Douglas Thmopson - Author and International Journalist


The Liberation of Jackie O

The Times 7th November 2009

Eight years on from JFK's assassination, the widowed First Lady had forged a new as Jackie O. Nowhere was she better able to kick over the traces than on Onassis's private island of Skorpios. Settimio Garritano, an Italian paparazzo, captured her new-found freedom -yoga at the beach, shopping trips, even nude sunbathing. Now these extraordinary images, many unpublished in the UK before now, are to be suctioned. Douglas Thompson reveals o missing chapter in the Jackie O story.

In the summer of 1971, on the private Greek island of Skorpios, Settimio Garritano took a set of photographs that changed perceptions of the most debated woman in the world.

The images also provoked controversy. They were the catalyst for myth making subterfuge - titillating, amusing stuff, but nonsense; it was legend still being- parroted authoritatively this summer, 38 years on from when these pictures were taken.

Nestling his tiny boat with its flaking yellow paint, in some vegetation on the edge or the shoreline, the accomplished Garritano set up his two Pentax cameras to photograph Jackie Onassis relaxing. The discreet vantage point had been carefully calculated over many months, and he'd photographed her here many times before.

Yet, this time, as she strolled across his viewfinder, she was naked. At 43 she looked in excellent shape. Her posture was good - shoulders back, stride straight, the refined deportment demanded at Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Connecticut, topped up by her early adopter’s passion for yoga. His camera captured everything: her toned backside, limbs' breasts. Garritano was hot and bothered, but not in a schoolboy way. Had he really photographed the wife of one of the richest, most powerful men in the world and the widow of America's assassinated 35th President in the buff? Mrs Onassis, totally naked?

He had. The evidence stared up at him from the trays of developed film in the Athens photo lab he had driven too fast to get to. He studied the dozen images as if he were seeing the end of a long rainbow. But was it a Pot of fool's gold?

The ever vigilant Settimio Garritano had pursued the former First Lady since her marriage to Aristotle Onassis on October 2O, 1968, on the very island on which he took this landmark set of pictures. The wedding transformed the widow of John F. Kennedy into Jackie O, the paparazzi’s holy grail.

Onassis brought incredible wealth but also infamy - a ruthless business style and a torrid, recent affair with Maria Callas - to the ceremony. His bride brought a dowry of history. Many people believed that JFK's widow for some years one of the most applauded and admired women in the world for her dignity and style, had renounced her halo. She had become a conundrum; the world didn’t know whether to love her or loathe her. And such emotion had raised her celebrity currency to astonishing levels.

The charismatic Onassis, a tycoon with varying shades of social and commercial complexities, bought Skorpios as his private kingdom in 1963. It is a brief, sometimes turbulent, ten-minute boat trip from Nidri, which sits on the east of Lefkas – another island, but linked to the Greek mainland by road. A heliport and the main villa are high on a hill, retreated into the landscape; on the far side of Skorpios were moorings for Onassis's yacht, Christina, and his seaplane.

Yet the only decent beach on the island is close to where Garritano had purposely landed. Onassis had built a simple house on it to store beach furniture, cushions, towels, goggles, fins and other gear, and there was a shower room and a kitchenette to prepare snacks to accompany the aperitifs that took the edge off the day.

It was where Jackie relaxed. She'd read and snooze, do yoga and swim, eat and smoke - her heavy cigarette habit something she'd taken elaborate precautions to hide during her I,000 days as America's First Lady. She even asked author William Manchester to remove from his book The Death of a President that she had cigarettes in her handbag on November 22,1963.

But that was Mrs Kennedy. As Jackie O, who arrived in the Seventies from the Sixties in a first-class cabin, she smoked openly on trips to Capri. On the romantic Italian island –“Apart from Skorpios, this is the island of seduction,” insisted Onassis - she radiated a freedom rarely witnessed in America.

On marriage to Onassis, she'd given up her Secret Service protection. It was only when her children, Caroline and John Jr, were with her that large men in suits appeared. She would inhabit the outdoor cafes and trattorias on the streets of Capri, indulging her sweet tooth with ice cream and lemon granita. She would shop - 30 pairs of Capri pants bought in one store in half an hour and promoted the flat sandals (the spider's web of fine leather straps called ragni, similar to this year's popular gladiator style) made on the island.

Settimio Garritano, then 38 and a seasoned professional, photographed her everywhere she went in what he calls her "Happy Jackie" time. It kept the smile on his face, too, for newspapers and magazines worldwide published his work. So, when Jackie cheerfully asked as they wandered one of Capri's narrow streets if he ever got bored with photographing her, the answer was honest: he would follow her anywhere.

She accepted that with grace: "I see you here, in Greece, but OK..." It was a turnaround from America, where she looked at the paparazzi as if they were snakes, judging how venomous they were. Her attitude to the twinkly-eyed Italian, with his jet-black hair, long sideburns and fashionable beige safari suit, never changed.

"She always smiled at me, acknowledged me. Jackie loved to be photographed. She would have all the newspapers and magazines bought for her so she could see whether she was featured.

"Capri was her favourite island; more so than Skorpios. which was a private residence. On Capri, she and Onassis would go to dinner at La Pigna, La Capannina and Da Gemma, with their guitarists and chansonniers. Their favourite was Peppino Scarola, who’d serenade them with Neapolitan folk songs - O Sole Mio, Torna a Surriento and Luna Rossa.

She loved doing all the things she couldn’t do in the States and seemed most happy just walking freely around."

Of course, it was on Skorpios that Jackie must have felt totally free. She never staved for more than a couple of weeks at a time, but she was a regular visitor. It was the era of the Greek military junta, of the colonels, who advertised torture as part of their manifesto.

Police and military guards, always in twos, patrolled even villages such as Nidri.

Jackie almost certainly knew she’d been photographed on Skorpios. Garritano’s shots of her there had been published worldwide. And several times several times she had said hello to him in Nidri, when she had gone with family members to Sunday mass at the small Greek Orthodox church, or had lunch at Nikos’s taverna:  “I would photograph them from a respectful distance and not once did anyone ever attempt to run me off."

Onassis, with his influence over the colonels, had the power to do much more than that. When Garritano had started going to Skorpios, he had been taken to the island by local fishermen, who didn’t mind the risk if they could earn a few drachmas. When his pictures were published, an order banning fishermen from allowing foreigners on their boats stopped that - which was-why he was in his own, second-hand boat in the undergrowth as he waited that summer of 1971.

Around 80 people were employed on Skorpios tending the Onassis paradise, and were ferried over early every morning. Garritano befriended the boss, a huge, engaging man called Achilles. With his help, the photographer got on to the island disguised as a gardener. During these trips, he fine-tuned the logistics and worked out where he could take shots without being seen. He learnt that Jackie and Onassis would drive to the beach in a Jeep on most days when-they were resident. He knew when from his contact, Irene, at Onassis’s Olympic Airways office in Athens.

For a couple of years it had been a profitable enterprise, and then Garritano heard a rumour from some of the workers that the lady liked to sunbathe nude. "It didn't seem possible to me; she knew she'd been photographed on Skorpios, so why would she display herself? I really never thought it would happen."

But it did. Today in Rome - where, for many years, he has run a hugely successful photographic agency - his figure fuller and the safari suits long gone but the twinkle still in his eyes, Garritano reflects on what he captured. "Suddenly, she appeared and wandered around the patio area. I concentrated on just taking the pictures, not composing them. It was a matter of moments, not even minutes," he recalls. "I was excited to see if t had anything or if it had all been only a dream. When I saw the shots on the film.

I calmed down. But just a little. I was extremely fearful of the reaction of Onassis and, in fact, the entire Kennedy family. I had to be really careful."

The immediate problem was problem was getting the film out of Greece. Under the dictatorship the airports were heavily controlled – all outgoing luggage was checked by hand especially cameras and film.

"l was terrified each time I flew from Athens," Garritano continues, "because Onassis was respected and protected by the regime. All long-lens pictures, especially Jackie, were declared stolen.

"l wore a 7cm-wide leather belt with a secret pocket and hid some film in that. I carried a rigid leather camera bag with a false bottom and the remaining film was in there. But I was more paranoid than ever. This had always worked but this time? It was only when my plane was high in the air and the fasten-your-seat-belts sign had been turned off that I relaxed.

"Yet I was still fearful of what reaction there would be when the pictures were published. I thought Onassis or the Kennedys would come after me - I didn’t think they’d kill me, but I thought they'd certainly ruin me. I didn't know what to do."

And neither did the world's magazines and newspapers, when they heard of the Jackie O nudes. Everybody wanted to see them, but no one wanted to publish them - or they were advised not to. This, of course was many years before the trade in paparazzi images - from long lens shots of Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed to blurry C list celebrities - became such staple fare.

Clearly, it was still too soon after Dallas, November 22,1963. When editors in 1971 saw the nude images, their memories were also replaying images of Jackie Kennedy in her pink suit and matching pillbox hat, JFK grinning and waving, the crowds cheering. And then the gunshots that shattered the world

She had moved on and been described as a woman who knew how to have fun, a woman in love with life, but the concern was the public's sensibility. They were still seeing the widow not the woman.

Garritano was upset but pragmatic "I was completely discouraged - so much trouble and all that initial elation and it had been for nothing. I locked away all the negatives in a bank safe. But I continued photographing Jackie on Skorpios as usual."

He took another set of topless photographs, this time of Fiona Campbell, the former model, and Baroness von Thyssen, the companion of Onassis's son Alexander. Garritano and his wife were in Greece and the young Onassis helicoptered in to see them. In return for destroying the topless images of Campbell, the photographer persuaded Alexander to pose with his lover for the first and only time.

"While we were chatting over glasses of beer, I mentioned to him that I had a set of photos of Jackie nude on Skorpios and he immediately told mq 'Get them published!"' says Garritano. "He and his sister, Christina, did not like Jackie. He reasoned that if they were made public, Aristotle would be furious and get rid of his new wife."

But that was not Onassis's reaction when the photographs made their first public appearance, in December 1972, in the Italian monthly, Playmen. The editor, Adelina Tattilo, ignored legal advice and decided to use them to take on the incoming competition of Hugh Hefner's Playboy, which was launching an Italian edition, splashing Jackie O over 14 pages. It was a winner. Her magazine sold out. And Onassis was nonchalant "Sometimes I have to take my clothes off to put on a bathing suit. So does my wife."

However, the reaction in America was less relaxed. Bootleg copies of Playmen appeared in New York and Jackie O's public image took a battering. Her marriage to Onassis had been a shock - they were dubbed "Beauty and the Beast" - and now this. Parading around naked was thoughtlessly continental - all right for the flesh-obsessed Europeans, but not a former First Lady.

Settimio Garritano wasn't relaxed either. He waited for trouble, but wily Adelina Tattilo concocted a tale about how the shots had been possible - and the myth grew from there.

Garritano finds it amusing now. "The most incredible things were written: that the photographs were taken from a submarine lurking in the waters of Skorpios, that a team of frogmen had stayed underwater for days waiting for Jackie to take her clothes off, that I'd been in cahoots with Onassis. And an ltalian weekly, Annabel\a, even published a photo of Jackie and me together with the headline: 'To him, Jackie said yes. Why?"'

The Playmen publication made it open season in Europe and South America. A Brazilian bank plastered pages of the magazine Manchete, featuring the nude photos, on its doors to attract customers. Intriguingly, the cover line read: "Jackie - victim or accomplice?".

The United States and Britain remained wary. In America, Larry Flynt had started publication of Hustler magazine in 1974 with what he called "a slightly more explicit photo policy". He was making $500,000 an issue by April, 1975, when, he says in his autobiography, Sex, Lies and Politics, “I made the smartest investment of my life and bought those nudes of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, which I ran in the August 1975 issue. And the rest, as they say, is history.” Having enjoyed his bestselling issue, he declared: ,if tn.' photographer had asked me for a million dollars, I'd have paid it."

And Settimio Garritano would have taken it. "The truth is that he sent his brother to Rome to offer me a few thousand dollars and, having had no other buyers, I agreed,” he says.

The myths have persisted In August this year, archivists working on material in Andy Warhol's estate discovered a Jackie O nude signed by the subject "For Andy, with enduring affection, Jackie Montauk”. The signature has been authenticated.

"Montauk" was a salute to Warhol's New York estate at which Jackie was a regular visitor. The leading archivist, Matt Wrbican, then re-ran some of the legends surrounding the source of the material, but pointed mainly to Onassis's connivance. No one suggested that Jackie herself, with the naught!-humour demonstrated by the Warhol gift had colluded, making herself available to being photographed naked, that she wasn’t quite so reserved as believed, that she was revelling in rebellion after years of restriction. She certainly didn’t need 15 more minutes of fame.

The Kennedy White House was the first to indulge celebrity culture. It projected an open-door, youthful, image-conscious world that is now part of the American iconography Settimio Garritano’s work that day in 1971 on Skorpios has become part of that, if not by intent. He has been approached over the years to sell the original film and his copyright and, now aged 76, he has decided to do just that, and to auction his entire “Happy Jackie” collection. "I don't think they should languish in a bank vault. They should be in a living archive somewhere.

"The pictures I took of Jackie were when she was slim and elegant a beautiful woman. Today, people have no problem with them, so they should be on display.

She was always happy when I saw her always in good humour. She'd endured tragedy, but, in Italy and on Skorpios, she escaped from all that. I've never thought of her other than as Happy Jackie.

“When she died in 1994 from cancer. I thought of the half a dozen or so years during which I had followed her. I chose to remember her at a formal party on Capri. She was dressed for the evening for an event. But when I looked up as I was taking her picture, I saw she was stepping down the stone steps barefoot. She'd kicked off her heels. That was my Happy Jackie.”

Back | Gallery | Star Talk | Home

Back to the top