President John F Kennedy and his wife Jackie arrive at Dallas airport, Texas
Thursday, 28 November 2013

'Now I have nothing left'

On the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination, his iconic widow's fateful words remind us that, behind the conspiracy theories, his murder was ultimately a deeply personal tragedy

Written by Fiona Hicks
Dallas, Texas: on a sunny November day, Jackie Kennedy was sitting next to her husband in the back of an open-top limousine, as she had done many times before. The president was due to speak at a lunch at the Trade Mart and they were travelling in a 9.5-mile convoy to get there. They smiled and waved at the wellwishers lining the streets, when suddenly there was an almighty crack. Jackie thought it was simply a motorcycle backfiring… until she looked over at her husband.

She would never forget his final expression. ‘He looked puzzled, as if he just had a slight headache,’ she said. ‘I could see a piece of his skull coming off,’ she later revealed. ‘Then he slumped in my lap.’

Acting a split second too late, the couple’s Secret Service agent, Clint Hill, threw his hefty weight over the pair as Jackie continued to cradle her husband’s head. ‘I tried to hold the top of his head down, maybe I could keep it in,’ she revealed, but her white gloves were quickly soaked with blood. ‘I knew he was dead.’

That was 22 November 1963, but 50 years on, those tragic events remain as vivid as ever, a moment indelibly etched in our collective memory.

Among all the 50th anniversary chatter about political machinations and conspiracy theories, however, it is all too easy to forget that the assassination of John F Kennedy was also a deeply personal tragedy. Especially for his widow, Jackie.

The car took just minutes to reach the emergency room at Parkland Hospital, yet for Jackie it seemed like an eternity. She whispered ‘I love you, Jack’ over and over as she stared into his lifeless blue eyes. In the hospital, two men tried to hold her back as her husband’s body was wheeled away, but she fought to remain by his side.

By 1pm, the president was declared dead. Those present in the room described how the First Lady slowly walked over to where he lay, and began kissing every part of his body through the sheet that covered him. When she reached his head, she pulled back the sheet and kissed his mouth. She didn’t say a word throughout. Afterwards, she removed her wedding ring and slipped it on to her husband’s finger, whispering, ‘Now I have nothing left.’

That afternoon, in an image that continues to resonate half a century later, Jackie emerged on to the steps of the hospital, her pink Chanel suit stained with her husband’s blood. She had washed the blood from her hands and face but when asked whether she wanted to change her clothes, she refused. ‘I want them to see what they have done to Jack,’ she said.

In an instant, Jackie had become the world’s most famous widow. But during those moments on the steps, and in the long weeks that followed, she was the epitome of dignified composure. She took an active role in arranging her husband’s state funeral, and even led the procession on foot from the Cathedral of St Matthew the Apostle to the Arlington National Cemetery, where he was buried.

After the funeral, Jackie retreated from the public eye with her two children, Caroline and John. They remained in their quarters at The White House for two weeks before moving to a quiet part of Washington DC. Once they had left The White House for the final time, Jackie requested that her drivers arrange all her routes so that she never had to pass that place again.

Jackie-K-02-590Jackie, John and Caroline at John Kennedy's grave on 29 May 1964. It would have been his 47th birthday

The family, seeking further privacy, later moved to New York. Despite her public composure, those close to her revealed that the following year was marked by Jackie’s mourning and intense despair. Caroline admitted to one of her teachers that her mother frequently cried, and for the most part Jackie avoided public events.

Five years later, tragedy was to strike again with the assassination of her brother-in-law, Robert F Kennedy. Once more, Jackie feared for her life and those of her children, stating, ‘If they’re killing Kennedys, then my children are targets… I want to get out of this country.’

Within four months she had married Aristotle Onassis. The billionaire Greek shipping magnate had apparently been courting her for years, and he could offer her the security and protection she so craved. Their union was controversial – Jackie had long been revered as the perfect widow of a beloved president, and Onassis was not a popular figure – but it captured the attention of the press who gave her a new sobriquet, ‘Jackie O’.

The soft-voiced beauty from New York was once again in the limelight. She remained one of the most famous women in the world until her death in 1994, and to this day continues to be a cultural icon.

The pink Chanel suit, which has come to symbolise that dreadful day, is still in existence. The suit and accessories, still stained with the president’s blood, are kept in a temperature- controlled vault just outside Washington. Caroline gifted her mother’s outfit to the National Archives in 2003, with the strict understanding that it cannot be released for public view until 2103.

Fascination with John F Kennedy and his enigmatic widow is as strong as ever, and there is no doubt that it will endure for another 90 years and beyond.

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