William Kuhn Finds Jackie Onassis at Work
Reading Jackie by William Kuhn
By Anne Harris,
2:31AM, Tue. Jan. 11, 2011
When I started working as an assistant at Doubleday in January 1989, it was with more anticipation than usual for an entry-level college grad moving to New York to work in book publishing: Jackie Onassis's office was down the hall, and she was expected back from the winter holiday.
Her long-faithful press secretary and former college roommate Nancy Tuckerman had already set up shop in the office next to Jackie's, and she had been bustling around for two days and keeping an assistant white-faced. I had just read in Vanity Fair that Jackie had had work done over the holidays, which only added fuel to our inquiring minds, so print mania still surrounded her and John Jr., who at that time was considered, without sarcasm by most, the Prince of New York. Still single, he rode a ten-speed to work and liked to party, as three attempts at the relatively easy New York State bar exam seemed to verify. One or both of them provided filler for the Post's "Page Six" almost daily. I wondered if Jackie's kitten voice would be less annoying in person. It was, slightly.
Most people's idea of working in book publishing involves trust funds and the expectation of low salaries, and/or nepotism, another oversimplification. The reality is, if you can't perform, your last name doesn't matter. So it bears noting to a new generation that may not know: Jackie's publishing jobs were actually not graced upon her name. Certainly any house would love the prestige of having her acquisitions, but no one in the prissy cliques of New York literati would have risked hiring American royalty that might not deliver. Today, semi-celebs like the Kardashians could probably get an imprint. But Jackie's education, astonishingly wide scope of interest, and obsessive curiosity were widely known. While perusing the French editions of the Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz, for instance, she became intrigued, and is literally the reason that compelling artist is published in English. She fought long and hard for an art book by the painter Balthus, who remained unpublished due to incorrigibility, then hatched Dancing on My Grave, a controversial attack, er, biography of George Balanchine by Gelsey Kirkland, his embattled former swan of the New York City Ballet. Jackie kept regular office hours and wore identical sweaters and perfectly cut trousers – she was almost plain-looking at work – but we knew when she had an event that evening because she came in early with the famous bouffant sky-high, fresh from Kenneth, and I did want desperately to walk like her. So it was startling recently to stumble upon Reading Jackie by William Kuhn (Random House, 350 pp., $27.95), published under the imprint of Doubleday's Nan A. Talese, who, among other things, discovered Margaret Atwood and Pat Conroy, and who helped guide Jackie. Apparently the publication date, originally scheduled for early this year, was moved up to December 2010 to beat another contender in this inevitably told part of Jackie's life, St. Martin's Jackie as Editor by Greg Lawrence, who happens to be Gelsey Kirkland's former husband and writing partner for the Balanchine book. All of this is given a shot in the arm when I remember that we had an iron-clad rule at Doubleday, which was that we would never publish anything about Jackie, and that didn't mean only while she was alive. Apparently, that baby followed the bath water all the way to the bank.
Kuhn's mission here – to tell Jackie's post-Onassis story through the lens of her interests, using a list of more than 100 books she published during her tenures at Viking, then at Doubleday – is a worthy endeavor, and much more satisfying than another predictable treatise on whether or not Mrs. Kennedy knew about Marilyn. Since her face was pleasantly inscrutable in the way of people accustomed to being stared at constantly, and since she craved privacy, the best way to get beyond the well-beaten ground of the facts of her life is absolutely through her books. However, if the dishy dirt is what you're after, you'll find plenty here, as it seems the strictly observed omerta that surrounded our workplace was a lid ready to blow. Kuhn definitely did his research, interviewing former colleagues, friends, and authors, and they sing like birds, eager to dine out once more on stories that have the polish of many dinner-party tellings. But Kuhn's own telling often rings as empty dish, such as his insistence that Jackie addressed pivotal events in her own life through her book projects, and simply lacks basis in fact. The exaggerated idea that Jackie allowing Diana Vreeland to include images of Marilyn Monroe in Vreeland's book Allure was some kind of coded message to an inquiring public carries the odor of desperation, and is the most deliberately delusional of several attempts in the book to support it. Describing another author to which he assigns Jackie's fabricated intent, Kuhn explains that her collaboration with Carly Simon on a series of children's books was how "she transformed her maternal pride into successful children's books," a daydream at best, but more likely a drowning author's conceit. Kuhn's unnecessary defense of his method becomes tedious as well, as in a passage where he asserts that "choosing to be buried at Arlington next to JFK rather than on Scorpios ... was certainly a statement about how she wanted to be remembered. But her books speak more warmly of who she was than a grave next to an eternal flame does". So, while the book may be short on meaningful interpretation from the author, it does provides plenty in what we can deduce for ourselves from the many quotes and anecdotes that make the book a fun, but guilty, pleasure.
In the end we all have our own frame of reference for Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, debutante, queen of Camelot, socialite, widow, kingmaker, and editor of books. She was so much more than that pink suit. I believe she led the last generation of icons of whom we demanded substance.
Book publishing is slow to change, so if you want some fly-on-the-wall insight, you'll still get it in Reading Jackie, as well as Jackie-dish you won't find anywhere else. And if the back lists of rare, privileged editors speak to whom they really are, then apparently Nan Talese still errs on the saccharine side.