For some, Jackie Onassis has been a fashion icon for decades. Indeed, it’s been more than half a century since she lived in the White House with then-husband, President John F. Kennedy. But her timeless, chic style and flawless appearance still leave women in awe today. What’s not so quite well known, is that she had to resort to some pretty bizarre rituals to keep herself looking as good as she did.
When John F. Kennedy was campaigning for presidency in 1960, his wife, Jackie Kennedy – who later became Onassis – was rarely far from his side. As culture magazine Life noted at the time, “The candidate’s striking wife, Jackie, who sticks close to her husband, has attracted almost as much attention as he has.”
Indeed, some women had already begun to look toward the immaculately-turned-out Onassis for style inspiration. But few treated her role as a political one. Instead she was subjected to similar lines of questioning and scrutiny as a Hollywood actress might face. And she seemingly transformed the role of First Lady into one of a superstar.
Aged just 31 when her husband entered office, Onassis was younger than many of the notable First Ladies before her. She was well educated and could talk effortlessly about the arts and fashion. Furthermore, she was well cultured and proficient in multiple languages. And with TV becoming increasingly common in U.S. homes, Onassis became a popular onscreen figure.
Of course, Onassis was a household name on the world stage too. Her personality and sense of style set the standard for all First Ladies who followed her. But, more than that, her iconic wardrobe and beauty endured for decades. However, she didn’t just roll out of bed like that. She had to work at it. And some of her methods were fairly unusual.
In any case, Onassis’ chic wardrobe was a staple before she stepped into the world’s spotlight. For instance, there’s a portrait of an 18-year-old Jacqueline Bouvier, daughter of a stock speculator, taken by fashion magazine Vogue in 1948. It shows the future First Lady wearing a sophisticated white gown with a lace apron and embroidery detail.
Even as a new mother, Onassis maintained a stylish and polished appearance. For instance, in a photo taken in 1958 with newborn daughter Caroline Kennedy, she wore a silk dress with floral motifs. And tailored dresses were a staple of the First Lady’s wardrobe, with shifts and boat necks among her signature looks.
Interestingly, Onassis’ style choices back then were heavily influenced by the big-name fashion houses in Paris. Two labels she particularly favored were Chanel and Givenchy. Outfits were often topped with a smart jacket, gloves and a pearl necklace for a sophisticated edge. However, the then-First Lady would regularly complete her look with another accessory that she wasn’t particularly a fan of.
You see, while the pillbox hat became a part of Onassis’ signature look, she wasn’t fond of the adornment. According to the book Vintage Fashion Accessories by Stacy Loalbo, the former First Lady took her role very seriously. Dressing well, then, came with the territory of being a leading politician’s wife, and she wore hats out of respect to her husband’s career.
What’s more, Onassis’ style was a big influence on U.S. fashion trends in the 1960s. Indeed, retailers would often look to the then-First Lady’s wardrobe and recreate their own off-the-rack versions, calling it the “Jackie Look.” However, with the icon’s love of French couture, direct emulation of her wardrobe was an indulgence few could afford.
But there are other aspects of Onassis’ style playbook that are far more attainable for her fans, even today. You see, the former First Lady paid regular visits to dermatologist Dr. Erno Laszlo. And it just so happens that her consultation notes have been unearthed by staff at the skin care experts’ New York office.
The documents are from Onassis’ consultation that took place on May 1, 1963, six months before then-husband, President Kennedy, was assassinated. And some of the instructions given to her may seem bizarre today. However, the advice was specific to the First Lady and was based on her circumstances at that particular time.
For instance, Onassis’ skin care routine was tailored to her skin type. Interestingly, few realized that she suffered from breakouts of pimples and blackheads. Moreover, she was due to go on vacation with her then-husband to Cape Cod, Massachusetts – the couple’s last getaway. So the consultation was focused on the weather anticipated during their break.
Nevertheless, Dr. Laszlo’s methods may seem unconventional to many. For instance, the Hungarian-born dermatologist suggested that Onassis apply facial toner to her underarm area. The brand she used was Laszlo’s own Light Controlling Lotion, which retails on the company’s website today for $68. However, the trade name is irrelevant to the product’s function.
You see, it’s thought that applying toner to the armpits helps to reduce unwanted odors. Actually, the idea that underarm smells come from sweat are misguided. It’s the bacteria that lives on the body that creates an unpleasant whiff. So using a toner in that area will lift any dirt or germs that soap won’t shift.
Incidentally, Dr. Laszlo was a highly reputable dermatologist who made some pioneering advances in the skincare field. Furthermore, his client roster included Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn and Princess Stephanie of Hungary. What’s more, he was the first to develop skincare products containing SPF and acne treatments.
Now, the dermatologist stressed that Onassis shouldn’t use more skincare products than he recommended. Because of her breakout-prone skin, Dr. Laszlo suggested that using excessive creams and oils would do nothing to solve the problem. However, despite her widely-recognized beauty, pimples and blackheads weren’t the only issue that the ex-First Lady had.
What was rarely reflected on camera was that Onassis was a heavy smoker. And the power she wielded meant she could insist that no one write about or photograph her secret habit in the media. However, friends knew that she would smoke around three packs of Salems a day, and she only quit in 1994, shortly before she passed away from non-Hodgkin’s’ lymphoma.
Although smoking was apparently unrelated to her death, Onassis’ skin nevertheless suffered from 40 years of the heavy habit. To combat damage, Dr. Laszlo prescribed his own Phormula 3-9 Repair Cream, an intensive moisturizer that is said to “protect skin from free radical damage and oxidative stress.” And, although still available, it’ll cost you $290.
However, moisturizer wasn’t the only luxury product Onassis indulged in. As well as using toner on her underarms, the former First Lady had a favorite perfume, too. Her scent of choice was Lovely Patchouli 55 by the luxury French marque House of Krigler. A bottle today will set you back $365.
Onassis’ worldliness inspired her more rudimentary beauty products. For instance, her soap of choice was another in Laszlo’s line, the Dead Sea Mud Soap. It’s packed with minerals, such as magnesium, calcium and potassium, which invigorates the skin and heals ailments. The salt contained in the mud gently exfoliates while preserving the body’s natural oils.
According to authors Nancy Schoenberger and Sam Kashner, Onassis started using a peroxide treatment on her teeth while serving as First Lady. The bleach would dull the nicotine stains to help disguise the signs of her heavy smoking habit. And the writers revealed the icon’s early beauty secrets in their book, The Fabulous Bouvier Sisters: The Tragic and Glamorous Lives of Jackie and Lee.
Furthermore, the book detailed Onassis’ face-washing ritual. Its authors wrote, “Wash your face with hot water and a rough washcloth and really rub, with upward strokes on the cheeks and forehead… Rinse with cold water: the shock will stimulate circulation and leave it tingling. With the same upward motions, massage in a rich cream before retiring. Do this for about two minutes and wipe off what is left so you won’t find it on your pillow the next morning.”
Moreover, Onassis’ pillowcase of choice was made of silk. In recent years, they have been lauded for their anti-creasing and anti-aging properties. However, the then-First Lady’s purported reasons for using one concerned her hair. According to Onassis’ one time makeup artist, Peter Lamas, she would sleep wearing a silk scarf on a silk pillowcase to keep her immaculate blowouts fresh.
Funnily enough, the silk scarves sometimes made a public appearance too. As hard as it may be to believe, even Onassis wasn’t immune to the occasional bad hair day. And when her tresses refused to cooperate, she simply swaddled the offending ’do in a scarf until it learned to behave itself. So even the off-days were deceptively sophisticated.
However, after rigorous styling hair can be left fried. Overuse of hairspray, hair dryers and other products and tools can cause hair to become dry, brittle and prone to breakage. Therefore, Lamas suggested the First Lady apply an oil to her locks for extra defense and moisture. Her favorite was lavender oil.
Though Onassis was often seen wearing hats in public, her dermatologist actually advised against it. Indeed, Dr. Laszlo insisted that sunshine was “good for her,” and that he could “make [brown spots] fade in the fall,” so the First Lady shouldn’t fear sun damage. Of course, there was a quick fix for blemishes in the meantime.
Yes, sun spots did become a problem for Onassis later in life. You see, her international jet-setting lifestyle took her to exotic destinations such as Greece, the South of France and Rhode Island. So to camouflage the blemishes, while maintaining a natural glow, she applied Flawless Finish Foundation by Elizabeth Arden.
Moreover, if the First Lady’s busy schedule didn’t allow time for full coverage, accessories were sometimes in order. That’s right, Onassis was sometimes pictured wearing stylish, oversized shades – a good way to hide eye bags while under the media glare. The style icon knew how to rock the low-key look as well as black tie functions.
Although she was more a fan of the natural look when it came to makeup, Onassis couldn’t resist making her lips pop every now and again. Lipstick would often be matched to the pink or red of her outfit du jour. Also, she made sure her brows were perfectly groomed, too.
Surprisingly, Dr. Laszlo’s consultation notes state that Onassis wasn’t a fan of exercise. For instance, she thought walking was “boring” and believed varicose veins would appear on her legs if she was too active. However, when she was won over by his argument that exercise was healthy, the First Lady “promised to stroll on the golf course in Cape Cod” to appease him.
Furthermore, it wasn’t just face creams and oils Dr. Laszlo prescribed to maintain Onassis’ healthy glow. Yes, diet played an important part in her beauty regime, too, and her dermatologist recommended an eating plan for tip-top health. He said her day should start with “Hollywood toast” – circles of buttered bread, lightly toasted with an egg cracked in the middle – served with two boiled eggs and honey. Now that’s an odd image.
To add to that, Dr. Laszlo recommended that breakfast be accompanied by tea with a splash of skimmed milk. And lunch should consist of broiled beef with cottage cheese, while dinner included Onassis’ choice of meat served with a watercress salad. Meanwhile, the former First Lady admitted she didn’t have a sweet tooth but, “I eat an apple once in a while, like when I have lunch with the children.”
To drink, Dr. Laszlo recommended that Onassis stick to champagne since, “that is about the only thing she drinks” anyway. Indeed, considering the lifestyle she lived, no doubt the beverage was in abundant supply. But it’s difficult to understand how it was still recommended as part of a dietary plan.
Anyway, for all of the secrets Dr. Lazslo’s consultation notes have disclosed about Onassis, a more surprising revelation was made by her former assistant in 2017. Indeed, Kathy McKeon served as the First Lady’s personal helper for 13 years from 1964. Her memoir, Jackie’s Girl: My Life with the Kennedy Family, gave a rare and up-close insight into Onassis’ world.
McKeon wrote, “I couldn’t know… mere days into my new job, how thoroughly I would be swept up into this most royal of American families.” And in her role, the assistant learned things that the rest of the world weren’t privy to. For instance, she described, “One of the elegant beauty’s legs was a quarter of an inch shorter than the other.”
And so to combat her affliction, Onassis had a unique collection of shoes. “I had never seen such a dazzling selection of shoes!” McKeon recalled. “London-look boots, pumps in every color, spotless sneakers for morning jogs around the reservoir.” But, more fascinating than the shoes themselves was how each pair was customized for the First Lady.
You see, to correct her malady, Onassis had one shoe in every pair fitted with a quarter-inch lift on its heel. According to McKeon, this was “apparently… to compensate for one leg being slightly shorter than the other.” And the inspiration behind this fix was no less than her then-husband, President Kennedy, who once suffered chronic back pain from the same affliction.
However, this wasn’t the only beauty hack the couple shared. Now, to keep her asymmetrical pins looking otherwise pristine, Onassis was prescribed Laszlo’s Phelityl Oil. But her dermatologist suggested she share the cleanser with her husband to apply to his back. You see, President Kennedy’s skin was “so dry and breaks out in pimples because he has to take four baths a day.”
The lengths Jackie Kennedy Onassis undertook to maintain her public image mean that today she is among the most iconic beauties of the 20th century. Mind you, her efforts weren’t lost on her late husband. For you see, when the couple were driven through the streets of Dallas on November 22, 1963, Onassis was wearing her famous pink Chanel-style suit. And President Kennedy’s last words to his wife that fateful day were that she looked “smashing.”