When Jackie Kennedy (then known as Jacqueline Bouvier, later known as Jackie O.) first met John F. Kennedy Jr. and his big, rambunctious family, she was coming to the table with a world of reservations, having broken off a previous engagement to John Husted when the constraints of that expected family life felt too overwhelming. Employed as “Inquiring Camera Girl” at the Washington Times-Herald, Jackie valued her freedom above most else, and knew that joining the Kennedy family would mean giving up much of her privacy and ability to move as she pleased — concerns that recently hampered Meghan Markle during her time as a member of the royal family.
A new episode of Wondery podcast Even the Rich on Jackie Kennedy reveals that the former First Lady’s early encounters with the Kennedy family actually had a lot in common with how wives like Meghan (or Kate Middleton, or Diana Spencer) would feel upon meeting the royal family, from the level of commitment that was expected to the family’s respective affinities for outdoor games. When it comes to American royalty like the Kennedys, an outsider like Jackie coming in may well have felt as foreign as they would meeting the British royal family — suggesting that, at a certain level of power, a new set of rules to which the royals and Kennedys both ascribe kicks in.
Hosted by Brooke Siffrinn and Aricia Skidmore-Williams, podcast episode “JFK & Jackie” discusses how Jackie first encountered Jack and what it took for her to say yes to his proposal, one she was surprisingly hesitant to accept.
“She was weary about his job and his family,” Skidmore-Williams noted. “Both would draw her into the public in a way she found distasteful. I mean, she could be the inquiring camera girl and fade into the background. But she knew she wasn’t just marrying Jack, she was marrying his whole family. That’s the way it is with them.”
Of course, Meghan knew she would be striking the same deal when she married Harry. But Meghan has never (to date) publicly opened up about a period of hesitation in which she considered whether she was ready to take on the weight of joining the royal family. In the past year, she has conceded as she did to Oprah Winfrey that she was ultimately unprepared for the full scope of what that commitment would mean.
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If Meghan was under-cautious, then Jackie was over — or at least her peers at the time thought so. At age 23, she was told she was too old to be unmarried on the first day of her prestigious Vogue job in Paris and opted to go home to find a husband instead. Still, at 24 and meeting Kennedy’s family, it wasn’t immediately clear to her that this would work.
“She sometimes found it hard to fit in with the other wives at first,” Skidmore-Williams says on the podcast. “She called them the ‘rah rah girls’ and they all referred to her as the ‘deb’ because some of them thought she was stuck up.”
Jackie, who had studied at Miss Porter’s finishing school to be a debutante and housewife, was employing the training that told her to stay quiet and encouraging above all else, but clearly some of her future in-laws didn’t view it that way. Similarly, when Meghan first came aboard as a senior royal, royal experts Omid Scobie and Carolyn Durand recall in bio Finding Freedom how her strong work ethic could be misconstrued by palace staff, whose British sensibilities “inherently” clashed with her own.
“There are inherently different working styles between Americans and Brits,” they wrote. “Americans can be much more direct, and that doesn’t often sit well in the much more refined institution of the monarchy. Sometimes the American matter-of-fact tone in British society could be viewed as abrasive.”
Whatever the culture clash at play was with Meghan and the royals, it was different from what Jackie experienced with the Kennedys — and different from what Diana or Kate experienced with the royals too. And yet, both families employed a strikingly similar rite of passage that involved proving you were, literally, “game:” athletic, gung-ho, and in possession of a generally sporting attitude.
“Jackie threw herself into everything anyway. She was even game for the Kennedy’s famous family’s touch football games,” Skidmore-WIlliams recalls on Even the Rich. “In a huddle during one, she turned to one of Jack’s aides and said: ‘Just tell me one thing: when I get the ball, which way do I run?'”
Patti Palmer-Tomkinson, a one-time guest of the Queen at Balmoral when Diana Spencer first visited as Prince Charles’ serious girlfriend, recalls a similar idea of a good time among the royal family.
“‘We went stalking together,'” she recalled, as written in Robert Lacey’s 2020 bio Battle of Brothers .”We got hot, we got tired, she fell into a bog, she got covered in mud, laughed her head off, got puce in the face, her hair glued to her forehead because it was pouring with rain…She was a sort of wonderful English schoolgirl who was game for anything.'”
It makes some sense that the royal family would, even subconsciously, be looking for a family member who could come out of a rainstorm with a smile still on her face. Royal life, as they would like it performed, ultimately requires that level of stoicism. Similarly, Americans have long attached to the idea that sportsmanship is indicative of everything from grit to family-friendly values, with Jackie joining a Kennedy football game testing her ability to fit in with their culture at least as much as it tested her athleticism.
At a certain level of power and prestige, it seems like no coincidence that there is some rigor involved when introducing potential new members to the family. But Meghan Markle’s recent choice to walk away from such a family has pushed Diana’s turbulent time with the royals back into the spotlight, and the parallels in Jackie’s experience with the Kennedy family shouldn’t be ignored. Meghan, Diana, and Jackie have all been informed of their luck to marry into such powerful families, while few have paid due to the irrevocable changes they accepted into their lives. In revisiting Jackie’s hesitation to marry JFK, we’re wondering all over again how different history might have looked if women knew what they were saying yes to.
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Before you go, click here to see the best presidential love stories in US history.