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What Becomes a Legend Most by Philip Gefter. Copyright © 2020 by Philip Gefter. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Harper Collins


ON JAN. 1, 1961, Avedon arrived in West Palm Beach, Fla., with his assistants in tow, two days ahead of a very important assignment. He would be taking the first pictures of the new president and Mrs. John F. Kennedy and their family to appear in the February 1961 issue of Harper’s Bazaar. It was the only formal photographic session the incoming First Family had agreed on before the inauguration. Not only was it a scoop for the magazine, it was a long-awaited coup for Dick. His pictures of the Kennedys would introduce a new feature in Harper’s Bazaar in which Avedon himself was given a column in the form of a monthly picture essay: Dick’s name would be prominent in the headline of the opening spread, including this first one: “Avedon: Observations on the 34th First Family.” The feature was listed as “the first in a monthly series of observations by Richard Avedon on aspects of contemporary life.”

On Jan. 3, the day of the shoot, the weather in Palm Beach was seasonal, a tropical, breezy 75 degrees. It was the day the United States had officially severed diplomatic relations with Cuba, and the president-elect was absorbed for much of the afternoon with updates from the office of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The Kennedy estate in Palm Beach, at 1095 North Ocean Boulevard, was a rambling affair, designed in the Mediterranean style. Dick’s assistants were busy hanging the roll of white backdrop paper, loading his Rolleiflex cameras with 2¼-inch film, and positioning the piano bench on which the new presidential couple would be sitting. “As Avedon was setting up his portable portrait studio in the grand living room, Kenneth of New York was styling Jacqueline Kennedy’s hair,” writes Shannon Thomas Perich about the scene inside the mansion. “Rose Kennedy was selecting clothes for Caroline and John Jr.; and aides, Secret Service, and other Kennedy family members came and went, relaying phone messages back and forth to the president-elect.”

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“When I took Caroline’s picture with her father, he was dictating memos to his secretary,” Avedon told a Newsweek reporter at the time. “When I’d ask him to look around, he’d stop dictating. But the moment I finished he’d start in where he left off. I’ve never seen such a display of mental control in my life.”

Photographer Richard Avedon discusses his work during the third annual New Yorker Magazine Festival on Sept. 28, 2002, in New York.

Keith Bedford/Getty Images

While Avedon’s name was significant in gaining access to the Kennedys, it was really Diana Vreeland, the fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar, to whom Mrs. Kennedy was paying a debt of gratitude. Vreeland had traveled in the same circles as Jackie’s parents, the socialite Janet Lee and the stockbroker John Bouvier III, and then, later, Janet and her second husband, the Standard Oil heir Hugh D. Auchincloss. In 1947, Jackie was anointed “the Queen Deb of the year” by Igor Cassini – Oleg’s younger brother – who wrote a syndicated gossip column under the name Cholly Knickerbocker. Vreeland had met Jackie as a girl. “She had that wonderful pizzazz of youth,” Vreeland said of her as a child, “something she has never lost.”

In 1953, when Jacqueline Bouvier married Senator John F. Kennedy, whose father had been US ambassador to Britain, the wedding reception at the Auchincloss family home, Hammersmith Farm, in Newport, Rhode Island, was covered by Toni Frissell, a family friend and a photographer for Harper’s Bazaar. The wedding was exactly the kind of social affair Carmel Snow believed to be good for the magazine, but at the last minute she pulled the pictures because of the amount of press exposure the wedding would have already received by the time the issue appeared.

Vreeland’s influence on fashion and, in the larger sweep, cultural style in the second half of the twentieth century cannot be overemphasized. Her deep knowledge of clothes, their structure, the drape of fabric, and the history of ceremonial fashion conspired with the alchemy of her taste to create the “Jackie” look.

In August 1960, during the presidential campaign, Mrs. John F. Kennedy wrote a ten-page, handwritten letter to Mrs. Vreeland asking for help. “Jackie had no qualms about asking Mom for advice on what clothes to wear,” Nicholas Vreeland said. She was being scrutinized in the media for her non-American style, and it was not playing well in the heartland. She feared she might be a liability to her husband’s campaign.

“You might know exactly the right thing,” she wrote to Mrs. Vreeland. “You are psychic as well as an angel.” Aside from Jackie’s prim New England education – Miss Porter’s and Vassar – she was something of a Francophile and had an affinity for European fashion, such as Balenciaga, Chanel, and Givenchy, which gave her a decidedly Continental air. “I must start to buy American clothes and have it known where I buy them,” she wrote. “There have been several newspaper stories ... about me wearing Paris clothes and Mrs. Nixon running up hers on the sewing machine.”

Mamie Eisenhower had been wearing gowns by the American designers James Galanos, Norman Norell, and Arnold Scaasi, but they were not for Jackie; in Mainbocher, she offered, “I just look like a sad mouse.” Still, she wondered if Mainbocher might be the best choice for an inaugural ball. “It may be presumptuous to even be thinking about it now, but it’s such fun to think about,” she wrote. Vreeland agreed to advise her and did so throughout the campaign.

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Oleg Cassini was Vreeland’s answer. He had dressed Rita Hayworth and Joan Crawford, and Mrs. Kennedy named him as her official wardrobe designer. “She liked my Hollywood experience,” Cassini told the Bazaar in 1994. “I was trained to work from a script to create a look and a personage.” According to Cassini, it was Jackie, not her husband, who cultivated the vision of Camelot that the Kennedy presidency came to embody. Cassini said, “She’s the one who had the time, the desire, the taste.”

The six-page Avedon spread on the First Family opened with a picture of Caroline, then three years old, with her cheek to her father’s hand, which she is holding, the president-elect out of the frame. It is a surprisingly intimate and casual photograph of a “First Child,” a window onto the youthfulness of the family that would set the Kennedy tone for the country and the decade. In a second picture, Caroline holds baby John Jr., barely five weeks old, in her lap, looking down at him as his hand – with a lucky Avedon gesture of extended fingers – is lifted to his face. The full-page picture of the president-elect and his wife serves the purpose of a formal portrait, upholding the dignity of the office and the couple alike, but they sit with inexpressive faces and a stolid demeanor – a picture more Bachrach Studios than Richard Avedon.

There are two pictures of the First Lady. In one, a heartstring-pulling image that is, in fact, anything but sentimental, she stands in profile holding baby John-John to her chest with an expression on her face so delicate and tender, the gesture of her hand to his head so protective, that it reaches toward the iconography of a Madonna and Child tableau. The feature’s piece de résistance, however, is the full-length portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy dressed in a thoroughly modern, elegant, ivory satin full-length Oleg Cassini gown that she would have worn, by the time of publication, at a preinaugural ball. The opera-length ivory gloves on her arms match the dress. She wears no jewelry in the photograph. Her hair is a stylish, minimalist bouffant, the length just above her chin, sculpted with a hint of a flip on one side. She faces the camera directly and stares with a steely resolve that is countered only by the comeliness of her features.

Avedon seemed to have an instinctive understanding of what would fall in place historically, and he chronicled the moment, always with an eye toward its historic significance. This published photograph of the new First Lady is the gift that Avedon made for Jackie – not a mere photograph but a society portrait worthy of John Singer Sargent. What the portrait lacks in color, brushstroke, and texture it makes up for in its iconic representation of a new chapter in American history.

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