Nancy Tuckerman, a lifelong friend of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis who became her social secretary when she was the first lady and continued to be her spokeswoman until her death in 1994, died Wednesday in Salisbury, Connecticut. She was 89.
The cause was chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, said her niece Phyllis Gay Palmer.
Tuckerman was the first lady’s social secretary for only a few months, arriving at the White House in the spring of 1963, a bit more than two years into President John F. Kennedy’s term. But those months were eventful.
In August of that year the Kennedys’ newborn son, Patrick, died shortly after birth. In November the president was assassinated in Dallas, and Tuckerman found herself helping the first lady deal with the trauma, the funeral preparations, an avalanche of mail and more.
“She was very much in command of herself, aside from the shock,” Tuckerman said of the first lady a year later in an oral history recorded for the John F. Kennedy Library. “Obviously she was in a certain amount of shock, but she could operate and she could make sense, and she realized that she had to make certain decisions, and she did them simply beautifully.”
Tuckerman, who was 34 when she went to the White House, nine months older than the first lady, was still at her friend’s side three decades later, by which time Kennedy had become Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and had received a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer.
Ever the loyal lieutenant, Tuckerman was never one to gossip about her famous friend and always sought to protect her privacy. Just a few weeks before Onassis died on May 19, 1994, Tuckerman had told reporters asking about her hospitalization: “She goes in for routine visits, routine treatment. That’s what this is.”
She acknowledged that she had deliberately played down the severity of Onassis’ condition to prevent a news media sideshow.
“I said what I thought was appropriate,” she told The New York Times on the day of Onassis’ death. “We were trying to protect her and the children, because they could not make visits with ease.”
Nancy Ludlow Tuckerman was born on Oct. 24, 1928, in Manhattan. Her father, Roger, was a stockbroker, and her mother, Betty Thompson Tuckerman, was an event planner.
She said she first met Jacqueline Bouvier at 8 or 9 when both were students at the Chapin School in Manhattan. Later they were roommates at Miss Porter’s School, a college preparatory school in Farmington, Connecticut, where young Jackie tried with only limited success to teach her to ride a horse. Next to Jackie’s 1947 yearbook photo, it says that she can generally be found “laughing with Tucky,” Tuckerman’s nickname.
Tuckerman had been a travel agent in New York City for about 10 years when her old friend, now the first lady, asked her to become her social secretary, taking over the job from Letitia Baldrige. “'Tuck’ Replaces ‘Tish’ on Mrs. Kennedy’s Staff,” read a headline in The Times over a United Press International article announcing the news.
“Miss Tuckerman is attractive with golden brown hair, blue eyes and a comely five foot five figure,” the article said, a sentence indicative of the tenor of the day.
Reporters may have viewed the social secretary’s job with a certain condescension, but it required serious organizational skills, since Kennedy was proving to be a popular first lady and the focus of countless requests.
“I think we received about 800 letters a day,” Tuckerman said in the oral history.
She also supervised other staff members and organized dinners and other White House functions. She took over the job just as the busy spring season was ending and Kennedy’s pregnancy was leading her to reduce activities. But in early September 1963 she had her first chance to stage a major event, a dinner for the king and queen of Afghanistan.
She and Kennedy decided to include something new for a White House event: a fireworks display. The president, though, was hesitant.
“He thought about it a great deal,” she said in the oral history. “In fact, he thought about it so much that he called me constantly to find out if the fireworks came from Japan, how long they would last and many other things — whether by law in Washington you could set them off other than the 4th of July.”
A day before the event, the president, still nervous, told her to cut the fireworks display to five minutes, from 10.
“The man who was setting off the fireworks didn’t quite understand or else he decided to make it more spectacular by putting the same amount of dynamite into five minutes because we’d paid for it,” she said. The result was a cacophonous show that rattled the whole city.
“The switchboard in Washington, the police boards, everything was jammed up,” she said. “People thought the end of the world had come.”
Less than three months later, on Nov. 22, Tuckerman was at the White House planning another dinner to be held three days later, this one for the chancellor of West Germany. She was painstakingly plotting where each of the 120 guests would sit when someone came in and told her about the shooting in Dallas.
She kept the staff, though benumbed, focused, since everyone immediately had a long list of practical things to think about, including planning for the funeral and determining when Kennedy would move out of the White House and where she would go.
“Nobody collapsed, and you never discussed anything — never said ‘Why are we doing this’ or ‘Who do you suppose shot the president’ or ‘Who is doing what job?’,” she said in the oral history. “You just had so much to do that you never stopped to talk to anybody. At least that’s the way I felt.”
Her immediate task was coordinating a small staff that responded to the letters of condolence that were coming in by the sackful.
“It fluctuated for about a month between 20 to 30 to 40,000 each day,” she said.
Tuckerman continued to act as a spokeswoman for Onassis and the Kennedy family, denying a divorce rumor involving Jacqueline and Aristotle Onassis here (they had married in 1968), deflecting inquiries about whom a Kennedy child was dating there. She took a public relations job with Olympic Airways, which was owned by Aristotle Onassis, and in the early 1970s helped arrange for that company to sponsor an early version of the New York City Marathon.
“One of the things she was most proud of,” Palmer said, “was that she made sure it included women,” the participation of female runners in such races still being a matter of contention.
In 1975 she became a book editor at Doubleday, and three years later Jacqueline Onassis did as well; the two often worked together over the next 15 years.
Tuckerman died at an assisted-living center and leaves nieces and nephews as survivors. (A White House predecessor, Mary Jane McCaffree Monroe, who was social secretary to Mamie Eisenhower, died on July 23.)
Tuckerson never wrote a White House tell-all, but she did make use of what she had learned from a lifetime of traveling in select social circles for a different sort of book project. In 1995 she and a co-author, Nancy Dunnan, updated “The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette,” which had not been revised since 1978.
They added material on subjects that Amy Vanderbilt, whose original guide was published in 1952, probably never imagined, like etiquette when on a cellphone or in the gym. (“Although it can be tempting, don’t stare at fellow exercisers while they are working on the machines.”)
She was self-deprecating about her etiquette expertise, however.
“The rules of basic etiquette are guided by two principles: being practical and being considerate,” she told USA Today in 1995. “I mean, it’s not that difficult. Anybody could write an etiquette book.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Neil Genzlinger © 2018 The New York Times