- Historic Sites
The Johnsons and the Kennedys are popularly thought to have shared a strong mutual dislike, but stacks of letters and a remarkable tape of Jacqueline Kennedy reminiscing show something very different —and more interesting
September 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 5
Happy Easter to you all—
As a 1966 Christmas gift, Mrs. Johnson sent Jackie a set of books of the Louvre Museum’s collection. The recipient’s thank-you note displays more than her ethereal stream-of-consciousness style and her genuine interest in the books.
Dearest Lady Bird:
If you knew how much I love Treasures at the Louvre - It is the most magnificent art book—books rather—that ever was—You can just lose yourself in it for hours. … How did you know that I would rather have that than anything?
I was thinking Christmas Day—in the late afternoon when one had cleared away the wrapping paper and put everyone’s presents into piles, stumbling over John’s train tracks and Caroline’s dolls, I had my modest pile assembled on a big table in the living room—and your books were right next to the two beautiful Canton plates you gave me last year that I always keep there—I was thinking you should have some Christmas prize for your sensitivity in every year finding the most treasured things.
I hope that someone gave you something you love as much … and I hope for you that the New Year will bring you all you hope for—and some days just for yourself- as I have had here—when one can put all one’s cares and obligations aside—
If you are ever in New York and have any free time- you know how I would always love to see you. …
As ever— Affectionately Jackie
1968 Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam policy had increasingly alienated the antiwar wing of his party, and in March LBJ announced that he would neither seek nor accept another term as President. By June it seemed likely Robert Kennedy would win the nomination.
For her part Jacqueline Kennedy was torn. Privately she vehemently opposed the war, but she withheld public comment on it, as she did on all political issues of the day. She agreed to campaign for her brother-in-law’s presidential bid but ominously told her friend the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., that she feared her brother-in-law would meet the same fate as her late husband.
morning of June 5, 1968, the telephone in the bedroom of President and Mrs. Johnson rang at four-twenty, and in New York another early-morning call came through to Jacqueline Kennedy’s apartment. Senator Kennedy had been shot; he would die the next day.
The Johnsons immediately sent a telegram to Jackie: “We grieve with you today & know your help must be of great comfort to Ethel [the senator’s widow] at this time of anguish.” Mrs. Johnson and LBJ attended the services in New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and at the mass’s conclusion Mrs. Johnson found herself before a stunned Jacqueline Kennedy. “I called out her name and put my hand out,” wrote Mrs. Johnson in her diary. “She looked at me as if from a great distance, as though I were an apparition.” By many accounts Jacqueline was more shell-shocked than she had been in 1963.
Lady Bird on Jackie: “In times of hope, she captured our hearts.”
Afterward she wrote the Johnsons, in what would be her last note to them jointly: “I do thank you so much for your wire about Bobby- and for all you did, in those sad days,—to make it possible for him to be laid in rest with all the love and care and nobility that meant so much to those who loved him—
“Sometimes there are no words to say things—only this —I am deeply grateful. Thank you—as ever Jackie.”
months later her life wholly changed: shifting from America and Kennedy politics to Europe and her own refuge, she married Aristotle Onassis in October. Two weeks later, with the election of Richard Nixon, LBJ became a lame-duck President. The second assassination, LBJ’s retirement, and Mrs. Kennedy’s remarriage all had happened within the span of six months. The lives of Jacqueline Kennedy and the Johnsons were altered forever. Their close correspondence ceased.
Just after Jackie’s marriage Mrs. Johnson reflected on her friend and predecessor. She believed that “this complete break with the past might be good for her” and went on to say “as a result of the wedding … I feel strangely freer. No shadow walks beside me down the halls of the White House … I wonder what it would have been like if we had entered this life unaccompanied by that shadow?” Four years later Lyndon Johnson died.
The two women eventually renewed their friendship in the next decade. It was at the dedication of the John R Kennedy Library in October 1979 that Jacqueline and Lady Bird saw each other once again. In 1986 Mrs. Onassis invited Mrs. Johnson and her daughter and son-in-law Lynda and Charles Robb to spend an afternoon with her at her home in Martha’s Vineyard, and after that the two women socialized, Lady Bird often spending part of her summer on the Vineyard. When Mrs. Johnson celebrated her eightieth birthday in 1992, Mrs. Onassis sent a congratulatory letter: “Lady Bird has a great heart and tireless energy. Those who know and love her have benefitted from these qualities as have countless others she has never met.”