In the early days of the Cuban missile crisis, before the world knew that the cold war seemed to be sliding toward nuclear conflict, President John F. Kennedy telephoned his wife, Jacqueline, at their weekend house in Virginia. From his voice, she would say later, she could tell that something was wrong. Why don’t you come back to Washington? he asked, without explanation.
“From then on, it seemed there was no waking or sleeping,” Mrs. Kennedy recalls in an oral history scheduled to be released Wednesday, 47 years after the interviews were conducted. When she learned that the Soviets were installing missiles in Cuba aimed at American cities, she begged her husband not to send her away. “If anything happens, we’re all going to stay right here with you,” she says she told him in October 1962. “I just want to be with you, and I want to die with you, and the children do, too — than live without you.”
The seven-part interview conducted in early 1964 — one of only three that Mrs. Kennedy gave after Mr. Kennedy’s assassination — is being published as a book and an audio recording. In it, the young widow speaks with Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., the historian and Kennedy aide, about her husband’s presidency, their marriage and her role in his political life. They do not discuss his death. The eight and a half hours of interviews had been kept private at the request of Mrs. Kennedy, who never spoke publicly about those years again before she died in 1994. The transcript and recording, obtained by The New York Times, offer an extraordinary immersion in the thoughts and feelings of one of the most enigmatic figures of the second half of the 20th century — the woman who, as much as anyone, helped shape a heroic narrative of the Kennedy years. Though the interviews seem unlikely to redraw the contours of Mr. Kennedy or his presidency, they are packed with intimate observations and insights of the sort that historians treasure.
At just 34, and in what her daughter, Caroline Kennedy, describes in a foreword to the book as “the extreme stages of grief,” Mrs. Kennedy displays a cool self-possession and a sharp, somewhat unforgiving eye. In her distinctive breathy cadences, an intimate tone and the impeccable diction of women of her era and class, she delivers tart commentary on former presidents, heads of state, her husband’s aides, powerful women, women reporters, even her mother-in-law.