Jackie Kennedy is renowned by some for being the most glamorous First Lady in U.S. history. But her effortless sense of style could also be practical, too – especially when it came to her array of shoes. Here’s a look at how the fashion icon used her footwear to hide an intimate secret.
Born in Southampton, New York, in 1929 to a socialite mother and stockbroker father, Jacqueline Lee Bouvier graduated from George Washington University with a French literature degree. During her studies she also became something of a socialite herself, and she acquired a junior editorship at Vogue magazine. She was later given a job as a photojournalist at the Washington Times-Herald.
In 1952 Jackie announced her engagement to stockbroker John G.W. Husted Jr., but she soon broke it off after reportedly realizing he was too “immature and boring.” That same year she was formally introduced to John F. Kennedy, then a U.S. representative, at a dinner party. Just over a year later the pair confirmed they would be getting married.
Regarded as the social event of 1953 by some, the couple’s wedding ceremony took place at St. Mary’s Church in Rhode Island. The pair traveled to the Mexican city of Acapulco for their honeymoon, before making a home in Virginia’s Hickory Hill. After suffering the heartbreak of both a miscarriage and a stillborn birth, the pair welcomed daughter Caroline into the world in 1957.
Jackie proved to be a vital part of JFK’s successful re-election to the Senate campaign in 1958. And she also served a similar role during his subsequent bid for the U.S. presidency. Just two weeks after her husband was elected to the White House, Jackie gave birth to their first son, John F. Kennedy, Jr.
Jackie proved to be a popular First Lady and made more official international visits than any of her predecessors. But she had to take a backseat in 1963 when she once again fell pregnant. Sadly, shortly after being born five weeks prematurely, Jackie and JFK’s son Patrick passed away from hyaline membrane disease.
And further tragedy struck later that same year, in an incident which shook the world to its core. Indeed, in November 1963 the President and First Lady were riding in Dallas in a motorcade when the former was shot. He was pronounced dead shortly after arriving at the city’s Parkland Hospital.
Jackie largely retreated from the spotlight following JFK’s assassination, although she still continued to make headlines for her personal life. She enjoyed a close relationship with her late husband’s brother Robert, which some believe turned into a romantic one. And in 1968 she married for a second time to Aristotle Onassis, a shipping tycoon from Greece.
Following Onassis’ death in 1975 Jackie threw herself into her work. She served as a consulting editor for Viking Press and associate editor for Doubleday. She also continued to pursue the type of architectural and cultural preservation work that she had first embraced during her stint in the White House.
After suffering a fall from a horse in late 1993 Jackie’s health began to decline and she was subsequently diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. By May 1994 the disease had spread to her liver, brain and spinal cord. That same month Jackie passed away in her sleep at the age of 64.
Alongside her duties as a mother, First Lady and editor, Jackie was hailed for the visionary sense of style she displayed throughout her life. After JFK won the 1960 Presidential election, she asked fashion designer friend Oleg Cassini to provide her with a unique wardrobe for her various duties. The French-born American helped create some of Jackie’s most iconic outfits, including her inaugural gala dress.
In fact, Jackie spent more than $45,000 on clothes in 1961 alone. That was nearly $50,000 more than the yearly salary JFK received for being the President of the United States. Jackie’s wardrobe was widely admired by the public and she was even voted as the world’s most stylish woman.
The work of French couture designers Givenchy, Balenciaga and Chanel proved to be Jackie’s personal favorites. However, her inclination towards Parisian trends was scolded by the more patriotic sections of the American media. As a result, Jackie asked fashion editor Diana Vreeland to help source U.S. designers capable of recreating the Paris style.
Norman Norell and Ben Zuckerman were two of the names that Vreeland put forward. The former was widely regarded as the First Designer of America, while the latter had become renowned for his own take on Parisian couture. Jackie wore a purple woolen coat designed by Zuckerman for her famous White House tour alongside Mamie Eisenhower.
Jackie’s signature look during her White House stint consisted of suits, sleeveless A-line dresses, low-heel pumps, above-the-elbow gloves and hats. Her style was recreated by numerous clothing manufacturers across the world. Designed by famous hairdresser Mr. Kenneth, her bouffant hairdo also proved to be just as significant as her outfits.
Following the death of her first husband, Jackie altered her image. Big lapel jackets, silk headscarves, gypsy skirts, pantsuits and round sunglasses all became a regular part of her new wardrobe. She also cemented her status as a trendsetter with a black turtleneck left to hang outside her white jeans.
Alongside her stylish wardrobe, Jackie also possessed an exquisite jewelry collection. Contrived of by Kenneth Jay Lane, her signature item as First Lady was a pearl necklace. She was also famed for wearing bracelets created by Frenchman Jean Schlumberger. But her most cherished piece was her Van Cleef & Arpels wedding ring.
The John F. Kennedy Library houses many of Jackie’s iconic outfits. In 2001 New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art showcased several pieces at a special exhibit named “Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years.” Both Time and Forbes magazine placed her high in their all-time fashion icon lists during the 2010s.
In 2017 Kathy McKeon, who served as Jackie’s live-in aide for 13 years, published her autobiography, Jackie’s Girl. And it was a chapter which discussed her boss’ famous wardrobe that made all the headlines. Indeed, it turns out that Jackie’s choice of footwear hid a secret.
McKeon was tasked with taking care of the First Lady’s closet. This related to both clothing items and shoes from glamorous retailers such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman. And McKeon was left in awe of both its contents and the way it was organized.
“It was extremely easy to find anything in it,” McKean said in a 2017 interview with Fox News. “Everything matched. A pair of pants would always be accompanied with the right blouse… and her shoes were always lined up. Nice and shiny.”
McKeon also discussed Jackie’s closet in her memoir. She wrote, “The bedroom walk-in closet was jam-packed with Madam’s everyday clothing, all arranged according to color. I had never seen such a dazzling selection of shoes! London-look boots, pumps in every color, spotless sneakers for morning jogs around the reservoir.”
But McKeon also spotted one unusual thing about this dazzling selection of footwear. A single heel from every pair of her shoes had been raised by a quarter of an inch. The First Lady, widely regarded to be flawless, actually did have a minor imperfection when it came to her legs.
Indeed, the altered heels were designed to disguise the fact that Jackie had one leg just a little shorter than the other. “No one would have ever guessed,” McKeon claimed in her memoir. It was a tactic which some reports suggest may have been inspired by her own first husband.
Indeed, two years after his 1955 wedding to Jackie, JFK was treated for his severe back pain by Dr. Janet Travell. The doctor found out that the future President’s left leg wasn’t the same size as his right. And so as a result, a minor heel lift was affixed to all of JFK’s left-footed shoes.
It’s not known whether Travell, who became JFK’s personal physician, was also responsible for discovering and treating Jackie’s similar problem. But he may well have influenced her to adopt the same method. Not that she particularly needed to disguise it – the disparity was no bigger than a bit of rice.
This heel altering was just another example of Jackie’s quest for perfectionism. The former First Lady had developed a reputation for her consideration of the smallest features while renovating the White House. She was also a scrupulous editor, most notably with the script for the renovation tour which was watched by 80 million people on Valentine’s Day 1962.
Jackie’s perfectionist streak was also noticeable in a series of letters that were auctioned off in 2013. These letters were sent to her Bergdorf Goodman personal shopper, Marita O’Connor. In them, the First Lady provides catalog pages, sketches and pieces of fabric to show exactly the kind of items she was looking for.
Jackie’s very particular requirements and high standards are also evident in another letter. In it, she writes, “Please order me a pair of alligator shoes – size 10A – medium heel – slender – pointed toe but not exaggerated – tricky vamp business… I like elegant and timeless. I must have these for Inauguration Day so you’ll have to rush.”
As well as knowing what she did like, Jackie also knew what she didn’t. In another letter, she complains about a particular shoe featuring a vamp she wasn’t too keen on. She wrote, “Tell [Mario] I want them in the same model as my black faille evening pumps and impress on that rather disorganized Italian that they simply must be ready in time.”
Appraiser Dan Meader told WWD, “You have to think her husband had just been made president-elect after this whole dramatic campaign. She was about to have a baby and this was what she was worrying about – her fashions. It’s pretty incredible.”
But in an interview with People magazine, McKeon was keen to point out that Jackie’s sense of style was far from her most notable quality. She said, “[Jackie] was more than this glamorous figure. She made me feel like part of the family.”
McKeon also discussed how close she became with Jackie over the years. The assistant first moved from her native Ireland to the United States at the age of just 19. And shortly after her arrival, she landed her long-running job with the former First Lady.
It didn’t take long for McKeon to become immersed in this role. In her memoir she writes, “I couldn’t know… mere days into my new job, how thoroughly I would be swept up into this most royal of American families. How their everyday life would also become mine, my heart lifted by the powerful love they shared, and shattered by the unimaginable tragedies they endured.”
Indeed, Jackie and her two children John Jr. and Caroline all attended McKeon’s wedding. And the First Lady continued to keep in touch with her assistant once she retired to look after her kids. In fact, she often invited McKeon and her family to her Hyannis Port home in Massachusetts for the summer.
McKeon told Fox News, “My best friend lived in the Cape [Cod] and whenever I would visit, Madam was always happy to see me. She would always invite me for lunch and dinner… and she would also invite me to her private beach. She always made sure someone sent us lunch.”
McKeon further reflected on Jackie’s warm nature in her memoir. She writes, “She was very shy and scared of crowds, but she had a personality that really shined when you got to know her and she opened up to you. Whenever she would meet someone, she would say, ‘Kat, what did you think of him?’ She wanted to know my reaction.”
However, McKeon eventually ended up losing touch with Jackie. She told Fox News, “I wasn’t really aware that Madam was sick. It was in the papers and magazines, but I wasn’t one to read that gossip. So I felt like there was a lot I didn’t know about her until I saw a picture of her in Central Park. It wasn’t the Madam that I remembered.”
The interest in Jackie’s sense of style, including her footwear, remains high to this day. In 2013 one particular pair of the First Lady’s pumps was auctioned in Los Angeles. Designed by Italian Rene Mancini, the size 10 shoes were sold to an anonymous person for almost a whopping $30,000.
Three years previously, two of Jackie’s fake pearl necklaces went for approximately $47,000 at an auction in England. The items would originally have cost the First Lady only several hundred dollars. Indeed, as Bonhams jewelry expert Jean Ghika told The Telegraph, “It’s fair to say that 99.9 percent of the value is because they belonged to Jackie Kennedy.”