Jackie's Girl: My Life with the Kennedy Family

May 21, 2022 at 3:17 p.m.
Kathy McKeon's book "Jackie's Girl" is about the 13 years she spent as Jackie Kennedy's personal assistant
Kathy McKeon's book "Jackie's Girl" is about the 13 years she spent as Jackie Kennedy's personal assistant

Editor’s note: Kathy McKeon’s first and only book made a big splash when it was published in 2017. But I hadn’t heard of it until this past month when I noticed a flurry of website posts about the memoir, “Jackie’s Girl.” The recent posts teased, “The secret Jackie Kennedy Kept Hidden in the Soles of her Shoes,” and, “We’ve bumped into each other at night, in the pantry.” I decided to look into the book and found it to be interesting. I hope you do too.


From the author's Facebook page. Her book has many photos from her time with the Kennedys

 

Jackie’s Girl: My Life with the Kennedy Family
by Kathy McKeon is a coming-of-age memoir about the thirteen years she spent as Jackie Kennedy’s personal assistant and, at times, nanny to Caroline and John.
The “secrets” included the fact that since one of Jackie’s legs was slightly shorter than the other, she had one ¼ inch lift in each pair of shoes. Or that sometimes McKeon would bump into Jackie in the pantry in the middle of the night, catching her eating ice cream right out of the carton. In truth, the memoir is not a “tell-all” that reveals shocking secrets, but rather an affectionate and gentle telling of McKeon’s 13 years spent with Jackie Kennedy and her young children. It offers a chance to understand what Jackie was like behind closed doors.



In 1963, Kathy and her sister came to New York to find work as domestic servants. Life back home was not easy, with 10 family members crammed into a three-room farmhouse. Without running water or electricity, the family was so poor that all 10 shared the same toothbrush.
That first year working in the U.S. was rather miserable, but then Kathy caught a lucky break. She heard of a position with “Madam.” Her new employer was Jackie Kennedy.



Not long after JFK was killed, McKeon went to an exclusive Fifth Avenue address for an interview. While she waited, a young boy – John – came into the parlor with his dog to show her tricks. Jackie observed how natural and pleasant Kathy was with John and hired her on the spot.
The job consisted of keeping Jackie’s extensive wardrobe in tip-top condition, running errands, and even filling in as governess at times. Kathy lived and worked with Jackie, Caroline, John, the other household staff, and the family pets.



Kathy accompanied the Kennedy family on their travels, including trips to Cape Cod where she met other members of the extended Kennedy clan. Rose Kennedy, the Grande dame of American politics, affectionately called Kathy “Jackie’s girl.”



Kathy was there for the Kennedy children when they learned of their uncle Bobby’s death, who had become a father-figure to them after their own father was assassinated. She was there when the children learned that their mother would be marrying Aristotle Onassis and that they would be spending part of their time in Greece.



Kathy McKeon describes Jackie as generous and kind, with an easy manner. She called her employer “Madam,” although she thought of Jackie more as a big sister than an employer.



When Kathy first arrived at the Kennedy household, she was a young, uneducated woman, new to life in America, having never before spent time in a big city before arriving in New York. During her time with the Kennedy’s, she traveled, met rich and powerful people and learned about a completely different kind of life. Jackie took Kathy under her wing and helped her polish off some rough edges. Her 13 years with the Kennedy’s gave Kathy a front-row seat to some of the twentieth century’s most significant events.



The book is a coming-of-age memoir that counts the lessons about life and love that the author learned from the glamorous first lady. The book shows a true bond that grew between the two. The memoir is filled with photos, including some never seen before the book was published.
About McKeon’s book, Kirkus Review wrote: "In a wonderfully readable narrative, she shares good and bad times with the family and their children, always faithfully protecting their privacy. McKeon's delightful memories have been tucked away for 50 years, and thankfully, she has brought them out to share the enchanting magic of Camelot with us all."
Kathy McKeon

 

Text from the book: 
Where were you… 
In 1964, the shock of President Kennedy’s assassination was still fresh, and the question felt more urgent than casual, popping up the way it did at bus stops and lunch counters, on church steps and park benches, within moments of meeting someone for the first time. It was as if everyone thought that collectively reliving that last moment of innocence might somehow help us recapture what was lost forever. That question would linger for five years, then ten, then fifty. . . .

But in 1964, people were already beginning to reframe their lives around it.

At nineteen, I was still too naive, though, too foreign, to grasp its significance. My worldview back then was no bigger than the servants’ quarters of the wealthy Manhattan households where I worked—making beds, polishing crystal, and caring for the well-groomed children of posh society women. I was really no more than a child myself when Jacqueline Kennedy came into my life and made me part of hers.

I was in Caroline’s room one afternoon soon after I was hired when the question was directed at me. I froze for a panicked moment. No one had told me what to say, if there were rules I was to follow, or an answer I was meant to give. If the slain president’s seven-year-old daughter all of a sudden wanted to know: “Where were you when it happened, Kath?”

Caroline, more than anyone, deserved an answer—of that much I was certain. I would have to trust that even at such a tender age, she had already learned in the months since her father’s murder what reminders of him might ease her heartache. After all, it was she who had broached the delicate subject. She had been showing me some of her favorite storybooks and toys when she paused and looked up at me.

“Did you know my father was president of the United States, and that he got shot?”

“Yes, I did know,” I answered carefully. “And I’m so sorry that happened, Caroline.”


The words felt too thin to hold the weight of the moment, but Caroline seemed happy, not sad, to be talking about him.

“Were you here or back in Ireland?”

I told her I had been back home, in a wee village called Innis-keen, where I lived on a small farm with my parents and seven brothers and sisters. Caroline pressed me to go on.

’The people in Ireland must be very sad, because my daddy was Irish, and very popular and people loved him,” she said. I was surprised that she seemed to know about her father’s deep bond with my homeland, and I could tell she was hungry to hear more about it firsthand.

“You’re right,” I said. “We were all very sad. Every family had a picture of your father hanging up in their house, right next to the pope’s. My mother kept ours right there in the kitchen.”

“Where were you when it happened, Kath?”

Keeping my voice steady and calm, I told her my story.

“There was a dance in the village every Friday,” I began. “My older sister, Briege, and I would always go with our friends.” We would spend hours getting ready, putting together our outfits and curling our hair using strips of clean rag. First we’d tie a length of cloth into a loose circle, then take a section of damp hair and wrap it around the circle before tying the two ends of the rag together tight. By the time our hair dried and we untied our rag curlers, we’d have ringlets to style into a bouncy sock-hop ponytail or a teased flip like Sandra Dee. I told Caroline how we had primped as usual in front of the broken kitchen mirror that night and started walking to the village. We stopped at a little shop on our way to buy sodas, or maybe it was breath mints. The shopkeeper, Mrs. Finnegan, looked at us and clucked her tongue.

“I hate to tell you girls, but there’s no dance tonight,” she said. “The president of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was shot today. Everything is canceled.”

Just five months earlier President Kennedy had visited his ancestral home in Dunganstown, County Wexford, arriving in Ireland mere hours after delivering his historic “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in divided Germany. He had vowed to return to us soon, promising next time to bring his wife, Jackie, and their two children.

We had no television at home—no electricity, even—but two days after the shooting in Dallas, Texas, my whole family spent hours huddled around Dad’s cheap battery-operated radio to listen as President Kennedy’s funeral Mass, then the long procession to Arlington National Cemetery, and his graveside service were all broadcast across the Atlantic. I remembered catching the faint echo of hoofbeats three thousand miles away as the horse-drawn caisson carried the fallen president to his final resting place. And then came the muted roar of fifty military jets flying overhead in tribute. It wasn’t that sound but the stillness that followed that made me feel connected for the first time in my life to a vast world beyond our small, rural corner of Ireland. Nothing this big had ever happened in my memory. I sensed that this sadness I felt was but a stitch in a tapestry more vast and intricate than any of us could possibly imagine.

Now I was telling President Kennedy’s little girl how my father had come to our room that night, as he usually did for bedtime prayers, kneeling as he always did on the hard concrete floor, and how he offered up our daily rosary to the soul of President Kennedy and to his grieving family. “Peace be with them,” he murmured as we finished our final round of three Hail Marys, one Our Father, and a Glory Be. Peace be with them, I echoed. I went to bed wondering what their lives would be like now.

I fell silent and saw tears falling down Caroline’s cheeks. She was very quiet for a few moments then spoke up in a clear voice meant to reassure me she was all right.

“I was just saying a little prayer for him,” she said, wiping her eyes.

“That’s good, Caroline,” I said. “I’ll say one for him, too.”

I couldn’t know then, mere days into my new job, how thoroughly I would be swept up into this most royal of American families. How their everyday life would also become mine, my heart lifted by the powerful love they shared, and shattered by the unimaginable tragedies they endured. That I would someday tuck a piece of Caroline’s wedding cake in my freezer, or teach her brother how to ride a bike. I had no inkling that their beloved mother would play such an important part in shaping the woman I was yet to become. That not only my life, but my very character, would be transformed not by where I was when it happened, but after.

Five years passed, then ten, then fifty.

And now, I’m finally ready to tell my other Kennedy story… 

 In announcing her memoir, Kathy McKeon stated her intentions behind writing the book was to have others “experience the humanity behind the history, as I once did.”
 
 

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