A First Lady of Literature :: William Kuhn on Jackie O.’s Life in Books

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday December 9, 2010

A colleague at EDGE relates a story of how, when he worked in New York, he used to stop by the Doubleday bookstore. On one occasion, he noticed Jackie Onassis standing unobtrusively in a nook. When a young woman approached her and started to say, "Aren't you--?," Jackie held a finger to her lips and shushed the young woman with a smile.

For two decades, Jackie Onassis worked as a book editor, first at Viking and then at Doubleday. The first lady of Camelot was queenly and glamorous, but what may be lesser known is how deeply interested in, dedicated to, and competent at literature she was. Onassis ushered nearly 100 books into print over the course of her career. Her range was staggering; her ability was unquestionable. She commissioned and oversaw children's books, biographies, novels, art books, historical books in scholarly fields; she worked with Diana Vreeland, Bill Moyers, and Carly Simon, among other celebrities, but was just as passionate about books she believed in that had been written by non-celebrities. But Jackie, despite all her hard work, refused to let any of the credit for those books go to herself.

That Jackie Onassis would eschew the limelight for her literary work seems part and parcel of her sense of propriety and her ferociously private nature. Though novels have been written about her--at least one of which seeks to capture her voice, and the events of her life through her own fictionalized eyes--but Onassis never authored her own memoirs. Historian William Kuhn sees in Jackie's editorial selections a means of knowing the woman herself. The thesis of Kuhn's new book Reading Jackie: Her Autobiography in Books is that by evaluating the trove of books Jackie guided to print, we can learn things about her in much the same way as if we had a book on her life written by her own hand. The books she chose and to which she dedicated so much time and care may have been authored by others, Kuhn argues, but they carried intense personal significance for Jackie.

In email correspondence leading up to his interview, Kuhn imparted to EDGE some fascinating tidbits about Jackie O's book life and editing career. "In researching the book I discovered that she'd owned a history of homosexuality by A. L. Rowse," wrote Kuhn. "It was one of the few books in the large collection of her library sold off by the children at Sotheby's after her death that had extensive annotation in her own hand in it.

"She'd taken notes in the margins, turned down pages, and made notes on the flyleaf for later reference too," added the author and historian. "This was rare in that few of her books had any notes or handwriting in them. Sotheby's sold most of her books in lots of 20, but this one was important enough to sell on its own. (I don't know who bought it.)"

Another observation: "A larger proportion of her authors from her editorial career were gay than are to be found as a general percentage of the population," Kuhn noted. "I don't want to out the living ones who are not out, but among the openly gay ones are Richard de Combray, Naveen Patnaik (now hereditary head of an Indian state), and John Pope-Hennessey (deceased and distinguished art historian and former head of European curatorial department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art).

"She did lots of semi gay topics too, e.g., interior decorating and table design (6 books on Tiffany's), books on Hollywood stardom (Clara Bow, Michael Jackson, Jean Harlow, Fred Astaire), and ballet (Nureyev, Martha Graham, Judith Jamison, Balanchine, Gelsey Kirkland)," Kuhn added.

"She also gave a rare interview to the New York Times on behalf of Rudolf Nureyev, who would write an introduction to Pushkin she later published. She defended him against attacks that he was dancing too late in his life and said what he'd done for ballet was to make it 'manly,' when before it had been considered effeminate. She often saw Nureyev and his then boyfriend, Robert Tracy, when they had a house near where she hunted in VA and on St Bart's."

Reading Jackie is not a biography in the usual sense of the word. There is a lot of material the likes of which a traditional biography would contain--interviews with those who knew her, the facts about her life. But the book is not arranged in a straightforward chronological manner. Rather, it is arranged around the books Jackie read in her youth and then, as an adult, commissioned and guided to publication. It's a unique perspective, and a unique--and compelling--means of finding a window into a person's soul.

A Chat Over Tea

Kuhn is the author of three earlier books, all of them on British political figures and political history: Democratic Royalism: The Transformation of the British Monarchy, 1861-1914; Henry and Mary Ponsonby: Life at the Court of Queen Victoria; and The Politics of Pleasure: A Portrait of Benjamin Disraeli.

It was only fitting, then, that when Kuhn sat down with EDGE to discuss his new book at your correspondent's humble abode, it was over tea. Kuhn displayed a perfectly British taste in tea, requesting a cup of Tetley rather than anything more fancy. (However, the historian declined an offer of cookies.)

Asked whether Reading Jackie is a more "modern" book than his earlier works, Kuhn explained, "Historians divide up modern and not so modern in different ways. They usually take anything after 1789 and the French Revolution as modern. This is the first thing I've done in the 20th century, so yes. That's true, it's the closest thing I've done to our own times. She's the only figure that I've written about where I could actually talk to people who had memories of this individual. In my previous books it was just all sources written down and letters and memoranda and things like that."

As for the fact that he and Jackie Onassis seem to share a fascination for royalty and royal court life, Kuhn reckons that that mutual interest was part of the attraction when it came to deciding to write a book about her literary career and its relation to her own life story. "It was the discovery that a significant part of her just under 100 books were on what historians would call court studies or court history--a history of the Russian court, a history of courts in France, as well as court life in India and, to an extent, in Ancient Egypt as well," Kuhn said. She had even considered doing books with colleagues of mine--that is, I knew some people in England whom she'd inquired with as to whether their books were free to be published in the States. I think the fascination was, 'Here's Jackie Onassis doing court studies, which is what I've been doing myself for the last 15 years!'

"That, in addition to the fact that she had a kind of a tabloid reputation for being quite regal, for being called America's Queen. I just sort of assumed before I got into this book that that was something she'd have wrinkled up her nose at and walked in the opposite direction. She wouldn't want to have anything to do with that. But here she was commissioning these books on European royal families of the past. I think she was owning up to her curiosity about that, owning up to her own reputation for having regal manners and regal poise herself."

Kuhn notes in his book Jackie's longstanding fascination with royalty--and moments when she, herself, exhibited courtly manners. Again, that seems of a piece with her polish and propriety. EDGE wondered whether her background contributed more to Jackie's refinement than her own innate sense of decorum.

"She grew up in an era where I think that American manners were more formal, and on the East coast, where she grew up, they were probably more formal for longer," Kuhn said. "But I think that she had an interest in royal court life even before she became first lady and even when she was a young woman. John Kenneth Galbraith used to say that he could recall how when she was [being driven] in the motorcade on political campaigns she'd be reading from the memoirs of Saint Simon about the life of Louis XIV. I think she just had a historical fascination for court power, court intrigue-as well as court patronage of the arts, because ballet was one of the things in the 18th century which, if it was going to exist at all, was because courts paid for it. I think that's a curiosity she had long before she became a public figure herself."

And what about Jackie's dedication to guarding her own privacy? Was that, too, a characteristic borne of the times in which she lived? After all, at one point in the book, Kuhn points out that for proper women of a certain social standing at that time, there were only three occasions when it was considered appropriate for their names to appear in the newspaper: birth, marriage, and death.

On the other hand, the wife of the president can hardly expect to remain in the background. Jackie seemed to tread a fine line, presenting herself in a certain light and to a certain superficial degree--but allowing nothing more in the way of personal exposure.

"I have a hunch about that which I'd be hard pressed to point to any document to support," Kuhn reflected, "but my intuition about that is that the protection of her privacy came more from her parents' divorce in an era when divorce carried a much stronger social stigma than it does today. She was 12, 13 years old--a crucial age. Her parents' divorce was carried in all the newspapers. There was a social scandal about it. I think her excessive sensitivity about reporting on her private life probably goes back to that era of her life.

"Even before she was first lady, there was an attempt to block people whom she trusted from writing about her," added the historian. "There was a woman named Mary Van Rensselaer Thayer who was a very good friend of her mother and could be trusted to write in a tasteful way about her, and when she found that her mother had given some of her letters to Mrs. Thayer, she hit the roof and said, 'Stop cooperating. I don't want her to quote from any of those letters.' That was 1960, before anything scandalous had ever happened to do with JFK, before any tragedy had touched her."

Smart and Shy

Jackie was a bookworm from an early age--perhaps out of shyness, but her intelligence and curiosity must also have contributed to her love of reading. But was there some connection between her introspection and her love of books, and her private nature?

"One of the things that Nancy Tuckerman, who was her friend in ninth grade, remembered about her was her shyness.," Kuhn recounted. "Nancy felt inclined to socialize with the other girls, both when they were at the Chapin School in New York and at Miss Porter's School in Connecticut, and Jackie just wanted to be by herself with her book. That's got to have some relationship to her desire for privacy as well."

EDGE noted that it was curious how, even given her need for privacy, such a public figure--and literarily talented person--never chose to tell her own story (and thus, perhaps, control it) in a memoir.

"There was a man by the name of Bill Barry, who was the deputy publisher and who, in addition to being a colleague, was somebody she was comfortable with," Kuhn told EDGE. "He told me he pushed her on the autobiography idea and she really resisted it. She said, 'I think I've discharged my debt to history.' "

Jackie was reticent even in the matter of taking credit for the work she did on the books she guided to publication. "Early on in her career, she allowed herself to be much more forward associating herself with the books," said Kuhn. "There was a book called In The Russian Style, which I think is the only book where she allowed her name to go on the spine. A publicity photo for that book is actually the cover photo of my book," Kuhn added in an aside. "And that book was pretty savagely attacked in the New York Review of Books. That can't have been a pleasant feeling for her.

" ''Elegance is refusal.' It's somehow stepping back rather than stepping forward, and there's something about Jackie's elegance that I think is a stepping away from us."

"I feel like from that point, she moved progressively into the background, such that she didn't even like her authors acknowledging her in the acknowledgements," Kuhn added. "She'd ask them to take out thank yous from the acknowledgements. She wanted to be behind the author and not taking the credit she thought belonged to the authors.

"I think she used her fame and her power to make contacts [in the publishing world] and I think she also used her fame and power to ensure silence when she wanted to about her participation," Kuhn continued. "She's thanked in the Diana Vreeland book... I can't remember to what extent she's thanked by Bill Moyers. But not as publicly as you might imagine. You have to hunt in the back of a Bill Moyers book to find her name.

"Peter Sís, who was an artist and illustrator, whom Jackie commissioned to do a pretty dark children's book about Prague, wanted to put her name in the dedication," Kuhn recounted. "She said, 'No, and I don't want to be in the acknowledgements.' The only way he could get her name in was to draw a child in a cat costume inside the cover that said, 'Thank you for a dream J.O.' You really have to look for it to be able to find it.

"I think she wanted to have it both ways," Kuhn summed up. "She wanted to use her contacts to win celebrity books for Doubleday. But she also really didn't want her name out there to promote them."

One major point of Kuhn's thesis that the books she chose to work on reveals insight into Jackie's character is the way in which she embraced projects about Marilyn Monroe and Maria Callas--mistresses of Jackie's first husband, JFK, and second husband, Aristotle Onassis, respectively. A lesser--or less professional--woman may have declined such projects, or used them as a means of denigrating her onetime rivals. But not Jackie Onassis.

"That was really one of the big surprises about beginning the research on this book--to find that Marilyn Monroe and Maria Callas, these two women who were the most famous mistresses of her two husbands, are both featured in Diana Vreeland's book on sexual and erotic female allure," Kuhn told EDGE. "Jackie even wanted to do another book on Marilyn Monroe, that was the last photo session with Bert Stern with Marilyn Monroe before she committed suicide. There are some letters from Jackie to higher-ups at Doubleday saying, 'We have to get this book! It's such a natural!' But it went to somebody else, because Doubleday wouldn't approve her paying enough money for it.

"It also surprised me that she was willing to do that John Lennon book right after his assassination," added Kuhn. "I think she had a practical sense that, 'This is going to bring in some money for Doubleday.' And to do that John and Yoko Ono tribute book within the twelve months after John Lennon was killed, well, that's an important commercial proposition.

"I always assumed she would be so fragile about the topic of assassination that she wouldn't have anything to do with it. But that John Lennon book suggests otherwise," noted the historian. "Some of the profits from the book went to a political action committee that advocated gun control and Jann Wenner, publisher of Rolling Stone, told me she believed in that. So in addition to a commercial book for Doubleday, she was also producing something to advocate against gun violence."

Jackie's Interests: Deep and Wide

EDGE interjected here on how broad Jackie's range of interest--and expertise--seemed to be.

"And even on the most arcane subjects!" Kuhn exclaimed. "Jonathan Cott, with whom she did several books on Ancient Egypt, was surprised at how, when he came over to work at her apartment on one of the books, she could pull stuff off her own shelf that was relevant to what he was working on. You had the feeling that she was commissioning books on subjects that she already had some interest and knowledge about, and her interests were very wide--from interior decorating to the history of Marie Antoinette."

Jackie O. definitely had style, she was not the stunning beauty queen that, say, Elizabeth Taylor was. And yet--she remains an icon of style. Was that down to her intelligence and grace? Kuhn considered the question.

"Diana Vreeland has this remark, 'Elegance is refusal,' " Kuhn offered at length. "It's somehow stepping back rather than stepping forward, and there's something about Jackie's elegance that I think is a stepping away from us. She was more interested in cultivating her mind than displaying her self. I mean, even though she's in front of the camera a lot, you have a sense that she's not there by design; that somehow, she's turning something down, turning us down.

"Wayne Koestenbaum has some very interesting comments about that in his book called Jackie Under My Skin, so there may be some relationship between those two things," Kuhn added. "Elizabeth Taylor, who's always in the spotlight, is always presenting herself for our delectation in a photograph. You know, when she's wearing those jewels in the swimming pool? You can never imagine Jackie in a swimming pool wearing emeralds!"

Asked about the contents of his own library and what it might say about him, Kuhn laughed. EDGE tried not to think to hard about the fact that they were meeting in the correspondent's own home, an abode well stocked with a myriad of books. Did Kuhn's discerning eye stray toward the shelves lining the walls?

"There are a lot of gay novels," Kuhn said of his own library. "There's a lot on the history of homosexuality. My book before this was a gay biography of a British politician [The Politics of Pleasure: A Portrait of Benjamin Disraeli], and the idea for the Jackie book was in that book, too. Benjamin Disraeli, who brought out twelve novels, in addition to being twice prime minister of Great Britain, says things about himself in these novels that are important to his identity. He has a wonderful line--'I was born in a library.' That says something important about who he was and what his identity was. One of Jackie's earliest childhood memories was similar: she could remember getting out of bed when she was supposed to be having a nap and taking down books from her mother's library.

"But I would say that along with a lot of books on the history of homosexuality, there's quite a lot on British history in my library," Kuhn continued, "and that has to do with the fact that my father was an English professor and I spent some crucial formative years in England when I was 11 and 12, so that has something to do with my identity. There's a lot on European history, and I've taught European history at the college and university level. I'd say those books do have something to say about me.

"I don't know if you've ever had the experience of going over to a guy's house who you were kind of interested in, and when he walks out of the room to get you a glass of wine or something like that, you kind of walk over to his book shelf just to see, 'Okay, what's he reading? This is something I'm gonna find out about him without his telling me,' " Kuhn went on. EDGE gulped, recalling long minutes spent in the kitchen to prepare the tea. Oh dear, your correspondent fretted, I've really done it now. "I do think there's something important about a collection of books that says we are," Kuhn added, and was that a twinkle in his eye?

EDGE offered to pour the historian more Tetley tea, and casually enquired as to what he might be thinking of for his next project.

"I'm in this playing around stage, because I'm not signed up for another project yet," Kuhn said. "I think I'd like to go backward in time to somebody who is not a political figure, but who is certainly an important cultural figure, and an important Bostonian, and that's John Singer Sargent.

"Trevor Fairbrother, who is a fantastic art historian, has had a hard time convincing people that Sargent was gay, and I just think the circle around Sargent is really very interesting," Kuhn added. "I don't necessarily want to do a 'gay Sargent,' but I do want to do something about Sargent's circle that shows just how broad and interesting it was. It seems so cool to me that Sargent and Henry James and Isabella Stewart Gardner and Gabrielle Fauré and the sculptor Saint-Gaudens all friends with one another and working together at the same time, and that kind of constellation of cultural figures around the turn of the century interests me very much.

"I'm not sure they were all gay, but some of them were, and is there such a thing as a gay aesthetic?" Kuhn reflected. "What sort of shared viewpoint resulted in all that rich figurative work? Could you not only explain, but also extol and romanticize their sensibility for a wide audience that was mainly straight?

"Have you been over to the new wing of the MFA?" Kuhn asked EDGE. "They've got a brand new room with all their Sargents together. It has an impact [to see the canvases all together at one time]. I think that probably their Sargent collection is bigger than anywhere else in the country."

So, as with a writer or an editor's books, did Kuhn feel that seeing so much of one painter's work in a single space offered a chance to gain insight into the artist?

"Yes, exactly," Kuhn said. "I think you do get some sense of the kind of things that he was interested in. He's probably not popular among art historians because he painted rich people, and art historians feel he was doing propaganda for the elite. But I think what he loved was sumptuousness and lusciousness. He delighted in the surface of things.

"His art is no less important than Henry James' or Proust's art in literature," Kuhn continued. "I think he's probably regarded as a dead end because realism was being rejected in his later life, and modernism was taking off. But I think late 19th century realism is due for a reassessment, because it meant a lot to people. Just because we've been conditioned to think that everything new and exciting must be abstract, combative, or shocking--I think that's not doing justice to what Sargent's period knew about art and what that period can teach us about enjoying our lives by responding to beautiful things."

Reading Jackie: Her Autobiography in Books is published by Nan A. Talese / Doubleday. Publication Date: Dec. 7, 2010. Pages: 350. Price: $27.95. Format: Hardcover Original. ISBN-13: 978-0-385-530-996

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.