News & Politics

Inside Jackie Kennedy’s Intriguing Pre-JFK Life

A new book explores an undertold chapter.

Jacqueline Bouvier with her camera in 1952. Photograph of Bouvier by Bettmann/Getty.

In the years before Jacqueline Bouvier’s 1953 wedding to John F. Kennedy, she was adamantly against getting married. Instead of chasing a husband, she spent her young adulthood perfecting her French, writing long philosophical letters to confidants, and working at the Washington Times­-Herald, where she wrote the “Inquiring Camera Girl” column. Each day, she’d pose a question to six people and print snapshots alongside their responses. Carl Sferrazza Anthony’s new book, Camera Girl, chronicles this period: her first experiences of adulthood, her burning ambition as a writer, and her courtship with JFK. We spoke with the author about who Jackie Kennedy was and how this moment shaped her life.

In her column, Jackie often asked surprising questions. What are some of your favorites?

In one, she asked, “Do you think hope ever dies?” I’m not even sure a therapist would ask that, and here was this shy woman with this clunky camera stopping people on street corners. I was [also] struck by the question “When did you discover that women are not the weaker sex?”

Jackie had great success with this column.

Yes, she made it so weird and funny that people ended up getting the paper sometimes just to see what the kooky camera-girl question was today. Jackie loved the human drama and the quirkiness of human nature, and I think that’s at the core of most of her questions. But even when she’s getting famous for the column, she’s like, “But it’s just a column in a local paper. I want to write features. I want to write for the New Yorker.” She was so ambitious. I think that’s often overlooked.

Photograph of book cover courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

So why did she quit her job to get married?

She believed she had a stark choice between A and B: a career—where she could be happy pursuing her talents but have no money—or marriage and having to give up her career. With JFK, Jackie saw a third way. She didn’t want a predictable marriage, and neither did he. And she saw he was going to run for the highest kind of power he could get, which Jackie thought could be a great adventure. She was going to have a life like one of the novels she liked reading. When she met him, she began to feel she could have a substantive life and be married.

Is there one anecdote from this period that best encapsulates who Jackie was?

To me, it’s when her boss said, “What do you want [to write about]?” She was quiet for a while, then said: “Everything.” She didn’t want to be limited or defined by any particular thing. She was interested in so much.

This article appears in the May 2023 issue of Washingtonian.

Sylvie McNamara
Staff Writer