‘Reading Jackie’

When Literary Choices Become Biography

by Rodger Jacobs

23 March 2011


Hello, Sister

In the fall of 1950, 21-year-old Jacqueline Bouvier submitted a Prix de Paris application to Vogue magazine. “Jackie famously remarked in her application to Vogue,” Kuhn reports, “that the three men in history she would most like to meet were Oscar Wilde, Charles Baudelaire, and Serge Diaghilev.”  There’s a lot to learn from Jackie’s admiration of Wilde with regard to her approach to art and beauty, an odd moment of profound intersection between the “intellectual elite” and the common masses (represented in this case by the readers at The Sun).

On page 145 of Reading Jackie, Kuhn discusses Wilde’s feelings about art and literature, which, the Dorian Gray author believed, should not “dwell on mundanity or everyday worries … you had to exaggerate and embellish the world, make it more vibrant and beautiful.” Kuhn notes Wilde’s criticism of the characters of French novelist Emile Zola, “who described low-life drunks and other down-and outers: ‘They have their dreary vices, and their drearier virtues. The record of their lives is absolutely without interest. Who cares what happens to them?’” Literature, Wilde pronounced, should be marked by “distinction, charm, beauty, and imaginative power. We don’t want to be harrowed and disgusted with an account of the doings of the lower orders.”

Among the many roles Jackie inhabited in her turbulent lifetime “probably the one most associated with her is queen. She was the most unforgettably regal of twentieth century first ladies. Her only real rival, Eleanor Roosevelt, chose an identity nearer to the Mother Superior of an order of powerful nuns than to the royal persona Jackie slipped into so easily,” Kuhn observes. Queen of France Marie Antoinette, Kuhn explains, “was one of the royal ladies with whom Jackie identified, because she knew well how people were willing to connect being beautifully dressed with self-indulgence and supposed blindness to the needs of others.” (Kuhn spills many words devoted to his subject’s fascination with high fashion.)

Like all human lives worth exploring in a book-length work, the biography of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis is one marked by stark contradictions (a lifelong student of royalty and monarchy while presiding as First Lady in one of the most egalitarian U.S. presidencies in history) and complex psychological nooks and crannies (she edited biographies of Marilyn Monroe, J.F.K.’s mistress, and opera star Maria Callas, Aristotle Onassis’s lover).

She did not like reminders of her privilege and celebrity, yet that status is what landed her the editorial jobs at Doubleday and Viking; it was understood that part of her role “was to bring in as authors big names whom she knew from her social rounds.”  And as a figure of public fascination, the woman who “attained nearly sacred status in the post-assassination and pre-Onassis era” attracted the paparazzi wherever she traveled around the globe, playing the elusive white whale to their collective Ahab.

Tabloid photo archives are chock full of images of Jackie attempting to dodge throngs of photo journalists, her eyes usually cast downward, and long distance telephoto lens shots of her sunbathing and lounging on an Onassis yacht in some lush European sea port are also legion and graced the covers of magazines from The National Enquirer to People, with publishers paying top dollar for a fleeting glimpse of the modern-day regal figure. Only Princess Diana, another royal hounded by the media, attracted so much voyeurism by doing nothing more than being herself and marrying well.

Despite her love of books, Jackie Kennedy Onassis spent a lifetime trying to prevent people from writing about her, sometimes with the accompanying threat of legal action. Her entire life was led with one arm thrust outward, eyes cast downward, keeping the world at bay.

A close friend of Jackie’s was Irish writer Edna O’Brien; a few days before my deadline for this essay, I received a review copy of The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story (2011) in the mail. Perusing the table of contents, I noticed that a new O’Brien story was offered in this rich collection. Hoping that I might find a passage in O’Brien’s work that was somehow relevant to Jackie’s biography, I hastily turned to the first paragraph of Sister Imelda and got far more than I bargained for:

“Sister Imelda did not take classes on her first day back in the convent but we spotted her in the grounds after evening Rosary. Excitement and curiosity impelled us to follow her and try to see what she looked like, but she thwarted us by walking with head bent and eyelids down. All we could be certain of was that she was tall and limber and that she prayed when she walked. No looking at nature for her, or no curiosity about seventy boarders in gabardine coats and black shoes and stockings. We might just as well have been crows, so impervious was she to our stares and to our abortive attempts to say, ‘Hello, Sister.’”

When I shared the above passage with William Kuhn via e-mail, the author delivered a one-word response: “Wow.”

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