The Kennedys: Portrait of a Family

An excerpt from the new book by Shannon Thomas Perich


On January 3, 1961, the weather was a breezy and comfortable 75 degrees along the stretch of beach at the Kennedy compound in Palm Beach, Florida. 

Inside the rambling Mediterranean-style house at 1095 North Ocean Boulevard, Richard Avedon was setting up his portable portrait studio in the drafty living room, while Mr. Kenneth of New York styled Jacqueline Kennedy's hair, Rose Kennedy fretted over Caroline and John Jr.'s clothes, and aides took memos and relayed phone messages to president-elect John F. Kennedy.

Avedon, now at the height of his profession, had come to Palm Beach to create photo exclusives for Harper's Bazaar and LOOK magazines. The Kennedys: Portrait of a Family presents this unique set of images from the Smithsonian's collection and revisits the only known formal pre-inaugural photographs of the president-elect and his family to examine a fascinating intersection of photography, fashion, and history.

In January 1961, women still wore gloves as part of their daily attire and men regularly used dressing like Brylcreem™ in their hair. "The Twist," Chubby Checker's song and dance, was all the rage. The Berlin Wall did not yet exist. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones had not yet invaded America. Nearly a year earlier, the Greensboro Four had staged a sit-in at an all-white Woolworth's lunch counter in North Carolina, sparking a wave of similar sit-ins across the South. The Soviet missile that had shot down an American U-2 spy plane the previous spring had exacerbated the tension between the United States and Soviet Union. Television was barely twenty years old. Picture magazines like LOOK and Life were an important mainstream source of information and entertainment, and fashion magazines like Vogue and Harper's Bazaar were the most imaginative and technically advanced users of photography.

Avedon's photographs of the Kennedys for the February 28 issue of LOOK take their place among the many lively, energetic family pictures by the great Kennedy chroniclers. Stanley Tretick, Jacques Lowe, and Mark Shaw each had a unique perspective, creating culturally significant images within the photographic parameters established by the Kennedys. The photographs for  the February 1961 issue of Harper's Bazaar, however, are starkly different—they were created within Avedon's parameters.

Richard Avedon was as much a leader in the development of American visual culture as he was a participant in it. He worked mostly for Harper's Bazaar, but also photographed for LOOK, Life, and a variety of advertising clients. In 1957, he was the creative consultant for Stanley Donen's movie Funny Face, which starred Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire. Astaire's character, Dick Avery, was modeled after Richard (Dick) Avedon, and many characters in the movie were based on his colleagues and editors at Harper's Bazaar. In 1958, Popular Photography named him one of the ten greatest photographers in the world.

Like Avedon, the Kennedys were leaders of and participants in American visual culture. In the 1920s, John F. Kennedy's father, Joseph Kennedy Sr., bought and sold Hollywood studios, produced films, and owned movie theaters. Much of the elder Kennedy's knowledge about the power of the visual image was effectively applied to his son's political career: many journalists and historians cite Kennedy's compelling performance during the first of the televised presidential campaign debates with Richard Nixon as a deciding factor of his electoral win. Joe Kennedy's close relationship with Henry Luce, editor in chief and principal stockholder of Time, Inc., kept John's and later Jackie's faces on the covers of Time and Life.

When Richard Avedon made these images between the presidential election and the inauguration, the Kennedys were well known through pictures and television and had established a style in which they preferred to be photographed. Jackie's importance as a fashion trendsetter was just beginning to take hold, and the Harper's Bazaar sitting provided a new arena in which the Kennedys could present themselves.

The Smithsonian Institution retains the Harper's Bazaar photographs as part of a larger donation by Avedon and objects donated by the Kennedys. The Smithsonian also holds many more items that relate to and place these two American icons in historical context. Richard Avedon had a long relationship with the Smithsonian, beginning in 1962 with his first one-man photography exhibition. The exhibition was held at the Institution's Arts and Industries Building, and Avedon donated all of the exhibit's images. Through his gifts over the years, he created a rich record of both American and photographic history. With the exception of his In the American West and Democracy projects, the Institution holds representations of a wide range of Avedon's work, from his early pivotal image Italy #9, Noto, Sicily, September 5, 1947, that brought him to the attention of Harper's Bazaar art director Alexey Brodovitch to his contributions for events related to September 11, 2001.        

Avedon captured the essence of important mid-twentieth-century writers and thinkers, stage and film performers, musicians, politicians, and activists through his portraits. His advertising work improved the sales of clothing and various other products. Those advertisements were published in many popular magazines, like Life, Vogue, and Rolling Stone, as well as in specialized journals, such as Graphis. He was among the highest-paid and sought- after photographers, and his clients included Pabst, DuPont, Cartier, and Douglas Aircraft. Avedon was instrumental in the success of Revlon's 1952 "Fire and Ice" ad campaign, which featured his photograph of Dorian Leigh, a platinum streak in her hair, wearing a silver sequined dress with a bright red cape. The two-page spread also featured an edgy but humorous questionnaire to determine if the female reader was "made for fire and ice." Avedon was also one of several famous photographers who participated in Maidenform's "I Dreamed" campaign. One of his images features a woman in a silver lamé bra; the photograph and the bra are part of the Smithsonian's collections.

Avedon's participation in creating visual culture through advertisements continued throughout his career. Those memorable and sometimes spoofed 1980s' television ads for Calvin Klein's perfume "Obsession" were directed by Avedon. In the November 1, 2004, issue of The New Yorker that featured Avedon's last photographic project, Democracy, Hermès, Harry Winston, and Kenneth Cole ran advertisements created with Avedon's images.

Many of the Kennedy–related materials—campaign literature and buttons, event programs, and more—at the Smithsonian have been acquired through individuals other than the subjects. But Jackie Kennedy did follow the tradition of first ladies by donating her inaugural gown to the Smithsonian as well as the dress she purchased from Bergdorf Goodman for the inauguration. Rose Kennedy also donated the gown she wore to the inaugural ball; this was the same dress she had worn some twenty years earlier when she and Joseph Kennedy Sr., then the United States ambassador to Britain, were presented to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.

Objects exhibited at the Smithsonian often require that we look back through history. Today the experience of seeing Avedon's photographs of the Kennedys is laden with dramatic irony, for we know how the story ends for three of the four sitters. Most people who were at least five years old on November 22, 1963, remember where they were and what they were doing when they learned President Kennedy was assassinated. Many more watched how Jackie handled herself and moved on with her life until her death on May 19, 1994. Still more can recall how John F. Kennedy Jr., his young wife, and her sister perished in a tragic airplane accident on July 16, 1999. As readers, we can't help but bring our personal experiences when we look at these photographs.

The 1960 presidential election was won by a very narrow margin. When Avedon photographed the Kennedys between the election and the inauguration, the time represented the height of hopeful anticipation for those who believed in John F. Kennedy, and the height of anxiety for those who did not. Avedon's photographs of John and Jacqueline Kennedy and their two children combine politics, style, public interest, and photographic history to provide a glimpse of historical figures who have deeply touched American life.

From Shannon Thomas Perich's The Kennedys: Portrait of a Family (HarperCollins, 2007)

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