Secret return of Jackie Kennedy and children to the White House has its 50th anniversary

by Peter Heck · Feb 4th, 2021 6:44 pm
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Last Updated Feb 5th, 2021 at 2:54 pm

People magazine recently offered a fascinating look back at the private communication between the family of former President Richard Nixon and widowed First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy that led to the one and only return Jackie and her children would make to the White House. Wednesday was the 50th anniversary of that then-secret return.

Eight years following the assassination of her husband John F. Kennedy, the former first lady had become Jacqueline Onassis after marrying husband Aristotle. Richard Nixon had been elected president, and he and his wife Pat reached out to offer Jackie an invitation to the formal White House unveiling of her late husband's portrait.

Having graciously turned down previous invitations, Jackie wrote back admitting that any type of public ceremony at the White House would be too painful for her and her children.

"As you know, the thought of returning to the White House is difficult for me," Jacqueline Onassis wrote to Mrs. Nixon. "I really do not have the courage to go through an official ceremony, and bring the children back to the only home they both knew with their father under such traumatic conditions."

But she did ask if it would be possible to arrange a private, personal, and secret visit for her and the children to "come to pay our respects to you and to see pictures privately?" Onassis wrote that she hoped this would allow the children to "see their father's portrait in the rooms they used to know, in a quiet way."

The Nixons, of course, accepted that offer. To maintain the privacy she requested, the Nixons did not permit photographs to be taken. But handwritten correspondence that followed depicts the depths of gratitude and goodwill between the once rival political families.

"Can you imagine the gift you gave me?" Onassis wrote. "To return to the White House privately with my little ones while they are still young enough to rediscover their childhood — with you both as guides — and with your daughters, such extraordinary young women."

Onassis wrote of the precious moment the tour gave her that same night with her son, John Jr.

"Before John went to sleep, I could explain the photographs of Jack and him in his room, to him: 'There you are with Daddy right where the President was describing the Great Seal; there, on the path where the President accompanied us to our car.' Your kindness made real memories of his shadowy ones. The day I always dreaded turned out to be one of the most precious ones I spent with my children," the former first lady wrote.

Along with handwritten letters from 11-year-old John Jr. and 14-year-old Caroline, the grieving matriarch of the Kennedy family, Rose, who wasn't present for the visit, still wrote an emotional thank you note to Pat Nixon.

"Your warm-hearted welcome to her and my grandchildren on a day which might have been most difficult for all of them, moved me deeply," Rose said. "And so, dear Mrs. Nixon, you brought joy to many who are near and dear to me, and I thank you from my heart."

Originals or copies of each of those letters are visible at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.


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