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After Kennedy's Death, Wife Jacqueline Embodied Grace

The first family watches John F. Kennedy's funeral procession in Washington, D.C., three days after the president was assassinated in Dallas.
The first family watches John F. Kennedy's funeral procession in Washington, D.C., three days after the president was assassinated in Dallas.

The widow was young and beautiful. She'd worn a pink wool suit and a pillbox hat under the hot Texas sun, and her husband worried that she would be uncomfortable.

But the smile she wore was glorious, too. And when the people turned out to wave and cheer, her husband said it was for her; he might have been right.

Then a rifle shot took him away, and she crawled out on the back of the car to reach for a piece of him.

In the hours and days that followed, she had to comfort their two small children and a wounded nation while the world watched. She was all of 34 years old.

When her husband's funeral came on Monday, she held her little girl's hand, and nudged her little boy to salute his father, as he had when they played. And she insisted on walking behind his casket down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Security officials worried that all the world leaders at the funeral would not sit snugly in limos while the young widow walked; they were right. So the slight, lion-bearded emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, strode alongside the treetop tall president of France, Charles de Gaulle, and the Duke of Edinburgh, the foreign minister of the Soviet Union, all of them marching to muffled mourning drums in piercing sunlight, as if to say that men and women would still hold their heads high under the threat of madness.

Before the young widow left the White House, she wrote a note to Marie Tippit, widow of the Dallas policeman, J.D. Tippit, who was shot and killed when he tried to stop Lee Harvey Oswald on a Dallas street.

"I lit a flame for Jack at Arlington [Cemetery] that will burn forever," she told her. "I consider that it burns for your husband too. ... With my inexpressible sympathy, Jacqueline Kennedy"

And she wrote a letter to Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier, telling him that her husband, "used to quote your words in some of his speeches — 'In the next war the survivors will envy the dead.' "

"You and he were adversaries, but you were allied in a determination that the world should not be blown up ... I send this letter because I know so deeply of the importance of the relationship which existed between you and my husband, and also because of your kindness, and that of" Khrushchev's wife. "I read that she had tears in her eyes when she left the American Embassy in Moscow, after signing the book of mourning. Please thank her for that."

Jacqueline Kennedy was already considered an icon of style. But in days that were bloody, sad and tear-stained, she gave her loved ones and her country something more rare and enduring: grace.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.