Jackie as Editor
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.