An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Jackie Onassis
At random on the shelves of a library I discovered the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition catalogue of Jackie’s Kennedy’s White House clothes. I started looking at the pictures. Then I started reading. I was surprised to find that Jackie was interested in court history.
Whoa! Just like me.
She was aware that the White House, like the court of any English or European monarchy, was a glass bubble: what she wore would have an oversized cultural impact. What she had in mind for her clothes was more profound that simply “looking nice.” She had the chance to become a cultural arbiter like Madame de Pompadour. She also risked becoming a reviled queen like Marie Antoinette. In short, even as a young woman in her 30s, she had choices to make about what she would wear that were freighted with meaning.
It was in Hamish Bowles’s introduction to this catalogue that I learned for the first time that, after the White House, after her children were grown, after Onassis died, Jackie had an editorial career at two New York publishing houses. She even edited books on the history of several European monarchies. These weren’t academic books, although she’d contacted one of my scholar friends about publishing his book on the French court. Jackie’s books on European courts were accessible histories and readable collections of letters.
She’d also edited several serious books on fashion, including Diana Vreeland’s sharp-witted, eccentric, and funny Allure. This has recently been republished, thirty years after the original, an acknowledgement of how ahead of their time both women were in treating fashion as art.
All this surprised me because I’d always thought of Jackie as a subject for the tabloids rather than as a thinking woman. I slowly came to realize she had as natural a taste for books as for clothes. There was a lot more to her than what historians usually gave her credit for, which was not much. She’d tried to glamorize Jack Kennedy after his death with the Broadway musical, “Camelot” — that was their dismissive view. Even a quick look at this catalogue from the Met showed how inaccurate that was.
Jackie reminded me also of my mother, although the two women couldn’t have been more different from one another in their families and the places they were born. Jackie was from a rich family of East Coast Catholics. My mother grew up in a farming family in rural Illinois.
Nevertheless, my mother and Jackie were about the same age. My mother was born in 1928, Jackie in 1929. They’d both raised two children in the 1960s and 1970s. Just as Jackie had gone off to have a career as an editor after her children began to grow up, so too had my mother gone back to work when my brother and I went away to college. She eventually opened her own small art gallery. Both Jackie and my mother died young, in their mid-sixties. They both died of cancer.
Looking through that book of Jackie’s White House dresses, I was struck by how similar they looked. My mother frequently wore less expensive or “knock off” versions of what Jackie had worn. Jackie had left her imprint not just on the White House, but on a whole generation of women who admired her elegance, her poise, and her courage. They wanted not only to look like her, but also to be like her. My mother was one of many whose dress sense and aspirational style mirrored Jackie’s. In looking at the exhibition catalogue, I felt I was looking through some family album, which recalled my mother to me as powerfully to me as it did Jackie.
My first idea was to write something that played on a popular series of “how to” books, for example The Dummie’s Guide to Microsoft Word, or The Dummie’s Guide to Car Repair. I wanted to do the opposite. I wanted to show that Jackie was smarter than she was given credit for not only in the popular press, but also among academics. I wanted to write An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Jackie Onassis.
Over several different varieties of the proposal this eventually changed. It ended up as a book that looked at her personality through the lens of the hundred books she’d produced as an editor, first at Viking, then at Doubleday. My previous book, The Politics of Pleasure, was a biography of the prime minister Benjamin Disraeli on the basis of his youthful novels. This was to be Jackie later in life on the basis of her library.
My agent in London liked the Jackie project, but she thought it had to be sold first in the States, not in the UK. I’d done several versions of the proposal with her before it landed on the man’s desk who became my first American agent. He was expert at bringing the book proposal into a new level of focus. He said he didn’t think it could be something I’d written in an armchair. It had to be based on live interviews with Jackie’s authors and publishing colleagues. He introduced me to several of these people. He moved in a world of celebrity and film stars. He came up with the title for the book, Reading Jackie. I managed the subtitle, Her Autobiography in Books. He won a big advance ($650,000) from the very publisher where Jackie had spent sixteen years of her editorial career, Doubleday. That advance allowed me to leave Carthage College and to become a fulltime writer. This was the job I’d always wanted. Though this advance meant a world I’d dreamed of and wished for, I had yet to get to know it. Nor was everything pleasant, though financially it was plainer sailing than I’d ever experienced before.
As with the Disraeli book, Jackie gave me some confidence I didn’t have before. It was the size of the advance and the seniority of the people who responded to my letters. They included people like Stewart Udall, who’d been interior secretary in the Kennedy administration, and wrote a book for Jackie on the Spanish heritage of the American Southwest. There was Carly Simon, who knew Jackie from Martha’s Vineyard, and who wrote a series of children’s books for her. There was also Bill Moyers, who’d served as deputy director of the newly-created Peace Corps under JFK, and was afterwards President Johnson’s press secretary. He had a significant presence on PBS and Jackie brought out as books some of his interviews with significant cultural figures. All of these people were willing to talk to me.
I also met Nancy Tuckerman. She’d been Jackie’s friend in boarding school, later served as her social secretary in the White House, and stayed with her as her assistant until Jackie died in 1994. Although Jackie and my mother were both gone by the time I began this book, Nancy was their age. I went to our first meeting prepared to like her, but also a little afraid of her. Tuckerman had a reputation for being ferocious. She was Jackie’s guardian and effectively frightened away writers she didn’t like.
I met her in the lobby of the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. She was wearing an ordinary brown sweater and a pair of brown trousers. Comfortable shoes. She was no fashion plate. She also made clear right away that she and Jackie were different in other ways. At boarding school, Jackie was always in their shared bedroom reading “French lit-er-a-toor” while Nancy was out with friends hearing the gossip. Nancy had a way of sounding sometimes like Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island. She also gave me insights I couldn’t have had anywhere else: in high school Jackie had been something of a loner. She was more comfortable reading by herself than painting her nails with the other girls.
Nancy and I cautiously started to become friends. I have always liked older women. Nancy was in her own way a little lonely. I was someone she decided she could trust, out on the fringes of her circle. We began to see each other occasionally. I steered well clear of asking for any personal stories about Jackie. Nancy was happy to talk to me about her recollections of boarding school and her own single life in New York before she went to the White House. She sometimes volunteered surprising things about Jackie when I didn’t ask.
Though the three women were very different from each other — Jackie, Nancy, my mother — they had striking generational similarities. None of them wanted to spend their whole life at home raising a family or glorying in grandchildren. All of them wanted paying work in the world as a way of stretching their intellects and cultivating self-respect. All three were capable of a little mild flirtation with a younger man, even a gay one.
Yes I had a big advance for this book. Yes it was widely reviewed when it came out. Yes it gave my writing career a tremendous step up. When I look back on it, however, what I remember most is not only the way Nancy came to help me appreciate Jackie in new ways, but also the way in which both of them made me think of my own mother.
There was a lot of love in writing this book, and that was the last thing I expected when I signed up to do it.