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When the Amerika Maharani came calling……

Jackie Kennedy in India – and how she charmed

Barrack Obama is in Delhi, charming the Indians. The papers are full of what’s going on. A great relationship is being forged. US’s icy relations with Cuba are on the thaw.But that made me think of a period in the past, 53 years ago, when an attempt was made, to forge a relationship between India and the USA. The first lady was the emissary, and she was none other than the graceful Jacqueline Kennedy Bouvier.

This first lady always had a special allure, primarily because of her youth and beauty. In 1962, she was just 33 years old and only the previous year had her husband JF Kennedy become the 35th president of the United States. Their marriage at that time was 9 years old. A consummate entertainer, she was very popular with visiting dignitaries, and in fact even the dour Khrushchev had mentioned that he wanted to shake Jackie’s hand fist and then JFK’s. Her restoration of the white house and getting it accessible to public eye took her into the limelight and the resulting focus and admiration for Jacqueline Kennedy took some of the negative attention away from her husband. By attracting worldwide public attention, the First Lady gained allies for the White House and international support for the Kennedy administration and its Cold War policies. But her (JKB – Jacqueline Kennedy Bouvier) visit to India at a very crucial juncture was a masterstroke by Ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith. Clint Hill, JKB’s secret service agent would remark – Little did we know it would be one of the best years of our lives.

So I take you to the 60’s, a period which turned out to be terrible for India. Nehru’s grip at the age of 70 was still strong at the turn of the 60’s, but the Chinese border issue was taking alarming proportions and crafty Krishna Menon was stirring the pot at home and squabbling with the military as the defense minister.

Most of you would not know how it was in those days, as it was a time when electricity had yet to reach many villages, we had limited public transportation, listening to valve radios for news or reading the newspaper in unison, music was enjoyed at public performances, a time when we had rudimentary schooling in most parts, and joint families depended on farming. Those were days when postmen, doctors and teachers were demi gods and a government job something to look up to. Saigal, Noorjehan and a few others ruled the roost and a trip to the movie theatre with the grainy newsreel before the B&W film, a must watch to see the food scarcity in Bihar and the floods in Bengal. Bees Saal Baad was the big hit of 62. Out there in the big bad world, lots of things were happening. While on one hand the Beatles were in infancy of their formation and Joan Baez just becoming popular for her activism, the cold war peaking and the Vietnam War was dragging on.

As all this was going on, Galbraith, US ambassador in India was busy with twin objectives. He had to get India on the US side, weaning them away from the USSR who became an ally following USA’s treaty with Pakistan. Close ties between the countries were further consolidated by a mutual defense treaty signed in May 1954, after which hundreds of Pakistani military officers began to regularly train in the United States. During Eisenhower’s time, it was also a secret base for reconnaissance on the USSR ICBM program. Ayub Khan had become a good friend of the US and U2 spy missions had begun from Peshawar. Allan Dulles of the CIA was the father of the critical alliance with Pakistan’s ISI.

On May Day, 1960, Francis Gary Powers left the US base in Peshawar on a mission to photograph the ICBM sites inside the Soviet Union. It would be the twenty-fourth U-2 spy mission over Soviet territory. Soviet Air Defense Forces were on red alert as they suspected a U-2 flight and Powers was subsequently shot down. Eisenhower almost resigned in the bungling following that incident after this covert espionage activity had been exposed. The incident compromised Pakistan's security and affected relations between it and the United States. However, the Cold War was still in full force and a replacement intelligence gathering reconnaissance aircraft was required. For a while, RB-57D models were flown along the air borders of both the USSR and Communist China by the PAF.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto a great fan of Chou En Lai was a minister in Ayub Khan’s cabinet and supported eliminating the US presence. President Johnson apparently wanted him fired and Bhutto finally had to quit. Ironically, the U2 was already outdated by the time the Soviets shot it down as it was quietly replaced by the Corona mission using the Discoverer spy satellites, soon after.

The Americans were getting nervous while the Chinese were getting busy, for they were developing both missiles and nuclear bombs. With Pakistan’s support not forthcoming, there was only one way to keep an eye on the Chinese, and for that they needed India’s support. To get broad support, two people had to be influenced, Krishna Menon and Nehru. Krishna Menon was simply not a possibility, and the various actions to sideline him were gaining steam. Simultaneously, Nehru had to be charmed. Galbraith launched his plan (actually a number of plans, and this article will cover only one, and it involved Jackie).

Kennedy also had other ideas about global relationships and world peace. His idea was always to develop India as a counterweight against China’s rise in Asia and was exasperated with Pakistan’s refusal to understand the situation and its continuous squabble about Kashmir and other minor issues. It was with this in mind that Galbraith was deputed to Delhi as ambassador with a primary mission – Sideline Menon, woo Nehru.

On Sept 13th 1961, Galbraith broached the idea of a trip to India by JKB. JFK applauded the idea according to Galbraith’s memoirs and when he talked to Jackie about this, she was enchanted and wanted to travel in October/November, the following month. Thus Nov 20th was planned as the date for the private and informal trip of Jackie to India accompanied by her sister princess Lee Radziwill (Some trivia - do you know that Onasis was Lee’s boyfriend and eventually her elder sister Jackie married her later?). Meeting Nehru on Oct 28th to confirm the invitation, Galbraith notes that Nehru is equally delighted and insists Jackie stay in his house for part of the duration. By then, JFK is troubled over many other matters, the Cuban Bay of Pigs incidents, Vietnam and the USSR.

On Nov 6th, a moody Nehru visits Washington with Indira in tow and the meeting and discussions did not amount to much, in fact Nehru had lost all interest midway. JKB, a bit miffed postponed her visit to January. Incidentally, as a souvenir of the visit, the US announced help to set up IIT Kanpur.

Soon preparations start for Jackie’s trip but the Indian protocol organizers are alarmed that Jackie wants to visit Konark. They are absolutely worried about the prospect of a wrong photograph of hers in a hugely pornographic ambience. In the midst of this Yuri Gagarin visits Delhi for a reception, which Galbraith attends. The play ‘Passage to India’ had just opened on Broadway and people in America are getting a better feel of India. At this point of time the Goa incident takes place.

This became a problem for the US since Dulles had already taken a stand by agreeing with the Portuguese foreign minister that Goa was a Portuguese province and not a colony. Though Galbraith did not agree with this basis, he tried to persuade Nehru not to use force. The Portuguese even suggested that Pakistan move some troops to scare the Indians and dissuade them from going into Goa. In a military operation led by Gen Candeth, on 18th and 19th December 1961, Indian troops capture Goa with little resistance and no causalities. The governor-general of Portuguese India surrenders.

Cables pour in from America asking Galbraith to get Americans out of troubles way from Goa.Galbraith wittily responds that there was just one person there other than some reporters and that they would be better off in Goa than at the New Jersey turnpike, on an average day. JFK tells BK Nehru in private that India should have done it 15 years ago instead of preaching morality to US for 15 years. He compares it to the incident when the priest is caught coming out of the brothel door.

Indians in the Delhi bureaucracy worry on rumors that JBK’s trip might be cancelled. Menon approaches the Americans for military equipment as he is worried about the Chinese on the border. Galbraith recommends that JBK delay her trip and cut it short to give the right counter message to India. In the meantime Galbraith falls sick with an infected sinus for a few days and is recuperating in Switzerland. During this, Pakistan tried to raise a ruckus by bringing up Kashmir at the Security Council. Kennedy warns Galbraith that he has no idea what traveling around with Jackie would be like and suggests that Galbraith take a breather in Florida before the event. Krishna Menon remarks in good humor that Galbraith is becoming too pro Indian (Sadly Menon has no idea what is coming – more about it another day)…

Republic day is on and JKB delays her trip by a week. Galbraith worries about all the work in rearranging schedules and despairs on the thousands of rupees spent. A huge number of animals arrive from America for the Delhi Zoo, perhaps there just in case JKB falls homesick.

Nehru in the meantime has decorated his hallway with picture of his strolling with JKB, according to Galbraith, he is already in love. Krishna Menon is out of town campaigning and so the capital is slightly pro American. The embassy worries about trifles like flowerbed lighting for JKB’s dinner, should they be floating Diwali candles or flashing lights? Two tiger cubs are placed in the house (Gerry Gerald’s house – duly repainted and refurnished for the occasion) JBK was to occupy, just in case she wants to pet them. A rehearsal dinner is carried out.

March 13th – JKB arrives and the car meant to take the ambassador is locked out, with the keys inside. Here in USA, they would have AAA take care of it by sliding a flat blade through the window, but in Delhi they had no such option and a Mercedes was sent. JKB arrived in an Air India plane, disembarked in a radioactive pink suit accompanied by Lee, a personal maid and a secret service team. Nehru, Indira, Menon and a ‘million’ children received them. More people lined up than did for Lyndon Johnson.

They meet President Rajendra Prasad, a remarkably uncommunicative man, then walkabout in the Moghul gardens, lay roses at the Rajghat and go to the chancery to meet the embassy staff. A lovely lunch follows at the Raj Bhavan where S Radhakrishnana VP and Nehru kept Jackie in good humor with their entertaining talk. The next day she is moved to the PM’s house as a guest and goes riding which is her pet hobby, doing well, but Bubbles the prince of Jaipur has a dreadful fall from his horse. The guests are set in a flower petal canopied area. Singing and dancing follow at Nehru’s house, and Jackie in a turquoise dress glows amidst gorgeous Indian women in glittering sarees, a stunning array, as reported. Jackie then visits Agra in the presidential train, posing for photographs that have since then became famous. They also visited the AIMS aided by USA.

Like always things did not go right next, the plane that was to take Jackie to Benares had a problem and within no time the IAF sent a plane, and a few others were also made available, but Jackie chose to go by train. She loved them and had previously got herself photographed next to an engine with its driver in Agra. There was alarm when a ‘Made in Poland’ label was spotted in the photo frame, but it was shrugged off.

The Benares trip was quite a crowded event where she purchased silk material for a Presidential coat and got photographed next to the Ashoka pillar, visited a Buddhist temple and as joked by Galbraith, passed on the opportunity to die in Benares and go straight to heaven. Later they flew to Udaipur. The main palace was where they settled for the evening while the lake palace on the Pichola Lake was being converted into a hotel. And that was where she got christened the America maharani, by the thousands of screaming children. Perhaps their teacher taught them. Jackie wanted to give the secret service the slip and meet the children, but the Indian police refused permission. Jaipur presented problems when the maharajah took off with Jackie, as he was a friend of Lee’s and left the official entourage behind. Later they wanted to take her to the city palace, a private residence but this would not be quite right. Eventually this was arranged and Galbraith gets fascinated by the vivacious maharani – Gayatri Devi.

The next day is the grand gala which goes off splendidly after a final visit to the Nehru household where Holi was celebrated and where she applied a tikka on his forehead and Nehru doing likewise. The day after she flies off to Lahore to be a guest of Pakistan and Ayub Khan. She took away some jeweled brocade and some handbags from Benares, too expensive for her plans and the newspapers reported that Jackie spent $600 in less than 5 minutes.

Jackie met Galbraith later in USA, presented him with a well reported kiss at the airport and thanked him profusely for a beautiful trip to India. Galbraith, happy with his ambassadorial success, returned and went off on a trip to Kerala. Meeting Nehru later, he found the photo had been moved to Nehru’s upstairs sitting room – that of his walking arm in arm with Jackie in the white house garden. So much from the Ambassadors diary. Later he wrote – When Mrs Kennedy came to N Delhi in March of 1962, Nehru went to the airport to greet her and at the earliest opportunity moved her from the quarters we had contrived, to his own house. There, she had her sister occupied the apartment once inhabited by Edwina Mountbatten, and a great Nehru favorite, Nehru did not fail to tell of the earlier tenant, and he devoted himself fully to his guests instruction and enjoyment. As the resident expert, I was commissioned to buy an 18th century miniature to be presented to her by the prime minister.

Enroute her return, Jackie met the British queen and had a delightful English lunch. Back in America, she talked incessantly of her trip to India.

The world was soon on the brink of a nuclear war, with the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. It was the moment when the two superpowers came closest to nuclear conflict. After a critical period, Khrushchev finally pulled back stating “If there is no intention to doom the world to the catastrophe of thermonuclear war, then let us not only relax the forces pulling on the ends of the rope, let us take measures to untie that knot. We are ready for this”.

In an effort to prevent this from happening again, a direct telephone link between the White House and the Kremlin was established; it became known as the “Hotline.”

A couple of years later, Nehru collapsed on the floor of the Lok Sabha. This visit by Jaqueline was as they say, perhaps the last spring in his life….

Jackie left and Delhi went back to what it was, a great big dusty bureaucratic capital full of backbiting politicians. While they argued, the Chinese took a bite off the North East, jolted the Indian mindset and alarmed the world. With only UAE supporting India and the other NAM nations desisting from condemning China, the lofty NAM ideal of Nehru disintegrated. As John Scofield of National Geographic wrote - India’s cherished neutrality lay shattered—perhaps forever—and the nation was united as never before. The arms race in the subcontinent was soon to begin.  
Mukesh and Rafi became famous, Lata got her Filmfare award for Kahi deep jale kahe dil, Bandini with Dharmendra won the national award and actress Sreedevi, my favorite actress was born while I was packed off to a kindergarten in Calicut.

I just heard that India and USA will soon establish a direct hotline between the respective heads of state.

Some Tidbits

Jackie carried 48 pairs of gloves to remain clean in India. Two lady reporters carry, in addition to typewriters, hatboxes containing wigs, and three take notes while wearing little white gloves.

Jackie never forgot how elegant the women in India looked in their diaphanous saris gracefully draped across the contours of their bodies. A friend of Jean Kennedy Smith, Jackie's sister-in-law, remembers seeing Jackie wearing a sari at a winter party held in the Smith townhouse in Manhattan in the 80’s, a cotton pastel sari - turquoise & cream flecked with gold while others had jackets and coats. There was the time when sari based dresses worn by Jackie pervaded America according to Tina Santi Flaherty. Flaherty wrote. “Extremely feminine, this flattering garment is both demure and seductive at the same time. Jackie decided that the style suited her.”

Jackie, in particular, disliked Nehru’s daughter, Indira, who accompanied her father to Washington. Referring to a decision by JFK to separate the men from the women during dinner, Jackie said of Indira: "Well, of course, she hated that. She liked to be in with the men. And she is a real prune -- bitter, kind of pushy, horrible woman. You know, I just don't like her a bit. It always looks like she's been sucking a lemon.”

During the Indo China border war, JFK became popular in India when he ordered the USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier to the Bay of Bengal to help India in the event of an invasion by Chinese forces. He also apparently had plans to deploy US forces stationed in the Philippines to assist India should the war expand. Historians have suggested that China’s quick ceasefire may have been the result of such threats made by the U.S. against Beijing. In a May 1963 National Security Council meeting, contingency planning on the part of the United States in the event of another Chinese attack on India was discussed. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and General Maxwell Taylor advised the president to use nuclear weapons should the Americans intervene in such a situation. McNamara stated "Before any substantial commitment to defend India against China is given, we should recognize that in order to carry out that commitment against any substantial Chinese attack, we would have to use nuclear weapons. Any large Chinese Communist attack on any part of that area would require the use of nuclear weapons by the U.S., and this is to be preferred over the introduction of large numbers of U.S. soldiers." After hearing this and listening to two other advisers, Kennedy stated "We should defend India, and therefore we will defend India”.

When the Indian government hear that Jackie was going to Pakistan later, they rescinded the offer to pay for the rooms occupied by the secret service. The agents who had spent all their allowances on gifts were left in a quandary and scrounged for the rest of the trip.

Jackie carried Cowhide Leather framed pictures from US. They were replaced with Indian made silver frames when it was made clear that it was not a good idea to make such a present, insulting the cow, a revered animal in India.

William Kuhn writing about Jackie notes that Lee found Nehru sensual and that – The sexiest thing about Nehru was that he made Jackie laugh.

JKB was gifted two paintings in India. The painting ‘Lovers watching rain clouds’ dated 1780 was willed by her to her friend Rachel Bunny Melon. A second miniature ‘Gardens of the Palace of the Rajah’ was also gifted to Bunny.

After JFK died, JKB became a book editor for Doubleday in New York. In later days her protégé would prove to be an Indian, Naveen Patnaik. They published a book ‘A second paradise’ on Indian artwork.

JKB visited India again in 1984, this time as Jackie Onassis. John Kennedy her son, was in India studying Indian culture and history at the Delhi University.


A life in our times – JK Galbraith
Ambassador’s journal – JK Galbraith
Indian summer – Alex Von Tunzelmann
Mrs Kennedy and me – Clint Hill

Pics – from the net thanks to the uploaders….

Various Videos of the visit



windwheel said...

Wonderful man! Once again you astonish us!
India was going down the beggar's path. The fact that our PM was shorter than the American President's wife and that AMERICAN PHOTOGRAPHERS WERE TOLD TO EMPHASISE THIS was known to Indira.
India was a nation of children. Not white entirely, but not black either.
Menon knew that the great and famous Woodrow Wilson, being a 'Democrat', terminated the careers of 'Coloured' people in the Federal Bureaucracy. The great and famous FDR similarly discriminated against Coloureds- indeed, many of his friends saw the Depression as Nature's way of keeping the Blacks down.
JFK got elected on the 'missile gap' canard, though his Economic policies, contra Galbraith, were spot on.
Nehru had been insulted by Truman- a Democrat- while his sister had thrived under a Republican administration.
Indira was not tall but she was a giant compared to Lal Bahadur Shastri- the very sight of whom on News Reels was enough to get Cinema Halls guffawing with derisory laughter- she well understood that India needed to project a proper image in America.
She was a patriot. So was Krishna Menon. We may not like their policies. But 'optics' is important. Modi shows a broad chest. Good enough.
Making Jackie O laugh- who cares? She was a victim of her own gentility.
Indira took a fitting revenge dethroning Hope Cook- Sikkim's Gyalmo- who ended up in New York as a tour guide.
Jackie married a billionaire but got little money from his Estate- this made her a laughing stock. Indira, by contrast, aborted the U.S supported genocide in East Bengal.
Nixon fulmined against her but failed to intimidate her.
It seems mere inches do not make for greatness. Jackie lacked something- she recycled leftover drinks as Gore Vidal records- Indira had something. She did not want to sit with a drink-recycling Stockbroker's daughter who talked like a retard. No wonder she made a lemon sucking face to this worthless grinning sepulchre.
I'm an admirer of your writing- so hope this does not offend you!

KPS- editor of

Maddy said...

Thanks windwheel..
Galbraith planned this trip with a good reason, which i touched upon briefly in para 8. I will write about his next actions soon and then you will see how the next part played out

harimohan said...

maddy once again you excel in narrating the past with events rightly placed including yours to make history real life instead of bookish .
i understand the hard work behind and research needed but its wonderful

Maddy said...

Thanks hari..
Glad you enjoyed this...

Haddock said...

Krishna Menon squabbling with the military as the defence minister.
The movie "Haqeeqat" by Chetan Anand, has put it across very well what actually happened during the 1962 China war.

Maddy said...

thanks Joe..
You may not have noticed, but VKKM is a favorite topic of mine..
I have not seen Haqeeqat, but now that you mention it I will..
Maybe you will like this