According to Gore Vidal in Palimpsest, A Memoir, Kennedy did know someone like this, someone much closer to home. Per Vidal, “during Jack’s thousand days as president, he discussed” this person “almost as much as he did Khrushchev, and in much the same manner.” Whom did Kennedy believe to be the moral equivalent of Nikita Khrushchev?
- His wife’s official couturier, Oleg Cassini.
- His wife’s decorator, Sister Parish.
- His wife’s hairdresser, Kenneth.
- His wife’s mother, Janet Auchincloss.
The answer is after the JUMP.
It is likely that the famously prickly author projected his own feelings onto JFK’s. Janet Auchincloss had been on Vidal’s enemies list since 1956 when she sat him—age thirty and a celebrated novelist and playwright—at the children’s table for a family dinner at the Auchincloss’s suburban Washington D.C. home, Merrywood. Janet’s biographer classified the seating arrangement as playful, but for Gore, it was the opening salvo in a blood feud. His only consolation was, “At least Janet had not the cruelty to put me on her right.”
As to Gore’s allegations regarding Janet and her son-in-law JFK, yes, there was tension early on, mostly due to JFK’s philandering. Matters came to a head in 1956 when Jackie gave birth to a stillborn daughter, Arabella. Jackie was devastated, but Jack, cavorting in Europe, did not see the need to return home, explaining it would not bring the baby back. An infuriated Janet got Bobby Kennedy on the phone and complained, insisting he summon his brother back immediately. In the heat of the moment, Janet thought JFK worse than even her despised first husband, “Black Jack” Bouvier, who at least had the decency to be present at the birth of Jackie and her sister Lee. It was only reluctantly that Janet (out of practical concerns) counseled Jackie against ending the marriage.
Moreover, it was not the Kennedy compound in Hyannis, with all of those rambunctious cousins, where the president preferred to spend summer weekends. It was Hammersmith Farm, Hughdie and Janet’s Newport, Rhode Island summer residence. JFK called it “the most beautiful spot in the world” and arranged to rent the estate next door for the summer of 1964. That did not come to pass due to his assassination, but still, it is unlikely the president would have planned to spend his summer next door to a mother-in-law he regarded as the moral equivalent of Nikita Khrushchev.
It was not just on vacation when JFK associated with his mother-in-law. Back in Washington, D.C., she was most definitely persona grata at the White House. Janet, with her boundless energy, often pitched in during the White House years, acting as hostess for the mundane tasks required of a first lady for which Jackie had no patience. Janet was also a guest at the more glamorous White House events. Recalled Jacqueline Kennedy's social secretary Letitia Baldridge, “No matter how tightly [we] squeezed the guest list, Jackie always left room for the [Auchinclosses] at her most anticipated parties.”
JFK also seems to have appreciated the (unintentional) comedic side of his mother-in-law. Once, at the dinner table, Jackie corrected something Jack said, appalling Janet. Turning to her daughter, she commanded, “‘Jackie, how dare you criticize the President? You need to apologize to him.’” Jack, highly amused, chimed in, ‘Yes, Jackie, how dare you correct me? I am the President!’”
"I was separated from my [alcoholic] mother and raised by [Janet]. She is my family. She was all for everybody getting out there trying, working. I was with her from the fourth grade. She raised me; she is my family."
Thus, on the issue of JFK’s opinion of Janet Auchincloss, Gore Vidal is off base, and vindictively so. Yet, this is not a verdict on Palimpsest itself, which is an entertaining memoir not in spite of its mean-spiritedness but because of it. The author’s malice is what gives the book its style. Moreover, Vidal lets the reader know in the book’s opening pages that it is memoir, not autobiography, and therefore, based not upon the actual record but on the author’s recollections of it.
As such, three cheers for Gore Vidal ... but four cheers for Janet Auchincloss.