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In the Early Days of Camelot, Gail Wescott Had An Intimate Glimpse of Its Queen
The house was in ordinary-people disarray. In the large living room filled with antiques and comfortable furniture with flowered slipcovers, Caroline's tiny water fins were abandoned on the white rug. Jackie had set up an easel near the television. She was working on a painting for Jack's homecoming. It showed his triumphant arrival at the dock and was cluttered with kids and dogs and a banner that read "Welcome Back, Mr. Jack." She had gotten to the beach area. "There are too many Kennedys!" she said in mock exasperation. "How can I fit them all in?" She was drinking a glass of rosé wine and smoking cigarettes, and she requested not to be photographed doing either.
Everyone began shouting "Jackie!" when it looked as if Kennedy would make it on the first ballot. When Wyoming put him over the top, Jackie, ever the hostess, asked if everyone's glass was full, if anyone was hungry. She said, "I'm still only 30 years old, and I've just lost my anonymity for good. It's a little scary."
In September I returned with photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt. The air was gray, and a storm was brewing that later would become a full-fledged hurricane. Lee Radziwill, who had given birth to a premature baby in late August, was at the house recuperating but stayed in her room. At lunch I sat down, and Caroline came at me shrieking, "No, no, no, that's Daddy's chair and he's going to get you with a big stick!"—a thought that sent her into a seizure of wild giggles. Jackie, however, was concerned. "I worry," she said. "All those books on child psychology—and I'm the type who reads all those books—talk about how things affect children Caroline's age. I get this terrible feeling that when we leave, she might think that it's because we don't want to be with her. After the Convention, Jack was here for three straight weeks, and Caroline got so used to having Daddy around the house."
By mid-afternoon, hurricane-force winds were blowing and the power abruptly failed. Jackie and I began to bop around the house lighting candles. By nightfall, an atmosphere of wacky festivity had taken over. Jackie, whose voice in private lost much of its hushed, little-girl quality, got out a scrapbook. "I've got to show you this picture," she said, pulling out a snapshot of an enormous female rear end bent over so the owner could peer through the Kennedy fence. "One of our neighbors took it, and it's my favorite picture of the campaign so far." Late that evening, Senator Kennedy called. When she returned to the living room, she said, "Today's our wedding anniversary, and Jack never mentioned it." Oddly, I responded, "Well, tomorrow's my birthday." It was so off-the-wall and off the subject that we started laughing and then sat there till all hours talking and drinking wine by candlelight.
A few days after President Kennedy's body was flown back to Washington in November 1963, I asked Jackie's press secretary if I could have one of the prayer cards that Jackie had written out for publication; her secretary called back to say yes. I rushed to the East Wing of the White House, and suddenly there was Jackie, holding out the envelope. "Thank you," she said, "for thinking of this." I was stunned. Every reporter in the world would have given anything at that moment for a private exchange with Mrs. Kennedy. I, however, was speechless. I must have looked as stricken as I felt because Jackie smiled and said, consoling me in words that are etched forever in my head, "Oh, Gail—think back on the good times. Remember the hurricane?"
Somehow, I managed to stumble out onto the street, where, for the first time during those momentous days, I started to cry.
September 24, 2016
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