Nunn Center Oral History Interview with Jackie Kennedy

In the context of the recent release of interviews with Jackie Kennedy, I thought we would feature the Nunn Center’s oral history interview with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis conducted by Terry Birdwhistell in 1981 for the John Sherman Cooper Oral History Project. Dean Birdwhistell’s interview with Kennedy-Onassis was featured on an early version of Saving Stories on WUKY in 2008. Listen to Saving Stories

To listen to the entire interview:

The following article about the interview was featured in the Lexington Herald Leader , May 21, 1994:


Lexington Herald-Leader (KY) – Saturday, May 21, 1994
On the afternoon of May 13, 1981, University of Kentucky researcher Terry L. Birdwhistell left the Algonquin Hotel in New York for an appointment with history.His assignment was one that many journalists, historians and biographers would envy: An interview with the elusive Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.As he sat in the library of Mrs. Onassis’ apartment at 1040 Fifth Avenue, his nerves were on edge.”She was often described as aloof and cold, but she walked into that room and immediately put me at ease.”The interview focused on the friendship between the Kennedys and the late Sen. John Sherman Cooper, a Kentucky statesman. The edited contents were circulated in 1990, in a scholarly journal published by the University of
Kentucky. Copies of the tape Birdwhistell made during the interview have been available to scholars, historians and others who have researched Cooper and the Kennedys.But over the years, Birdswhistell, director of UK’s Oral History Program, has been discreet about his encounter with the woman America first came to know as its stylish young first lady, then as a bereaved widow and finally as Jackie O.The few people who knew about the interview were excited, but wanted to know more about what Mrs. Onassis wore than her recollections, Birdwhistell said.He agreed to talk about the interview yesterday after Mrs. Onassis’ death, but still withheld some details — such as what she wore for the interview.Mrs. Onassis, who in 1981 was working as a senior editor at Doubleday & Co., granted the time so Birdwhistell could record some of her memories of Cooper and his wife, Lorraine.”I thought we owed her an obligation to treat it in the same spirit in which she gave it.

“And our goal is not publicity; our goal is history.”

Birdwhistell used a straightforward approach: He wrote her a letter on April 14, 1981, explaining the oral history project and asking her to talk about Cooper.

“I started doing oral history in my early 20s,” said Birdwhistell , 43. “My philosophy has always been that they can’t turn you down if you don’t ask.”

He received a call on April 23 from Mrs. Onassis’ representative, Nancy Tuckerman of Doubleday & Co., agreeing to the interview.

When he arrived at Mrs. Onassis’ apartment, he was surprised at how easily he obtained entry. He was directed to an elevator, allowed to ride alone to Mrs. Onassis’ floor, where he was met by a doorman and taken to the library.

They were served a tray of sandwiches and iced tea, he said.

No, he doesn’t remember what kind of sandwiches. “I was too nervous to eat.”

In 1990, Terry Birdwhistell ‘s interview with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis appeared in The Kentucky Review, a journal published by the University of
Kentucky Library Associates.

Here are some selected comments made by Onassis during the 1981 interview:

On Sen. John Sherman Cooper: My first impression of Senator Cooper is the same as my present impression — his wisdom, his humor, such a fine, fine man.

On the Kennedys’ friendship with Cooper and his wife, Lorraine: To show you what good friends we were — I think I’m right in this — the first dinner party we went to after we were in the White House was at the Coopers’.

On whether the Coopers enjoyed Washington social life: I never like to say “enjoy the social life,” because I think that sounds trivial and frivolous. If this is being done for history, as if the social life is an important. . . . I don’t know, everybody rushes in. Who’s in? Who’s out? You know, he’s (Cooper’s) too profound for that silly treadmill I have no esteem for.

On the Warren Commission: Somehow I had this feeling of, what did it matter what they found out? They could never bring back the person who was gone. Obviously, I knew it had to be done.

On her recollections of White House life: So many people, you know, hit the White House with their dictaphone running. I never even kept a journal. I thought, “I want to live my life, not record it.”

And I’m still glad I did that. But I think there’s so many things that I’ve forgotten.