By Cynthia Billhartz
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Nov. 20, 2001
During the early ‘60s, someone got the idea that smokers might like grinding out cigarette butts on an image of President John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. Steven Brawley, 35, of St. Louis has the ashtray to prove it.
There they are delicately etched in white porcelain and surround by a band of gold – a handsome couple waiting to be covered with ashes or a wad of flavorless gum.
That ashtray is just one of the dozens of items in Brawley’s collection of pop memorabilia commemorating Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
Brawley also has record albums, dress patterns, trading cards, poster, drink coasters, a Christmas ornament, originals of the White House tour books authored by Onassis, a catalogue of her belongings that were auctioned in 1996 through Sothebys, and a Jackie O. Halloween mask. A large framed replica of a portrait of the couple shot by the famous photographer Yousuf Karsh sits on the fireplace mantle in Brawley’s brightly colored living room. A lot of other items are stored in rubber containers in his guest bedroom.
Brawley, a free-lance public relations consultant, also has an Onassis theory - one he says that is shared by other Onassis aficionados.
“I have a strong sense that she was the first-first lady that was used strategically to help get her husband elected,” he says.
The July 1953, issue of Life magazine was Onassis’ first exposure to America, he says. Her husband was a senator at the time.
“Life magazine was it,” Brawley says. “This was the beginning of what I call her cover girl status.”
“Mamie Eisenhower was an older, traditional-wife model. Now here comes Jackie, young and pretty, and they created this dual atmosphere of glamour. She was a socialite and the wondered if she would be too fancy for America, but they used it anyway. And then they promoted her as a loving mother and wife who took care of things at home in order to relieve a lot of the stress her husband was enduring at work.”
What I’ve got is clearly documented media placements all the way from 1951 through 1960 that really show how strategically she was positioned in the media to complement her husband’s rising career. A lot had to do with her father-in-law, who had connections in Hollywood.”
Most of Jackie’s wardrobe was purchased by her father-in-law, Joseph Kennedy, to project her elegant, high-fashion image, he says.
Everyone talks about the political relationship between Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton, but the political bond between John and Jackie was just as strong, Brawley says.
“You can’t find another first lady in history that had 10 years of magazine coverage like she did prior to the election,” he says. “Even Hillary Clinton, who was first lady of Arkansas, didn’t have that kind of press.
How much Jackie helped her husband get elected is up for debate. Kennedy’s win over Nixon was very close, Brawley says.
“She was viewed by some as very aristocratic,” he says. “She had gone to Vassar. She had the French name, Bouvier, which played in some circles but maybe not here in the Midwest. Then you had Pat Nixon, who looked like the woman next door.”
Brawley says Onassis redeemed herself during her years in the White House and especially after her husband’s assassination Nov. 22, 1963, which she handled with utmost grace and courage.
Brawley has all 15 Life magazines that featured Onassis covers, including the one that bears an image of her and her two children – Caroline and John Jr. – standing on a curb watching the funeral procession of her husband pass by.
Other magazines in Brawley’s collection aren’t so serious. He has a Sports Illustrated dated Dec. 26, 1960, with the president-elect and his wife on the cover, and Ladies Home Journal magazines featuring fashion layouts of Jackie and her sister Lee Radziwill.
Some of the more curious ones are tabloids such as Photoplay and Movie Mirror that compared Onassis to a certain violet-eyed screen siren:
Jackie: Marriage and Taste … Liz: Passion and Waste.
Jackie: An Inspiration to American Youth…Liz: A Warning to American Women.
Jackie: Afraid of Another Marriage…Liz: Afraid of Another Divorce.
Brawley’s fascination with Onassis began about 20 years ago. He calls himself an avid student of history who has embarked on a lifelong journey into historical research and collecting.
Brawley says that when he was 4 he developed a fascination with Abraham Lincoln that expanded into include all things presidential.
He started buying stuff at garage sales and flea markets, and his family gave him presidential memorabilia for holiday gifts.
When he was in high school, he started to hone in on Onassis collectibles. Three years ago when he moved into his condominium in the Central West End of St. Louis, Brawley began to catalogue his collection and realized he had a lot of Jackie o stuff. He decided to kick up his collecting by a notch and started aggressively scouring garage sales, flea markets and the eBay Web auction site for more.
His collection has spawned a side career of sorts. Recently, he was invited to give a keynote speech and serve as an event consultant to commemorate Onassis’ 50th class reunion at her alma mater, George Washington University. The reunion, which was scheduled for Sept. 14-15, was cancelled after the terrorist attacks on Sept. It is being rescheduled for fall 2002.
George Washington University has very little documentation that Onassis was a student there, Brawley says. When Kennedy won the presidency, the Secret Service came and removed her school records, except her grades.
Drawing from several books that were written by Onassis’ chefs and assistants, Brawley was going to recreate a White House dinner the reunion.
He also had planned to project a slide image of the fireplace in the White House state dining room and have music played when dessert was presented – just like Jackie did.
Jackie didn’t like music played during diner because it inhibited conversation, he says.
Brawley is talking with local museums about putting his memorabilia on exhibit. He says he’s planning a trip to Washington soon to talk with restaurants and hotels about presenting his lectures and events to tourists who will come to town for an Onassis clothing exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. He’s also thinking about pitching to local hotels and restaurants. Eventually, he’d like to donate his Onassis memorabilia to George Washington University.