Why Jacqueline Kennedy Dreaded Going to Dallas
Remembering the first lady on the sixtieth anniversary of a day of national and personal tragedy.
“I’LL HATE EVERY MINUTE OF IT,” Jacqueline Kennedy said, as she contemplated her upcoming visit to Texas with her husband. More foreboding words have never been spoken.
It was November 15, 1963, and the first lady was with her friend Robin Douglas-Home, the nephew of the new British prime minister, at the Kennedys’ country retreat near Middleburg, Virginia. It was a dazzling fall day, the air crisp and the leaves a palette of gold and red.
“But if he wants me there,” Jackie said of her husband, “then that’s all that matters. It’s a tiny sacrifice on my part for something that he feels is very important to him.”
That she agreed to go was remarkable. She had never been to Texas before—and since John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960, she hadn’t even been west of the Mississippi, generally confining her domestic travels to the usual Kennedy destinations: Palm Beach, Hyannis, Newport, and Manhattan, where the family maintained a swanky apartment on the 34th floor of the famed Carlyle Hotel.
Her decision to accompany her husband to Dallas stemmed from—in quite a twist—her friendship with the man who would, less than five years later, become her second husband: Aristotle Onassis.
After the August death of the Kennedy’s final child, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, Jackie was invited by her sister Lee Radziwill to join her and Onassis—with whom the tabloids said the married Lee was having an affair—on a Mediterranean getaway, including several days on Christina, the Greek tycoon’s hedonistic yacht.
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JFK was leery. The swashbuckling Onassis, after all, had run afoul of U.S. law in the 1950s, actually getting arrested at one point on fraud and conspiracy charges in connection with the purchase of surplus ships from World War II. The charges were eventually dropped, but Onassis was hit with a huge fine: $7 million (about $70 million in today’s dollars).
The president’s reservations had been such that he had forbidden Jackie from seeing the Greek tycoon during a 1961 trip. But now, knowing how much his wife needed to recover from Patrick’s death, JFK gave his consent. “It would be good for her,” Kennedy said, brushing aside any political consequences about Jackie vacationing with such a controversial figure.
The trip itself, sixteen days long, was a success—for Jackie. For the president though, negative headlines caused him to phone Jackie several times to ask her to cut the trip short. But the first lady, having a marvelous time, declined.
WHEN JACKIE RETURNED on October 17, refreshed and radiant, JFK was thrilled at her recovery. But in allowing her to go in the first place, he now felt emboldened to ask his wife for a favor: Would she accompany him on a campaign swing through Texas in late November? Even with Texan Lyndon Johnson as his running mate, Kennedy had barely carried the Lone Star State in 1960—the winning margin was a mere 46,257 votes—and its twenty-five electoral votes would be crucial in 1964. Jackie’s presence, JFK judged, would be helpful.
“I’ll campaign with you anywhere you want,” Jackie said. She opened her red leather appointment book and scribbled “Texas” across November 21, 22, and 23.
And so, the fact that Jacqueline Kennedy was beside her husband in Dallas, on Elm Street, in the back of that Lincoln Continental on November 22 when he was assassinated can be linked to her vacation, the month before, with Aristotle Onassis. She was there because of what the president called “Jackie’s guilt feelings,” and the fact that he could occasionally work them to his advantage.
Yet even as Kennedy pressed his wife to join him in Texas, he was jittery about it, and feared that she would later regret going. The one leg of the trip that concerned him the most was Dallas, a city that disliked him intensely. He had lost “Big D” by sixty thousand votes in 1960; “Dallas just murdered us,” Texas Gov. John Connally told him in a November 7, 1962 call, a year before both of them were shot there. “I don’t know why we do anything for Dallas,” Kennedy said.
Days before they departed for Texas, Jackie carefully chose what she would wear. Her husband loved one outfit in particular, which he suggested would be perfect for Dallas. On the back of a piece of White House stationery, the first lady sketched out her wardrobe:
The Kennedys left the White House on Thursday, November 21. Twenty-six hours later, during the frantic race to Parkland Memorial Hospital, Jackie would fling the now bloodied pink pillbox hat off her head, ripping out a tuft of her hair in the process. She never felt the pain.
Paul Brandus, a MarketWatch contributor, is the author, most recently, of Countdown to Dallas (Post Hill, 2023), from which this article is drawn.