‘Reading Jackie’: When Literary Choices Become Biography

“Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life,” British poet laureate Robert Southey declaimed in a letter to schoolteacher and aspiring poet and novelist Charlotte Bronte in 1836.

Eleven years later, in October 1847, Bronte refuted Southey’s proclamation when the British publishing firm of Smith, Elder, and Co. brought her Gothic romance Jane Eyre to the Victorian reading public; the novel, produced under the pseudonym Currer Bell, was an immediate critical and commercial success (1847 was a banner year for the Bronte sisters of Haworth, UK: Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey found a publisher, as did Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights).

Today, more than 150 years after Charlotte’s death at a mere three weeks shy of her 39th birthday, her dark and masterfully plotted novel about the ardor between the title character, a strong-willed governess, and her employer, the enigmatic and brooding Edward Fairfax Rochester, not only continues to be widely-read in several languages, but has been translated into feature films and television movies more than 25 times, and is universally regarded as one of the most influential literary works ever composed, spawning a popular 1966 prequel by Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea.

Book: Reading Jackie: Her Autobiography in Books

Author: William Kuhn

Publisher: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday

Publication date: 2010-12

Length: 350 pages

Format: Hardcover

Price: $27.95

ISBN: 978-0-385-53099-6

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/j/jacobs-readingjackie-cvr.jpgWide Sargasso Sea, providing back story for Bertha Mason, Rochester’s insane wife confined to the attic of his estate, was a favorite read of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, as noted in a quaint anecdote by historian William Kuhn in Reading Jackie: Her Autobiography in Books, a unique and original account that explores the woman behind the icon.

Regarding the library of Jackie Kennedy Onassis (dubbed Jackie O by the press and public), writes Kuhn, “her personal selection of books she decided to keep, to read, to commission [in her role as editor at Viking and Doubleday], was not just a row of books standing on the shelf. It was her self-portrait.” As novelist Nancy Mitford wrote: “The books of somebody who reads are an infallible guide to the author’s mentality.”

Reading Jackie is a conspicuous labor of love and deep respect, “a revealing biography of the former First Lady and her career in publishing”, edited by her former colleague Nan Talese (whose past editorial relationships include Ian McEwan and Margret Atwood) and published by Doubleday, Jackie’s longtime editorial home. Kuhn writes early in the work that Jackie “went from being a figure caught in the blare of flashbulbs every time she walked on the street to being a woman who helped put enduring statements of why art matters into print.”

Why Art Matters: this is where the task assigned to the cultural essayist becomes an onerous one. The near-existential question I have been grappling with since reading Kuhn’s meticulously researched book is how to address the relevance of a work like Reading Jackie – a biography culled from the detritus of a well-bred woman’s affection for art and literature – to a culture wherein literary reading has declined significantly in direct proportion to rising Internet use (PopMatters readers notwithstanding, Alexa demographics report that you’re a well-read crowd).

A November 2007 report by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) finds that negative trends in American reading habits “have demonstrable social, cultural, and civic implications.” The current generation is simply too hardwired into the world of mass media (television, computers, video games, cell phones, social media) and the more facile fragments of pop culture – think Justin Bieber or the exploits of Charlie Sheen – to cultivate a taste for reading and cultural activities, the NEA frets in a separate report.

In other words, personalities like Jackie Kennedy Onassis, celebrities with an intellectual bent, are few and far between in modern times.

“What of the current generation?” I asked the author of Reading Jackie in a recent email dialogue. “How will we ‘read’ them in the future? By their Netflix choices? Their Twitter and Facebook histories?” “When I taught history at Carthage,” Kuhn replied, “(young students) were certainly better at picking up visual details from movie clips I showed in class – often things I missed – than at reading texts, which they invariably regarded as very hard work.”

Kuhn went on to say that when he sits down to read a newspaper (the real thing manufactured of pulp and ink) he pays “much more attention to it than when I glance at the news headlines online. I guess I conclude from that that long forms of fiction and non-fiction may die out, although short stories and short essays may revive.”

That’s bad news for Moby Dick and Don Quixote. In point of fact, the two literary works that most closely parallel Jackie Kennedy Onassis’ personal biography are Melville’s metaphor-laden whaling adventure and Miguel De Cervantes’ immortal satire of chivalric code featuring the deluded errant knight Don Quixote de La Mancha, a broken-down former soldier who, in the opening chapters of the epic novel, is literally driven mad by his preoccupation with adventure novels, “the solace of my soul and the entertainment of my life.” Cervantes also illustrates through Don Quixote that nobility (or a personal sense of nobility) can be a form of madness.

Her Beloved Companions

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.

Culture Wars

One significant subterranean theme in Jackie’s personality that emerges in Kuhn’s complex portrait is sensitivity to “ambivalence in American attitudes” toward “high culture, meaning art and literature, classical ballet and classical music, which many of her contemporaries would have regarded as the exclusive preserve of those with the bank accounts and expensive educations.” Not only do those ambivalent emotions color the cultural landscape in contemporary America, they are realized with even greater hypersensitivity. Throughout her life Jackie “was nostalgic not for a simpler world, but for one that was more elaborate, more formal, and more hierarchical.”

Jackie’s “nostalgia for vanished grandeur” that Kuhn explores in almost exhausting detail is profoundly Quixote-esque and antithetical to the current cultural climate. As I write these words, the U.S. Congress has voted along partisan lines to defund National Public Radio (NPR), a cynical Republican strategy disguised as budget cutting to prevent high culture and progressive political points of view – the sort of progressiveness that Jackie’s first husband, martyred U.S. Senator and President John F. Kennedy embraced – from reaching the rural pockets of America that NPR has served well, the sorts of regions that traditionally vote the conservative ticket when not exposed to alternative viewpoints.

Freshman representative Rich Nugent (R-FL) remarked of the move to defund NPR in dangerously inflammatory, hyperbolic language that serves to demonize progressive thought: “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical.” Political gadflies like former U.S. Vice President hopeful Sarah Palin wear their ignorance and lack of intellect as badges of honor, cheered on at political rallies by throngs of citizens whose idea of high culture is Dancing with the Stars and American Idol.

But this is really nothing new. In his fascinating 1979 book studying arts and letters in the new republic, After the Revolution: Profiles of Early American Culture, historian Joseph J. Ellis cites that “a persistent hostility to the fine arts is deeply embedded in American history.” Furthermore, Ellis adds that in post-revolutionary America, “artists and writers were [considered] social parasites who contributed nothing to the essential job of nation building.”

From August to December of 2010, I was the author of a three-part series for the Pulitzer Prize-winning metropolitan daily, The Las Vegas Sun; The New Homeless was first-person journalism charting my fall from a hardscrabble middle-class existence in a much-desired community to a downsized life in a weekly residential hotel in a less-than-desirable, crime-plagued urban neighborhood. The series produced no spirited discussion, as the newspaper had hoped, but resulted in, rather, an online lynch mob. In the spirit of the times, the commentators, literally hundreds strong, fixated on details of my personal grooming, my nicotine habit, a physician-controlled opiate dependency for chronic pain, debates over the definition of homelessness, and my perceived “liberal” politics because of my birthplace of San Francisco, or, as one commentator put it, “artsy fartsy Nancy Peolsi Land.”

Most strikingly, however, many believed that my writing career was some absurd persuasion that I had conferred upon myself, an impractical and wasteful endeavor, despite a long list of respectable credentials easily found at Wikipedia, the Internet Movie Database, Amazon and other book retailers and, of course, a simple Google search of my name. Other readers, in unkind language, suggested that I should graft my talent and time upon some other calling, something more profitable – such as Wal-Mart greeter or bathroom attendant at McDonald’s.

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.”