One week after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, a composed, calm Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy clearly articulated to journalist Theodore H. White what her future did not hold.
“I’m not going to be the Widow Kennedy,” she told him in remarks never before published. “When this is over I’m going to crawl into the deepest retirement there is.”
Excerpts from White’s interview with Mrs. Kennedy have been published before: First, in a famed Life magazine article published in the Dec. 6 issue of that year that first used the term “Camelot” - at Mrs. Kennedy’s behest - to describe the administration. More excerpts were contained in White’s 1978 memoir, “In Search of History: A Personal Adventure.”
Friday, the John F. Kennedy Library in Dorchester filled in some of the missing pieces, releasing almost the full record of the interview, including White’s nearly illegible, scrawling handwritten notes, and copies of the Life article marked up by both White and Mrs. Kennedy.
Also previously unpublished were some of Mrs. Kennedy’s hopes and dreams for her children and the quiet life she hoped to begin.
“I’m going to live in the place I lived with Jack … I’m going to live on the Cape, I’m going to be with the Kennedys,” is a quotation that made it into the Life article, but the rest of what she said didn’t: “Bobby is going to teach Johnny. He’s a little boy without a father, he’s a boyish little boy. He’ll need a man.”
Later, in a part excised from the article, either by her or White, she added: “I want John John to be a fine young man. He’s interested in planes; maybe he’ll be an astronaut or just plain John Kennedy fixing planes on the ground.”
At the funeral, Caroline “held my hand like a soldier, she’s my helper; she’s mine now,” Mrs. Kennedy said. “But he (John-John) is going to belong to the men now.”
The transcript also includes Mrs. Kennedy’s riveting account, included in White’s memoir, of the moments after the president was shot: “His last expression was so neat; he had his hand out, I could see a piece of his skull coming off … then he slumped in my lap …,” she told White.
It also includes her view of the futile resuscitation efforts at the hospital, where she demanded to be let into her husband’s hospital room.
In the hospital, as the priest delivered last rites, Mrs. Kennedy said, “There was a sheet over Jack, his foot was sticking out of the sheet … I took his foot and kissed it. Then I pulled back the sheet. His mouth was so beautiful, his eyes were open.”
White donated the 34-page document to the Kennedy Library in 1969, with several stipulations. One stipulation was that the file could not be opened until a year after Mrs. Kennedy’s death - she died on May 19, 1994.
The second stipulation required that two brief passages remain closed, according to a library statement accompanying the release.
However, there may be more information that even the library does not possess.
In a note accompanying the typewritten transcript of the interview that White sent to Mrs. Kennedy - a transcript even his secretary didn’t see - White wrote: “I have left out of my transcript one or two matters so delicate I could not commit to paper … .”
The notes do clear up at least one mystery. In his memoir, White wrote that Mrs. Kennedy feared that her husband’s legacy would be left to be written by “bitter old men.” She had one bitter old man in mind, according to the transcript: Merriman Smith, the late correspondent for United Press International.
Talking of her husband, she said: “Men are such a combination of bad and good … and what is history going to see in this except what Merriman Smith wrote, that bitter man.”
It was that prospect that led Mrs. Kennedy to summon White to help her create the Camelot legend.
When White dictated his story to Life late that night, Mrs. Kennedy was in the room, making sure all references to Camelot stayed in - even when White’s editor told him there were too many Camelot references, White wrote in his memoir. In the published piece, Camelot is mentioned three times.
Life editors held the presses for several hours for White’s exclusive interview - at a cost of $30,000 an hour.