In “Jackie”: The Exploitation of a First Lady, Irving Shulman—sociologist/misogynist— suggested that the movie magazines offered “uterine tidbits” and “a clitoral interpretation of life” to their largely female audience, a dastardly editorial policy that, in turn, infected the entirety of the mainstream media. Shulman uses the tabloids’ Jackie Kennedy coverage to illustrate this insidious trickle-down effect.
This is interesting, yes, but it is also wrong.
The mainstream press latched onto the Kennedys’ spectacular appeal early. The family had received regular press coverage since Joe Kennedy’s days in Hollywoodand his subsequent ambassadorship in the Court of St. James. They were no strangers to publicity and, in July 1953, before she was even married, Life ran a four-page spread on Senator Kennedy’s fiancé.
A similar cover feature appeared in 1958 and, a year later, the FRONTRUNNER’S APPEALING WIFE was front-and-center in a cover photograph, with JFK hovering in the background, curiously out of focus. In the fall of 1960, Look followed suit with an article on all the Kennedy women and a cover of the Senator’s 29 year old wife in a strapless dress with a hint of cleavage. At the time of the Inauguration, Ladies Home Journal was running serialized excerpts from Mary Van Rensselaer Thayer’s authorized biography, giving readers an intimate peek into the new First Lady’s life via singularly florid prose. By the time the movie magazines began hesitantly running her on their covers in the winter of 1961, Jackie had been making regular appearances in Life and Look for nearly a decade.
The exposure in the mainstream magazines hinged on the notion of exclusive access to extremely private moments. Between the election and Inauguration, Life devoted a cover to JFK Jr.’s christening. In its February 28, 1961 issue, Look gave readers “exclusive” access to an “informal visit” with the new First Family, including photographs of Jackie swaddling the Kennedy’s newborn. The accompanying copy notes that, when the photographs were taken, the infant “had not long graduated from an incubator.”
Such reports were stylish, authorized and, often, in full-color, but they were also— at their core— fueled by provocative images and personality-based narratives. By 1961, the mainstream magazines were already strolling down the path upon which the tabloids were about to stumble.