Most people today remember Jackie Kennedy as the wife of John F. Kennedy, but few outside of New York will remember her prolific career as a preservationist. She’d remarried to a Greek man named Aristotle Onassis, but he passed away seven years later. Because the couple lived in Greece, Jacqueline was severely limited in the amount of money she could claim as his widow.
She left the country with $26 million and returned home. She’d had a background in French literature, and she’d helped consult for several biographies on President Kennedy’s life, so she took a job as a book editor. After the assassination, Jackie had taken a step away from the public eye and intended to keep things that way. She’d also made the preservation of historic homes an important goal of her time as first lady.
That spark never left her, and she worked at preserving our collective cultural heritage by protecting the buildings this country was founded on. She fought hard to protect Grand Central Terminal, and blocked the skyscraper planned for Columbus Circle that would have threatened sunlight shining in Central Park.
Onassis’ deep appreciation for literature also led to important contributions. She helped to edit Larry Gonick’s The Cartoon History of the Universe, encouraged the African American writer Dorothy West to finish her story The Wedding in 1995. Both authors acknowledge Onassis’ contributions in their respective books.
Onassis was a three-pack-a-day smoker, so she was diagnosed with lymphoma in January of 1994. The outlook appeared to go well after she quit smoking, but the cancer was aggressive and spread quickly. She died in her sleep on May 19, 1994.