‘Reading Jackie’

When Literary Choices Become Biography

by Rodger Jacobs

23 March 2011

 

Novelist and playwright Jane Hitchcock, a friend of Jackie in her later years, notes in Reading Jackie that in the world of the early 1900s, “people’s libraries … were like their clothes. You wrapped yourself not just in beautiful dresses but in beautiful books. People’s tastes were formed and defined by what they read.” One’s choice of books, Kuhn extrapolates from Hitchcock’s observation,“ was a key that unlocked their most intimate selves.”

So who was Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, other than the world-famous wife of a beloved U.S. President and a powerful and influential Greek shipping and oil tycoon? William Kuhn defines her as “reader, writer, and editor; wife, mother, and myth.” Jackie had, in the words of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, “the two things above all others that arouse love. They are great beauty and a good name.”

Jacqueline Bouvier was born a child of wealth and privilege in 1929; her mother, Janet, divorced Jackie’s father, Jack Bouvier, a socialite and Wall Street stockbroker, in 1940 when the child was 11-years-old. Janet remarried in 1942, Kuhn writes. “Her new husband, Hugh Auchincloss, was a rich man, the heir to Standard Oil money, which he used to found a stock brokerage in Washington, D.C. He maintained a big house called Merrywood in Virginia and another, Hammersmith Farm, in Newport for the summer.”

Young Jackie was “private, reserved, and aloof long before the paparazzi ever pointed a camera in her direction. She had friends, but books and literature were her real intimates.” She read Gone with the Wind three times and “grew up patterning herself on one of the most famous temperamental divas of the ‘30s and ‘40s, both the character in the book and Vivien Leigh’s depiction on screen.”

Other literary preferences of the young Jackie included Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, instilling an admiration of courage and chivalry in men. She was also smitten with the poetry of Lord Byron (“a beloved companion”) as her teen years approached, reading and rereading his works incessantly.

Her passion for the balletic arts was not one that she could indulge professionally, but she remained determined “to participate in the creative and artistic activity that gripped her imagination” by “putting together a little library of her own books about ballet” when she was still a youth, blooming into a lifelong compulsion:  “The little girl who decided before she was in her teens that she could not be a dancer would grow into a woman who published books on half a dozen of the most important dancers of the twentieth century.”

Jackie attended Miss Porter’s School, a college prep school for girls in Farmington, Connecticut, then rounded out her education at Vassar and George Washington University, after the requisite junior year abroad in Paris. Kuhn reveals that Jackie had a writer’s talent early onm but learned that “it was not necessary to write herself to participate in the creative process”, just as she did not have to be a ballerina to participate in ballet. “To collect and commission beautiful things,” Kuhn writes, “whether beautiful dresses or beautiful books, was itself a form of creation, of worthwhile knowledge, because it stimulated the work of other artists” by supporting their endeavors financially.

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