Farewell Camelot in Tragedy, Jackie Gave Us Strength

Article excerpt

SHE WAS ALL GRACE and beauty and class.

It is a measure of her impact on her times that millions of people, in this nation and throughout the world, would instantly recognize those words as a description of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

She wasn't one of America's 15-minute celebrities - the attention and admiration that were focused on her lasted almost 35 years. Only Queen Elizabeth II can equal that, for different reasons and despite her refusal to do anything about her hats.

The sad creatures that strut and fret their way across the TV screen - the Designated Celebrities - were to Jackie Onassis as Tonya Harding is to Mother Teresa. She sailed serenely above their brief notoriety, untroubled and secure and private - paradoxically, one of the most private public personages in history.

Perhaps Princess Di will replace her as the image of elegance - the glass of fashion and mold of form - but for now there is a sense of loss and emptiness, as if a delightful friend were suddenly gone. Our beau ideal has been taken away, and that is hard.

It was called Camelot, in its day and ever since. Some heaped scorn upon it, dismissing it as phony and superficial; others admired it and treasure its memory. But no one can forget it, because it was a unique, sweet moment before the bitterness of Vietnam and Watergate, the crime and drugs and social breakdown and . . . and here we are, in torment, a long way from Camelot.

As much as John F. Kennedy, perhaps more, Jackie was Camelot. Here is how she did it:

A state dinner was given for President Mohammad Ayub Khan of Pakistan. It was held, not in the White House, but at Mount Vernon. The guests assembled at the Washington Naval Yard, and a flotilla of boats took them down the Potomac to George Washington's home. Musicians played aboard each boat, and stewards served huge platters of shrimp.

Arriving at Mount Vernon, the guests walked up a path lighted by flaring torches, past a military honor guard rigidly presenting arms.

The dinner had been prepared by the Kennedys' French chef, Rene Verdon, and was served under a large tent on the lawn. The flowers and other decorations were arranged by Tiffany's of New York.

As we dined and drank the splendid wines (my wife, Doris, and I were guests), the Air Force's Strolling Strings broke into small groups that wove their way between the tables, then reformed into a whole, then split up again, playing always in perfect unison.

After dinner, we sat on the lawn, under the stars, drinking champagne, while the National Symphony Orchestra played Gershwin. It was a clear, fine night; how could it have been otherwise, in Camelot?

An incident before dinner: In the receiving line, I said a few words to President Kennedy, and he to me, and then he introduced me to Ayub Khan, who gave me a greeting for which the word "perfunctory" was invented.

It didn't matter, because Jackie was next. She was wearing a shimmering white evening dress of the utmost simplicity - that was her fashion secret, simplicity - and she was perfectly lovely. She was Byronic: She walked in beauty, like the night.

Before I could speak to her, however, a hand gripped my arm - hard. Kennedy pulled me back and plunked me down in front of Ayub Khan again. He didn't want Ayub to think any hoi polloi had been invited to the party. …