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Telegraph Article: The Kennedys' Last Christmas

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The Kennedys' Last Christmas

Fifty years ago - just months before his assassination - John F Kennedy celebrated his final Christmas surrounded by his wife Jackie and family... and with a mistress in the wings.

Jacqueline Kennedy and her husband, President John F. Kennedy attend a White House staff Christmas Party December 1962 in Washington DC. Photo: Getty Images


By Sarah Bradford

The Telegraph

2:24PM GMT 27 Dec 2012

Fifty years ago, John and Jacqueline Kennedy were celebrating what would turn out to be their last Christmas together. Within a year, a sniper's bullet would shatter America’s First Family - but December 1962 proved a time of joy and relief.

Just weeks earlier, the Cuban Missile Crisis had had the world teetering on the verge of nuclear war. A fleet of Soviet missile-bearing ships had been detected steaming towards Cuba in October 1962, with the intention of establishing nuclear warheads capable that, for the first time, could threaten the United States. Jackie had pleaded with the President’s advisers to let her and her two children, Caroline and John Jr (“John-John”), remain in the White House during any emergency – and if necessary to die together as a family, rather than being sent to the safety of the presidential retreat at Camp David.

Tension had risen over the following week until, on Sunday 28 October 1962, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed to withdraw the missiles in return for an American pledge not to invade Cuba. The sense of relief at Kennedy’s skilful facing-down of Khrushchev was enormous. Christmas 1962 would be an extra-special affair.

A huge Christmas tree went up in the entrance hall of the White House in early December. Jackie’s restoration from the homely Eisenhower era, when it had resembled officer’s quarters more than anything else, to a magnificent setting for the Kennedy presidency, was almost complete.

While her official interior designer was Oleg Cassini (whose bills were paid by his friend and patron, Jackie’s father-in-law, Joseph P. Kennedy), she secretly also used top European couturiers including Valentino and Givenchy through a network of high-society friends, including her sister Lee, Princess Radziwill. There were frequent “Battles of the Budget”, as Jackie called them, but in the end, Jack, possibly as compensation for his unceasing infidelities, always gave in.

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At the end of the first week of December, instead of joining Jackie and the children at their rented Virginia house, Glen Ora, Kennedy went to a spectacular weekend orgy organised by his brother-in-law, the Rat Pack actor Peter Lawford, at Bing Crosby’s estate near Palm Springs. Among the women there was Jack’s latest fling, the former White House intern, Mimi Beardsley, now a 20-year-old college sophomore, who had flown out to Palm Springs on one of the air force’s “back up” planes. She would reveal details of her relationship with Kennedy in a sensational memoir, which was published last year.

Reverting to his presidential role – but with Mimi Beardsley once again in discreet and carefully concealed attendance – Kennedy then flew to Nassau in the Bahamas to meet Harold Macmillan, the British prime minister. The luxurious Lyford Cay Club was the location for a vital discussion on nuclear defence, with the pre-Christmas conference resulting in the Americans offering the Polaris missile to the Royal Navy for use on specially constructed submarines. From Nassau, Kennedy left to join Jackie and his family for a two-week break over Christmas in Palm Beach.

Christmas 1962 would be one of the happiest periods of the Kennedy marriage. For all his sexual shenanigans, JFK deeply appreciated Jackie for the social and political benefits she brought him. As well as overseeing the transformation of the homely Eisenhower White House into a magnificent setting for the Kennedy presidency, it was Jackie who gathered around him the glittering international and Anglo-American high society that he appreciated. The British Ambassador in Washington, David Ormsby-Gore, later Lord Harlech, was an old friend, as was David Bruce, US Ambassador in London, and his glamorous wife, Evangeline.

Jackie’s sister Lee (“the only woman Jackie really liked”, as a friend told me) and her husband Prince Stanislaus ‘Stas’ Radziwill were a central part of the social circle which included the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, and Gianni and Marella Agnelli of Fiat fame.

With the family in Florida for its last Christmas, Jackie once again underlined her political value to the Kennedy presidency. On Christmas Day, she had flattered the sizeable Catholic population of Miami by appearing with her family at Mass in Palm Beach wearing a Spanish-style white lace mantilla.

On December 28 1962, she stole the show at the Orange Bowl at Miami Beach, where 50,000 Cuban exiles had gathered to welcome the arrival of 1,113 veterans who had just been released from prison by Fidel Castro. For all his sopistication and intelligence, the President was no linguist; after his speech, Jackie enchanted the audience with a short contribution in Spanish.

Despite Jack’s unrelenting womanising, the Kennedys were a couple again at Christmas 1962. Sometime after the birthdays of Caroline, aged five, and John Junior, aged two, Jackie knew she was pregnant again. In Florida, she lazed on the beach, cruised with Jack, Lee and friends on the Kennedy yacht, the Honey Fitz, and celebrated New Year’s Eve at a party given by Charles and Jayne Wrightsman, attended by no fewer than six of the World’s Best-dressed Women: Jackie herself and Lee, plus four others on her international social circuit – the hostess, Jayne Wrightsman, Gloria Guinness, Marella Agnelli and Nicole Alphand, wife of the French ambassador to Washington.

The night of their return from Palm Beach by helicopter, on January 8 1963, the Kennedys attended a dinner at at the French Embassy in honour of André Malraux, “Jackie’s favourite Frenchman”, who had come to unveil the Mona Lisa, on temporary loan from the Louvre, at the National Gallery in Washington DC, as he had promised Jackie he would do on her triumphant visit to Paris the previous May.

Quite apart from its newly restored splendour, the White House under Jack and Jackie – and indeed, the other houses they occupied – was their family home. Caroline and John were always around, running in an out of the Oval Office. Once, when old friends came to dine with Jack and Jackie, they came out of the private lift to be greeted by the sight of Caroline “naked as a jaybird” pursued by an embarrassed nanny. “Caroline thought her father was a god,” Nanny Shaw said. “She adored him as much as he adored her.” Jack’s relations with his outgoing son were more robust: “John-John and JFK quite simply break each other up. Kennedy likes to laugh and likes to make people laugh, and his son is the perfect foil for him,” a friend said.

“The President was careful to explain to the children, particularly Caroline, when they were going away on official trips,” the children’s nanny Maud Shaw remembered. “He would tell her where they were going and what the trips were for.”

A happy family, a newly pregnant mother, and a future that seemed to hold nothing but promise; it makes the last Kennedy Christmas all the more poignant. Within the year – a month before Christmas 1963 – Lee Harvey Oswald would aim his rifle through the window of the Depository Building in Dallas, Texas.

Sarah Bradford is author of America’s Queen: The Life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (Penguin, £14.99), which is available from Telegraph Books for £12.99 + £1.35 P&P. Her most recent biography, Queen Elizabeth II: Her Life in Our Times (Penguin), is also available, for £7.99 + £1.10 P&P. To order either title, call 0844 871 1515 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk

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