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The Elegant Young Woman Who Transformed the President’s House

May 20, 1994

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Jacqueline Kennedy’s first impulse was to fill the White House with French furniture. She was quickly dissuaded. Instead, she is remembered as the first lady who turned the president’s home into a showplace of American history.

Mrs. Kennedy - whose simple evening gowns and long white gloves came to epitomize style - slipped into jeans and a sweater and rummaged through a dusty storeroom looking for forgotten treasures.

She coaxed museums directors and millionaires into her project, formed committees and discreetly solicited donations of antiques and cash.

She brought into the White House valuable paintings by Cezanne, a rare portrait of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington’s armchair, Thomas Jefferson’s inkwell. Her goal was to have at least one item from each presidential family.

She founded the White House Historical Association to ensure that the home and its antiques would be preserved with care.

Midway through the restoration, Mrs. Kennedy agreed to show off her work. She led cameras on a tour of the White House that was televised by all three networks in 1962.

Mrs. Kennedy pointed out Julia Grant’s desk and Dolley Madison’s sofa. But many viewers were more fascinated by the first lady’s trim red suit, her bouffant hairstyle and her whispery voice.

That was always the way with Jackie.

″Her youth, her elegance, her beauty and her dignity captured the imagination of the American people,″ said Edie Mayo, curator of political history at the Smithsonian Institution.

She was an ″image of beauty and romance,″ said Lady Bird Johnson, who succeeded Mrs. Kennedy in the White House.

Oleg Cassini, who designed her clothes, called Mrs. Kennedy ″a marvelous influence in the arts, in furniture, in food and in clothes.″

Her pillbox hats and simple suits were copied endlessly. She received torrents of fan mail. Magazines couldn’t get enough pictures of her nor enough words about her. She had the first press secretary to serve a first lady exclusively. Her fame was global.

When she visited Paris, throngs lined up along the street to shout ″Vive Jacqui 3/8″ In India, she was known as the ″American Queen.″

No first lady this century has had such an impact.

When she came to the White House in 1961 at age 31, the youngest first lady in decades, Mrs. Kennedy was viewed as thoroughly modern.

She updated the role of first lady for a new generation, although her approach seems old-fashioned today.

Mrs. Kennedy kept her distance from politics and issues. She said her most important duty was ″to take care of the president″ and to rear her two children.

″If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do well matters very much,″ she once said.

Nevertheless, the energy she devoted to her projects - the White House restoration and the elevation of arts in America - set a new standard. (Eleanor Roosevelt, of course, was a crusader, but so far ahead of her time that she did not set the standard for first ladies who followed).

Mrs. Kennedy transformed sparse White House rooms painted 1950s sherbet colors - she said the mansion had been decorated like a hotel - into rooms that were stately yet fresh.

″If today a first lady went in there whose only interest was redecorating the White House, there would probably be bad press,″ said historian William Seale, author of ″The President’s House.″

″But in those days a first lady wasn’t expected to have a cause, except maybe throwing parties,″ Seale said.

Her love for French food, wine and art were well known. But the White House kept it quiet that her restoration project was guided by a Frenchman, Stefan Boudin, and inspired by similar projects in France under Charles de Gaulle, Seale said.

″The style she wanted was very imperial - very formal and neoclassical and flamboyant,″ Seale said. ″She wanted to do the rooms in French furniture, but Henry Francis du Pont talked her out of it.″

Mrs. Kennedy’s public devotion to the restoration began a trend that first ladies should have a project, said Mayo of the Smithsonian.

Her project ″would be considered unsubstantive today,″ she said, ″but at the time it was quite something.″

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