Hegel’s caveat “history teaches us nothing” may be relevant in cultural and philosophical realities but in the design world the statement is far from succinct. No one knew this more resolutely than Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, or as we have come to affectionately call her Jackie O.
One Special Summer with Jackie O
She was a style-setter in the truest sense of the word but her choices were grounded in her knowledge of history and her worldliness—classic tastes honed by parents who understood the past had a great deal to teach her and her sister, who would become the prominent socialite Lee Radziwill. They were educated at excellent schools and sent abroad on a three-month mini grand tour of Europe that included stops in Spain, London, Paris, Venice, Rome and Florence when Lee was 18 and Jackie was 22.
Their trip lives on because the sisters created a cheekily illustrated journal titled One Special Summer, which they presented to their parents as a thank you upon their return. Jackie rendered the delightful drawings and wrote the poetry while Lee penned the narratives about their capers as they traveled around in a small car they bought in London solely for the trip.
Rizzoli published the journal as a slim, large format book in 1974, and I highly recommend it if you’d like to experience the playful personalities of these charming young women, who would both go on to become influencers in so many ways. Their fun-loving bond and the capricious nature they unleashed on a handful of cities in Europe is a wonderful respite that takes about half an hour to enjoy if you have the time to relish the fact you are seeing such a different side of these women than we know of them today.
This image of the two sisters as they returned to America ends the book, the text below it reading “It’s All Over Now” with the date September 15th, 1951, noted below it. It was exactly 64 years ago today when they ended their escapade, and I am grateful to have the memento because it is a remarkable artifact of a more innocent time and a testament to good manners that sometimes seems all but gone.
The Stylish Life of Jackie O
When Sotheby’s auctioned off her estate nearly 45 years later in April 1996, the two-inch-thick catalog, titled The Estate of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, notes that a number of copies of One Special Summer, being offered for sale, had been on her shelves when she died. The bound Sotheby’s inventory is more than an archive of domestic goods; it’s a narrative honoring a worldly and beautiful woman.
In it are essays by her children and by Nancy Tuckerman, who attended Chapin School with Jackie when they were precocious young girls. Tuckerman remained a close confidant of hers for many years, noting the future First Lady’s penchant for practical jokes that saw her routinely sent to the headmistress’s office. She also mentioned just how smart she was: “Teachers loved Jackie for her intelligence and her inquisitive mind. Because of her eagerness to learn and her retentive memory, and to keep her mind occupied, they often gave her double homework assignments. Once when our homework included memorizing a number of Longfellow verses, Jackie came to class having memorized the entire poem.”
Her children wrote, “In deciding what to do with our mother’s possessions, we were guided first and foremost by her deep knowledge of and love of history.”
Jackie’s fascination with the past even showed in the design books she edited, one of her most respected titled In the Russian Style, a backward glance at the great rulers of the country through their fashions, the things they treasured, and their design legacies. It was published in collaboration with The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and it includes pageantry ensembles, interiors of cloyingly ornate royal palaces and art owned by the monarchs reaching as far back as Peter I and ending with the reign of Alexander III. A bit disappointingly, most of the images are in black and white, but the fascinating survey of the wealth and customs of the rulers of a land that remains enigmatic to this day is far from a letdown.
It was Jackie’s wardrobe that gave us the first indication she would be a tour-de-force for bringing classicism to America—her ensembles for the inaugural festivities setting the tone for a fascination we would develop for our young First Lady’s taste in clothes early on (who can forget that oversized pillbox hat?) . But it would be her devotion to timeless interior elements that would turn out to be the most enduring proof.
Jackie O Champion of History
Her determination to champion traditional design initially revealed itself in her restoration of portions of the White House, which she proudly debuted during her renowned televised tour that aired on CBS in the spring of 1962 (above). While over 46-million viewers watched, she spoke demurely about what had been achieved, afterwards expressing happiness that things the press had identified about her as liabilities (that she spoke French, that her hair was not au courant, that she didn’t adore campaigning, and that she didn’t bake bread “with flour up my arms”) were suddenly seen as a positive.
The Red Room and State Dining Room (above and below) are examples of the excellence she achieved with the help of a handful of talented advisors that included Washington DC insiders and Winterthur’s Henry Francis du Pont.
Later in life, it would be her advocacy in saving Grand Central Terminal (GCT) that added a gem to her preservationist legacy. Both efforts show her regard for historic design and her passion for our country’s architectural treasures.
Last year, the main entrance to GCT was dedicated as the “Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Foyer” in honor of her work to help the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission save and restore the transit hub. I took the time to stand in the graceful entryway not long ago and it is such a fitting a tribute to her, down to the video looping continuously on the west wall with snapshots of her life and her efforts (not that NYC commuters rushing through the arched foyer paid any notice!).
This devotion to tradition was not merely a public persona. As the Sotheby’s catalog illustrates, she lived surrounded by classic style. Flipping through it is like being granted entrée to the life of a well-traveled sophisticate. There is Tiffany silver and Ormolu accessories, Italian cast bronze sculpture, gilded and ebonized furniture. Chinoiserie proliferated in her art and accessories. Antiques were plentiful, including Rococo, Biedermeier and Neoclassical treasures. Her art collection included French School watercolor portraiture; Neapolitan School scenic watercolors; Dutch oil paintings; French School gouaches of architecture studies, which hung in the foyer of her Fifth Avenue apartment; and marble sculptures, many of them depicting mythological figures, dating from the 4th-century BC to the 3rd-century AD.
Francophilia figured strongly with decorative items from a number of eras, including Louis XV, Louis XVI, Louis-Philippe, Regency and the Empire; and she owned numerous books about Versailles and the French decorative arts. These facts are no surprise considering French was one of her majors. She was fond of pencil on paper by British artists and her books encompassed nearly all the cultures of the globe. Russia, Italy, France, and India figured strongly on her bookshelves, titles like A History of Indian Dress likely inspired by her trip to the country as First Lady.
How her apartment was furnished and the many books she displayed there made it evident that she gravitated toward what was meaningful to her. Nan Talese said as much in her introduction to New York Jackie: Pictures from Her Life in the City. “She loved books all her life and so to be involved with them was also to be absorbed in something meaningful.” This led her to jobs as an editor at several major publishing houses after her divorce from Aristotle Onassis. As a smaller round of items from her estate were being auctioned off a number of years after the major Sotheby’s sale, New York magazine quoted Tuckerman as having said, “I’d like to see how the books from her library would do; that’s what she cared about, not some plate.”
I was eager to learn what serious literature she had on her bookshelves to see if they shed light on her as a reader. Standouts included poetry by Edith Sitwell and Robert Lowell, a copy of Courtiers of Henry VIII signed by the author David Matthew, an autographed copy of Truman Capote’s selected writings, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, three volumes of Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte by Richard Bentley, Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke, The Hemingway Reader, and the plays of Shakespeare from her school days. Her books also attested to an avid interest in historic design and garden literature, perhaps a harbinger of her involvement in restoring the White House.
During an interview with Hugh Sidey of Life magazine on September 1, 1961, she told him, “All these people come to see the White House and they see practically nothing that dates back before 1948. Every boy who comes here should see things that develop his sense of history. For the girls, the house should look beautiful and lived-in. They should see what a fire in the fireplace and pretty flowers can do for a house; the White House rooms should give them a sense of all that. Everything in the White House must have a reason for being there. It would be sacrilege merely to ‘redecorate’ it—a word I hate. It must be restored—and that has nothing to do with decoration. That is a question of scholarship.”
Historic Designs Befitting a Style Setter Like Jackie O
You may be wondering what inspired me to delve into her take on history as thoroughly as I have. I blame it on a visit to Currey & Company’s Atlanta headquarters last month, which makes the title of this post (One Special Summer) doubly apropos! I was given a sneak peek at their fall releases and as Cecil Adams uncovered one gorgeous furnishing after another, I noticed, once again, how historic design underpins all of their offerings. Even their contemporary pieces have provenance in some form or fashion.
I thought I’d give you a taste of the classicism represented within the new releases, and to stay true to the narrative, I’ve chosen pieces that I believe would resonate with a polished person on par with Jackie O furnishing a Fifth Avenue apartment today.
To accompany the visual beauty, I asked Brownlee Currey, the company’s President; and Bob Ulrich, Vice President of Sales and Marketing, to share their thoughts about the creative vibrancy for which Currey & Company is applauded.
Brownlee addressed the historical aspects of their point of view, telling me, “The company is deeply rooted in historical furnishings. In fact, our very first products were accurate reproductions of classic garden benches from the Winterthur estate. One might say that our very origins were looking at older things.
“My father [Robert Currey] is prone to say, ‘there is no new geometry,’ and while he is correct, I don’t quite think this gets the whole point across. Personally, I believe what he is saying is that form, scale and proportion never really change, though decorative styles certainly do. Therefore, history is our best guide to the future and an invaluable reference in our design work.
“Having spent the last several days looking at old things and old books of older things still, I am more convinced than ever that history should be our guide when working on new things. Someone else has been here before us and has been confronted with these same choices, after all.”
Since Bob’s point of view has been honed interacting with the company’s loyal buyers, I asked him to tell me how he thinks the design team continues to create notable furnishings that set the bar so high.
“Our effort to remain ‘distinctive’ is driven by the collective talents of our product development team,” he told me. “The depth of our collection can be directly attributed to the diversity of their perspective, the willingness/desire to try new concepts and a passion for creating beautiful things.”
Distinctive is certainly a word that resonates for me when I think of Currey & Company’s products and when I remember Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. She knew the value of celebrating what had been—down to her designation of her time in the White House, a historical reference we use to this day. It was during an interview for Life magazine on November 29, 1963—a week after her husband had been assassinated—when she told the journalist Theodore H. White that JFK’s presidency was “one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.” Looking back from this distance, it feels “one brief shining moment” is an apt description of her graceful life. She’s simply one of those dynamic women I wish could have lived on forever, providing a sophisticated beacon for those of us who follow.
In her last will and testament, Jackie bequeathed to Rachel (Bunny) Mellon two Indian miniatures—Lovers Watching Rain Clouds and Gardens of the Palace of Rajh—in appreciation of her designing the Rose Garden at the White House. So many years later and after such a multifaceted life that could have made such an early collaboration irrelevant to many people, she honored a contribution to our cultural milieu with soulful recognition—a move that illustrates how she was style personified to her very last earthly acts.
The Modern Salonnière and One Special Summer with Jackie O © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist whose books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.