eyes of the watching world. There would be fame and notoriety, remarriage to Aristotle Onassis and her rebirth as a literary editor in the three decades that stretched from her first husband's death to her own. But she was, for all intents and purposes, a figure trapped in the silence of an autumn day in 1963.

That is, until now. Last week marked a succession of coordinated releases by the Kennedy estate to mark the 50th anniversary of the late president's inauguration.

The broadcaster Diane Sawyer hosted a two-hour television programme - Jacqueline Kennedy: In Her Own Words - on the ABC network in the United States, which used extracts from eight and a half hours of previously unreleased conversations between the first lady and the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr, recorded just four months after her husband's death.

That documentary has been followed by the unabridged tapes being released on CD and their transcripts being published in hardback. The latter is introduced by Caroline Kennedy, who notes that "as [Jacqueline's] child, it has sometimes been hard for me to reconcile that most people can identify with my mother instantly, but they really don't know her at all."

This naturally suggests a revelatory product, a significant re-evaluation of a private woman. The reality is far from it.

We hear Jackie's hypnotic voice wondering whether the White House would upset the family unit: "I spent so much time worrying would it ruin our marriage?" We hear about her absolute trust in her husband's abilities: "I always thought with Jack that once he was in control, all the best things would happen". We hear about the promise of inauguration day in January 1961: "It was like children waiting for Christmas, getting up and getting dressed; the snowstorm, [and] all the excitement." And we hear about her own insecurities: "I was always a liability to him. Everyone thought I was a snob from Newport who had bouffant hair, [wore] French clothes and hated politics."

We hear much more besides - biting asides about Lyndon B Johnson, Martin Luther King and Winston Churchill - but the fresh insights hoped for here seem dimmed by the passing years, the audio files providing little more than a footnote to history. This is engaging rather than enlightening. The mysterious first lady remains, in essence, a mystery, loyal to her late husband's memory and his legacy.

For this, we have much to be thankful for. In today's world, where news breaks and rolls from one platform to another, where the highest-profile celebrities of the day publish their innermost thoughts almost every hour of each day, there is almost nothing we can't find out about their lives. In a sense though, our existence is emptier for that knowledge, while our minds are cluttered with the detritus and the whimsy of the age of celebrity.

Not so with Jackie O. Even now, she remains as unfathomable and, indeed, as noble, as remarkable as she was all those years ago.