American beauty

The enigmatic Jackie Kennedy expressed herself through her wardrobe. James Marquand queues up to see

"Where's Jackie?" said the President-elect as he rose from his armchair. She was on the beach, walking by herself, and the President-elect went personally to fetch her, bringing her back as he found her, dressed in a faded raincoat, wearing flat-heeled beach shoes, a scarf wound around her head."
From Theodore H White,

The Making of the President, 1960

Trying to locate Jackie has been something of a national pastime for more than 40 years. To place Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, later Jacqueline Onassis, to say who and what she was, has been an attempt as touching, exasperating and tinged with pathos as her husband's effort to find her on the day he was elected president. For all its ostensible concern with fashion history, the exhibition "Jacqueline Kennedy: the White House years (selections from the John F Kennedy Library and Museum)", which has just moved from the Metropolitan Museum in New York to the JFK Library in Boston, is really just another bid to know the woman, this time by her clothes.

"I refuse," Jacqueline wrote to her principal designer, Oleg Cassini, "to be the Marie Antoinette or Josephine of the 1960s" - "which, of course," rejoined Judith Thurman in the New Yorker, "she was". Thurman's reply comes almost by reflex. But it forgets that not everyone's self-knowledge is so scant. Especially because Jackie was, as Arthur Schlesinger writes in his contribution to the catalogue accompanying the show, "relaxed and uninhibited", and evinced a great deal of psychological health and strength (no Diana-like depressions for her), it seems wrong immediately to consider her deluded. "Louise de la Valliere [Louis XIV's mistress] and Madame de Lafayette [the author of La Princesse de Cleves] were her heroines," her sister, Lee Radziwill, tells Schlesinger. Jackie had an engraving of Josephine, Napoleon's consort, on the wall of her dressing room; and she solicited for the White House candelabra from Malmaison, the empress's country retreat. None the less, if that were really the self-image of a wife of an American president, would she really lay it on the table, so to speak? Display it on her wall?

The saying goes that the United States has always been nostalgic for a king. Abroad, they called Jackie "the American Queen", and some have said that, against her will, we made her just that. But we were probably more nostalgic for royalty in 1960 than we are today. As I stood for an hour and a half waiting to see Jackie's clothes, it struck me that part of what had drawn crowds to this exhibition was a nostalgia for an unfractious moment in the American economy: the era of television shows such as The US Steel Hour and The Colgate Comedy Hour, an age when "anti-capitalist nomads", in the Time phrase, didn't roam the earth, and the corporation wasn't a flashpoint.

The first outfits we see seem almost dowdy. Whatever Jackie wore was well made, but a piece such as "knit suit in asparagus green wool jersey with linen trim, c1959 (French, designer unknown)" was part of what the museum calls the "edited wardrobe" she wore during the campaign, and doesn't hint at the glamorous gowns and casual chic ensembles for which she became known. Still, these pieces properly begin the show.

"The symbolic feeling of a nation," the words of John F Kennedy's inaugural are piped in to us, "its power, prestige and direction . . ." Coming on the heels of the sedate, homespun Eisenhower administration, Kennedy wanted to cajole the United States into filling the shoes it had made for itself by winning the Second World War. In his curatorial essay, Hamish Bowles includes a picture of the White House sunroom as the Eisenhowers had it: the rattan sofa, chairs and bridge table standing about on linoleum, the bookcase of what look like editions of Reader's Digest, evoke the challenge that Kennedy faced. If he planned to move us from 1950s America to the New Frontier, and if his way was, as a friend of his said, "to appeal to the imagination", then he quickly saw that his wife would be invaluable. But it is worth noting that Jackie only dressed to kill at the inauguration ball, and whenever Jack's administration was conducting diplomacy with France.

Jackie took it as her job to help her husband look good to the American people, for whom he worked, and to help the people and heads of state of other countries to feel that America deserved some of the power it had. Although hardly retiring, she rarely took a public stand on policy; she was never an Eleanor Roosevelt or a Hillary Clinton. As a first lady, her role was unique. So winning was she with the Royal Canadian Mounties in "Pierre Cardin, day suit in red twill, c1957", and with the dour General de Gaulle in "Oleg Cassini, suit in pale yellow silk-and-wool Alaskine by Bucol, 1961", or, most impressively, at the Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna in "Oleg Cassini, evening dress in shell pink silk-georgette chiffon embroidered with sequins, 1961" with Nikita Khrushchev, who had trampled her husband at their first meeting earlier that day, that she was thenceforth encouraged to travel abroad on her own. But if Jackie's role was unique among first ladies, it can still be identified.

In Vienna, Jackie was gracious not only with Nikita Khrushchev, but with Nina. Having been called to the window by chants of "Ja-ckie! Ja-ckie!", she came back into the room and, as her social secretary, Letitia Baldrige, recounts, "all but pulled Nina Khrushchev off the couch". Bringing her to the balcony, she held her hand aloft, whereupon the chant changed to "Jackie!-Nina! Jackie!-Nina!". Under "India" in the index of Schlesinger's A Thousand Days: John F Kennedy in the White House, the entry "respect for JFK in, 501" comes right after "Jacqueline Kennedy visits, 500". In Greece, wearing Aegean blue, she visited the country's ousted but potentially still important royal family. Yet for all her usefulness, her role was limited. Nehru, we learn in A Thousand Days, "scrupulously avoided politics" with Jackie, and did not lobby her about pressing territorial disputes in Goa, Kashmir and Pakistan.

The only country more nostalgic for royalty than the US is France. And so in France, Jackie dressed, yes, like a queen. And the French, knowing she would enjoy the part, were inspired. The dinner at Versailles Palace on 1 June 1961 seems to have been an almost transcendent experience, less a state dinner than the celebration of some kind of alliance that JFK had sealed by marrying a Francophile. "A long table was set up in the Hall of Mirrors," recalled Baldrige, "which was lit by an incandescent glow from candles in the vermeil candelabra and by the newly illuminated frescos in the ceiling. The entire table service was in antique vermeil, and the pinkish-golden glow cast by the candles on the surfaces was repeated in the pale peach colour of the flowers down the centre of the table. The women's jewels sparkled like coloured fireflies on the great table . . ."

No wonder we have thought of Jackie as a Josephine, a Marie Antoinette. But while Napoleon waged his campaigns, Josephine never released - as Jackie did throughout 1960 - despatches entitled "Campaign Wife". When the museum refers to the "edited wardrobe" that she wore during her husband's run for president, the implication is of a sort of stealth queen who revealed herself only once the votes were in. Thurman writes that Jackie "didn't have a democratic bone in her body". But the nearly dowdy (Thurman uses the word "matronly") clothes that she wore as a senator's wife were not just so much camouflage. She didn't seem to mourn the class into which she was born. She pushed her son to go to law school and to do his bit for the Democratic Party. Even such an admirer of the later, Onassis-era Jackie as Wayne Koestenbaum, the author of Jackie Under My Skin, terms himself one of her "constituents". Her husband wanted to change the world's view of America. To that effect, Jackie did whatever she knew how.

The exhibition is sponsored by L'Oreal. That a corporation can buy an association with a historical figure - indeed, with a time in history - is nothing new. Still, it is a reminder of the contradictory fortunes of the corporation since Jackie's day that, of the letters on show that solicited funds and gifts for the restoration of the White House, none was directed to a private company.

Jackie's daughter, Caroline, writes in the catalogue that her mother believed "American civilisation had come of age". Jackie championed its arts and letters, but surely the American corporation had come of age as well. During John F Kennedy's political life, the corporation still felt unselfconscious in the US. Many of the great corporate headquarters were built in that time - Lever House (1952), the Seagram building (1958), the Union Carbide (1955-60), the Colgate-Palmolive (1954-56), the Pan Am (1963), Time-Life (1959), CBS (1961-65), Continental Can (1961) and others. John Cheever had made a romance of the commuter. No one linked IBM with the Holocaust.

But our belief in the corporation was already fraying when Kennedy died. The aerospace industry had grown in tandem with the prospect of thermonuclear war. That, the Rand Corporation's subsequent role in the Vietnam war, the 1984 disaster at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal and the incident with the Exxon tanker Valdez in 1989 all lie on the path that the corporate imago has since followed. Thus, for all that corporations may have been profitable since Jackie's day, for all their "growth" - and for all the art shows they have sponsored - there is nostalgia for a lost time when most people felt good about them. Lever House is currently being restored. "In the 1950s," one company chairman told the New York Times recently, ". . . individuals felt a connection to the nation's corporations, a sense of community with them. That has gone, and I miss it."

I doubt these feelings are confined to corporate executives. Many of the people I saw at the show were in their fifties, sixties or seventies; those who worked for a significant part of their lives for corporations must hate to see them so disdained. But any American should sympathise. Because however little one has worked for the Mobils and the IBMs, and to whatever extent one condemns them or not, to live in the United States is to have a psyche contingent on corporations; one's relationship to their model of a capitalist economy constitutes a large part of who one is. Regardless of their charm, Jack and Jackie could never have "shimmered", as William Styron put it, if the idea of our economy as being intrinsically insidious had had anything like the currency it does now. The last moment before such a central part of our being was widely questioned has to fascinate, whatever one's political stripe.

Jacqueline Kennedy had taste, and she used it. But the nostalgia for Jackie, whether for her in a knit suit of asparagus green, or in yellow silk-and-wool Alaskine, or even in one of her famous gowns, is largely economic. For if, with her, our republic came close to having a queen, our queen came very close to being a corporate wife.

"Jacqueline Kennedy: the White House years" is on view at the John F Kennedy Museum in Boston (001 877 616 4599) until the end of February 2002

James Marquand is a writer living in New York