History | October 19, 2018 5:00 am

How Jackie Kennedy’s Second Marriage Forever Changed Media and Porn

The moment First Families officially went tabloid wound up creating Larry Flynt.

Aristotle Onassis with his wife Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, just before flying from London to Belfast. 1970. President John F. Kennedy's widow remarried in 1968. (Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Aristotle Onassis with his wife Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, just before flying from London to Belfast. 1970. President John F. Kennedy's widow remarried in 1968. (Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

On November 22, 1963, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy’s life shattered in the blink of an eye. But while many people before and since have suffered similar tragedies—a spouse in the prime of life suddenly snatched away by violence—this was unique. The world watched and mourned right along with her, making the loss theirs as well as hers.

Millions had already been fascinated with this stylish, beautiful woman. Now it hardened into obsession.

For the rest of their lives, Americans would remember where they were when they learned that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. Most of them also carried memories of Jackie Kennedy from that day and the days that followed—for them, she would always be the grieving widow.

Jackie Kennedy, however, still had a life to live. She was only 34 and had two young children. It shouldn’t have come as a shock that she would eventually marry again, which she did on October 20, 1968. The world wasn’t sure how it felt about the former First Lady moving on from martyrdom. They might have been uncomfortable with her remarrying under any circumstances, but her spousal selection ensured maximum trauma.

JFK was youthful and handsome and had served with distinction during World War II. Jackie’s second husband was Aristotle Onassis. He was already 62, 23 years older than his bride. Plus he wasn’t even American—it was like a foreigner wanted to take what was left of Camelot away from the U.S.A. (Sure enough, they married off the coast of Greece on his private island of Skorpios.)

Aristotle Onassis was not the great love of Jackie Kennedy’s life, nor was she the great love of his. (Indeed, many would argue that neither particularly loved the other at any point.) Yet somehow their union lasted until his death in 1975. Nonetheless, their nuptials 50 years ago would forever change the way First Families are covered by the media and inadvertently lead to the creation of a porn empire that still stands today.

What Becomes a First Widow?

JFK was the first U.S. President to be assassinated since William McKinley in 1901. McKinley had been married to Ida Saxton since 1871—she was 54 at the time of his death. Mrs. McKinley was prone to epileptic seizures. She also likely suffered from neurological damage to her left leg and a compromised immune system. Her husband sat next to her at state dinners—a violation of normal protocol—so that if she had a seizure, he could throw a napkin over her face. Consequently, Ida was generally viewed less as a complete human being than as a physical manifestation of William’s loyalty and decency. Indeed, Ellen Maury Slayden wrote that Ida McKinley was “seen by the few who ever got close enough to form an opinion as the cross he bore gallantly.”

Ida McKinley died in 1907, less than six years after her husband. She reportedly visited his grave on an almost daily basis.

When JFK was assassinated, John Jr. was three days away from his third birthday and sister Caroline was five days from turning six. The Kennedys had already lost two children: Arabella was stillborn in 1956 and Patrick had died at two days earlier in 1963. Now Jacqueline was widowed and about to be uprooted—the family had to move out of the White House. Bishop Philip Hannan, who eulogized JFK, wrote decades later she confided her anxieties to him that the “world viewed her, not as a woman, but as a symbol of its own pain.”

Beyond this, Jacqueline had to cope with her actual pain—biographers have speculated that she suffered from PTSD.

Then on June 6, 1968, her brother-in-law Robert F. Kennedy died from his wounds as another Kennedy was assassinated.

Just over four months later Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy again became a bride.

A Marriage and Its Motives

Born in 1906, Aristotle Socrates Onassis saw his family of successful tobacco dealers lose almost everything in the wake of World War I. He left Greece for Buenos Aires to rebuild the family fortune. Onassis accomplished this feat with impressive speed, earning his first million by 25. In 1932, he began to acquire freight ships. Shipping would enable him to achieve a whole new level of wealth, turning him into a man worth hundreds of millions.

Kennedy had first met Onassis in 1958, when she and her husband boarded his yacht for a meeting with Winston Churchill. In his 2012 book Mrs. Kennedy and Me, former Secret Service agent Clint Hill wrote that John F. Kennedy said his wife should not be allowed to “cross paths with Aristotle Onassis,” apparently troubled by Aristotle’s reputation as a womanizer.

Quotes attributed to Onassis include “I have no friends and no enemies—only competitors” and “Never ask for small loans.” The 1988 TV movie Onassis: The Richest Man in the World did its best to capture that combative swagger through Raul Julia’s performance.

The film actually earned an Emmy for Jane Seymour. She played opera star Maria Callas. The American-born Greek Callas and Onassis had a very public relationship, ending both their marriages. She was celebrated for her voice and just for being Maria Callas—arguably the greatest diva ever, difficult bordering on impossible but invariably worth the misery.

Callas does not sing until two minutes into the clip below. Her voice is remarkable, but it’s equally impressive to behold her presence as she waits—this is a woman who knows people came to hear her. From a swagger standpoint, surely Onassis had met his match. He couldn’t stay away from her, even after he was married to the most famous woman in the world.

 

Whereas Jacqueline Kennedy was the person who told her press secretary, “My press relations will be minimum information, given with maximum politeness.”

Quite simply, Aristotle and Jackie didn’t seem like two people who would date, much less wed. (To make things even more uncomfortable, he reportedly had a relationship with Jackie’s sister years earlier.) It was easy to believe that she married him because his wealth could provide her the security (in all forms) she desperately desired. And he married her because the widow of JFK was the ultimate trophy wife.

There are literally dozens of books that address the love or lack thereof in this marriage and debate whether the death of Onassis was the only thing prevented their divorce. (He died in 1975 from complications of myasthenia gravis, a debilitating neuromuscular disease.)

We’ll never know exactly how this marriage operated—the only two people who can definitively answer are long departed. However, it can be said that this union was ultimately a blip in both of their lives. The vast majority of the Onassis fortune went to his daughter from his first marriage. And while she kept the Onassis name for the rest of her life, no one was surprised that after her 1994 death Jackie was buried next to JFK at Arlington National Cemetery, not by Aristotle on Skorpios.

Yet their years together did have a lasting impact. They marked a change in how the media covered a celebrity, even one reluctant to embrace the spotlight. Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis became the subject of a level of scrutiny unimaginable to Mrs. McKinley.

The Whole World Watching

A story in 1970 called “The Happy Jackie, The Sad Jackie, The Bad Jackie, The Good Jackie” repeated five anecdotes about John F. Kennedy’s widow and concluded:

“One of the most agreeable aspects of writing about Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis is that when you set out on a morning to interview her acquaintances, you never know which Jackie is going to be described. Sometimes it’s the sassy, devil‐may‐care enfant terrible of Story 1, sometimes the willful European traveler of Story 2, some times the fey creature of Story 3. Other days it’s Story 4’s bitchy Jackie, who at some time or another has mimicked and made scornful remarks about every friend and relative she has ever had, or the sensitive Jackie of Story 5, whose note was among the kindest Teddy Kennedy found in his mail last summer.”

The writer went on to note that Jackie had long been a mixture of “the bitchy and the sensitive” (among other qualities) and observed that “Onassis’s reunions with Maria Callas find their way into the newspapers, just as the ‘I Am Curious (Yellow)’ incidents do—partial sets of facts revealing partial truths.”

The “I am Curious (Yellow)” incident referenced the time Jackie Kennedy was seen at a theater showing the sexually explicitly 1967 Swedish movie and got in a fight with a photographer. (Jackie also made headlines when she saw the porn film Deep Throat, this time avoiding any skirmishes.)

And what was the rag that reveled in sharing this gossip? Why the New York Times, of course! Mrs. Onassis wasn’t just news, but news that was often invasive, judgmental and weirdly personal. Which was particularly odd because she wasn’t seeking office or promoting products—just a woman coping with a variety of tragedies while attempting to raise two children.

She was about to receive the most invasive coverage of all, at a time she was supposed to be totally off view.

The First Lady and Larry Flynt

These are the basic facts: Jacqueline Kennedy was on her husband’s private island of Skorpios. She was sunbathing naked. Photographs were taken. They were published overseas. An American with a genius for promotion and no shame whatsoever acquired them and published them again.

The most shocking aspect of this case: Aristotle Onassis may have been behind it all. The theory is that he had grown sick of financing her invasion-of-privacy lawsuits and thus decided to arrange the greatest invasion of all. (Bonus level of invasiveness: It occurred at the place they were wed.) Thus he gave 10 photographers a heads up on her schedule and they put on their wetsuits and swam into position to take nude photos of his unsuspecting wife.

Whoever was responsible for the tip, there is one man who will be forever grateful: Larry Flynt. The photos were taken in 1972, but didn’t reach a mass American audience until he put them in Hustler’s August 1975 edition. Flynt reminisced about the move to the National Enquirer in 2013: “I made over $20 million on those photos. It was the best investment I ever made.”

Flynt’s legacy is a surprisingly large and enduring one. His 1988 Supreme Court victory over Jerry Falwell was a major blow for free speech, particularly in the area of parody. 1996’s The People vs. Larry Flynt dramatized this event, earning Woody Harrelson a Best Actor Oscar nod in the process.

 

Flynt also survived and even thrived while his contemporaries in the smut game vanished. At the times of their deaths, both Bob Guccione (Penthouse) and Al Goldstein (Screw) were bankrupt. Even Hugh Hefner hit hard times. Fortune noted when the Playboy founder passed he “had been reduced to mere employee of the media company he created.”

Meanwhile 75-year-old Flynt is still alive despite being paralyzed from the waist down in a 1978 murder attempt by KKK-affiliated serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin and suffering a massive drug addiction that nearly killed him and ultimately led to the death of his wife Althea. His net worth has been estimated at $500 million. Not bad for a man who still revels in high-stakes gambling and happily shares the tale of how he lost his virginity to a chicken.

And Larry Flynt owes it all to the marriage of Jackie and Aristotle. Which, like all things good and bad, eventually came to an end.

Slipping into the Shadows

When they reported the March 15, 1975 death of Aristotle Onassis in a French hospital, the New York Times noted his daughter Christina was by his side but his wife had “taken to commuting between Paris and New York.”

Jackie had already outlived the son of Onassis, as Alexander died in a plane crash in 1973. (The same fate that would befall John Jr. 26 years later.) She outlived Maria Callas too, who died in 1977. The Guardian obituary quoted Opera editor Harold Rosenthal’s belief that Aristotle’s marriage had damaged Callas: “It had a big effect on her.”

Jackie even outlived the daughter who was so attentively at her father Aristotle’s side, as Christina Onassis died of a heart attack in the bathtub of her Buenos Aires mansion in 1988 at just 37.

And in this chapter of her life, Jacqueline Kennedy Bouvier Onassis found a measure of peace. She worked as a book editor, with authors including the Egyptian Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz. She also found a lasting relationship with the Belgian-born businessman Maurice Tempelsman, a man with even less interest in the limelight than she had. Jackie observed, “The first time you marry for love, the second for money and the third for companionship.” This time she didn’t even bother with marriage—the two simply were devoted to each other until her death in 1994 at 64.

After her passing, the New York Times noted that Tempelsman “had handled Mrs. Onassis’ finances since the death of her second husband, Aristotle Onassis, and is thought to have at least quadrupled the $26 million she secured from his estate.” Like so much else written about her, this would prove to be largely incorrect. (Though she was still doing quite well—by all accounts, she was worth over $40 million and possibly significantly more.)

A Preview of Life in the Internet Era

Despite her desire for privacy, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis was subjected to frequently cruel gossip (often presented in the guise of legitimate journalism) and ultimately wound up literally stripped bare before the world. It would be nice to say this was a horrific but isolated occurrence. Of course, that isn’t the case. Today every woman in the public eye can expect at least some degree of online harassment and hackers particularly love sharing nude photos.

Which makes Jackie Kennedy’s quip at a 1979 dinner party still timely today: “I think my biggest achievement is that, after going through a rather difficult time, I still consider myself comparatively sane.”