Our Most Beautiful First Ladies Were Born in the Hamptons

First ladies cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas
Cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas

If you were to look back through American history at all the first ladies, there are two who stand out for their great beauty. They are Jackie Kennedy and Julia Gardiner Tyler. They were both beautiful and smart. And both were born on the East End and raised in East Hampton, living just two miles from each other, but about a century apart. Both left East Hampton at age 12.

There are other things they have in common. Both suffered through catastrophic personal tragedies that rocked the nation while their husbands were in office. Both were First Ladies for less than the full term that their husbands we elected to serve.

In 1820, Julia Gardiner was born in the family mansion on Gardiner’s Island, the daughter of the owner of that Island just offshore of Amagansett. East Hampton was a farming and fishing town back then. There were no trains or paved roads to New York City. Julia was born into great wealth and what would certainly be called rural royalty. She was raised in a grand stone mansion on Main Street in East Hampton, which still stands, and she went to the Clinton Academy when a little girl. Her father’s ancestor, Lion Gardiner, was the first white settler in New York State when he and his wife, family and servants came to their island in 1639. It had been called Isle of Wight. They had it renamed after themselves.

Julia’s father, David, approximately the eighth owner of Gardiner’s Island, became a lawyer and, when Julia was four years old, a state senator. Her father also owned land in Bay Shore and Manhattan, and when Julia was about 12 he moved his family to spend summers in Bay Shore and winters in Manhattan. Julia went to the Chegary Institute in New York City, where the family had an apartment.

When she was 19, she shocked polite society in New York City by posing on the arm of a young gentleman she did not know so the image of this couple could appear in a magazine advertisement. In the ad, she is quoted saying “I’ll shop at Bogert and Mecalmy’s at No. 86 Ninth Avenue. Their goods are beautiful and astonishingly cheap.”

This was considered such a scandal that Julia’s parents packed her off—with a chaperone—to tour Europe for the next 11 months so it would all die down. She visited England, France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Ireland and Scotland. And that completed her education.

Her father, now prominent in Washington, took her and the rest of her family to a ball at the White House, three months after her return, to be presented to John Tyler, the President of the United States, who was just completing his second year in office. Tyler, who was 52, was quite taken with Julia, who was 22. He was married at the time, but his wife was upstairs in bed, gravely ill and near death. She died eight months later. With that, Tyler launched what can only be called a campaign to win this beautiful young woman 30 years his junior. She has been described as high-spirited and independent-minded during this time. And she refused him. He proposed to her a second time. Not only did she reject that proposal, but so did her mother and father.

A huge catastrophe—described by many as the worst thing to happen to a president until the assassination of Lincoln—resulted in Julia’s falling in love with him and accepting him as her husband.

The catastrophe took place at a party during the maiden voyage of a new American warship called Princeton. The president was on board, and so were the Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Navy and several hundred others. Also present was John Gardiner and his daughter—who the president had specifically asked to accompany him.

The captain had been asked, repeatedly, to fire the big gun on this ship. The gun was the largest in the world at that time. It even had a name: The Peacemaker. About a hundred people crowded around it when it was fired for what turned out to be the last time. The charge exploded in the breach, sending shrapnel into the crowd, killing six people instantly, including Julia’s father and Secretary of State Upshur. Julia was at the back of the crowd and was not injured. But the president, racing up the stairs of the ship to see what had happened, came upon the carnage, picked up Julia, who had fainted, and carried her below to a cabin, where she lay crying hysterically. The president said he would never leave her. And that, by her account, was when she fell in love with him.

The couple was married three months later in a quiet ceremony in Manhattan and then repaired to the White House. Subsequently, Julia’s image—this was before commercial photography—was on plates, medals, in magazines and on other souvenirs all around the country. She was a star, and she loved it.

She redecorated the White House, loved entertaining guests, and had White House parties with her husband on her arm. It was she who established the tradition of the Marine Corps band playing “Hail to the Chief” whenever the president enters a room. She sometimes rode around Washington in an elaborate carriage pulled by four white horses. She and Tyler had seven children, and today she is buried alongside him in a cemetery in Virginia.

Jackie Kennedy Leading Pony Bert Morgan
Jackie Kennedy Leading Pony, Photo courtesy of Patrick Montgomery, The Bert Morgan Archives

Jackie Bouvier was born at the Southampton Hospital in July of 1929. Her mother was socialite Janet Lee Bouvier and her father was John “Black Jack” Bouvier, a reportedly ruthless Wall Street stockbroker and investor. The family lived in the wintertime in Manhattan, but in the summer at their 15-bedroom, 17-acre mansion on Further Lane in East Hampton that included stables, a guest cottage and a pool cottage. It was called Lasata, a word which it was said meant “Place of Peace” in the Native American language. Here the young Jackie learned to ride, first at the stable on their property, then later at stables around the area. She loved the Hamptons and wrote a poem about it when she was 10.

When I go down to the sandy shore
I can think of nothing I want more
Than to live by the booming blue sea
As the seagulls flutter around about me

I can run about when the tide is out
With the wind and the sea all about
And the seagulls are swirling and diving for fish

Oh—to live by the sea is my only wish.

When she was 11 years old, she was entered at the Madison Square Garden Horse Show, where, among dozens of other entries, she scored a double victory in the horsemanship competition. The New York Times noted this: “The occasions are few when a young rider wins both contests in the same show.”

When she was 12, her parents separated. Her father had been financially crushed in the Crash of ’29 and the couple had been arguing all the time. Black Jack moved out and became a heavy drinker, philanderer and gambler, according to many of his biographers. He never remarried. Janet Lee did remarry to Hugh Dudley Auchincloss, the heir to the Standard Oil fortune, and moved into her new family’s summer home in Maryland. It was basically the end of Jackie’s childhood, but the summer home in East Hampton remained in the family for many more years. Jackie frequently visited here, including with her beau, John F. Kennedy, when that time came. (The house is currently listed for sale. Price is $35 million).

Jackie attended Vassar and, as an excellent student in the arts, won a 12-month junior editorship at Vogue magazine, which would allow her to work six months in Manhattan and six months in Paris. After graduation, interested in journalism, she eventually took a job as a reporter at the Washington Times-Herald doing interviews with people of interest that she could choose. One was an interview with Tricia Nixon, who was six years old at the time. Her father, Richard, had just been elected vice president.

It was during this time, at age 23, that, attending a Washington dinner party, she came to meet John Kennedy, who was a congressman from Massachusetts. She later said she was attracted to his physical appearance, charm, wit and wealth. They also both enjoyed reading, culture, Catholicism, writing, and both had lived abroad.

Their wedding took place at St. Mary’s Church in Newport, Rhode Island, and, with 700 guests at the ceremony and 1,200 at the reception, was considered the social event of the season in 1953. By this time, Jack Kennedy had become a celebrated senator from Massachusetts.

Jackie gave birth to three children—Caroline, John Jr. and Patrick, who died a few weeks after his birth. She also suffered a miscarriage. During Jack Kennedy’s campaign to become president in 1960, Jackie spent some time with him on the campaign trail and some time with their young daughter, Caroline, in Washington. It was during this time she became internationally recognized for her extraordinary beauty, fashion sense, and interest in the arts and music and architecture. She toured Europe and crowds greeted her. She wrote a syndicated weekly column called “Campaign Wife” for newspapers.

Jack Kennedy was elected President of the United States in November of 1960. Two weeks after the election, Jackie gave birth to her second child, John Jr.

After the inauguration, Jackie remodeled the White House, orchestrated a grand series of cultural events—performances, concerts, shows—and tried to establish the post of Secretary of the Arts. Although she failed at that, she did join in creating the National Endowment of the Arts and the National Endowment of the Humanities.

The great catastrophe in her life was, of course, the assassination of her husband by gunshot in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Jackie was sitting in the back seat of the convertible limousine with him when he was shot.

Jackie mourned her husband for several years, then married a millionaire Greek shipping magnate named Aristotle Onassis. They were married for nine years before he, too, passed away. Jackie then moved to Manhattan, where she started a new career as an editor at Viking Press. She also spearheaded numerous environmental projects, including several in Central Park. The reservoir in the park is named after her. She died at the age of 64 and is buried in Arlington Cemetery in Washington D.C. beside Jack, the president who died so young.

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