The Real Story Behind Hy Peskin’s Camelot

Hy Peskin // Fair Use

A nation that had suffered through a Great Depression, a Second World War, and years of rebuilding was finally ready to look toward a more hopeful future. And for many, the first glimpse of that new frontier came when rookie Senator John F. Kennedy and his fiancée Jacqueline Lee Bouvier graced the cover of LIFE magazine for the July 20, 1953 issue.

Though the Kennedy family wasn’t new to the national stage, a young John Kennedy was. He had just settled into his new role as U.S. senator from Massachusetts after the 1952 election, and he was due to marry Bouvier later in 1953. Joseph P. Kennedy—his father and the Kennedy clan's patriarch—was a master at crafting a political image and knew that he needed the perfect outlet to present his son and his beautiful bride-to-be to the nation. In 1953, a photospread in LIFE magazine was about as big as you could get.

Televisions still weren't a staple in American households, with sets in only around 44 percent of homes. Print was the way most people got their news, and, more importantly, one of the only ways they actually saw the politicians they were voting for.

Joseph Kennedy jumped at the opportunity, inviting LIFE, and famed sports photographer Hy Peskin, to the family’s compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, for a weekend to capture the couple at their most radiant and welcoming. It was set to be a coming-out party for JFK as he went from an ambassador’s son, to Representative, to national figure.

The spread featured a casual look at the family’s life, with Jackie playing baseball in the backyard, John skipping stones on the beach, and the extended Kennedy family asking the future First Lady how he proposed to her. For a political image-maker like Joe Kennedy, this was a goldmine.

As eye-catching as those interior images were, nothing could compare to the cover picture, now known as Camelot. Here, John looked self-assured and at home on his boat, the Victura, while Jackie was positively beaming next to him. This couple—nearly crackling with energy—was in sharp contrast to the conventional, and highly polished, political photos at the time. Gone were the stuffy suits, dusty libraries, and cold offices; these Kennedys were living a life any reader would envy.

When the magazine hit stands, John F. Kennedy was still credited as “Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy’s son,” but the grace and confidence he and Jackie showed on that cover turned them into something much more. Though the public didn’t know it quite yet, they were witnessing the first moments of a political dynasty.

The real story behind the photos, however, isn’t quite as effortless. The shoot had to be perfect, which meant everything was overseen by the Kennedy elders, including Joe and Rose. Jackie may have looked like a natural on that boat, but that was far from how it really happened.

“They just shoved me into that boat long enough to take the picture,” she said to a friend, as revealed in the book Victura: The Kennedys, a Sailboat, and the Sea. Rose would even tell her how she should be posed, and TIME described Jackie as having “bristled at the intrusion.” Yet thanks to Peskin's skill behind the lens, the whole weekend came off so naturally and charming, you would never have known that you were looking at anything less than authentic.

Camelot was more about branding than spontaneity, but it worked. It created a public fascination with this new young couple—a couple that was getting ready to lead a new generation of Americans into the future.