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Jackie Kennedy disliked the press with informed reason: she knew “the game”, having once worked for the Washington Times-Herald as a roving “Inquiring Camera Girl”. When she was First Lady her priority, as related to Clint Hill, the Secret Service Agent assigned to protect her, was to maintain her family’s privacy. In Hill’s memoir, Mrs Kennedy and Me, she says at their first meeting: “I don’t want us to feel like animals in a zoo.” Pregnant with son John Jr, she knew that, “as soon as the baby is born, the press will be overbearing. I used to be on of the, you know, and I’m well aware of how they operate.”

This knowledge came double-edged. Mrs Kennedy also knew the power of images, and the pictures taken of her, her husband and their family by the photographer Mark Shaw formed the foundation of the myth of “Camelot”: the presidency as a wholesome, sexy combination of immaculately dressed Washington power-play and outdoorsy, seersuckered downtime on the beaches of Hyannis Port, on Cape Cod. The visual legacy of the JFK presidency is as resonant as the political, influencing how American politicians have sold themselves to the public ever since.

The most stunning thing about Shaw’s photographs, collected in the lavish book The Kennedys, edited by Tony Nourmand, is the degree of intimacy eminating from them. They are not stiffly staged shots of America’s First Family, but a portfolio of family life capturing spontaneity alongside stately glamour. There are grainy black-and-white pictures of the couple playing in the sea with their children, of Jackie kicking back in her husband’s old Senate office, and playful and relaxed in 1962, on Fiat Magnate Gianni Agnelli’s yacht, the Agneta, off the Amalfi coast, the paparazzi in pursuit.

The actress and singer Pat Suzuki, Shaw’s ex-wife, was there. She recalls a day of press photographers whizzing by on boats and Kennedy becoming quieter as she felt more hunted. “She must have been hot and scrunched up in that scarf and sunglasses. But we had fun. The waiters were gorgeous. When we go off the boat there were crowds and she bowed slightly to acknowledge them, as if to say, ‘I’m not a total recluse.’” Clint Hill remembers his boss being “so happy on that boat. She was finally free; it was relaxing for her.” She even took Shaw’s camera herself and snapped away. However, the paparazzi became so intrusive it was agreed she would pose at the harbour with daughter Carline, her sister Lee Radziwill and Lee’s son Tony.

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The Times

25 Aug, 2012

Tim Teeman