When Jackie Kennedy Met the Queen

The first lady famously charmed France’s president Charles de Gaulle, but Britain’s sovereign was another matter. Here’s what didn’t make the history books.

When Jackie Kennedy Met the QueenBettman/Corbis
Buckingham Palace, London
June 5, 1961

It is barely four months since President Kennedy’s inauguration. Mrs. Kennedy is still finding her feet.

Jackie is unsure of herself. In public, she smiles and waves. In private, she bites her nails and chain smokes. She is prone to self-pity. She is overheard saying, “Oh, Jack, I’m so sorry for you that I’m such a dud,” to which Kennedy replies, “I love you as you are.” Is each of them telling only half the truth?

Socially, she is an awkward mix of the gracious and the paranoid. “At one moment, she was misunderstood, frustrated, and helpless. The next moment, without any warning, she was the royal, loyal first lady to whom it was almost a duty to bow, to pay medieval obeisance,” is the way her English friend Robin Douglas-Home puts it. “Then again, without any warning, she was deflating someone with devastating barbs for being such a spaniel as to treat her as the first lady and deriding the pomp of politics, the snobbery of the social climber.”

Jackie confides how exhausting it is to be on public view. The queen replies, “One gets crafty after a while and learns how to save oneself.”

But now, on their whistle-stop tour of Europe, Jackie suddenly appears formidable. The French take to her as one of their own: Born a Bouvier, she has French ancestry, and she spent a year at the Sorbonne. She speaks fluent French and has arrived with a wardrobe of clothes specially designed for her by Givenchy. At a banquet at Versailles, President de Gaulle greets her by saying, “This evening, Madame, you are looking like a Watteau.”

The political editor of Time reports that “thanks in large part to Jackie Kennedy at her prettiest, Kennedy charmed the old soldier into unprecedented flattering toasts and warm gestures of friendship.” At a press conference, President Kennedy says, “I do not think it altogether inappropriate to introduce myself … I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris, and I have enjoyed it.”

A few days later, after a stop in Vienna to see Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, they attend the christening of Jackie’s niece Tina. From there, they go to an informal lunch with the prime minister and a number of friends and relations, including the Ormsby-Gores and the duke and duchess of Devonshire. The duchess, an old friend of the president, has mixed feelings about Jackie. “She is a queer fish. Her face is one of the oddest I ever saw. It is put together in a very wild way,” the duchess observes to her old friend Patrick Leigh Fermor.

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