On November 29, 1963, just six days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy sat down with LIFE magazine journalist Theodore H. White to discuss in, harrowing detail, the shocking event of her husband's death, resulting in what would famously become known as the "Camelot interview."
"His last expression was so neat," Jackie recalled to White in her Hyannis Port, Massachusetts home. "I could see a piece of his skull coming off ... and I can see this perfectly clean piece detaching itself from his head ... Then he slumped in my lap."
Jackie had been riding in an open-top limousine next to her husband of over 10 years on that fateful day on Friday, November 22, 1963. The couple were visiting Florida and Texas in preparation for John's re-election campaign the following year. Although he still had yet to unite the Democrats in the south, John’s second term was all but solidified thanks to his charisma and overwhelming popularity with liberal youths and civil rights leaders. Add in Jackie’s status as a style icon and popularity with women, and they were essentially the perfect American family. This trip around Texas would also mark Jackie's first extended public appearance since the death of her and John's son Patrick in August, which further increased the public support for their family.
It had been a successful Friday morning for the Kennedys. After stints in San Antonio and Houston in days prior, President Kennedy spoke to a crowd of thousands outside their hotel in Fort Worth."There are no faint hearts in Fort Worth," he said to the enamored audience. "I appreciate your being here this morning. Mrs. Kennedy is organizing herself. It takes longer, but, of course, she looks better than we do when she does it." Following another speech at the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, the presidential party prepared to leave the Texas Hotel to take a 13-minute flight to Dallas.
Arriving in Love Field in Dallas, the first couple were greeted by a fenced-off crowd of supporters. Jackie, wearing a smart pink Chanel suit and matching cap, received a bouquet of red roses, which she carried with her to the waiting limousine.
In a moment of insight and retrospection, Jackie told White, "Every time we got off the plane that day, three times they gave me the yellow roses of Texas. But in Dallas they gave me red roses. I thought how funny, red roses — so all the seat was full of blood and red roses."
Jackie and her husband sat behind Texas Governor John Connally and his wife Nellie in the limousine, while Vice President Johnson and his wife were seated in another car. On the way to the Trade Mart where the president was scheduled to speak, the motorcade took a 10-mile route through downtown Dallas. Throughout the procession, throngs of excited people lined the streets and waved to the picture-perfect Kennedys.
Then, at approximately 12:30 p.m., as the car carrying John, Jackie, Connally, and Nellie turned off Main Street at Dealey Plaza to pass the Texas School Book Depository, gunfire suddenly rang out in the streets.
"They were gunning the motorcycles, there were these little backfires, there was one noise like that," Jackie said. "I thought it was a backfire."
Unfortunately, it was not a motorcycle. Bullets had just struck President Kennedy in both the neck and head, while Governor Connally was hit in the chest.
"I saw Connally grabbing his arms and saying 'no no no no no no,' with his fist beating. Then Jack turned and I turned, all I remember was a blue gray building up ahead. Then Jack turned back, so neatly. His last expression was so neat," Jackie said. "He had his hand out, I could see a piece of his skull coming off ... and I can see this perfectly clean piece detaching itself from his head ... Then he slumped in my lap. His blood and brains were in my lap."
With little to no time to save the president's life, the limousine sped off to Parkland Memorial Hospital just a few minutes away.
"I kept saying: 'Jack, Jack, Jack' and someone was yelling: 'He's dead, he's dead.' All the ride to the hospital I kept bending over him saying: 'Jack, Jack, can you hear me, I love you Jack,'" Jackie recalled. "I kept holding the top of his head down, trying to keep the brains in."
However, it was too late, and John's injuries were too severe. After a Catholic priest was summoned to issue the last rites, John F. Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States, was pronounced dead at 1 p.m. on Friday, November 22, 1963.
While it was a moment in history that rocked an entire nation, many people cited Jackie's grace and resilience as one of the reasons why America held itself together. And her candid interview with LIFE was just one of the many acts of fortitude the first lady displayed in an attempt to honor her husband's legacy.
At exactly 2:38 p.m. on November 22, shortly before the president's body was to take off on Air Force One towards Washington, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson took the oath of office in the cramped quarters of the plane's compartment. Jackie, who was still wearing the pink Chanel suit — that was now covered in her husband's blood and brain matter, bravely stood beside him.
This came just an hour after police arrested Lee Harvey Oswald, a recently-hired employee at the Texas School Book Depository, for the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In a twist of fate, Oswald was killed by at point-blank range (and on live television) by a club owner named Jack Ruby on the way to the county jail.
Two days later, on Sunday, November 24, 1964, President Kennedy's stars-and-stripes-draped casket emerged from the White House, alongside Jackie and her two children. Thousands of people watched as the horse-drawn caisson carried the president's body down Pennsylvania Avenue towards the U.S. Capitol rotunda. The cortege, which included various chiefs of state and kings from all around the world, was modeled after the funeral of Abraham Lincoln, as per Jackie's request.
The president's body lay at the Capitol for 21 hours, during which over 250,000 people arrived to pay their respects. CBS News reporter Charles Collingwood spoke of the overwhelming public reaction, "So great is the crush outside the Capitol ... waiting to get in that people who have not been in line at 10 o'clock can't possibly go by the coffin before it is born away at 10 o'clock tomorrow."
President Kennedy's funeral was held the following day, on Nov. 25, 1963. Even more international leaders and heads of state, including 18 presidents, attended the ceremony. Jackie also requested that 27 Irish Army cadets take part in the funeral procession, as John had seen them in Dublin several months prior and was moved by their silent honor guard drill. The procession was led on foot by Jackie and the rest of John's family. Before noon, they headed from the White House towards St. Matthews Cathedral, the same route their family had reportedly taken many times before for Sunday Mass.
The caisson, which included a riderless horse to symbolize a fallen commander, was followed by John’s personal American flag, as well as his two brothers, Robert Kennedy and Ted Kennedy. As stunning as these images were, none were more extraordinary than those of Jackie and her two children, Caroline and John, outside of St. Matthew's Cathedral. With five-year-old Caroline by her side, Jackie lifted her black veil and softly kissed her husband's coffin. While little John, on his third birthday, stood tall to salute his late father, resulting in one of the most iconic images ever captured in American history.
"Caroline — she held my hand like a soldier, she's my helper; she's mine now. But he [John, Jr.] is going to belong to the men now," Jackie said. "Caroline asked me what kind of prayer should I say? And I told her to say either 'Please God take care of Daddy' or 'Please God be nice to Daddy.'"
President John F. Kennedy was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery Section 45. Jackie reportedly chose this plot because it was one of her husband's favorite places to spend time. In what was another of her ideas, before John's casket was lowered into the ground, Jackie, with Bobby and Ted beside her, lit an eternal flame that would burn steadily at her husband's grave site.
In her interview with LIFE just four days later, Jackie recalled something odd that struck her in the days following her husband's death — a seemingly insignificant quote from a musical that would go on to forever symbolize the Kennedys’ all-too-brief time in the White House.
"This line from the musical comedy's been almost an obsession with me," she said. "At night before going to bed...we had an old Victrola. He'd play a couple of records. I'd get out of bed at night and play it for him when it was so cold getting out of bed. It was a song he loved, he loved 'Camelot,' It was the song he loved most at the end...on a Victrola ten years old...it's the last record, the last side of 'Camelot,' ...
"Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot." ~Shelby Morton