Betty Draper from AMC’s “Mad Men” is a grown child, hyper-feminine and superficial, vindictive and petty. She bears a striking resemblance to the portrait that emerges of First Lady Jackie Kennedy in audio interviews with historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., recorded just months after her husband John’s assassination in 1963 and released for the first time this week.
Recently widowed and still grieving, she shares some of her most intimate moments in the White House and dishes on senior officials, American political figures, and foreign leaders. Perhaps most noteworthy is the defensive — or perhaps just ignorant — posture she takes toward her husband and his likely infidelity.
At just 34, and in what her daughter, Caroline Kennedy, describes in a foreword to the book as “the extreme stages of grief,” Mrs. Kennedy displays a cool self-possession and a sharp, somewhat unforgiving eye. In her distinctive breathy cadences, an intimate tone and the impeccable diction of women of her era and class, she delivers tart commentary on former presidents, heads of state, her husband’s aides, powerful women, women reporters, even her mother-in-law.
Charles DeGaulle, the French president, is “that egomaniac.” The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is “a phony” whom electronic eavesdropping has found arranging encounters with women. Indira Gandhi, the future prime minister of India, is “a real prune — bitter, kind of pushy, horrible woman.”
The White House social secretary, Letitia Baldrige, Mrs. Kennedy tells Mr. Schlesinger, loved to pick up the phone and say things like “Send all the White House china on the plane to Costa Rica” or tell them they had to fly string beans in to a state dinner. She quotes Mr. Kennedy saying of Lyndon B. Johnson, his vice president, “Oh, God, can you ever imagine what would happen to the country if Lyndon was president?” And Mr. Kennedy on Franklin D. Roosevelt: “Charlatan is an unfair word,” but “he did an awful lot for effect.”
She suggests that “violently liberal women in politics” preferred Adlai Stevenson, the former Democratic presidential nominee, to Mr. Kennedy because they “were scared of sex.” Of Madame Nhu, the sister-in-law of the president of South Vietnam, and Clare Boothe Luce, a former member of Congress, she tells Mr. Schlesinger, in a stage whisper, “I wouldn’t be surprised if they were lesbians.”
Any shortcomings on the part of her husband are not mentioned. She speaks of his loyalty, sensitivity, courage — traits consistent with the Camelot template she had been the first to invoke. She presents herself as adoring, eager for his approval and deeply moved by the man. There is no talk of his extramarital affairs or secret struggle with Addison’s disease, though she does speak in detail about his back pain and the 1954 back surgery that almost killed him.
Besides betraying her elite and sheltered upbringing, Kennedy’s words display an almost-childish fixation on the trivial and mundane; she appears divorced from reality, like someone who compartmentalizes and ignores the unpleasant. That she would argue all of Martin Luther King’s civil rights and social justice work should be discredited by his alleged affairs is really quite silly when her own husband’s sexual exploits during his time in the White House are the stuff of legend.
“My feeling is that people in a kind of informal situation say things without completely thinking them through. My guess is some of the thoughts, in retrospect, she might have taken them back or reconsidered them or not gone down that particular route,” said Stephen Schlesinger, son of the legendary historian.
“In his journals there’s a lot of things people say that look silly in retrospect. I’m willing to give her a pass on most of the stuff she said.”
Copyright 2011 The National Memo