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Editor from Camelot

Jackie O among the literati.

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

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