More than 16 years after the death of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, we have a new book about her much-studied, much-written-about life. William Kuhn, with at least the blessing of publisher Nan Talese, with whom Jackie worked at Doubleday, has titled his book: "Reading Jackie: Her Autobiography in Books."
Jackie famously refused to consider ever writing a memoir of her extraordinary life. When Bill Barry, the deputy publisher at Doubleday, once pressed her on it, reminding her of what he called her "obligation to history," he recalls her saying "with a seriousness she was absolutely entitled to -- 'I think I've honored my obligation to history.' "
Little of Jackie's writing has been publicly examined, although it was lauded from her student days. As a college senior, Jackie won Vogue magazine's Prix de Paris essay contest, landing internships at the magazine's Paris and New York offices. Almost inconceivably, writes Kuhn, her mother, "afraid that she would lose her daughter to Paris for good, made her turn down the prize."
Kuhn argues that Jackie -- a name he chooses above any of her three last names, because the book deals with her life after her widowhoods -- can be understood as a person by a close examination of the content and production of her 100 book projects.
Kuhn writes that in her work, Jackie "revealed herself as she did nowhere else. Her books tell us what she cared about, whom she believed in, and what ideas she wished to endorse in print. Her books are the autobiography she never wrote."
Perhaps in a vacuum this might be true, if Jackie were suggesting, selecting, editing, helping construct and promoting books on her own, free of influence, pressure or her desire to be seen as a success. But there is usually much more to each story.
Kuhn parses the list of Jackie's books, noting her focus on dance, decorative arts, design, aristocrats, politics, memoirs by dancers and musicians, and best sellers. Her three best-selling books were the tell-all memoir by ballerina Gelsey Kirkland, a book of interviews done for television by Bill Moyers, and Michael Jackson's much sought-after memoir, "Moonwalk."
This last project is perhaps one of Jackie's most unusual projects. Bill Barry told Kuhn that in agreeing to work with the fickle and easily bored Jackson, Jackie "took one for the home team," because the book was "an exercise in pure for-profit responsibility."
Jackie told Barry about her long, tedious phone conversations with Jackson, who would call her at her Martha's Vineyard house to complain "about the burdens of celebrity." An uninterested Jackie would listen, she told Barry, "while repetitively tracing the floral pattern" in the upholstery.
The designer of "Moonwalk" took a phone message from Jackie in which she wondered, "How the hell did I get [to be] doing a book on Michael Jackson? I'm still trying to think of why. Someone must have told me to go and do it." No doubt.
Yet Jackie did have her freedoms. At Doubleday, she worked for four hours a day, three days a week, taking three months off each summer to live on Martha's Vineyard. This "was an enormous privilege, and it caused resentment, even though she could honestly say that she was on call in the afternoon and in the evening, at home and at the beach." But Jackie "did not like being reminded that the three-day-a-week privilege extended to her was not extended to all." A fellow editor who once remarked that Jackie worked "part-time" learned of her gaffe from the immediate frosty reaction.
Kuhn's is the first of two books to examine Jackie's work life, although the other may well offer a more personal perspective. "Jackie as Editor: The Literary Life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis," is by Greg Lawrence, who was involved with Gelsey Kirkland when she wrote "Dancing on My Grave" in 1986. Lawrence's book will be published by Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press on Jan. 4.
In his impeccably researched book, Kuhn unearths plenty of juicy revelations.
It does seem a bit surprising that one of the first books Jackie worked on was the novel "Sally Hemings," about President Thomas Jefferson's decades-long relationship with a slave woman. It is odd to think that the controversial 1979 novel of forbidden love was edited by the widow of another president whose extramarital affairs were widely reported. More astonishing is Jackie's work on the 1980 Diana Vreeland book, "Allure," which contains photos and text about the allure of Marilyn Monroe, who was linked to Jackie's first husband when he was president, and Maria Callas, who was linked to Jackie's second husband, before and after their marriage.
Jackie also responded favorably to a proposal that Doubleday publish a book of Bert Stern's last photographs of Monroe before her death. Jackie wrote a note to a colleague: "Marilyn Monroe!!! Are you excited?" Kuhn writes that Jackie the editor probably saw the use of material about her onetime rival as "a publishing opportunity rather than a moment to reflect on a personal injury. In any case, if injury there had been, she was able to rise above it."
If this book, published by Doubleday about Jackie's time at the company, seems a tiny bit incestuous, it also provides insights that would never have been available to outsiders. Jackie often chose to sit on the floor of her office, with photos or illustrations laid out around her. This common touch impressed her co-workers, who often remarked on it.
Yet she could be imperious. When a fellow editor contacted Moyers, at her suggestion, Jackie called the editor in a cold rage, snapping, "How dare you use my name?" She followed with "a stream of vituperation," the theme of which the editor described as "You little nobody!" When he reminded her that he had phoned Moyers only at her suggestion, she said quietly, "In that case, I apologize," and hung up.
According to Kuhn, Jackie often took young people under her wing, nurturing and encouraging their talent and even mothering them. Yet she also played a cruel practical joke on Carly Simon, with whom she worked on four children's books.
Kuhn categorizes the incident as one of the "teases that pinched and small senses of betrayal." He writes that Carly and Jackie "went to hear the Spanish tenor Placido Domingo, and backstage afterward, the star flirted with Carly. The next morning a messenger arrived with a signed Placido Domingo photo that read, 'My darling Carly, I will adore you forever.' She called Jackie, saying, 'Can you imagine? He sent this to me! I think he's in love with me.' Jackie burst out laughing and said, 'I signed and sent that picture to you.' " Ouch!
Even if one sees flaws in the thesis that Jackie wrote her autobiography in her work, such enlightening and surprising vignettes make "Reading Jackie" a fascinating book.
Anne Neville is a reporter in The News Features Department.
Reading Jackie: Her Autobiography in Books
By William Kuhn Nan
350 pages, $27.95