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I Once Met... Jackie Kennedy - Joan Wheeler-Bennett

Blog | By Joan Wheeler-Bennett | May 30, 2022

Joan Wheeler-Bennett recounts the frightening experience that united her and future First Lady Jackie Kennedy

Jackie and I lived on the same corridor at Vassar College as fellow undergraduates in 1947.

She shared a room with Edna Harrison from Hawaii, while she came from Manhattan, Paris and exotic places; one did not venture to ask exactly which. We were only 18, and glamour already set her apart. She and the silent Edna avoided the communal jollities on the corridor. We later read Mary McCarthy’s The Group (1963). She reminded me of Lakey.

Jackie and I were catapulted into a close friendship. One dreadful night, I had been awakened by the muffled sounds of distress from the room next door. I pulled on my dressing gown over my nightie, ventured a knock on the closed door and peeped into the darkness. I saw a shuddering form, wound in a sheet wet with blood. My heart tightened while I sought help from our neighbour, Jackie.

‘Something serious,’ I said and in no time Jackie left her bed to join me. Turning on the light, we saw a small figure under the twisted sheet, blood everywhere. While I attempted reassurance, Jackie fetched the resident caretaker. No phones in those days.

In consequence of this unhappy episode, Jackie and I become close.

A mixture of horror and guilt bound us together.

Eventually we learned that Jean, for that was her name, had survived and had returned home in the care of a psychiatrist. Yet other than extending one invitation to supper in the dining hall, abruptly refused, none of us had made an effort to befriend this shy, solitary student whose head was always down when she scuttled in and out of her door.

Too late we learned she was a maths major with a full Coca-Cola scholarship from upper New York State. College campuses were isolated in those days and counselling was non-existent.

Jackie’s brand of aloofness had inspired awe; she embodied a mix of mystery and movie-star beauty. But after this episode she became approachable – even friendly. To my pleasure, she shared her secret application for that year’s Prix de Paris. As the prize was an apprenticeship at Vogue in Paris, I was amazed.

‘I just need to prove to myself that I can do it,’ she explained as one night she laid out the sheets of drawings and essays on fashion and why she wanted the job. My humble admiration was reinforced. This was a mammoth undertaking alongside her academic studies. Her submissions were stunningly professional and, yes, using a pseudonym, she did win the Prix de Paris.

To my disappointment, Jackie did not return to Vassar the following year to finish her degree. She became engaged while working as a journalist in Washington, where she met JFK; they were married in 1953. She became First Lady in 1960 aged 32.

A bunch of red roses appeared by our front door in Barnes on the day President Kennedy was murdered in 1963 – a touching acknowledgement of my North American antecedents. The anonymous donor was not to know that I had once enjoyed a friendship with Jackie Bouvier, now Jack’s widow.

However, I was telephoned that day by the Times: could I shed light on the character of Mrs Kennedy?

Appalled as I was by the tragedy and horror of what had taken place in Dallas, Texas, I declined to comment.