just like us

At the advent of the 1960 presidential campaign, Norman Mailer prophesied that if John Kennedy was elected, “myth would emerge once more, because America’s politics would now also be America’s favorite movie, America’s first soap opera, America’s best seller.” He was eerily accurate.

As long as they have been in public life, the Kennedys have been associated with the press, making their first fan movie magazine appearance in the September 1927 issue of Photoplay. By the early 1960s, there were upwards of forty fan magazines, including Photoplay, Motion Picture, Modern Screen, and TV Radio Screen. The forerunners of the modern “celebrity magazines” such as Us Weekly and In Touch, the movie magazines covered the misadventures, tribulations and lifestyles of television and film stars, as well as lesser known celebrities. By the early 1960s, the top two dozen publications had a collective circulation of 8,000,000.

In the wake of the Red Scare and the advent of television, movie admissions and, thus, the movie magazines’ revenue from advertising had dramatically decreased. In response, tabloid editors used “Jackie’s” image with unabashed frequency.  Much as popcorn kept movie theaters afloat, so “Jackie” stories salvaged the movie magazines: “the appearance of a beautiful and personable First Lady, who could have been a movie star, offered the ailing fan magazines a two-pronged editorial policy certain to keep them solvent and profitable. The fan magazines would concentrate on Mrs. Kennedy, featuring her regularly on their covers.” As sociologist Irving Schulman notes of the movie magazines, circa 1961: “It had at last come to pass that the world’s longest and most exciting movie was being performed every hour of every day at the White House and in locales throughout the world related to this master set. To record this living movie and assure its proper critical place in American and international history was the contemporary historic dedication of the fan magazines.”

In recording this living movie, the fan magazines were chronicling a lifestyle that held great allure for readers. Sociologist Irving Schulman begs us to remember the “tired housewife who fell into bed after she had done the evening’s dishes, put out the pets and garbage, got the children to their rooms, and left her husband [ . . . ] snoring before the television set, six-pack at his feet– [who] envied the lovely woman in the White House.” This was, from the very beginning, a fairy tale as vividly drawn as any by Disney. As Paris Match’s Washington D.C. correspondent, Phillipe de Bausset, later reflected: “The public expected a dream story, so this is what we gave them.”

“Jackie’s” life would become the world’s first reality show. It would play out weekly on newsstands across the country, and even just by reading the headlines- much less the stories- it was possibly to keep abreast of everything happening in “Jackie’s” magical movie magazine world. Her reign as movie magazine queen would be so successful that in 1962, after just one year as First Lady, Variety hailed her as the “world’s top Box Office femme.” Never mind that she had never been in a movie.

Later that same year, the editors of TV Radio Album came closest to explaining this fixation when they attempted to justify use of the word “star” in relation to Mrs. Kennedy: “The word is used in show business to describe a personality so warm and vital that we forget we know it only as a picture on a TV screen or a name in newsprint. We feel that we know the actual person, as someone close to us. And certainly Jacqueline Kennedy is all that!”

Though she closely guarded her privacy, small details seeped out. Jackie ate grilled cheese for lunch. She napped. She jumped on a trampoline. She did the twist.

She was just like us. Except when she wasn’t.

When she read Saint-Simon and went to India. When she spoke French. When she said clever things and made it obvious that she was insanely smart.

While her popularity was bolstered by a sense of likeness—the notion that she was “just like us”— a significant part of her appeal also lay in the nagging sense of her otherness; the idea that she was more cultured, more intelligent than ordinary women could ever be. It was these two sensations in tandem—her plainness and exoticism— that increased her marketability.

It was astonishing, the ease with which she could be integrated into everyday life. There were “Jackie” vases, “Jackie” dolls, and “Jackie” salt and pepper shakers. By July 1961, two million copies of a biography—a “paperback romance of her life”— had been sold. Plastic surgeons reported an increase in requests for nose bobs and low-priced clothing lines offered affordable knock-offs so everyone could sport the “Jackie look.” For the Midwestern housewife who knew nothing of Saint-Simon, fine art, or French and lacked Mrs. Kennedy’s je ne sai quoi, copying the First Lady’s hair, clothes and lifestyle provided an easy means of evoking her sophistication.

After the TV program A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy aired in 1962, yard sales and antique stores did booming business as women began foraging with near maniacal vigor in a quest to decorate their homes à la “Jackie.” Nearly every aspect of Mrs. Kennedy’s life– what she said, what she wore, where she went and what she did– was marketed.

Even the movie magazines exploited her as a commodity, using her image to boost readership and, accordingly, advertising revenue. She generated good sales in an industry that depended upon the newsstand to an extraordinary extent. In the early 1960s, Photoplay, the most dominant movie magazine, sold half its copies through the newsstand. The welfare of smaller magazines depended even more heavily upon the newsstand. For example, in August 1964, Movie TV Secrets’ monthly circulation through paid subscribers was an astounding fifty copies, and even when a cover was wildly successful, the fan publications struggled to break even. For the movie magazines, “Jackie” represented a goldmine of possibilities.

It has been suggested that “Jackie’s” narrative and the advertisements that appeared alongside it are intertwined. Thus, when in December 1964‘s TV Radio Mirror, the article “As I Still See Him,” which was subtitled ANNIVERSARY OF TERROR and detailed how John Kennedy’s life “was violently, horribly, against his will, taken from him,” was flanked by advertising that implored “DON’T BE FAT,” “KILL THE HAIR ROOT,” and banish “OLD LEG SORES,” “Jackie’s” heroism casts our petty concerns in a proper light.

Pop-culture philosopher Wayne Koestenbaum argues that these juxtapositions were not alarming to contemporary readers because “Jackie” “is not just next to ads, she herself functions as an ad [ . . . ] For miraculous change of life [ . . . ] Jackie advertises the transformation.” It was not a giant leap to assume that if “Jackie’s” story could share a page with a particular product, she might purchase the product as well. The ads kept “Jackie” human; she was beautiful and glamorous, but she was mortal and busy– waxing, bleaching, dieting. But they also pushed readers towards betterment by establishing a paradigm of “what would Jackie do?” in which being fat was not an option.

In the coming years, the connection between the stories and the ads would only become more obvious, with the ads growing increasingly smutty as the “Jackie” character herself sustained a moral plunge. Not ten years later, “Jackie’s” story would be flanked by advertisements for vibrators and birth control.

The movie magazines had begun as an advertising vehicle for motion picture stars, but “Jackie’s” very appearance in their pages suggested a sea change. Whereas celebrities like the Beatles, Frank Sinatra and Elizabeth Taylor were, in fact, selling a product– themselves and their movies or music, Jacqueline Kennedy had nothing to hawk. And so, her life itself was turned into a movie for the public’s entertainment. By the early-1960s, “the tabloid newspaper was almost exactly analogous to a movie theater,” and “Jackie’s” life was the feature presentation, played out on newsstands across the country. Within the tabloid culture, she heralded a new age—one in which an ordinary housewife could become a lifestyle star.

In Life the Movie, cultural historian Neil Gabler observed that “Every celebrity worth the designation had to have some ready referent, whether a physical characteristic or a signature expression or a distinctive vocal inflection or a style of dress, in order to claim his space in the crowded celebrity universe.” “Jackie” has referents in spades– sunglasses, the bouffant, pearl necklaces, shift dresses, pillbox hats, printed scarves, kid gloves, jodhpurs, the breathy voice, and that wide-eyed look, to name just a few. Through these artifacts, as if blessed by “Jackie” herself, the icon endures. Yet, “Jackie” gains tribute not simply through the classy, but the kitschy as well. Her image is featured on coloring books, as paper-dolls and collector figurines, on vases, salt-and-pepper shakers, plates, cups, spoons, calendars, purses, t-shirts, and stamps.

The “Jackie” captivation endures precisely because she has “lasted as ephemera.” Despite Mrs. Onassis’ death, “Jackie” still has the power to mesmerize and perplex. Writing in the Washington Post shortly after the former First Lady’s death, Henry Allan extended the most succinct articulation of her unrelenting hold over the American imagination: “[ . . . ] like all useful goddesses, she was a mystery . . . She rose above, and for a woman of her time, and maybe for a woman of any time, this was a supreme act. She was silent. She was beautiful. She was ours and she was us.”

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