BOOK REVIEW: ‘Mrs. Kennedy and Me’
She always called him Mr. Hill, and he always called her Mrs. Kennedy. He was the Secret Service agent who lived through the tragedy of the John F. Kennedy assassination with the first lady, leaping onto the car as the president’s head exploded into his wife’s lap. For 50 years, Clint Hill never forgot how “the world stopped for four days,” as he puts it. But he never talked about it.
Now Mr. Hill has written a poignant memoir about his four years with Jackie Kennedy. It is a touching, perceptive and surprisingly funny love story that recounts how the laconic, cold-eyed agent and the soft-voiced, willful first lady developed a remarkable partnership, during which he took care of her and indulged her whims as long as they didn’t endanger her safety. And she came to rely on him to the point that on the day the president was killed, she worried about him.
He never forgot how she called him to the back of Air Force One where she was sitting in her blood-crusted pink suit beside the coffin containing the body of her husband, held out her hands and whispered, “What will happen to you now, Mr. Hill?”
The book is as uncompromising as a police report because Mr. Hill is no literary stylist. His terse account is neither scandalous nor salacious, nor even overly sentimental, which puts it far ahead of most books written about the Kennedys, and brings the first lady to life in a manner that has not been done before.
Mr. Hill describes what it was like virtually to live with a demanding, beautiful woman whom he had to protect while doing what she told him. “I want you to be happy and safe,” he told her, and went about doing just that. He is impeccably discreet in his disclosures, yet he leaves no doubt about his affection for both her and the president. He remained assigned to protect her in the grim post-assassination months when, he said he thought he would never recover from the memories of that terrible day in Dallas.
In one of the few concessions to emotion in his book, he reflects, “We had been through so much together, Mrs. Kennedy and me. More than anyone can imagine. More than anyone can ever know.” That is an epitaph only Mr. Hill could bestow.
This is an immensely human portrayal of two very different people who came to terms with each other in bizarre circumstances. Mr. Hill’s reports of dialogues with Mrs. Kennedy or the president are always formal. His duty was to ask what he could do to help them.
However, in an effective literary twist, Mr. Hill’s personal reactions to events he had to cope with during those four years are told in often sardonic italics. When Mrs. Kennedy is given a magnificent horse, Sardar, by President Ayub Khan during her visit to Pakistan, Mr. Hill’s private reaction is: “Hell, all I could think of was how I would get the damned horse to Washington.”
Mrs. Kennedy is aware of the quarantine on animals entering the country, so she circumvents it with a charming little note to the president telling him how much she loves the horse, how it would be cruel to quarantine it, and how it would cost him the ASPCA vote.
She shows the letter to Mr. Hill, who visualizes the president bursting into laughter before giving her exactly what she wanted. Mr. Hill minces no words about Mrs. Kennedy’s capacity for getting what she wanted. Yet he emphasizes, “What she craved most in the world was privacy.”
What she craved least was being followed by the press or the public or spending much time in the White House. She did her homework on redecorating the White House so that it measured up to her standards of elegance, but where she wanted to be was Glen Ora in Middleburg, Va., where she could ride her beloved horses.
Mr. Hill acknowledges he was initially disappointed when he was assigned to protect Mrs. Kennedy instead of the new president, gloomily envisioning spending his time at fashion shows and ladies’ teas. He never imagined he would accompany Mrs. Kennedy around the world, worrying about her insistence on riding a camel and her passion for horseback riding and water-skiing.
Yet it is clear that a real connection was established between them early on. In the course of a car ride to Virginia, with Mr. Hill sitting in the front passenger seat smoking and the first lady alone in the back, she suddenly asked that the car pull over. The agent expected to be reprimanded for smoking, but she promptly invited him to move into the back seat with her and asked him to light a cigarette for her. That was the first of many private conversations they had in the car, relates Mr. Hill. He gives no details of such chats.
What he does describe is how they learned to communicate with their eyes at public events. The agent would send a questioning look checking her mood, and he recalls how her eyes would respond with a grateful acknowledgment. And he acknowledges he would “give anything” to hear once more her trademark amused exclamation of “Oh, Mr. Hill!” when he reacted with his customary impassivity to what he saw.