Meet Marta: The Nanny Who Cared for the Kennedys

Marta Sgubin/Cooking With Marta

After a harrowing overnight flight across the Atlantic and a rain-delayed puddle jumper from New York, Marta Sgubin arrived very late on the evening of September 7th, 1969 in Newport, Rhode Island for her first day of work. Born and raised in Italy, she was to be the governess for the then 11-year-old Caroline and 8-year-old John Jr., the children of Jacqueline Onassis Kennedy and the late President John F. Kennedy.

That night, Marta made a bold decision. The family's dogs would no longer sleep in the shed, she told her new bosses.

"No, those are our dogs, they'll sleep with me from now on," Marta recalls saying to Jackie's mother, Janet Lee Bouvier Auchincloss.

Her immediate spunk was well-received by family, and almost 45 years later, Marta is still with the Kennedys. Past governesses had lasted only a year or so, but Marta has always been unique.

"I've never been intimidated," she said. "But I was happy that they chose me."

Marta, who was in her mid-30s when she joined the family, quickly became Jackie's close friend and companion, transitioning into the family's cook when the kids grew too old for nannying. She also took care of Caroline's children, Rose, Tatiana, and Jack Schlossberg, who are now in their 20s and consider Marta a grandmother figure. But Marta's real baby is the family's dog August, who she walks around Central Park every morning and affectionately calls "Mama's Boy."

An immigrant from a 400-person village in northern Italy, Marta dreamt of leaving her small town of San Valentino as a child to be an actress in Rome. Instead, she would grow up to work as a governess for most of her life, first for the children of a French diplomat family in Paris, and then for the Kennedy children, six years after their father's assassination. Marta taught herself to speak five languages while living and working in France, Greece, and the US. She also taught herself how to cook, simply by watching chefs hired to cook for the family.

"I'm the opposite of Paula Deen. I use vegetable juices and lean meats instead of butter," she said. "I shouldn't say it though, because I'd like to go on her show someday," Marta joked.

Marta won't tell anyone her real age, but is most likely in her late 70s, according to Caroline Kennedy's younger daughter Tatiana Schlossberg, who joined us in Marta's apartment last week to learn how to cook her staple truffle risotto.

Marta is marked by her playful sense of humor and her honesty, according to Tatiana.

"She always tells people what she thinks about them, even if it's not a nice thing all of the time," Tatiana said.

When her nephew had an issue with his visa a few years ago, Marta called up Immigration Customs & Enforcement to tell the agents that they "give America a bad name" and when a man was rude to her last year in a grocery store, she admonished him by telling him that he was an "orangutan, a man of the woods."

But Marta isn't all sass. "She's a saint," she's selfless, she's kind, she's regimented, and she's loyal," according to Tatiana.

Journalist Christiane Amanpour met Marta through her college friendship with John Kennedy Jr. and the two women have stayed very close for more than 30 years, frequently visiting each others' houses for dinner. Amanpour says Marta's thoughtfulness and her love for animals has made all the difference when her own dog Mindu has wandered off in the park.

"When [Marta] was over at my house for dinner, she noticed that my dog did not have a collar with a name tag. So she took his name and my home phone number, and the next thing I knew, she sent me a beautiful red dog collar with his name and number sewn into it," she said said. "And thanks to that collar, I've found my dog several times after he's wandered off in Central Park!"

Evidenced by the many generations of people that speak fondly of her, Marta has a great ability to relate to individuals of all ages.

"Today, she's very fond of my own son, whose second name is John after my friend John Kennedy [Jr.]. It's great to see how she's really embraces all the generations. Old people and young people alike feel great in her company," Amanpour said.

Marta has a soft spot in her heart for children, but also for animals, ladybugs, four-leaf clovers, Italy, and now the United States (she became a citizen nine years ago.) Cats and dogs seem are her favorite in the animal kingdom, and she frequently croons to them in languages she's invented specifically for each one.

She's given all of the important animals (and children) in her life multiple nicknames. Marta explained that her seemingly-random naming system is simply her way of showing affection and that the names are actually just "whatever words comes to mind."

Take Donald, for instance, her sturdy Scottish Fold cat who has tiny ears due to a genetic mutation that makes his cartilage crumple over itself. Marta is certain that "he is regal" and feeds him a fresh turkey breast every day. While Donald is his name "on the papers" he also goes by Moose, Mooseboy, Rusticone, Musellon, Palomino, and Puffer.

As for the Kennedy grandchildren, Rose goes by Moma or Lola. Jack by Momo or Lolo. And Tatiana by Lolita, Momina or "The Golden Child." Anybody and everybody goes by "Ponky."

Marta says she loves the three grandchildren, who she helped raise, as if they were her own. But there are some things from their childhood, like having to watch cartoons such as Ren & Stimpy with them, that she doesn't miss.

"[Ren & Stimpy] was disgusting, it was a guy who keeps his eyes on his hands," Marta said. "But the children liked it. All of them. And we all had to watch one program at the same time."

Marta also recalled the trials of raising John Jr., who adored teasing her when he was little. "He was a little rascal, always ready to do something to you, that you didn't expect. It was mischief."

As a kid, John once let loose seven black water snakes from the Everglades in the house in order to spook Caroline and Marta. The snakes got into the house's plumbing system, to Marta's frustration.

"They were going from toilet to toilet in the house," Marta explained. "When I picked him up from school, he was just laughing hysterically."

Marta loves talking about the happy times -- the kids, the animals, and Madam -- but there were also very sad times, including the deaths of John Jr. and Jackie. The losses were tantamount to losing a best friend and a child, for her.

"It affected me as much as it affected them. I work for them, but I love them. I love all of them," Marta said. "They were all very dear to me. To lose them was always a big loss. And that you have to deal with by yourself."

But Marta says undergoing hardship has made her closer to the family.

"It's not to be together everyday that brings you close. It's the way that you feel about someone that makes you close, and the hard times you go through that make you close," she said.

Marta is adored by the many generations of people whose lives she has impacted. When Marta missed her dog Pucci in France, 'Madam' gave her a portrait of a long-haired Dachsund and told her that they would have him sent across the Atlantic if she wanted him. When Marta wrote a cookbook in 1998 called "Cooking for Madam" about the recipes she cooked for Jackie, John Jr. wrote the foreword, in which he described her as "part of our family." Tatiana has a her own way of showing her affection -- by imitating Marta's English.

"I like calling you on the phone and talking as you, and you're also talking as you," Tatiana said to Marta. "Ayo Ponky!" Tatiana exclaimed, to Marta's delight. "She's great. I don't even have to talk anymore," Marta said.

Christiane Amanpour describes Marta as the "ultimate Italian Mama."

"You know when you're around Marta, you're going to get great love, great care, great friendship... and great food," she said.

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