The Magazine

Editor from Camelot

Jackie O among the literati.

Feb 28, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 23 • By JUDY BACHRACH
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Jackie as Editor

Editor from Camelot

Alfred Eisenstaedt / Time & Life Pictures / Getty

The Literary Life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

by Greg Lawrence

Thomas Dunne, 336 pp., $25.99

About a million years ago, when Jackie Onassis was an editor at Doubleday and I was a lowly reporter at the Washington Post, I ran into her at a party for Lillian Hellman. Well, “ran into” might not be the correct term; my editors knew for a fact that Jackie would be at this party, and they dispatched me with the express purpose of (a) getting a quote from Jackie and (b) talking to Hellman without completely pissing Hellman off—which was very, very difficult because she had the temperament of a Rottweiler, but was necessary because she was a friend of Katharine Graham, the Post’s publisher. Getting a quote from Jackie, of course, was the more important goal.

So, on catching sight of the beautiful Most Famous Woman in the Universe, I said: “Ummm, excuse me, Mrs. Onassis, but I gather Caroline is in England now, living with your friend Hugh Fraser and dating a guy of whom you disapprove. Why is that? What’s wrong with him?” And Jackie said, in her hushed, miraculously girly voice, which belied both her age and whatever sentiments she harbored: “I’m sorry, but I never talk about Caroline”—and turned her back on me.

From then on, whenever Jackie appeared, or was supposed to appear anywhere, I was dispatched by my newspaper. You cannot believe the stupid parties, the number and length of them, that made up Jackie’s social life and my work life. It was extremely annoying. And futile.

“Send someone else!” I used to plead. “She told me nothing except she wouldn’t discuss her kid.”

“But that was wonderful,” I was told. “You are the first and only person at the ‘Style’ section to get a quote out of her, so she’s your beat.”

I mention this episode only to illustrate how very difficult it is to write anything of substance about Jackie, which I feel fully entitled (despite our brief acquaintance and its caliber) to call her because so does Greg Lawrence in Jackie as Editor. He believes that this two-decade editing phase was the most important, fruitful, and gratifying part of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s life. And he should know, because Jackie edited his bestselling book, Dancing on My Grave, cowritten with the ballerina and drug addict Gelsey Kirkland, who was once his wife. He found Jackie to be, in that regard, “our own fairy godmother and prodding mother hen”—which are, perhaps, novel Jackie epithets but, alas, fairly representative of his prose style. Also, he’s talked to a lot of people who were at Doubleday and at Viking (Jackie’s first publishing gig), and a lot of them liked her.

Well, that is an understatement. In fact, everyone Lawrence quotes in Jackie as Editor loved Jackie, and some—an unhealthy number, perhaps—worshipped her. Chief among these is Lawrence who, on discovering that in those pre-email days, Jackie penned notes to literary colleagues, writes:

With her shoot-from-the-hip eloquence and love of epistolary, Jackie (who was also an aficionada of the game of charades) would pass impish notes to her colleagues to break up the withering formality she encountered in the conference rooms.

What these “impish notes” consisted of, and how precisely they relate to “the game of charades,” must remain a mystery. At least the impish parts: The reader never does discover, through example or illustration, the hilarious side of Jackie. But let’s give her this: She was a brave woman to launch, in the fall of 1975, a career in publishing. She was 46 at the time of her decision, and had endured a lot of terrible publicity, first for marrying the Greek billionaire toad Aristotle Onassis—and thus, in some way, betraying the Kennedy/Camelot legacy—and then (or so it seemed to the masses at the time) abandoning her second husband while he was dying. Everyone knew she hadn’t married Onassis for love, and everyone knew that Onassis’s daughter Christina loathed her stepmother—everyone but Lawrence, that is, who disputes this point, or rather quotes people who do—and was trying to winkle Jackie out of a lot of Onassis money which, in the event, Jackie got anyway.

So there she was, pretty, despondent, bored, and loaded, with nothing much to do in her 15-room apartment at 1040 Fifth Avenue—except, as it turns out, take the advice of her friend Letitia Baldrige, who had once served as her White House social secretary, and come around for the dispensation of tea and sober advice.

“Who me—work?” asked Jackie.

It was a fair question. And although Lawrence squeezes startling early accomplishments out of the thinnest air—Jackie just might have listened to John F. Kennedy read aloud certain chapters from Profiles in Courage, and maybe offered suggestions because, as Theodore Sorenson testified, “she was a natural-born editor,” and Jackie certainly read “Chekhov plays at the age of six,” because her mother once said as much—the reader is hard-pressed to believe all this guff. But why quibble? Jackie herself was no stranger to positing extravagant credentials for the job of editor to dubious reporters.

“It’s not as if I’ve never done anything interesting. I’ve been a reporter myself and I’ve lived through important parts of American history,” she told Newsweek. “I’m not the worst choice for this position.”

No, she wasn’t the worst choice, Jackie as Editor argues, even though she hadn’t held a paying position since 1953, at which time her “reporting job” consisted, very briefly, of working as an inquiring camera girl for a now-defunct Washington newspaper. But what of it? She knew a lot of important people, and even those she didn’t actually know or even much like (i.e., Barbra Streisand) would return her calls, eventually. (Streisand was trying to find a smart lawyer, hoping to sue for libel.) And that wasn’t all. Jackie had dreamed, as she once avowed, “of writing the Great American Novel.” She had actually written an essay on perfume for Vogue. She liked the poetry of François Villon, the singer Carly Simon, the society pianist Peter Duchin, Candice Bergen, Barbara Walters, the photographer Peter Beard, Leonard Bernstein, urban landmarks, French architecture, French everything. Who could be better suited for the role of Tillie the Toiler?

As Thomas Guinzburg, then the publisher of Viking, recalls for the benefit of the author, on being told by some snotty Washington Post reporter (no, not me) that Jackie had absolutely zero experience as an editor so why was she getting the job, he had a ready retort: “No, she doesn’t. But I wonder who you had lunch with today or you’re going to have dinner with tomorrow.”

Such impressive qualifications, he assured the working press (whose members do, in fact, get to dine now and then with pretty substantial figures, and better still, without digging into their own wallets), more than compensated for Jackie’s slender résumé. And that’s how Jackie managed to pull in $200 a week, editing part-time. At work, she wore beautiful cashmere sweaters with matching cardigans carefully knotted around her neck, and thin wool slacks that emphasized the smallness of
her waist.

Was she good at what she did? On this, Lawrence and all the people he speaks to are of one mind: She was fabulous, and her acquisitions, thanks to her luncheon and dinner companions, miraculous. She brought the style czarina Diana Vreeland to Doubleday for a book of photographs, and valiantly tried to marry it to her own stab at promotional copy, which is worth quoting: “The worlds of royalty, fashion, high society and superstars are here to be dipped into like a gorgeous box of chocolates.” Because she was hip and had kids who were hip, too, she pulled in Michael Jackson for a tome called Moonwalk—which was supposed to detail his life, exotic zoo animals, and pensées—but lived to regret the experience because Jackson was certifiable and Jackie, I’m afraid, rather clueless. (“Does he like girls?” she wondered aloud to
a colleague.)

There were even more Jackie gets: The New Tiffany Table Settings (1981), The Tiffany Wedding (1988), and my own favorite, The Tiffany Gourmet Cookbook (1992), of which Lawrence writes:

What better tribute could there be for a food and fashion book .  .  . which provides table settings and favorite recipes from many in the world of haute couture? Legendary designers Valentino, Yves Saint Laurent and Bill Blass, celebrity chefs such as Wolfgang Puck, socialites such as Betsy Bloomingdale and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney.

Well, you get the idea. About the only serious misstep I could discover in Jackie’s entire career-girl phase was her decision to blame her first boss, Guinzburg, for the acquisition of Shall We Tell the President, a novel by Jeffrey Archer that chronicled a fictional assassination attempt on Jackie’s brother-in-law, Senator Edward Kennedy. This was not an inspired idea on Viking’s part, considering the perils in those days of being a Kennedy, and considering that a Kennedy in-law was then the publishing house’s prize jewel. It was Jackie’s contention forever after, especially when the clan’s rage hit the fan (as it was bound to do), that she was ignorant of the book’s contents, and that her boss, in effect, had pulled a fast one, exposing her once again to worldwide derision for seeming callousness. It was this factor that led her to quit Viking in a huff and move to Doubleday two years after starting work.

In fact, she knew a fair amount about the sordid business well in advance of the novel’s release, as Lawrence makes clear. It simply suited her, especially early in her editing career, to remain vague, distant, and apart from the consequences—until, and this unfortunately is a Kennedy trait as well, the consequences came and got her.

I am not among those who dislike the Kennedys on principle, and I do believe that Jackie, whatever her drawbacks, gave a rather gray-hued country, as America was in the early sixties, a touch of dazzle. She knew how to dress, and she wasn’t stupid, and there is certainly something to be said for all that. But I can’t help noticing that the author of Jackie as Editor points out rather late (page 146) that another, less famous, Doubleday editor, Shaye Areheart, “enjoyed a very special relationship with her.” What was the nature of this special relationship? As it turns out, Shaye Areheart did “the dirty work” which, presumably, is publisher-speak for “the work.” Shaye became “an integral part of Jackie’s Doubleday team,” also known as “Jackie’s SWAT team,” and in this capacity, was expected to keep the nosy press at bay and negotiate “the fine points of contracts, presenting books in marketing and sales meetings, writing the fact sheets that sales reps used .  .  . ”

In other words, once Jackie was hired, someone else entirely was supposed to stand in as editor. It would have been good to learn this on Page One.

Judy Bachrach is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair.

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