That’s what 22-year-old office clerk Jackie Bouvier responded when her exasperated Washington Times-Herald editor Frank Waldrop demanded to know just what topics so compelled her to unrelentingly badger him about writing for the paper.

He offered her the Inquiring Photographer column. It was a dull assignment scorned by the writing staff, a once familiar feature of latter-20th-century newspapers: the reporter stopped pedestrians to ask the questions, six days a week. At best it was amusing filler.

Jackie would ask things like “What are you living for?,” “Do you think hope ever dies?,” and “What were you thinking when I came up to you?” At a convention of psychologists, she cheekily asked, “How do you think you’re maladjusted?,” and she frequently asked timely political questions, on subjects both domestic and international: “How should health care for the aged be provided?,” “Will Indochina turn into another Korea?” She also evidenced a subversive feminism: “Do you think a wife should let her husband think he’s smarter than she is?,” “When did you learn that women are not the weaker sex?” Then she’d flash her large camera directly into her subjects’ faces, snapping the image of each person she interviewed.

Jackie’s cartoon of herself as Inquiring Photographer.

Within three months, in March 1952, Jackie turned the column into what one former Times-Herald reporter called “the best escapist literature” in the nation’s capital. Jackie so made it her own that she became the first Inquiring Photographer writer to be given a byline. With its unpredictability and range, the column reflected what her mother derisively dubbed Jackie’s “wild imagination.” Eight months later, the column was renamed the Inquiring Camera Girl just for her.

Jackie’s playful, creative worldview, fueled by that wild imagination, allowed her to find mirth in even the most mundane moments—she could turn a dull day of high-school classical music into an outlandish comedy by playing the “Strip Polka,” and convincingly convert a complicated exchange of ocean-liner tickets into wondrous high drama.

Her youthful and adventurous approach to life meant that no regular man could keep up with Jackie: “I want to marry a man with imagination,” she once said, “and that’s not easy to find.”

With his unquenchable curiosity, obsessive reading habits, early grasp of television’s unleashed power, and idealistic visions of global democracy, Jack Kennedy possessed the qualities that Jackie had long searched for in a partner. Yet, nine months before their September 1953 wedding, Jackie was specifically warned by his best friend, Lem Billings, that Kennedy was unlikely to be monogamous. Jackie found this foreshadowing to be “challenging” but nevertheless entered the union willingly, enthusiastic about the prospects of jointly pursuing the presidency.

In the months before their engagement, Jackie became a regular presence in the Senate office of John F. Kennedy.

Jackie’s unique combination of imagination and organizational skills was fundamental to the management of her White House restoration projects, the proposals created to keep Kennedy’s legacy relevant, and the wide swath of books she edited during her publishing career. But before all the eyes of the world peered over her shoulder, it was all laid bare in her early writings.

As a child, Jackie turned out poems about the natural world, acutely drawing on all her senses. From 1949 to 1953, however, while at college (first at Vassar, then at the Sorbonne, in Paris, and finally at George Washington University) and in the two years immediately after graduating, she pursued a diverse array of formats: travelogue and episodic letters, theatrical sketches and short stories (notably one about an amorous night in Florence), epic poetry she composed as family gifts, newspaper feature articles, a television documentary script about Washington’s haunted Octagon House, and more than 600 of her Inquiring Camera Girl columns.

Her essays for the Vogue Prix de Paris writing contest (the prize being a six-month stint as a junior editor in its New York offices and another six months in its Paris offices) are impressive, and at only 21 years old, she won the contest after presenting her luminous, tactile vision of an entire Vogue issue based on the theme of nostalgia. (Jackie’s dominating mother forced her to turn down the prize.)

The most staggering document Jackie produced during these early years was an 84-page “Vietnam Report” (most of it handwritten in her loopy script), from the late winter and early spring of 1953, when she was still only 23 years old. It was a translation from French to English of political, diplomatic, economic, and historical texts, studies, books, and treaties, intricately unraveling France’s complex hold on its Indochinese colonies, specifically Vietnam.

The Kennedys head off to work in Washington one morning in 1954, a year after they were married.

The document was research for her then beau, the new U.S. senator John F. Kennedy, whom she had first been introduced to at a May 1951 dinner, as he prepared to deliver his first foreign-policy speech to the Senate, opposing the U.S.’s continued military support of France without its promising Vietnam its independence. Jackie did her share of interpreting along with the translating, boldly provoking Kennedy with her conclusion that China was doing more for Vietnamese nationhood than France: “Say in your speech,” she dared him, “that we should give Indochina to the communists because they are the ones with the most integrity!”

Jackie’s imagination was at work in other arenas. While she loved photography, her friend Benno Graziani, a photographer for Paris Match, admitted her pictures were nothing special. Instead, she proved herself so capable with an ink sketch pen that her line-drawing caricatures were published alongside her feature articles in the Times-Herald.

As soon as she was earning a salary as a Times-Herald office clerk, in late October 1951, Jackie was also designing her own clothes, including adaptations of expensive items in magazines but also original creations, such as her scarlet “Bouvier stole,” which dramatically draped over her shoulders and went to the floor. It was so unusual that her dressmaker displayed it in her Washington shopwindow.

With her engagement to Senator Kennedy in June 1953 came a massive concession. The sacrifice of her writing career became a foregone conclusion.

Jackie disclosed in an interview at the time that she was negotiating with her Times-Herald editor to continue writing feature pieces after her honeymoon. It was all suddenly shut down by a press release announcing she had left the paper, a pre-emptive strike issued by the public-relations firm hired by her future father-in-law.

Yet Jackie refused to yield—the night before her wedding, she declared that she intended nevertheless to write “the great American novel.” Of course, she lived it instead.

Carl Sferrazza Anthony’s Camera Girl: The Coming of Age of Jackie Bouvier Kennedy is out now from Gallery