Portrait of the Kennedys

Never-before-published photographs reveal a personal side to the first family

(Eric Jaffe)

On the night of September 26, 1960, John F. Kennedy faced off against then-Vice President Richard Nixon in the first televised presidential debate.

Viewer consensus held that Kennedy won. But why? Was it because he was so photogenic? Was it the dark navy blue of his suit against the grainy gray of Nixon's? Or was it his young, handsome face? We may never know for sure, but from this point on, Americans became accustomed to seeing Kennedy—and his family—everywhere: on television, on the front page of newspapers and on covers of almost every magazine.

Some Kennedy images remained out of the limelight, however. And this month, about 200 never-before-published photos of the most famous first family have been released in a new book, The Kennedys: Portrait of a Family, by Shannon Thomas Perich, associate curator of photography at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. The Kennedys gives Americans a view of the family in photos, hidden from the public eye for almost 46 years.

During her husband's presidential campaign, Jackie formed a relationship with fashion editor Diana Vreeland of Harper's Bazaar. Vreeland advised Jackie throughout the campaign and helped connect her with fashion designer Oleg Cassini, who became chief designer to the first lady. As a thank you to Vreeland, Jackie offered to allow the magazine to photograph her wearing the pre-inaugural ball gown designed by Cassini.

Harper's Bazaar chief photographer Richard Avedon was assigned the photo session; by this time, Jackie was already a fashion icon and had been photographed by Avedon many times before.

On the morning of January 3, 1961, Avedon and his crew arrived at the oceanfront villa in Palm Beach, Florida, where the Kennedys had spent the holidays. The future 35th president was preparing for his inauguration and getting ready to take on the overwhelming task of becoming America's new leader. Jackie, looking as if she'd shed every pound of baby weight in a little over a month, still glowed after John Jr.'s birth on November 25.

As the session got under way, Avedon captured the Kennedys not as Americans have seen them in thousands of other photographs—sailing on a boat or sitting in a beautiful house, for example—but as just themselves.

"It's just them and their relationships with each other," Perich says. "Avedon has stripped away all of the context that they're used to surrounding themselves with."

In the photos of an energetic Caroline and the president-elect, Kennedy is seen as a father: playful, interactive, relaxed.

"You see him in a tender way that you don't really get to see at any other time," Perich says.


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