Keep Grandma Upstairs: Jacqueline Kennedy’s Family Secrets & The Lie Her Mother Told

The 1960 election victory of the Democratic presidential candidate, Roman Catholic John F. Kennedy helped to unravel a long-held anti-Papist sentiment in Protestant-majority America. Lingering sensitivity to ethnic and religious identities, however, prevented full disclosure about the truthful background of a woman the world soon seized upon with fascination – and never let go. Her full name was Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy and she was, of course, his own wife.

The first massive waves of Irish immigrants to the U.S. began in the 1840s, a result of starvation and hunger caused by the potato famine in Ireland.

Settling largely in the northeastern cities of Boston, New York and Philadelphia, these Irish immigrants were disdained by the majority of those who had come earlier from Ireland’s north,and who were almost exclusively Protestant, often known as “Scotch-Irish” or “Orange


The bigotry was evident not only the famous signs hung in

stores and factories which needed workers yet warned “No Irish need apply,” but ugly cartoons and jokes told in exaggerated Irish brogues. Beneath it all was a paranoia that Irish Catholics were advancing a conspiratorial seizure of the American government by the Pope in Rome, on a quest to convert the entire world to Catholicism.

This was based on the presumption that their loyalty to Rome trumped loyalty to their adopted country and was still in evidence as late as the mid-20th century; no matter how well-educated or successful a family might become, Irish Catholic were still barred from many of the exclusive social networks of wealthy and elite Anglo-Saxons.

Nobody felt  and sought to defy this rejection more than Joseph Patrick Kennedy, the millionaire businessman and father of U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy, who determined to get his son elected as the first Catholic U.S. President.

As the 1960 election got underway, the media focused intently on the Kennedy family story,  telling of how in just four generations, they’d come from potato famine Ireland to business and politics, intending to get into the White House. The Kennedys were proudly Irish.

The big story that the national media entirely missed during the election of 1960, however, was the candidate’s wife family.

With her Mediterranean complexion, time spent living in Paris, passion for Gallic culture and ability to flawlessly speak its language,  indeed by her very maiden name of Bouvier, the media and the public believed what they were told. She was the descendant of French Catholic aristocrats, as she’d been raised to believe.

For those undecided voters who hesitated about pulling the lever for Kennedy based on stereotypic bigotry, the vision of an old world aristocrat with the instinct to reign in her blood may have added an aesthetic appeal to the idea of Kennedy as President and mitigated any racist misgiving about him.

Nor were voters led to believe that it would be an entirely Catholic White House, for though vague on details, the word was put out in a widely-syndicated news story that Mrs. Kennedy’s socialite mother belonged to Virginia’s most prominent colonial First Family, the Lees, and was a Protestant Episcopalian, a member of the American sect of the Church of England.

In reality, Jackie Kennedy was less Bouvier and more Lee, only having one great-grandparent who was French. Further, her immigrant Bouvier ancestor was not a nobleman but a furniture-maker from the town of Pont Saint-Esprit, closer to Marseilles than Paris.

Mrs. Kennedy had merely conveyed what she genuinely assumed to be true. She had been inculcated in this fake upper-class ancestry fabricated by her grandfather, John Bouvier, Sr. A Wall Street banker known as “the Major,” he was striving to do all he could to raise his family’s prestige when they moved from Nutley, New Jersey to New York City.

Emphasizing his one grandparent with the French last name as the only important ancestor of the family even led Major Bouvier to virtually obliterate the fact that his wife Maude (Jackie’s paternal grandmother), was the daughter of working-class immigrants from Kent, England.

Jackie Kennedy’s choice of ethnic identity as “French,” however, was as influenced by her mother’s family as her father’s. If the Bouvier claim to being “French” was an exaggeration of truth, it drew attention away from the fact that the Lee claim to being English Protestant was an outright lie.

In fact, Jackie Kennedy was fully half-Irish Catholic, all four of her mother’s grandparents having come to America during the potato famine, just like the Kennedys.

Her grandfather James Thomas Lee had an amazing American story of his own.

Son of impoverished immigrants from Cork, Ireland, he started out as a New York City school public superintendent, 

worked his way up through City College of New York to Columbia University, became a Chase Manhattan Bank president and, ultimately, one of the most successful real estate developers of 

luxury apartment buildings up and down Fifth and Park Avenues.

With his wealth came a yearning to raise his social status just like Major Bouvier. Jim Lee, his wife, the former Margaret Merritt, and three daughters lived on Park Avenue in the autumn, winter and spring. In the summer, they moved into the exclusive enclave of East Hampton, New York. There,  his surname that was more Anglo than Irish, allowed him to “pass” as such, without confirming any type of ethnic identity.

Only later was it learned that the elderly, heavy-set woman who spoke with a thick Irish brogue, and was always forbidden from coming downstairs when there were guests was not the mysterious “house-maid” which the family oddly claimed her to be. She was, in fact, Margaret Lee‘s immigrant mother, Jackie Kennedy’s great-grandmother.

Lee’s daughter Janet (Jackie’s mother), felt compelled to create some cover. While attending Sweetbriar College, located in Virginia, a southern classmate paused upon learning that Janet’s surname was Lee, the same as the state’s most legendary family, which included the famous Confederate General Robert E. Lee and Declaration of Independence signer Richard Henry Lee.

Technically, while enrolled at Sweetbriar and thus residing in Virginia, Janet felt free to describe herself as a “Lee of Virginia,” and eventually claim it as her identity.

Although baptized, confirmed and married as a Catholic, after breaking church rule by divorcing Jack Bouvier and then remarrying to the Presbyterian Hugh D. Auchincloss, Janet became an Episcopalian, the traditional religion of the Lees of Virginia.

The absence of any family background or information on the Lee family, however, led anti-Semitic gossips to speculate that they were really the “Levis,” a Jewish family. This fallacy was kept alive for decades by those who might be categorized as “ex-family members.” It was repeated well into the 1990s by both Jackie Kennedy’s first cousin Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale (famous for the documentary Grey Gardens about her and her mother), and author Gore Vidal, whose mother was the second wife of the man who later married Jackie Kennedy’s divorced mother as his third wife.

By the time her son-in-law was running for President in 1960, however, the woman which his campaign publicly identified only as “Mrs. Hugh D. Auchincloss, III,”  was cautious enough to abstract her exact genealogy by stating she was “from the Maryland Lees, an aristocratic offshoot” of the more famous ones across the state line.

By the 1960 campaign, Jackie Kennedy realized that her mother was lying, having explored her origins in Cork during a post-college trip to Ireland with her stepbrother, but she passed the charade on to the public rather than risk stirring Janet’s famous wrath.

Only after a 1967 trip with her children to Ireland and a visit with Kennedy relatives there did she confront Janet with the truth. It provoked a heatedly defensive denial from Janet, cooled only by the quick wit of of Jackie’s stepfather who quipped that he’d always assumed his wife was “a Lee of Shanghai.”

Whether or not the trip to Ireland provoked any sense of connection for Jackie Kennedy, she never said. The intense sentimental  feelings aroused in her by everything Irish has always been ascribed to those cultural connections with her late husband, but it can be speculated that it was also a displaced sense of her own yearning to connect with distorted identity given to her by her mother, and not realized until she was a young adult.

For herself, by the time she made her famous trip to France with President Kennedy on the first leg of his first state visit to Europe in the spring of 1961, Jackie Kennedy’s sense of identity with her more marginal French ancestry had become so entrenched internally, it overrode any she felt for her Irish ancestry. 

Her perfect French shocked French President Charles De Gaulle and prompted him to remark that it was hard to believe she was American. That remark prompted Jackie to affirm, “My ancestors were French.”

For the rest of her life, Jackie’s French connection remained as strong as it was authentic to her, by personal choice.

She not only spent far longer periods of time in France during her second marriage, from 1968 to 1975, to Aristotle 

Onassis who owned a Paris apartment on the Avenue Foch, but continued to return there after his death.

As for Janet Auchincloss, she continued to distance herself from her Irish background until her death in 1989.

So persistently did she convince others that she was related to the Lee family of Virginia, that she even managed to use this false claim to join the board of regents of Stratford Hall, the historic birthplace of Robert E. Lee.

None of the other members dared to challenge her claim. She was a formidable woman with a formidable temper- to say the least.

At that point, she perhaps had convinced herself it was true.

Nor, in a larger sense, could she be entirely blamed for feeling as she did.

In her youth, the ugly bigotry and the stereotypes of Irish-Americans may have caused those not raised to feel proud of Ireland’s rich culture to feel shame for the way they were perceived in the United States; it was not uncommon for many of them who were striving for access to the closed worlds of power and wealth held by the Anglo-Saxon establishment to do whatever it took, including denial of background, to gain entrance into the more elite society.

The Lee family’s lie may illustrate a sadder, more poignant side of the immigrant story, but it is part of the American story, not unlike that of Michelle Obama being of both white slaveholder and black slave ancestry. 

It’s unclear whether the Bouviers knew that more recent research showed that one of their earlier American ancestors had married into was traced to the DeSales family of New York of racially-mixed Dutch and African origins. According to a PBS website, when this information was sent along to the First Lady in 1961, there was no response. One can only imagine Mrs. High D. Auchincloss III’s reaction.

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