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Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy

In the winter of 1964, Jacqueline Kennedy was a wreck. It had been less than four months since she saw her husband torn apart, fragments of bone and brains in her lap. She had endured the swearing-in of Lyndon B. Johnson, as she stood in her blood-smeared pink suit; she had choreographed the funeral to evoke Lincoln's; she had replayed the horror of the assassination with author William Manchester; and she had shrewdly, if questionably, cast the presidency of John Fitzgerald Kennedy as Camelot.

It was all too much. "My life is over, and I will spend the rest of it waiting for it to be really over," she wrote to a friend. Fleeing the White House, she moved with Caroline, 6, and John, Jr., 3, to 3017 N St. in Georgetown. There, they were tormented by curiosity seekers she called "locusts." "I am a freak now," she moaned.

She spent her days in bed, crying, and her nights remembering, drinking. She contemplated suicide. She alienated friends, fired loyalists and gently refused the entreaties of a persistent president Johnson. Solace came from soulmates, principally a broken Robert F. Kennedy. Fused in grief, they fell amorously into each other's arms.

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On March 2, Jackie began the first of seven conversations recorded with Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., the celebrated historian who had been adviser and amanuensis to her husband. She could talk in confidence, she knew, because the audio tapes would be sealed for 50 years after her death. They would anchor an ambitious oral history, she hoped, which today numbers 1,700 interviews.

Jackie and Schlesinger talked five times in March and twice in June. After some consideration, Caroline Kennedy has approved the early release of these recordings, and the annotated but unedited transcripts, to mark the 50th anniversary of JFK's inauguration. She wanted her mother to be heard.

Jackie once imagined herself a director, managing life's stage, but she was equally an actress, commanding it. To explore the past with Schlesinger – when she did, how she did, through her tears – shows how she would fashion her husband's legacy.

This is a story in seven parts and nine hours. She speaks to us from the grave, yet long before the grave, which suggests that some of her pre-feminist views on marriage would change later in life. Her voice is soft, small, occasionally halting. For someone called feline, here she is more leonine. Her recollections, punctuated by ice cubes tinkling in a glass, are tart, sentimental, perceptive, sometimes naive and startlingly candid, up to a point.

So, Nikita Khrushchev was a bully ("naked, brutal, ruthless power"), Charles de Gaulle was "an egomaniac" and John Diefenbaker was "a bore." LBJ was a paranoid, whom JFK felt should never be president, and Richard Nixon was "dangerous." Detractors are invariably "bitter" or "jealous."

Sometimes we wince. Did JFK really think FDR was a "poseur" or Teddy Roosevelt "fatuous"? Was Jackie's marriage really "Asian," as if she were a geisha? Did she really think "women should never be in politics" and "all my opinions come from my husband"?

While she was not a partner in policy, Jackie was the most influential woman of her time. She charmed foreign leaders, championed the arts, restored the White House, beautified Washington, inspired fashion. For this, she gives herself little credit.

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This is oral history, raw and reflexive, and it has flaws. Schlesinger treats Jackie as a source rather than a subject, which bothered Caroline when she reviewed the tapes. He asks too much about non-entities and too little about issues, such as civil rights. Rarely does he challenge her interpretation. Sometimes questions are random and answers repeated; twice she recalls de Gaulle on Roosevelt. And once Schlesinger is unnerving. "John, what happened to your father?" he asks the toddler as he enters the room. "Well, he's gone to heaven."

Here, in the sunshine of Camelot, Jack Kennedy wears a halo; she wonders whether he is Greek or Roman. Of his personal recklessness and his infidelity, Jackie surely knows but does not disclose. She is either dissembling or doesn't care. Although, like others, she saw his life as a series of water-tight compartments, she believes their love was unshakeable.

There are no startling revelations here to revise history. But there is a fund of anecdote and a sense of texture to enrich it, including the terror of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and much to buttress the enduring popular appeal of a flawed but courageous president. Listening to the breathy Jackie, we feel more for the brilliant, doomed Jack, who expects an early, violent death. Here, we see anew that he cherished his friends, loved his children, understood his enemies ("no, no, you must see his side") and lived with humour through unrelenting physical pain. Asked his one wish in life, he said: "I wish I had more good times."

Of course, Jackie's life did not end after Jack. She lived 30 more years, remarried, raised her children and had a career in publishing. She gave no more interviews: This is the memoir she never wrote. If she ever doubted Camelot, she never let on. When she died, she was buried beside Jack.

Andrew Cohen, a journalist, author, professor and founding president of the Historica-Dominion Institute, is working on a book on the administration of John F. Kennedy.

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