28 April 2014

Mrs. Kennedy and Me

Clint Hill with Lisa McCubbin

Gallery Books


Few people remember that when JFK was running for president, he and his top advisors thought it best to keep Jacqueline Kennedy in the background. She was too exotic, too enamored of French culture and expensive clothing, and shy to the point of being almost icy. Yet the few forays she made during the campaign–she was pregnant and having lost two babies was forbidden to campaign–showed they need not have been concerned. She was well received by perspective voters. The admiration of and interest in Mrs. Kennedy exploded when she delivered John F. Kennedy, Jr., the first baby born to a president-elect, just weeks after the election; by the time she stepped out of her N Street home to attend the Inaugural Gala, resplendent in a pure white creation by her official couturier Oleg Cassini, she was a star in her own right.


Of course as the wife of the President of the United States, Mrs. Kennedy would need Secret Service protection. She loathed the idea of having the Secret Service underfoot, and no one, especially Clint Hill, wanted to be on what became known as the “Kiddy Detail.” Hill had never even been on a jet when he was assigned to the detail of former president Dwight D. Eisenhower. His travels with Ike took him to cities most people only read about in the history books. Among other perks, he had a diplomatic passport which allowed him to be treated as a dignitary, so when he found himself assigned to guard the new president’s wife, he was profoundly disappointed. “While my buddies on the President’s Detail would be right in the middle of the action,” Hill said, “I knew where I was going to end up: fashion shows, afternoon tea parties and the ballet. I felt as if my career had come to a screeching halt.” How wrong he
was. Guarding Jacqueline Kennedy gave him a front row seat to history as he accompanied her on state visits, European jaunts and goodwill tours she made without the president.


Hill quickly learned that in order to be effective and gain Mrs. Kennedy’s trust, he would need “to come up with creative ways for her to do the things she wanted, with as much privacy as possible.” He became so adept at his job that soon Jackie Kennedy dispensed with her official advance staff and allowed Hill to handle virtually all her scheduling, including that of family vacations and her beloved fox hunting outings.


Mrs. Kennedy and Me is a highly detailed account of Hill’s four years as Mrs. Kennedy’s Secret Service agent. According to Hill, they quickly learned to communicate with each other through mere glances and expressions; he was soon able to anticipate her wants, needs and how she might react in any given situation. They were surprisingly formal with one another, yet intimate too; they addressed each other as Mr. Hill and Mrs. Kennedy, yet he sometimes lit her cigarettes and took the first puff before handing them to her. Hill found Jacqueline Kennedy beautiful, charming, intelligent and fun, and he became very fond of John Jr and Caroline. He also came to respect her steely resolve to live life in the White House on her own terms and did everything he could to accommodate her.


One of the most interesting aspects of the book is learning how the life of an agent with the United States Secret Service is upended by his position. Although he had a regular schedule, he was essentially on twenty-four hour call, and in the period between the election and the inauguration, he was in Palm Beach at the Kennedys’ vacation home and missed celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas with his wife and children. Furthermore, agents were expected to pay for their own expenses up front and they apparently did not make very much money; at one point he realized that $14 a night was too much to pay for a hotel room.


Hill drops other little known nuggets about Mrs. Kennedy. Readers will learn that she spent remarkably little time at the White House, preferring instead to stay at a house the Kennedys had rented in the Virginia hunt country, and later at Camp David–during the beginning of the Kennedy administration she had eschewed staying there assuming that if the Eisenhowers liked it, she would not find it nearly good enough–for most of each week. After the Kennedys first European tour where Mrs. Kennedy famously conquered Paris, she flew on to Greece for a s visit with the King and Queen. Hill had explicit instructions from JFK to ensure that she was not to be seen anywhere near Aristotle Onassis.


This book really should be subtitled A Love Story, for Clint Hill surely was in love with Jacqueline Kennedy. His love does not appear to have been carnal in nature but the kind that grew out of sharing the most intimate and heartbreaking events of her life. Hill protected her physical safety, but most of all, he fiercely guarded her privacy, about which she had an almost manic obsession. He was also at her side for two of the most intimate and traumatic events of her life: the premature delivery and death of her last child with JFK, and her husband’s assassination. Not until Hill used his suit jacket to cover the president’s shattered head so that no one would see the wound did Jackie Kennedy allow him to be removed from the car . His sense of shame over failing to protect the life of President Kennedy is still palpable almost fifty years later.


This is only the second time that Hill has publicly broken his silence about his tenure with the Kennedy family. As with all the men on duty that fateful day in November, he was nearly undone over his failure to protect JFK and crushing grief–his and that of the First Lady. It appears that he could not bear to leave her; he seemed greatly relieved that her protection had been extended for another year and that she wanted him to continuing guarding her.

At the end of that year Jacqueline Kennedy threw Hill a wonderful party and he transferred back to his regular detail. They neither saw nor spoke to each other again.


When Hill read in the papers that the former First Lady had been stricken with cancer, he wanted to call her but could not bear to do so reasoning it would bring back memories too painful for them both. Her rapid decline and death sent him into another spiral of grief, but it also made memories of the four years they shared even more poignant and precious. He was an honorary pallbearer at her funeral.


Readers looking for gossip about the Kennedys will be disappointed in Mrs. Kennedy and Me; Hill is still protecting her privacy. And while there is no need to pretend that this book is scholarly or important, it is a fun read and a respectful portrait of an almost mythical person, place and time in American history.

-------------------


Dr. Marilyn K. Howard earned a BA in criminal Justice from Ohio Dominican College; an MA in political science from The Ohio State University (Thesis: The Entrance of Black Voters Into the Mississippi Electorate) and her PhD in American history from The Ohio State University (Dissertation: Black Lynching in the Promised Land: Mob Violence in Ohio 1876 - 1916). She was an associate professor in the Social Sciences department at Columbus State Community College, where she now holds the same position in the Department of Humanities. Dr. Howard has twice received the Distinguished Teaching Award from Columbus State, and was twice recognized as an outstanding staff member by the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development. She was also named a top educator by Ohio magazine. Dr. Howard has served as an editor of the Southern Historian, a freelance book critic for the Columbus Dispatch and Ohioana Library. She has published essays in a number of anthologies, including the Encyclopedia of Racial Violence in America and the Encyclopedia of Jim Crow. She continues to conduct research on the lynching of black men by white mobs in Ohio.