Musings on Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis
by Stephen McMillan Moser
For those of us hope- lessly devoted to Jackie, strap on a feedbag because it's dish-o-rama time. While Jacqueline Bouvier: An Intimate Memoir (John Wiley & Sons, $24.95 hard) is ostensibly about Jackie, the author, John H. Davis (who happens to be Jackie's cousin), evidently has a whole carcass of bones to pick with Jackie's mother, Janet Lee Bouvier Auchincloss. Not much has been said about Janet, except that she raised her daughters to marry well, as she herself did. Twice. Let's dish, shall we?
Janet Lee ("The Lees of Maryland," Janet would say, implying inaccurately that she was related to the Lees of Virginia) undoubtedly loved Jackie's father, "Black Jack" Bouvier, at one time. He was somewhat aristocratic, with a promising Wall Street future but little money. He was a lethal womanizer, oozing with charm, and Janet was smitten. She married Black Jack and stepped into the kind of world that Mary Haines of The Women lived in -- that decidedly stilted world of 1930s East Coast High Society in which women ruled everything. Women still rule everything, of course. They just don't make many movies about it anymore.
Janet was a deeply superficial woman whose only real passion seemed to be for horses. Jack and Janet's marriage was all very glam on the outside -- even if Janet's parents did have to help support them. Then along came little Jacqueline, who was practically strapped onto a horse from birth. As Janet seems to become aware that she may not be the only fish in Black Jack's kettle, she withdrew even more into the horsey set, taking little Jackie with her. And Jackie loved horses more than anything else in the world... except her Daddy. Janet was enraged by this, indeed, as she became enraged by many things. It seems as if even the slightest annoyance could set off a regular slapfest in the Bouvier home. There was much evidence of this given during the inevitable divorce proceedings.
Most of the stories about the Bouvier divorce are common knowledge. There is, of course, the famous photograph of Black Jack sweetly holding his lover's hand, while his wife is standing two feet away, watching the horses. There is the fact that Jackie was devastated by the separation from her father, and held it against her mother for quite some time.
After the divorce, Janet set her manhunting skills on auto-pilot, and finally landed Hugh D. ("Hughdie") Auchincloss. She seemed to want no reminder of her Bouvier past, immersing Jackie and her sister Lee in their new Auchincloss identity. This was no hardship, however, since Hughdie not only rode horses but also owned them. Jackie was most reluctant to turn her attention to anything beyond horses, especially when Janet decided it was time for Jackie to make her debut. But, debut she did, and with a big splash. Cholly Knickerbocker named Jackie 1947's Deb of the Year, and she endured a series of functions designed to exhibit Janet's fine handiwork to the marriageable segment of the population. Connections between Jackie's Bouvier past and her Auchincloss present became even murkier when not a single member of the Bouvier family except her sister Lee, was invited to any of her coming-out parties.
Black Jack Bouvier was not entirely shut out, however -- Davis tells us that Jackie subsisted on an allowance of $50 a month from her father. This was supposed to cover everything from clothing and cosmetics to transportation. Jackie chose the cold pinch of poverty rather than doing the unthinkable and getting a job. Davis believes that it is during this period that Jackie developed a penchant for marrying very rich men.
It is exactly this kind of conjecture that makes this book interesting. Davis' writing has a confidential quality to it that urges the reader to draw closer as the pages give up their poisoned secrets. Unfortunately, by his own admission, Davis was nowhere near Jackie during most of this -- all Bouviers had been "X-ed" out of Janet Auchincloss' New Life. It would be a number of years before Jackie herself would "X" Davis out of her own New Life.
Jackie felt bitter that her Grandfather Bouvier died leaving her only $3,000, for example, but her relationship with Janet's parents is even dishier. Davis reveals to us in his breathlessly gossipy way even more information than even I, a Dedicated Follower of Jackie, had heard. He tells us that the Bouviers knew that Jackie's other grandparents were rich, but no one guessed that they were worth $35 million. Mr. Lee was extremely parsimonious with Jackie and Lee, in a way that seems to imply bad blood between the Lees and their granddaughters. If ill-will existed, it certainly increased when Jackie married John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Grandfather Lee, an arch-Republican, hated JFK's father Joseph Kennedy, so much that he disinherited both Jackie and her sister and refused to attend the Kennedy Inauguration. He died in 1968 without having seen his granddaughter in 15 years. Dish-eee. There is also a hollowness to Davis' claims of closeness to Jackie. Most of his tales regarding episodes involving the two of them seem to indicate more that they happened to be in the same place at the same time, rather than being there "together."
I have to admit that when I began reading Jacqueline Bouvier: An Intimate Memoir, I felt sure that I would have heard all the stories before. I am no stranger to John H. Davis and his regurgitative accounts of "Life With Jackie." No true Jackie-phile could be. For years now, every time there was a mention of Jackie, JFK, Kennedy, Camelot, etc., John Davis would be trotted out and, like a talking parrot, would spew out his tales of the Court of St. Jackie. As a result, he was banished to Social Siberia by the ever-so-private Jackie. He had been "X-ed" out. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, Davis continued to spill his guts, flapping his jaws about any area of Jackie's life about which he cared to speculate.
But who knew what cards he held up his sleeve? Having entered into the book with an attitude, I was well into it before I realized that this little book was actually very dishy, and that John H. Davis had withheld a great deal of information over the years. And I thank him for that. For those of us who enjoy being scandalized (I live for it), Jacqueline Bouvier has scandals aplenty.
The big, smelly bomb that Davis drops is that Jackie and Lee were not Black Jack's only children. It seems that Black Jack has a post-divorce affair with a married woman, a Brit with the onomatapoeic name Mrs. Plugge. Jackie even met her and became somewhat close to her. During WWII, it seems, Mrs. Plugge endured a long separation from her husband and consoled herself in the arms of Black Jack. Mrs. Plugge returned to Europe pregnant and dropped a couple of bombs of her own -twins! Twins were a Bouvier family trait -- even the author's mother, Black Jack's sister Maude, had a twin sister, Michelle. When news of the birth circulated, everyone knew that the father was Black Jack. Years later, when Jackie was studying in Europe, she paid the errant Mrs. Plugge and her long-suffering husband a call. She was stunned to meet Mrs. Plugge's children. They were exact replicas of Jackie herself. Stopping way short of suggesting anything, I found it very interesting that both of the twins died in tragic, separate accidents in their 20s.
This is the kind of information that surely has C. David Heymann, the reigning crown prince of Jackie-ographers, gnashing his teeth and wailing, "How did I miss that? Why didn't anyone tell me?" Well, consider yourself told, Mr. Heymann, and step right this way to relinquish your crown -- John H. Davis has arrived.
Also vying for that coveted crown prince position is Edward Klein. Klein was editor-in-chief at the New York Times Magazine and knew Jackie for eight years. He met Jackie in 1981 and they were friends until Klein announced that he was writing a magazine profile on her. Their friendship came to a cold conclusion. He gets his revenge in his book, All Too Human: The Love Story of Jack and Jackie Kennedy (Pocket Books, $23 hard). In it, Jackie is put forth as the daughter of a wife-beating drunk and a domineering mother, Klein dishes out his revelations and speculations generously, with a couple of lulus of his own to share. In particular, he alleges that even while Jackie was in the hospital giving birth, JFK was having his way with other women -- notably, Lee, Jackie's own sister, while Lee's husband was in the next room! Trash-eee! Why, I'd like to know, doesn't anyone spill the beans on Lee? We know as little about her as we did about Janet until John Davis's book came around. Surely, there are some tawdry tales there. Like Jackie, I guess we won't find out until she's dead.
Klein further reveals his belief that Jackie had an affair with Fiat magnate Gianni Agnelli, forcing her to demand that the CIA fly her diaphragm to her from Washington, D.C. to Italy. Klein later suggests that there was an incestuous relationship between post-stroke Joseph Kennedy and his orphaned niece and close companion, Ann Gargan. It's almost more than I want to hear. Almost.
In the magazine W, Klein maintains that Jackie was a "repository for our fantasies." That statement rings particularly true in the case of Wayne Koestenbaum. In his particular manifestation of Jackie-obsession, Jackie Under My Skin: Interpreting an Icon (Plume/Penguin, $12.95 paper), Koestenbaum has me stumped. Still! I read this book in May, when it was first published, its cover littered with words of high praise from the likes of New York Magazine and the Los Angeles Times, billing and cooing about what a fabulous book this is. A picture of Jackie on the cover is enough to make me read any book, but coupled with praise from New York Magazine, and I was putty in Wayne Koestenbaum's hands. What a shame.
I eagerly delved into Jackie Under My Skin -- it sounded like something I would write. At first, I thought, "Well, we'll just have to wade through this pseudo-intellectual BS at the beginning and then it will be really fun to read." Wrong. I became so mired so rapidly in Koestenbaum's pointless ponderings and musings that I felt cheated. I entered this reading experience with a great deal of anticipation, looking forward to an absolute scream of a book. Wrong again. While Koestenbaum had every opportunity to write about Jackie Devotion in a way that would make us laugh at ourselves, he shows us only the sad, scary side of it. Such depth of depravity (and I do credit him with that, in the nicest way possible) produces comparisons of Jackie to everyone from the Lennon Sisters, Raquel Welch, and Doris Day to Jayne Mansfield, Divine (!), and even Vanessa Redgrave's portrayal of the transsexual tennis player Renee Richards! Hmmm.
Bear with me while I share with you some of Mr. Koestenbaum's scholarly drivel. Musing on the oversized buttons on Jackie's Inauguration Day coat, he says, "When did JFK learn atomic codes -- before or after the Inauguration? When did the power to blow up the world shift to him? Wasn't the Inauguration the moment he took on apocalyptic agency? ... The buttons on her coat are as big as sweet galettes ... Do the buttons perversely echo the nuclear button (wasn't it always called a button?) that JFK might push, setting off atomic war. Were her buttons neutral, or were they part of a national defensive/aggressive machinery?"
His mental meandering about Jackie and her effect on frozen chicken was a little obscure for my taste, as were most of his references. His obsession cannot be denied and it's even admirable, but, come on, Mr. Koestenbaum, get a life. You are irrevocably elected to the Jackie-phile Hall of Fame, but you must promise, promise, promise, to never make us read such writing again. I swear by all things holy I wanted to like this book. I wanted to like it so much that after I read it the first time and was so disappointed, I read it again, trying to believe that I had missed the boat But I did read it again, and felt worse for having invested even more time in it.
I'm feeling that same way at this very moment, so I'm going to stop thinking about it. I urge you to do the same. n Clothing designer and fashion commentator Stephen McMillan Moser recently moved his base of operations from New York to Seattle. With Jackie gone, he felt no reason to stay.