Obscurity Knocks

Earnest, empathetic, industrious, unpretentious, gay Virgo in Milwaukee with a great life, amazing friends, and a wonderful family.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

'Reading Jackie' and 'Jackie as Editor'

In 1997 I wrote my master's thesis on the historical memory of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, so I was thrilled with the recent publication of two books about Jackie's career as a book editor: "Reading Jackie: Her Autobiography in Books" by William Kuhn and "Jackie as Editor: The Literary Life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis" by Greg Lawrence. This article from the New York Times provides better context than I could. Both books are very well done. Most importantly, both Kuhn and Lawrence add substantially to this essential portion of Jackie's life. Most biographies of Jackie up until the publication of these two books focus on her time as First Lady and as Aristotle Onassis's husband, treating her career as an afterthought. Jackie was First Lady for two years and 10 months. That time must be an essential part of her biography. She was married to Aristotle Onassis for less than seven years (1968-1975). She was a book editor for almost 18 years, longer than either of her marriages. That is why it's so unfortunate that biographies of Jackie up until now (see books on Jackie by Sarah Bradford, C. David Heymann, Christopher Anderson, Edward Klein, Barbara Leaming, Jay Mulvaney, Sally Bedell Smith, Wayne Koestenbaum, etc.) treat the period from 1975 to 1994 so shabbily. Until now, most writers about Jackie mention her career as an editor, but focus primarily on her relationship with diamond merchant Maurice Tempelsman, her role as mother and grandmother, and her work preserving and enhancing the legacy of President Kennedy as more important than her career. It's as if these talented authors and the public refused to see her as anything more than primarily the widow of John F. Kennedy (the graceful and grieving widow of the slain President) and secondarily the widow of Aristotle Onassis (rich society woman who went on incredibly shopping sprees). Hence the focus on Tempelsman, who was indeed important in the 1975-1994 period, but where Kuhn and Lawrence break new ground is demonstrating the importance and legitimacy of her career as a book editor. Finally Jackie's life wasn't focused on her husband. As both Kuhn and Lawrence capably demonstrate, Jackie was a talented and hard-working editor, starting out green and inexperienced, then growing into the job, and eventually thriving and enjoying well-earned respect from her peers. Perhaps the best evidence of her talent as an editor is the fact that neither Kuhn nor Lawrence were able to find author who worked with her who criticized her skills as an editor. She cared deeply for her authors and their books. She was involved in line editing, design, publicity, and shepherding authors through the writing, editing, and publication of their books. Both Kuhn and Lawrence provide a list of the books that Jackie edited throughout her career and relate interviews with authors and colleagues at Viking and Doubleday.

Lawrence writes the more conventional book that is arranged chronologically. He worked with Jackie as the co-writer of the ballerina Gelsey Kirkland's autobiography "Dancing on My Grave." Lawrence does an excellent job of advancing knowledge of Jackie's considerable talents and success as an editor. "Frank Rich writing in 'The New York Times' lamented that the woman Jackie was remained a mystery, inadequately eulogized by the mantralike repetition of four words: 'grace, dignity, style, class.' The image of Jackie crouching on the floor surrounded by manuscript pages never appeared in the media coverage [of her death], which ultimately yielded to a dazzling kaleidoscope drawn from other chapters of her life" (Lawrence 270). This is a vitally important point made by Lawrence. Indeed, in my M.A. thesis, I did a statistical analysis of the words used to describe Jackie at the time of her death in May 1994, and the four he mentions, grace, dignity, style, and class, were at the top of the list in my analysis. Lawrence's book skimps on photos, and aesthetically doesn't hold a candle to Kuhn's.

Kuhn addresses Jackie's career more thematically and less chronologically. His use of photographs is very much in line with the books that Jackie herself edited, and the many photos help him tell the story. Kuhn's primary innovation is that he focuses on the books Jackie edited and what these books tell us about her. Jackie never wrote her memoirs, and when asked about doing so, she always indicated that she'd rather live her life than focus on the past, which is understandable given the intense grief she suffered in the public eye and the fact that from 1960 until her death, her life was intensely chronicled and photographed. Kuhn is taking a big chance and making a leap of faith in pursuing this method. In doing so, he has to use the facts to make his case, but he's ultimately going from facts to interpretation when he writes about what the books she edited say about her. That is what makes Kuhn's book ultimately more interesting and rewarding than Lawrence's, even though Lawrence's book probably has more new Jackie anecdotes. Some may not appreciate or agree with Kuhn's drawing from Jackie's publishing list as her unwritten autobiography, but I think that he strikes gold with this way of proceeding. Without going too far, Kuhn helps the reader understand Jackie's views on many topics, among them love, marriage, work, the visual and performing arts, beauty, and travel. Yes, Kuhn risks criticism of his interpretation, but in taking the line he does, he makes the more important contribution to the historiography of Jacqueline Kenned Onassis.

As a huge and longtime fan of Jackie, I'm grateful to both Lawrence and Kuhn for telling this previously untold part of her life and for the new insights they both give us into the life of this incredibly fascinating woman who played a significant part in American history.

"Reading Jackie:" 10 of 10.
"Jackie as Editor:" 9 of 10.


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