Jacqueline Bouvier was renowned for her poise and style as First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. But she had floundered through her adolescence, uncertain about what to do with her life. She was slow to date the way her schoolmates did at her exclusive boarding school in Connecticut. And she married late for a society girl of her era, though her debut in Newport, R.I., earned her the title of Debutante of the Year.
She was born on Long Island, N.Y., on July 28, 1929, the daughter of a womanizing stockbroker nicknamed Black Jack Bouvier and Janet Lee, a driven, mercenary socialite.
As a child, Jackie loved to read, ride horses and make mischief. She went to the exclusive Miss Chapin’s School on New York’s East Side from first through sixth grade, where a teacher remembered her as ‘very clever and very artistic,’ but ‘full of the devil.’
She adored her father, whose Wall Street career went into a tailspin after the Crash of 1929 and whose own father squandered his inheritance. Jackie’s parents divorced in 1940, and two years later her mother married Hugh Auchincloss, the twice-divorced scion of an old money family. Jackie grew withdrawn.
Janet, Jackie and Lee moved to the Auchincloss estate outside of Washington, D.C., along with three Auchincloss step-siblings. Soon there would be a half-brother and a half-sister. Jackie attended the Holton-Arms School for two years.
Black Jack was responsible for supporting Jackie and her younger sister Lee. He could barely afford tuition and their $50 a month allowance, a pittance compared to the entitlements of the Auchincloss children. Jackie was a poor relation though she attended exclusive schools, traveled in elite social circles and lived on large estates.
In the world Jacqueline Bouvier grew up in, there was only one desirable path in life: to marry a rich, socially prominent young man.
She prepared for that future in the autumn of 1942,when she went off to Miss Porter’s in Farmington, Conn.
At Miss Porter’s, she studied hard, rode her horse and dated boys, in that order. Perhaps she was ambivalent about the stultifying life of a society wife that her mother planned for her. But she believed she needed a rich husband, and she wasn’t sure she’d get one.
“I just know that no one will ever marry me, and I’ll end up as a housemother at Farmington!” she complained to a friend.
She once said she spent three years at Miss Porter’s imitating girls who had callers every Saturday.
I passed the finish line when I learned to smoke in the balcony of the Normandie Theater in New York from a girl who pressed a Longfellow on me then led me from the theater when the usher told her that other people could not hear the film with so much coughing going on.
Jacqueline Bouvier was shy and reserved — some would say inscrutable — but she had an uncanny ability to draw attention to herself. She formally entered the marriage market at an afternoon tea dance for 300 of Janet and Hugh’s friends and their eligible offspring at Hammersmith Farm in Newport, R.I. Later, her mother threw an evening event for her; and then came a whirl of dances, dinners, parties and special breakfasts after late-night partying. A New York columnist named her Deb of the year. But no husband.
She spent the summer on a grand tour of Europe, and returned as single as ever.
“I didn’t know what I wanted,” she said. “I was still floundering.”
At her father’s urging she entered Vassar College in the fall of 1947, where again she excelled at academics. She wasn’t in love with the school, once calling it, ‘that damned Vassar.’ She spent her junior year abroad at the University of Grenoble in France and refused to go back to Vassar. She decided to finish her degree at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., while living at Merrywood.
She was 21 and unmarried at a time when most young society women were already married. Worse, her younger sister Lee – also Debutante of the Year – had found a husband.
In October she won the Prix de Paris from Vogue magazine with her essay defending the three historical figures she most wanted to meet were Charles Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde and Sergei Diaghelev. The prize was a six-month Vogue junior editorship in New York and six months in Paris. On her first day at work, the managing editor took her out to lunch. Jackie asked her what city would be best for her.
The editor, Carol Phillips, replied, “Go to Washington. That’s where all the boys are.”
Jacqueline Bouvier quit that day.
This story was updated in 2022.