An absorbing chronicle of a much overlooked chapter in Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s life—her nineteen-year editorial careerHistory remembers Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis as the consummate first lady, the nation’s tragic widow, the millionaire’s wife, and, of course, the quintessential embodiment of elegance. Her biographers, however, skip over an equally important stage in her life: her nearly twenty year long career as a book editor. Jackie as Editor is the first book to focus exclusively on this remarkable woman’s editorial career. At the age of forty-six, one of the most famous women in the world went to work for the first time in twenty-two years. Greg Lawrence, who had three of his books edited by Jackie, draws from interviews with more than 125 of her former collaborators and acquaintances in the publishing world to examine one of the twentieth century's most enduring subjects of fascination through a new angle: her previously untouted skill in the career she chose. Over the last third of her life, Jackie would master a new industry, weather a very public professional scandal, and shepherd more than a hundred books through the increasingly corporate halls of Viking and Doubleday, publishing authors as diverse as Diana Vreeland, Louis Auchincloss, George Plimpton, Bill Moyers, Dorothy West, Naguib Mahfouz, and even Michael Jackson. Jackie as Editor gives intimate new insights into the life of a complex and enigmatic woman who found fulfillment through her creative career during book publishing’s legendary Golden Age, and, away from the public eye, quietly defined life on her own terms.
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GREG LAWRENCE is the author or coauthor of seven previous books, including Colored Lights (with John Kander and Fred Ebb), Dance With Demons, Time Steps (with Donna McKechnie), the New York Times bestselling Dancing on My Grave, The Shape of Love, and The Little Ballerina and her Dancing Horse, the last three edited by Jackie Onassis.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
A Special Destiny
During the summer of 1975, after entering her second widowhood, Jackie resumed her life in Manhattan with her children, hoping somehow to establish some normalcy in their lives. At the time, some of Jackie’s friends noticed that she seemed to have fallen into a malaise, with fitful bouts of boredom and restlessness. Society chronicler Stephen Birmingham had dated Jackie briefly when she was a Vassar undergraduate and kept in touch with her in later years. Of this dismal interlude while Jackie was cast adrift, Birmingham said, “When she telephoned friends to chat, she seemed to have little to chat about.” More than just an episode of midlife ennui, it was to be a prolonged period of mourning that sometimes found Jackie listless and lingering for hours over breakfast and the morning newspapers in her apartment at 1040 Fifth Avenue. Jackie once admitted, “I have a tendency to go into a downward spiral of depression or isolation when I’m sad.”
The world was not about to leave her in peace. On a visit she made in August to the amphitheater at Epidaurus, a hostile Greek crowd taunted Jackie with jeers and cries of “You left your dead husband.” Her tormentors were apparently unaware of how sudden and unexpected Ari’s death had been, and blamed Jackie for not being with him when he died. On March 15, 1975, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, Onassis had succumbed to bronchial pneumonia, a complication of the myasthenia gravis with which he was afflicted in his last years. Jackie was in Manhattan at the time. Though the marriage was failing, Jackie had stayed in Paris dutifully to support Ari through his surgery earlier that month, until being assured by his doctors that he was stable. She then returned to New York to be with Caroline for the airing of an NBC documentary that her daughter had worked on as a member of the production crew, under the tutelage of film producer Karen Lerner. Karen was the ex-wife of Alan Jay Lerner, lyricist for the musical Camelot, and a friend of JFK’s going back to their schooldays at Choate.
Karen was staying as a guest in Jackie’s opulent apartment, sleeping in Onassis’s bed in a bedroom next to Jackie’s. “On the morning of March 15,” Lerner remembered, “she came in and said, ‘Ari’s dead.’ You know, she got a lot of criticism for being in New York because she was giving a party on the day this little documentary aired for Caroline.” With her dinner party scheduled to take place the following evening, Jackie told Karen, “I am going to Paris, so you stay here and you be the hostess.... I don’t want anything to disturb this—it’s for Caroline and I just want it to go ahead.”
Lerner, who had known Jackie during the Kennedy era and through her marriage to Onassis, later observed, “Jackie changed more during the year after Ari died than at any other time I knew her.” At least in part, Jackie was simply reacting that year to events beyond her control, but that gut-wrenching interval would lead her into another world. After enduring the public ordeal of Ari’s funeral in Greece, Jackie’s conflicts with Ari’s daughter, Christina, and her efforts to reach a financial settlement with the Onassis estate became the subject of much tabloid speculation. In April The New York Times reported that Ari had been planning to divorce Jackie in the months before he died and that Christina felt great bitterness toward her former stepmother, a story that circulated widely but was later denied by Christina in the Times at Jackie’s request.
The supposed conflict between Christina and Jackie was apparently exaggerated, though there was surely no great affection between them while their lawyers negotiated a settlement of the Onassis inheritance. The photographer Marc Riboud, a friend of Jackie’s, later described one occasion during which he saw no sign of hostility between them. “Once I was visiting Jackie in her New York apartment, after Ari Onassis died, when all the papers were full of stories about a fight between Jackie and Christina Onassis. Christina unexpectedly dropped in, and I tried to excuse myself, but Jackie said, ‘Oh, no, stay and we’ll have a good time.’ She and Christina sat there telling stories about Ari and laughing together. They certainly were not fighting.”
Jackie remained publicly mum on the subject. A close friend of Jackie’s at the time, Cheray Duchin (now known as Cheray Zauderer Duchin Hodyes), the first wife of society bandleader Peter Duchin, blamed the Onassis camp for Jackie’s travails, saying, “Nobody gave her a chance to grieve because the nastiness kept pouring out.”
While picking up the pieces and avoiding the media as much as possible, Jackie soon fell back into her familiar Manhattan routines. Caroline, then seventeen years old, was planning to go to London to take art courses at Sotheby’s, while fourteen-year-old John, the last member of the Kennedy family to have Secret Service protection, was attending Collegiate, a school on the city’s Upper West Side. With her children requiring fewer hours of attention, Jackie had time on her hands.
One morning, as she jogged through Central Park, wearing her customary blue jogging suit and white running shoes, she was accosted by a reporter and asked for an interview. She stopped only long enough to put him off, explaining, “My life is very dull right now. I’m doing just very ordinary everyday things. Really, my life at the moment would make very uninteresting reading. Do you think it would be of much interest for anyone to know that I go shopping at the local A&P?” Jackie added, “I’m sure I’m going to be watched closely for the next year or so. Maybe people will find out what Jackie is really like and write something different for a change.”
Jackie had her share of detractors who added gratuitous insult to injury, including Truman Capote, with whom she had had a falling-out after he published his “Ladies Who Lunch” short story installments in Esquire, excerpts from his book Answered Prayers: The Unfinished Novel (published posthumously in 1987). Capote heaped ridicule on Jackie: “And, in life, that is how she struck me—not as a bona fide woman, but as an artful female impersonator impersonating Mrs. Kennedy.” Capote also disparaged Jackie for treating her friends “like red rubber balls—playing with them, rolling them into obscurity, and then exclaiming six months later, ‘Oh, I’ve missed you.’ ”
The distinguished author and attorney Louis Auchincloss, with the advantage of having known his stepcousin since he was young, explained, “I have some reason to suspect that Jackie was a person of peculiarly visual memory. I believe with her it was a case of out of sight being literally out of mind. If she had chanced on me in Washington, she might well have exclaimed, ‘Where have you been?... Why don’t you come around?’ I have heard other people complain of being forgotten or dropped by Jackie, and I think this may well have been the reason.”
During this down period, as she tried to come to terms with her losses, grieving for Jack again as well as for Ari, she was visiting a shiatsu-acupuncturist, Lillian Biko, and a psychoanalyst, Nadine Eisman. Biko later told Cosmopolitan magazine, “Jackie’s tension is the result of her anxiety. She has problems because she’s so secretive. Which is why she sees me.” While secrecy and enforced discretion were no doubt part of her defensive armature, Jackie was reexamining herself as never before and assessing her options with an eye to her future.
Two years earlier, while married to Onassis, she had considered taking on a TV project for NBC, when the network offered her a half million dollars to anchor a show about the endangered art treasures of Venice and Angkor Wat. Jackie was tempted, but Onassis reportedly dissuaded her with the imperious dictum, “No Greek wife works.” After some heated discussion, sensitive to Onassis’s failing health and not wishing to provoke more acrimony than already existed between them, she gave up on the idea. Still, the desire to find creative outlets would stay with her, though it was mostly stifled until Ari was gone.
Aware that Jackie was floundering that summer, Letitia (Tish) Baldrige, who had served as social secretary for the former First Lady, suggested the idea of pursuing a career as a way for her to lift her spirits and challenge herself. Baldrige, then running a public relations firm in Manhattan, told The New York Times, “I really felt she needed something to get out in the world and meet people doing interesting things, use that energy and that good brain of hers. I suggested publishing. Viking was my publisher, and I said to her, ‘Look, you know Tommy Guinzburg—why don’t you talk to him?’ ”
At an afternoon tea with Baldrige, Jackie initially responded to the idea of entering the workforce with lighthearted skepticism, “Who, me—work?” But by the fall of 1975, she was seriously contemplating the prospect of embarking on a career. Baldrige later said, “Jackie reached that moment every woman reaches when she needs to get involved, to put her mind to work.” Hardboiled journalist Jimmy Breslin offered his outspoken advice to her: “You should work as an editor. What do you think you’re going to do, attend openings for the rest of your life?”
Jackie had known publisher Thomas Guinzburg for at least twenty years. At Yale, he roomed in the same hall as Jackie’s stepbrother, Hugh D. Auchincloss. Guinzburg had been part of the original Paris Review circle in the 1950s, a group that included George Plimpton and Peter Matthiessen, and he later inherited Viking Press from his father, Harold K. Guinzburg. While Tom Guinzburg was initially “thunderstruck” by the prospect of having Jackie join his house, he discussed the idea of her becoming an editor over lunch one afternoon at Manhattan’s Le Périgord. By the end of their meeting, they agreed the discussions would continue.
Viking was not the only publishing house that Jackie approached. A former editorial director at Random House, Jason Epstein, wrote in his memoir, Eating, “One day Jackie Onassis called me to ask if she could take me to lunch at Lutèce. We met a week or so later.... My friend Pete Hamill, who had once taken Jackie out, said it was like ‘taking King Kong to the beach.’... We took a table upstairs, in one of the small rooms, and ordered shad roe, the first of the season. She asked if there was a job for her at Random House. She wanted to be an editor.... However, there was a problem. Entry-level editorial jobs were scarce and much in demand.... I told Jackie that I believed she would take the job seriously, be a good colleague, and learn the ropes easily. But I also told her that we would have to create an opening for her, and this might not be fair to the assistants. Before I could ask her to let me talk it over with my colleagues, she said that she understood my problem and didn’t want to impose.”
Reminiscing wistfully, Tom Guinzburg told me, “I have a favorite anecdote. During that summer before she came to work, I was sitting with Jackie at her apartment on Fifth Avenue. Caroline was coming in from one school or another, and Jackie went to answer the phone. And Caroline said to me ... ‘It’s not true, is it, that my mother’s gonna come and work with you in the publishing thing?’ I said, ‘I think it is true, I hope it’s true. You ought to talk about it with her yourself.’ She just looked at me with contempt, the disdain of a teenager, and said, ‘But what’s she going to do?’ ”
It was a fair question, and an ambivalent Jackie mulled it over at length. Guinzburg told her, “You’re not really equipped to be an editor. It’s not that you don’t have the talent for it, the ability for it, but you don’t have the background and the training and you, I think, would suffer in a publishing house because that would set up some kind of competitive atmosphere with the other editors. But what you can do is to be a consulting editor ... somebody who doesn’t have what we call line responsibilities, they’re not assigned books, they don’t even have necessarily to work out of the office. Their primary job is to acquire books.” Guinzburg said, “I then explained to her that as she became more familiar with publishing procedures, she could work on the books and with the writers to whatever extent appealed to her. She could create books and so on.”
Characterizing Jackie’s naïveté about the then male-dominated business world, Tish Baldrige told People magazine, “Jackie was not a feminist. Now, she might have had feminist leanings without really knowing it.... She never had to fight for anything in a man’s world. It would never have occurred to her to question why there wasn’t a woman on a board of directors.”
Betty Friedan characterized Jackie as “a closet feminist.” Gloria Steinem likewise felt that Jackie’s sympathies were on the side of the emerging women’s movement, if only privately. “One doesn’t have to act in public to be a feminist. Wherever Jackie was, she definitely spoke in her own voice. She was warm, funny, loyal and a great girlfriend in the best sense. I think she just found public life too shallow, simpleminded, intrusive, too likely to make her—and others—into symbols rather than real and nuanced people.
“I don’t think she used men as beards or worked through them, but rather found them amusing companions—in somewhat the way worldly men find women to be. One key is probably her father, ‘Black Jack’ Bouvier. By most accounts, she adored him, and he adored her, [and] confid[ed] in her which mothers of her classmates he had affairs with. Perhaps this gave her a view of sexuality that wasn’t so dependent on loyalty or singularity in the way that, say, friendship was loyal. I’ve always hoped and assumed—based on no evidence—that she had affairs before and after her marriage, too, and possibly during (though certainly not on Jack’s scale). In any case, I don’t believe she saw Jack’s affairs as threatening to her or to their permanency in each other’s lives.
“I doubt this was her mother’s attitude about her father’s affairs—but then, her mother was a much more conventional woman. This was symbolized to me by the fact that she once said, according to Jackie, ‘The trouble with you, Jackie, is you never play bridge with your bridesmaids.’ ”
Steinem added, “As a very small and utterly unsexual example of Jackie’s attitude, she once seated me next to Onassis at a small dinner in New York, because, as she said, ‘You will disagree with him, and that will keep him interested and amused.’ ”
One of Jackie’s former editorial colleagues, author Harriet Rubin, offered another interpretive spin, suggesting that she “found, I think, a better strategy than feminism’s defiance and insistence on a woman’s voice being heard. Jackie didn’t practice defiance but rather besting the existing order. She didn’t confront men and injustice. She was a student of the eighteenth-century Frenchwomen salonistes who advanced revolutionary principles through conversation and wit. She didn’t stand alone but allied herself with powerful men and had her say through them, sort of like a master puppeteer. In the eighties, we feminists considered Gloria Steinem brilliant for speaking in her own voice. Jackie did not speak in her own voice, ...
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