The former First Lady and her family snuck into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for a private tour 50 years ago today.
“Thank you with all my heart. A day I dreaded turned out to be one of the most precious ones I have spent with my children,” wrote former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, 50 years ago today. She composed this message after an emotional return to the White House, the only day she would ever go back, eight years after her tragic departure in 1963. What had begun earlier as a simple request, written in her distinctive handwriting on her powder blue stationery, became a cherished memory fueled by the generosity of President Richard Nixon and First Lady Patricia Nixon.
The public unveiling of artist Aaron Shikler’s portraits of President and Mrs. Kennedy, commissioned by the White House Historical Association, had been set for February 5, 1971. Concerned about how she would feel being back in the White House, the only home her children knew with their father, the former First Lady sent a personal note to the Nixons asking, “Could the children and I slip in unobtrusively to Washington, and come to pay our respects to you and to see the pictures privately? … And the children could see their father’s portrait in the rooms they used to know, in a quiet way.”
The answer, of course, was yes, but Mrs. Nixon did so much more. “My parents wanted to do everything possible to make it a positive experience,” Tricia Nixon Cox remembers now. On February 3, 1971, a small military jet was sent to fly Mrs. Kennedy (by now, Mrs. Onassis), Caroline, and John Jr. to Washington. The entire day was kept secret from everyone, with the exception of the president and Mrs. Nixon, their daughters, Tricia and Julie, White House Chief Usher Rex Scouten, and White House Curator Clement Conger. Despite knowing what extensive publicity it would generate, the Nixons made sure no photos were taken and every effort was made to ensure complete privacy for the Kennedy family.
The visit began with a viewing of President Kennedy and the First Lady’s portraits. The Green Room had been selected for JFK’s portrait, and Mrs. Onassis’s was placed outside the Diplomatic Reception Room. The Nixons gave the Kennedy family privacy and space as they took the portraits in, seeing them for the first time in the White House. Mrs. Onassis was also finally able to see the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden, which was dedicated in her honor during the Johnson Administration. They continued with a tour to admire the new acquisitions and the private residence, the place they had once called home. Caroline and John Jr. were especially thrilled to see the third-floor solarium, where Caroline’s kindergarten class had been held. The Nixon dogs, Pasha, Vicki, and King Timahoe, also gave the Kennedys a memorably warm welcome. Following an intimate dinner shared among the two families, President Nixon led the Kennedys through the West Wing and Oval Office, before they departed back for New York.
Mrs. Onassis promptly expressed her feelings in a note the next day. She spoke appreciatively of the graciousness of the Nixons: “Can you imagine the gift you gave me? 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. What a tribute to have brought them up like that in the limelight. I pray I can do half the same with my Caroline. It was good to see her exposed to their example, and John to their charm!” The former First Lady also wrote about how the private experience had allowed her to explain more to her son, who was so young when he lost his father. “Your kindness made real memories of his shadowy ones,” she said. And she acknowledged the changes Mrs. Nixon had made, such as lighting the White House so the public could enjoy it in the evening. “I have never seen the White House look so perfect,” Mrs. Onassis wrote. “There is no hidden corner of it that is not beautiful now. It was moving, when we left, to see that great House illuminated, with the fountains playing.” The letter was signed, simply, “Jackie”—a true indicator of the closeness the two women shared.
Caroline Kennedy later recalled much of the evening’s events in great detail, even remembering how her little brother had spilled milk all over the dining table in the private residence, putting everyone at ease. She shared how the private and protected visit had “allowed my mother to share a lot of her memories with us,” something she is no doubt grateful for even today. But more importantly, she shared what the event was really about and why it is important to remember and celebrate this historic clandestine occasion even 50 years later: “I think she really appreciated Mrs. Nixon’s thoughtfulness in the sense that there are family values and a dedication to politics and patriotism that go beyond any disagreement on issues or party, and so I think one of the things you learn having lived in the White House is that there really are these common experiences and what we share is so much larger than what divides us.”
One can truly appreciate the importance of it all when reflecting on the unique personal story between Mrs. Onassis and Mrs. Nixon. Given their diverse backgrounds and history with one another, one might not assume a connection, much less a friendship, would be possible. First, in today’s combative, polarized environment, it is hard to imagine the fondness and respect that was shared by these two iconic American families, who were at one time political foes: the Kennedys, the Democratic candidates and victors of the closely contested 1960 election for president, and the Nixons, the Republican candidates who narrowly lost but went on to win the White House eight years later. Second, these two first ladies could not have come from more different backgrounds—Jackie Kennedy was brought up on the East Coast, a debutant given a refined education. Pat Nixon grew up on the West Coast and had to earn the money to go to college. Yet, despite the distinctively different paths, the two women had much in common—primarily their love for their children, a deep sense of patriotism, and an understanding of diplomacy.
Mrs. Onassis brought a sense of refined elegance to the White House that mirrored her own classic style. Her desire to showcase the significant history of the White House as home and a symbol of democracy to the world led her to create the White House Historical Association. Her vision was to incorporate as many authentic furnishings as possible and display presidential artifacts from past administrations. Tragically, her cause was cut short by the assassination of her husband. The day following the death of President Kennedy, Richard Nixon wrote to Mrs. Kennedy, “While the hand of fate made Jack and me political opponents, I always cherished the fact that we were personal friends from the time we came to the Congress together in 1947.” Two weeks later, Mrs. Kennedy and her two young children moved out of the White House.
Much like Mrs. Onassis, Mrs. Nixon was deeply interested in history, and quietly expanded the White House’s collection by more than 600 authentic antiques during her tenure—more than any first lady had before her or since. Mrs. Nixon was able to fulfill Mrs. Onassis’s dream “to convey the message of the White House’s distinguished past,” as the late White House historian William Seale would later say. Most importantly, the two women were able to delight in each other’s successes. Mrs. Nixon kept Mrs. Onassis on as a member of the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, despite her not attending their meetings, as it was too painful, she said, for her to do so. In a handwritten note (a tradition that has been lost today) to her friend, Mrs. Onassis wrote, again in her signature blue ink, “I know that the White House has a great defender in you—and that is the most important thing of all.”
Jennifer Boswell Pickens is a White House historian and First Lady expert. She is a public speaker and author of three books: Entertaining at the White House: Decades of Presidential Traditions, Christmas at the White House, and Pets at the White House. Follow her on Instagram @jenniferbpickens and Twitter @JenniferPickens