Four days after her October 20, 1968, marriage to Aristotle Onassis, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis found herself alone on her new husband’s yacht, The Christina. Her children had returned to school and Ari had resumed business negotiations—prompting reports in the press that the marriage was already over—so she picked up the phone and called an acquaintance.
“Billy, I need you,” Jackie implored. “I need a friend. How soon can you come to see me?”
A few thousand miles away in New York City, decorator Billy Baldwin simply asked, “What do you mean by ‘how soon?’” Two days later he was on his way to Jackie, Ari, and a whole lot of paparazzi.
Baldwin was always fated to work with Jackie. The man who literally redesigned high society first met Jackie when she asked him to stop by the Kennedy family’s house in Middleburg, Virginia, one November weekend in 1963 to discuss redecorating it. The two were mutually charmed, but those plans were canceled in the wake of President Kennedy’s assassination that week. Instead, Baldwin found himself asked to transform a D.C. townhouse on N Street NW into a new home for Jackie, John, and Caroline before Jackie canceled those plans in favor of moving to New York City.
Tall, stylish, and witty, Baldwin was as famous in social circles as Jackie by the time they met. Frequently cited as one of the 20th century’s most influential interior decorators, Baldwin was responsible for Diana Vreeland’s “garden in hell” living room—possibly the most famous living room in history outside of a sitcom set—had already designed an instantly iconic brass etagere for Cole Porter and an armless slipper chair that are still sold today, and designed interiors for the country’s top tastemakers. Among his clients were Bill and Babe Paley, Bunny Mellon, and Nan Kempner, all of whom thrilled to Baldwin’s watchwords: “Comfort is perhaps the ultimate luxury.”
Under that ethos, Baldwin democratized home decor by bringing cotton upholstery into high society and creating a simplified style for blue bloods that was quintessentially American. In some ways he was an unsurprising call for Jackie to make alone on her honeymoon that October. After all, she needed someone to transform the bare rock of Skorpios Island into an instant home for her still destabilized family. Oh, and could it be done in time for Christmas?
All Baldwin had to work with was an unfurnished building that comprised a series of bedrooms and bathrooms. The rest of the home existed mostly in blueprints. Together, Baldwin and Jackie looked past the lack to what could be. They quickly decided the main room should be contemporary furniture and “lineny fabrics in brown and black and white,” with a banquette in a corner and the dining table in front of the to-be-built picture window. For the bedrooms, they agreed on printed cotton fabrics and “one good piece of old furniture in each room.”
Ari himself pointedly said, “I trust you and Jackie and I don’t want to know anything about [the house].” His one request was for a long sofa by the fireplace where he could read, nap, and watch the fire.
As Baldwin began laying out plans and mulling over furniture arrangements back aboard The Christina, Jackie appeared and invited him for a swim, providing a stark contrast to the Jackie that Baldwin recalled tearfully breaking down in her D.C. townhouse. As she carefully unwrapped small pieces of Greek sculpture and Roman fragments, the beginnings of a collection Kennedy had started before his death, Baldwin recalled her saying, “Can anyone understand how it is to have lived in the White House, and then, suddenly, to be living alone as the President’s widow? There’s something so final and passé about it.”
But the Jackie Baldwin encountered in Greece was almost a different woman, down to her (short-lived) calm reaction to the relentless press coverage. As photographers rocked their helicopter from side to side and Baldwin told her he feared for her life, she simply said, “Just sit there and smile. I’m sure we’re being televised, and I’m sure it will be aired in the States, so just sit still.” Then, grinning slyly, she added, “Maybe Sister Parrish will see you,” referring to one of Baldwin’s biggest competitors.
Baldwin admitted to doubting that the Skorpios timeline was remotely possible, but this was the man who once found a way to provide Greta Garbo with the exact wall color she requested: a shade that resulted from candlelight shining through a silk lampshade from a train dining car in Sweden. Aided by his own preference for the simple over the fussy, Baldwin and his team slashed through any planned excess with the interior architects and, somehow, managed to complete the house and decor on time—though Baldwin never returned to Skorpios to see the finished product.
Baldwin retired five years later in 1973, having capped his career in 1970 by decorating the Metropolitan Museum of Art for its 100th anniversary An Arabian Night celebration. But he was fated to have one last memorable encounter with Jackie shortly before his death in 1983. After a luncheon of lobster salad at her home on Martha’s Vineyard, Jackie was giving Billy a tour when a red leather box in her bedroom caught her guests’ eyes. Picking it up, Jackie explained that it was the carrying case in which Marie Antoinette put her jewels when she fled Paris during the Revolution. “When I hold this,” Jackie said, “I feel like fleeing.”
In Baldwin’s recounting of the moment, he casts Jackie’s gnomic pronouncement as an example of how mesmerizing he found her to be—but the comment inadvertently says more about how she viewed Baldwin. If Marie Antoinette’s jewel case inspired her to flee, then it was Baldwin’s warmth and genius she twice turned to for a feeling of home. Who else could Jackie have called in those moments alone on The Christina, half realizing what her new life with Ari would entail and desperate for some sense of permanence while she was literally at sea? Only Billy Baldwin, the man who once said, “The worst thing any decorator can do is give a client the feeling that he’s walking around somebody else’s house; the rooms must belong to the owner, not to the decorator.”
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