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Acclaimed biographer Sarah Bradford explores the life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the woman who has captivated the public for more than five decades, in a definitive portrait that is both sympathetic and frank. With an extraordinary range of candid interviews—many with people who have never spoken in such depth on record before—Bradford offers new insights into the woman behind the public persona. She creates a coherent picture out of Jackie’s tumultuous and cosmopolitan life—from the aristocratic milieu of ...
Acclaimed biographer Sarah Bradford explores the life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the woman who has captivated the public for more than five decades, in a definitive portrait that is both sympathetic and frank. With an extraordinary range of candid interviews—many with people who have never spoken in such depth on record before—Bradford offers new insights into the woman behind the public persona. She creates a coherent picture out of Jackie’s tumultuous and cosmopolitan life—from the aristocratic milieu of Newport and East Hampton to the Greek isles, from political Washington to New York’s publishing community. She probes Jackie’s privileged upbringing, her highly public marriages, and her roles as mother and respected editor, and includes rare photos from private collections to create the most complete account yet written of this legendary life.
"Compulsively readable" —The Washington Post
Golden Gatsby Years
That was in my life, and I think in Jackie's as well, a really happy and far too brief time ... Everything was so simple then. Complication, confusion, wounds, suffering hadn't entered our lives ...
—Jackie's sister, Lee Radziwill, talking of their Long Island childhood
She was born with a sense of theater, of carefully choreographed exits and entrances, an eagerly awaited baby, who arrived an improbable six weeks late in Southampton Hospital, Long Island, on July 28, 1929. The birth had been scheduled to take place in a New York City hospital but Jackie, characteristically, chose to make her first appearance on a hot Sunday at the height of the summer season in the newly fashionable Hamptons. She was the first child of Janet Norton Lee and John Vernou Bouvier III, born just over a year after their wedding in nearby East Hampton, where both her grandparents owned comfortable summer houses in what was virtually Wall-Street-on-Sea. Within months of her birth, the stock market crash of October 1929 had cast its shadow over the Bouvier family fortunes, giving Jackie and her younger sister, Lee, born four years later, a sense of insecurity and fear of poverty that was to last almost all their lives.
From early on Jackie became aware of sexual politics within her family, of power emanating from the dominant male, with women as lesser elements competing for his attention. It was a game she quickly learned to play, extracting the maximum she could from the situation.All her life she would be irresistibly drawn to the most powerful, successful man in a group. (A cousin said of her fondness for a man like her future father-in-law, Joseph P. Kennedy, "If Jackie was at the court of Ivan the Terrible, she'd say, `Ooh, he's been so misunderstood ...'")
The two dominant males in Jackie's early life were her paternal grandfather, Major John Vernou Bouvier Jr., and her father. Her grandfather, known as "Grampy Jack" or "Grampy Bouvier" to his ten grandchildren and "the Major" to everyone else, was the center of summer family life at Lasata, the stucco, ivy-clad house on Further Lane. It was strategically situated near the ocean and the Maidstone Club, the heart of East Hampton social life, where the Bouviers had purchased a cabana in 1926. At Lasata, the Major was not only the undisputed head of his household but a personage in the village of East Hampton as well. As a former trial lawyer he was fond of the sound of his own voice and would regularly deliver the speech at the Memorial Day celebrations in East Hampton, which marked the opening of the summer season.
When the Bouviers first arrived in East Hampton as summer visitors in 1912, the place was still a "simple" resort compared with the more sophisticated Southampton, with saltbox houses, a duck pond and a village green sheltered from the ocean by huge sand dunes. Inland, flat potato fields stretched to the horizon. The Bouviers' first house was a three-story, verandaed building called Wildmoor on Appaquogue Road; in 1925 the Major's wife, Maude Sergeant, bought Lasata with her father's money. It was not until 1935 that the Major, having inherited a considerable fortune from his uncle Michel Charles "M. C." Bouvier, took over the house and began to live the expansive life to which he felt entitled, and which ended, at his death, in the financial ruin of the family.
Each May the various Bouvier households would move out of their Park Avenue apartments for the summer to East Hampton, where Maude would transplant her entire household staff to Lasata. Lasata—an Indian name meaning "place of peace," a misnomer as far as the explosive Bouvier family was concerned—stood on a comfortable twelve acres, with a tennis court, Black Jack Bouvier's stables for eight horses, each stall marked with its occupant's name in gilded lettering, tack room, jumping ring and paddock, extensive vegetable gardens, a grape arbor and Maude's "Italian garden," edged with boxwood and dotted with classical statues. Bouvier accounts of Lasata as "built along the lines of an English country manor" exaggerate its size, but the Bouviers, following the Major's example, were given to exaggeration.
The gardener/caretaker, Paul Yuska, was the only year-round employee at Lasata, but the permanent servants from Manhattan were an important part of the Bouvier household, particularly Pauline, former nursemaid, governess and housekeeper to the John Vernou Bouviers in their less prosperous days in Nutley, New Jersey, where they had lived for twenty-two years before moving to Park Avenue, and Esther, who gambled on the stock market and the races and was always a source of ready cash for the family.
John Vernou Bouvier Jr. was a dapper figure given to loud explosions of temper—"God damn it to hell!" Although the Major was proud of his army rank, his war experience was limited. A lawyer by training, a graduate of Columbia Law School, he was commissioned aged fifty-two on July 22, 1918, as Major in the Judge Advocate Section of the Officers Reserve Corps of the U.S. Army and honorably discharged five months later, in December 1918. Subsequently he became a partner in his uncle's Wall Street firm.
Sunday was the day for Bouvier gatherings, either at the Major's apartment, 765 Park Avenue, after Mass, to which he would take his granddaughters, or in summer at Lasata, for a ritual Sunday lunch of roast beef followed by peach ice cream (homemade on the back porch by the French chauffeur) around the huge oak table in the beamed dining room. While Maude remained a gentle figure in the background, organizing the household from her upstairs bedroom or looking after the flowers in the garden and the house, the Major was a dominant—and always audible—presence. Maude's once delicate features and figure had been transformed by dropsy (she wore long, flowing skirts to conceal her swollen legs and ankles), but the Major, aged sixty-five when Jackie was born, preserved an immaculate physique, the result, he claimed, of very hot baths followed by very cold ones; during this routine, his yells of anguish could be heard throughout the house.
He was a snappy dresser: his invariable East Hampton Sunday attire was a brown tweed jacket, white shirt with high, stiff collar, white linen trousers, black socks and white shoes. He was intensely proud of his Hercule Poirot—like mustache, carefully groomed every morning and waxed until the points stood out beyond his cheeks. He owned a red Nash convertible with primitive gearshifts, which he would rev in an earsplitting racket for some five minutes until the vibrating floorboards (he was stone-deaf) told him the engine was ready. Then he would take off in a shower of gravel and hurtle dangerously—he was also shortsighted—through the village lanes to the old Catholic church of St. Philomena. Afterward at Sunday lunch he would turn off both his hearing aids and sit oblivious to the noisy bickering of his family, composing a poem for one of them, to be read out at the end of the meal.
Although the Major's literary style was florid and his verse no more than doggerel, his interest in poetry transmitted itself to Jackie, his favorite grandchild. "He really adored her and I think felt that she had enormous potential in the field that he cared about, which was literary," Lee said. "They had quite a correspondence together and many flowery letters were exchanged. I don't know if he got her interested in poetry but she started to love poetry at an exceptionally early age and she gave him great pleasure. It was mutual, and it was very nice to watch them together. When he would come to see her ride in Madison Square Garden I remember he would lose his control completely and start screaming at the horse and jumping up, and it was amusing and touching. I think that if it hadn't been for this exceptional bond she had with my grandfather Bouvier and my father that she never would have gained the particular strength and independence and individuality she had. Because we didn't have a very normal family ..."
One particular fantasy of the Major's became an important influence on how his family saw themselves. Throughout Jackie's childhood he was engaged on the construction of an elaborate—and mythical—genealogical family treatise, which was privately published in 1940 as Our Forebears. The Bouviers were Catholics of southern French descent; the Major took pride in his ancestry and, according to his own account, spoke French, having spent a year at school in France. Being the Major, however, mere French descent was not enough: it had to be aristocratic, and as two French families were involved, doubly so. As recorded in Our Forebears the Bouviers were "an ancient house of Fontaine near Grenoble," but later research revealed that the Bouviers in question were not their ancestors. That honor belonged to a family of artisans and small shopkeepers in the village of Pont-Saint Esprit, near Arles, whose descendants still live there. The American Bouviers were descended from Michel Bouvier, who arrived from France in about 1815 in Philadelphia where he established a successful business as a cabinetmaker (one of his clients being Napoleon's brother, Joseph Bonaparte) and importer of marble and mahogany. He made a solid fortune that his son, Michel Charles Bouvier, vastly increased by successful operations on the stock exchange. The Bouviers were descended from the second French family through Michel's second wife, Louise Vernou, daughter of John Vernou, whose family, according to Jackie's grandfather, "is one of the most illustrious and ancient of the Province of Poitou." However, there is no proof of any connection between the aristocratic Poitevin family and the John Vernou who arrived in Philadelphia, possibly from the French West Indies, in the last decade of the eighteenth century. His signature on his application for citizenship on October 25, 1808, is barely literate, certainly not that of an educated aristocrat.
Our Forebears was treated by the Major's descendants with the reverence accorded the family Bible, and in 1961 Mary Van Rensselaer Thayer's authorized biography of Jackie as First Lady was still peddling the aristocratic family line. However, it was then that the fake was gently unmasked by an American historian. The truth is that the Bouviers were third-generation French immigrants who had made good but felt it necessary to fantasize about their ancestry, converting shopkeepers into nobles. In the class-conscious America of the Bouvier sisters' youth everyone "in Society" knew exactly where everyone else came from and White Anglo-Saxon Protestant families ruled the roost. Even after the Bouviers' unmasking in the sixties, Jackie's eccentric cousin Edie Beale boasted to writer Gail Sheehy in 1972, "We're all descended from fourteenth-century French kings." When Jackie married John F. Kennedy in 1953, newspaper reports trumpeted the alliance of the wealthy Boston Irish senator with the descendant of a family of French aristocrats. "I don't know how Janet [Jackie's mother] got away with this," Gore Vidal said. "Well, it only worked with the press, I mean they were somehow Plantagenets and Tudors—it was just nonsense. They were pretty lowly born ..." They were Catholics, but not grand Catholics, of Mediterranean descent in a Protestant WASP world. None of this was to matter outwardly to Jackie, as the classy beauty she grew up to be, but it contributed to an inner sense of apartness; as she told society bandleader Peter Duchin in reference to Newport, many years later, "You and I, Peter, both outsiders." It did not make her feel in any way inferior, but the opposite, contributing to her sense of her uniqueness. She never found it necessary to be part of a crowd, and felt an affinity with creative people, artists, oddballs. It is worth noting that of the three important men in her life—John F. Kennedy (Boston Irish Catholic on both sides), Aristotle Onassis (Greek) and MauriceTempelsman (Jewish)—not one could remotely be called a WASP.
Beyond her love for "Grampy Jack," Jackie adored her father, the glamorous, larger-than-life John Vernou Bouvier III, known as Jack, who resembled his father in looks but in nothing else. Her grandfather, John Vernou Bouvier Jr., was by nature a "joiner" and committeeman: he was on the standing committee of the Columbia Law School Alumni, vice president of the College Alumni and member of the Council of the Delta Kappa Epsilon Fraternity, as he records proudly in Our Forebears, member of the Society of the Cincinnati of Maryland (through his great-grandfather Captain James Ewing), president of the Sons of the Revolution in the State of New York (through a great-great-grandfather, John Griffith), General-President of the General Society of the Sons of the Revolution, member of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, etc. On the other hand, John Vernou Bouvier III was a free spirit, who seems to have handed down his dislike of committees and pompous organizations to his daughter. Possibly under pressure from his father he joined the New York State Sons of the Revolution, and the Cincinnati of Maryland, but the only organizations in which he showed any active interest were his Yale Senior Society, Book and Snake, and his clubs in New York—the Yale Club and the Racquet and Tennis Club. Jack Bouvier adored his overindulgent mother but clashed frequently with his father, who disapproved of his son's undisciplined, self-indulgent way of life. They had noisy rows during which the Major would roar at him, threatening to disinherit him, a sanction that showed diminishing returns.
Jackie's father was a spectacularly attractive man in a flashy way. His looks were exotic, the very opposite of the all-American boy; his extremely dark complexion, inherited from his Bouvier forebears, had earned him various nicknames: "the Sheik," after Rudolph Valentino, "the Black Orchid" or, more commonly, "Black Jack." He sported a pencil-thin Clark Gable mustache over finely molded sensual lips and was often taken for the star. Indeed, the parting shot of Rhett Butler, played by Gable, in Gone With the Wind, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn," might have been his motto. He had thick black hair, always beautifully groomed with an arrow-straight parting, and piercing blue eyes. He was extremely vain (a friend, visiting him for a weekend at the Swordfish Club in Bridgehampton, could not help noticing that Black Jack had hung no fewer than six photographs of himself on the wall) and spent a good deal of time on maintaining his looks. He had a fine, muscular physique and kept himself fit by working out in a private gym in a closet in his apartment or at the Yale Club, and kept up his tan under a sunlamp, or by sunbathing naked at the window of his Park Avenue apartment, or in the men's cabana area of the Maidstone Club. His clothes were always perfectly tailored, his shirts by Brooks Brothers; even at East Hampton in the summer he was always to be seen in gabardine suits. He was a keen, although never superlative, sportsman, and liked attending prizefights, horse races and major football games. He was a gambler, on racing and on the stock exchange, and had been expelled for gambling from his prep school, Phillips Exeter. He was uninterested in intellectual or cultural pursuits and his academic record was abysmal: at Yale he was known principally as a giver of parties attended by bevies of pretty girls. He was a compulsive womanizer and, later, a heavy drinker.
Like his daughter Jackie he knew instinctively how to pose for the camera and, also like her, he had an instinctive sense of theater and of his own image. He was the type of male that many men dislike on sight or regard as a joke, and that women find hard to resist. He had a reputation for treating his women badly, overwhelming them with attention when he was pursuing them, dropping them quickly and without remorse when he had tired of them. Spoiled by his mother, he seemed incapable of establishing a responsible relationship with a woman. Proud though he was of his wife Janet's looks, chic and prowess as a horsewoman, he was essentially a predatory male, a risk-taker, incapable of resisting temptation or self-gratification. He was certainly incapable of providing either his wife or his daughters with the stable husband and father figure they seem to have yearned for. He was more like a lover than a father to his daughters—flaunting, irresponsible, and fun to be with, intolerant of bores or boredom, loving and demanding. Some of his less admirable traits rubbed off on his daughters. When walking one day with Jackie and Lee in Central Park, he noticed an elderly lady showing signs of wanting to chat with them. "Go tell her to jump in the lake," he said to Jackie, who later became famously intolerant of bores.
Despite the pain his infidelity caused her mother and the fact that the breakup of their marriage for that reason was demonstrably his fault, Jackie enjoyed his success with women. "She told me about the complicated relationship with her father, whom she admired and respected because women were crazy about him," John "Demi" Gates, an early admirer of Jackie's, said. "For example, if there was Parents' Day at Farmington, she'd say to him about the mothers of some of her friends, `What about her?' and he'd say, `Yes, I've had her,' or he'd say, `No, but I think that's pretty imminent!' She thought that that was the most wonderful thing. She had all the wrong standards, all the wrong standards, and yet she became something very special in spite of this. Her mother would take the brass off a door knob."
Black Jack's standards were amoral and based on superficial values. The only virtues he recognized were the macho ones of physical courage, athleticism and style; the image was the message. The main game in life was to attract the opposite sex using every trick in the book, the implication being that when it comes to sex everyone is easily fooled, all being fair in love and war because—Black Jack's constant refrain, and who should know better than he?—"All men are rats." This last maxim certainly helped his elder daughter get through the more turbulent periods of her life and was amply borne out by her experience.
If Black Jack Bouvier's standards were suspect, Janet's were little better. Most people had been taken by surprise when Black Jack, already aged thirty-seven, married Janet Norton Lee at St. Philomena's Catholic Church in East Hampton on July 7, 1928. The wedding was followed by a grand reception at the Lees' summer home, a handsome house on Lily Pond Lane designed by the architect Harrie Lindberg for Edward Cowcroft in 1905. Janet, a friend of the Bouvier twins, Jack's sisters Maude and Michelle, was sixteen years younger than her bridegroom and—not that Black Jack would have cared—an Episcopalian. The couple were completely unsuited; Janet, chic, petite and pretty, with great charm and a dazzling smile when she chose to exercise it, was tough, disciplined and inhibited, yet had, under her ladylike exterior, a violent temper. She came from an unhappy home. Her father, James T. Lee, the son of a New York doctor and schools superintendent, had made a fortune in real estate and banking; a tough-looking character, with steely eyes and a rattrap mouth, he liked to boast that he had made two million dollars by the time he was thirty, then lost it in the financial crisis of 1907. A remarkable businessman, he subsequently made another large fortune in banking and New York real estate. He won several awards for the designs of his buildings; it was perhaps from him that Jackie inherited her interest in architecture and the city of New York. It was probably from him also that she inherited the vein of steel in her character, which led John Kennedy's national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, to joke that she was a woman with a "whim of iron." Lee disliked his wife, Margaret Merritt, and never spoke to her; by the time Janet married, her parents were living separate lives although they never formally divorced.
Unsurprisingly, James Lee detested Black Jack and disapproved of his marrying Janet. As families, the Bouviers and the Lees, despite being neighbors on Park Avenue and at East Hampton, did not get along. The Bouviers, proud as they were of their ancestry, looked down on the Lees as their inferiors. Janet's parents were second-generation Irish immigrants and the Lee fortune was of recent origin. In the Bouviers' eyes, Janet was making a calculated climb up the society ladder in marrying Black Jack. The Lees certainly seem to have been socially insecure. James T. Lee's obituary in the New York Times after his death, aged ninety, on January 3, 1968, makes no mention of his antecedents or those of his wife. He is described merely as being "born in New York on Oct. 2, 1877, the son of Dr. James Lee and Mary Norton Lee. His father was once superintendent of the city's public schools."
Despite a rumor that both James and Margaret Lee were the children of Irish immigrants (confirmed by a recent authority on Jackie, who states that both her paternal great-grandparents were immigrants from County Cork at the time of the potato famine), the National Cyclopedia of Biography glamorizes their parents with Confederate backgrounds: James Lee's father is described as having been born in Maryland and having fought with the Confederate Army during the Civil War, while Margaret Merritt is listed as the daughter of Thomas Merritt of Savannah, Georgia, "a Confederate army veteran and an importer of New York City." The Maryland-Lee connection was later propagated publicly by Janet, among other fantasies and half-truths, in a biographical article written about her in 1962 after Jackie had become First Lady. Indeed, several of her friends described her to the present author as "a Southern belle."
Although James Lee was born and died a Catholic, his daughter Janet attended all the right WASP schools—Miss Spence's in New York City, one year at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, another at Barnard College in New York—and made her debut at Sherry's, describing her religion as Episcopalian. She also told the author of the article that she had had a hankering to be a writer and had taken courses in playwriting and short-story writing at Columbia University, but her literary career did not extend beyond ghostwriting some hunting stories for a magazine.
Given the dislike between the two families and Black Jack's well-documented reputation as a womanizer, the omens for the marriage were inauspicious. Janet later said, as women often do whose marriages fail, that she had married Black Jack to get away from her father, and she certainly did so against James Lee's will. But the evidence is that she was also strongly physically attracted to Black Jack, which might well have been a factor in her extreme bitterness when the marriage broke down. Even on their honeymoon sailing to Europe on the Aquitania, Black Jack could not resist a flirtation with the Newport heiress Doris Duke. Or with the gaming tables. When Jackie was in her teens and spending a vacation at the Château de Borda Berri near Biarritz with a crowd of young friends, she told Demi Gates, "`You know, when my father and mother came here on their honeymoon, to Biarritz, he was a terrible gambler and he gambled away all the money, Mother's, his ... The night they arrived he went to the casino and came back very depressed because he had lost everything ...' She said that her mother gathered together whatever money they had and won it all back."
Jackie was christened three days before Christmas 1929 in the church of St. Ignatius Loyola on Park Avenue in New York City. She was given the name Jacqueline Lee, a gesture intended to placate her severe maternal grandfather, who was by far the richest of her immediate relations, and she wore the robe he had worn for his own christening. James T. Lee had been designated her godfather but Black Jack seized the opportunity afforded by the late arrival of his detested father-in-law to substitute his favorite nephew, nine-year-old Miche, in his stead (presaging, in a curious way, the manner in which Hugh D. Auchincloss II, Jackie's stepfather, stood in for him to escort Jackie up the aisle at her wedding to John F. Kennedy).
Two months earlier, in October 1929, two events had occurred that foreshadowed the decline and fall of the Bouvier family. On October 8, Jack's younger brother, William Sergeant "Bud" Bouvier, who had never fully recovered from being severely gassed and wounded in France in the First World War and had since become an alcoholic, died of drink, divorced and alone in California, leaving his young son Miche in the care of his brother Jack. The circumstances of his death, following a public shaming for failing to provide alimony for his ex-wife and their son, had severely dented the Major's family pride and left the family with ineradicable feelings of guilt as well as shame. Eight days later the stock market crashed; Black Jack, sensing a collapse in the market, had sold his shares short and made $100,000 but lost as much a month later when the market plunged still further in November. The Major lost a small fortune with no means of recouping it but continued to live life as comfortably as ever on his dwindling capital.
On the surface, however, the young Bouviers' life seemed sunny and serene. In New York and at East Hampton they were a glamorous couple on the social scene. Many years later, Jackie told Peter Duchin how she remembered her mother's scent and the softness of her fur coat as her parents leaned over her bed to say good night before an evening out listening to Eddie Duchin perform. In New York they lived rent-free in an eleven-room duplex in the prestigious apartment building at 740 Park Avenue, built and owned by Janet's father. Central Park, which for so many years was to be the physical focus of Jackie's life and where Black Jack sweated around the reservoir in a special rubber suit to keep his weight down, lay two blocks to the west. In the summer at East Hampton they rented a charming cottage, Rowdy Hall, on Egypt Lane near the Maidstone Club, where the infant Jackie first made the social columns with her second birthday party and was reported that season showing her Scottie dog Hootchie at the East Hampton Show. Her parents gave lavish parties with a speakeasy atmosphere at the Devon Yacht Club, and for summer baseball games at the Maidstone, Jack invited a visiting team called, naturally, the Wall Street Stars, while Janet captained the women's side.
The family's life revolved around animals: dogs—Hootchie the Scottie; Sister, a white bullterrier; Tally-Ho, a Dalmatian; Caprice, a Bouvier des Flandres; and Great Dane King Phar—and, above all, horses. Janet was a fine, highly competitive horsewoman, winning prizes at horse shows throughout the east and at the annual National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden. She kept four horses including the chestnut Danseuse, Jackie's favorite. Impeccably turned out, she featured regularly in the society press—"She wears the very smartest riding habits at Long Island horse shows ..."—and in the sports pages, where her courage, skill and determination on a horse were admiringly recorded: "[Her expression was] as determined as tennis champion Helen Wills Moody when clearing difficult jumps and that once over and done, her dazzling smile was worth coming miles to see." Under her mother's guidance, Jackie lived for horses and riding; at age two she was put on a horse, the leading rein held by her mother, and photographed. At five, she and her mother took third prize in the family event at the East Hampton Show; another photograph from that same summer shows her, face set in angry frustration, leading her pony away from defeat at a Smithtown, Long Island, show.
In photographs of the time Jackie appears as a sturdy, dark-haired child, staring directly, even aggressively, at the photographer. She had the Bouvier wide-set eyes, although hers, like her mother's, were brown, in contrast to Black Jack's dazzling blue, and thick, dark, curling hair. Like her mother, she was physically courageous and intensely competitive; when her pony threw her at the East Hampton Show she dusted herself off and climbed on it again.
On March 3, 1933, her sister, Caroline Lee Bouvier, was born. Named after her Bouvier great-grandmother, Caroline Maslin Ewing of Philadelphia, the little girl was always known as Lee. "I was so sorry I'd never been called my Christian name, which was Caroline," Lee said, "but it was to please this rather unpleasant grandfather. It certainly was to no avail at all and I got lumbered with being called Lee, which was, you know, both our middle names." The family nicknames for the two sisters were "Jacks" and "Pekes."
Jackie's relationship with her younger sister was curious from the beginning: a mixture of closeness and intense rivalry, protectiveness and the desire to dominate, jealousy and interdependence. It was a relationship that eventually soured, but was important to both for most of their lives. "Jackie's relationship with Lee was very much S & M," said Gore Vidal, who was connected to the sisters through his mother's previous marriage to Hugh D. Auchincloss II, who subsequently became their stepfather, "with Jackie doing the S and Lee the M." "I think you always have some sibling feelings," Lee said, "but I felt more devotion than anything else. As a small child I think I was probably as annoying as any younger sister. I was knocked out by a croquet mallet for two days—that sort of thing—so we had plenty of those sibling rows and fights." From the beginning it was a rivalry in which Lee, except for brief periods, was always the loser, Jackie the star. Lee felt this most strongly in their relationship with their father: Black Jack adored both his daughters and was proud of their looks and accomplishments, but his passion for Jackie (and hers for him) was overriding and semi-incestuous. 'They were so close and then this horse, Danseuse, was the trio in their relationship for a good ten years. My father, the horse and Jackie. I have a book that she did for herself and for me after my father's death with nearly every letter he'd written to each of us—at least half of it was about this horse and the next step of what hunt team she could go into, what class she thought she could do next year at the [Madison Square] Garden." Lee could not compete with Jackie in the equestrian field; her father would put her on the piebald pony, Dancestep, which she disliked. "He wanted me to be a rider as well as Jackie and he forced me to have five, six falls in a row with the horse continuously refusing a fence ..." Asked if she minded her father's obvious preference for Jackie, Lee admitted that she was hurt by it "because I revered him and just longed for his love and affection. What I loved the most was being here with him in East Hampton and he would take me out way beyond those breakers and that was my special moment with him." Being four years younger than Jackie obviously made a great difference: "I was too young to be that athletic and to be able to challenge everything. I just couldn't live up to what he wanted at that age."
Janet Bouvier was extremely highly strung, possibly as a result of a tense, unhappy atmosphere in the Lee household. She told her daughters that her own childhood had not been happy. She used to sit at the table with her two sisters and their parents, the mother whom she adored and the father she seems rather to have disliked, who were not even on speaking terms. "Her father would say, `Would you please tell your mother this ...' and her mother would say, `Would you please tell your father that ...' and so it was very sad. And then they separated, and we were never close, to say the least, to my grandfather Lee. He was a very severe man, a miser and a terribly successful businessman. He didn't have much warmth or charm."
Nor was the Bouvier household serene. A strong strand of individuality bordering on eccentricity ran through the family, and relations between the adult members were often explosive and fueled by sibling rivalry. The Major disapproved of Black Jack, but grandmother Maude spoiled him. Jack was not close to his sisters, the twins Maude and Michelle, who had inherited their mother's delicate features and red-gold hair, or to Edith, who had resented the twins since their birth. Edith was always known as "Big Edie" to distinguish her from her daughter "Little Edie," both of whom had the striking Bouvier looks. Big Edie, married to Phelan Beale, a Philadelphia lawyer, had a great voice, which she liked to make heard, warbling the "Indian Love Call" and "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," to the intense irritation of her siblings. Little Edie's stunning looks and figure made her the star of the family; she once lost her bathing suit diving into the Maidstone Club pool and was thereafter known as "the Body" for obvious reasons. She had a string of beaux and claimed to have been practically engaged to John F. Kennedy's older brother, Joe Jr. Big Edie's rampant infidelities and bohemian lifestyle lost her her husband; her marriage became another casualty in the Bouvier family.
Jackie's favorite among her cousins was her godfather, Michel "Miche" Bouvier, whom Black Jack treated virtually as his own son and who often stayed with them in New York and at Wildmoor, where they now spent their East Hampton summers. Among her own generation were "Scotty," Henry C. Scott Jr., two years older, a daredevil she admired; his sister, "Shella," Michelle, her exact contemporary; and John H. Davis, also born in 1929, the future family biographer. (When his first book on the family appeared, Jackie, regarding it as a betrayal, froze him out.)
In any case, Black Jack Bouvier was too much of an individual to fit in with any cozy family scene, even had it been provided. He considered himself and his daughters superior to the rest of the Bouviers, with the result that Jackie and Lee, unlike the Kennedys, never regarded themselves as part of a clan. It was fun being a Bouvier on the East Hampton social scene, on the beach or around the pool at the Maidstone, playing with the cousins and taking part in the East Hampton Shows, but Jack Bouvier always wanted his daughters to be the stars. On family occasions and at Sunday lunches he would deliberately stir things up by complimenting one of them: "Lee's going to be a real glamour girl someday. Will you look at those eyes ... and those sexy lips of hers?" The rest of the family called these effusions "Vitamin P [Praise]." More usually the doses of Vitamin P were for Jackie: "Doesn't Jackie look terrific? Girl's taken all prizes in her class this year ... and she's the prettiest thing in the ring to boot."
Years later Lee wrote lyrically of her memories of East Hampton summers, of the ocean, which both girls loved (an early poem of Jackie's, written at the age of ten, was entitled "Sea Joy"), evoking the sense of freedom they felt as they escaped from New York at the beginning of June in the four-door navy blue Ford convertible, often pursued by the police (Janet was frequently stopped for speeding), their arrival and the unpacking of summer clothes—four pairs of shorts, red, blue, white and gray, four striped shirts and two pairs of sneakers. For Jackie it meant riding Donny, the family nickname for Danseuse, and going to the station on Friday nights to meet her father on the Cannonball Express from New York, rushing to put pennies on the track before the train arrived. There would be a brief return to East Hampton for Halloween and then it was back to New York until next June.
As Jackie turned seven, her family began to disintegrate. Her parents argued constantly and Janet took out her frustrations and pent-up anger on her children, sometimes slapping them. In the latter half of the thirties the balance of power between the couple shifted in Janet's favor. Black Jack was in the wrong and knew it, although he was unable to give up his pursuit of women. A photograph of the period shows Janet in riding clothes, perched stylishly on a fence, but behind her back her husband is openly holding the hand of a pretty young woman, Virginia Kernochan. It was published in the New York Daily News the day after it was taken, with the inevitable insinuations, which were deeply humiliating to Janet. James T. Lee, anxious to get rid of his detested son-in-law, advised his daughter to consult a divorce lawyer but Janet, still unwilling to abandon her marriage, refused. The incorrigible Black Jack, reckless as ever, was not about to change his ways: he used Wildmoor out of season as a rendezvous for parties with stockbroker friends and showgirls and, while his family were safely in East Hampton during the summer, the New York apartment for similar purposes. Asked why her mother had shown such bitterness toward her father, Lee said, "I suppose she'd been incredibly hurt by him in the early days, or years, rather, of their marriage ... He looked at other women and he liked to flirt. I know thousands of men do that but I guess she just couldn't handle it ..."
An additional cause of friction was finance. Black Jack's stock-exchange fortune had dipped severely; in 1933 and 1934 he had been forced to apply to his father-in-law for a loan to keep going, and was only too aware that even his Park Avenue home was dependent on James T. Lee's grudging charity. As his sense of failure deepened, his pride was wounded. Although there was a temporary improvement in his stock-exchange fortune in 1936, he was being pressed by the estate of M. C. Bouvier for outstanding debts, including a loan of $25,000 dating from 1930, and by the Internal Revenue Service for a considerable sum in back taxes. For her part, Janet was bitterly resentful of his inability to provide the stability, love and affection that she needed to make up for her chilly relationship with her father. She resented, too, that the children so obviously adored their father, preferring his company to hers. Subconsciously the girls took the part of their fascinating, loving father against their disciplinarian mother. "Both girls hated their mother," said a friend who knew them at Farmington. "Jackie had a very close semi-incestuous relationship with her father who at the same time she was ashamed of. Janet didn't like her daughters, only her Auchincloss children." Janet's violence toward her children continued even when they were adults: "Michael Canfield told me that Janet would strike her [Jackie] in fits of temper," a cousin said. "He said they were very violent, that she'd strike out and she [Jackie] didn't like that at all. I can see that because you could tell with Janet: she had one of those tempers that was like a thunderstorm, you could see it coming." Perhaps it would have been truer to say that the girls resented Janet's constant carping criticism. "She expected so much from each of us," Lee remembered, "that I don't recall exactly but it was never defined in a particular area ... [just] simply excelling and perfection so there was an awful lot of criticism. But that may have been her unhappiness with herself ..."
At the end of September 1936 Janet demanded a six-month trial separation; Black Jack moved out of the apartment to a room at the Westbury, almost a home away from home for him since the Polo Bar was one of his favorite rendezvous for assignations. The couple were together again for the following summer in East Hampton but on their return to New York after Labor Day they parted for the last time. According to one of Jackie's biographers, that last summer in East Hampton as a family had been a sad ordeal, in East Hampton everyone knew each other's business and at the riding club, where Jackie spent most of her days, "all the kids knew and some made a point of needling Jackie. But when she didn't want to hear something she didn't listen. She had a lot of grit for a little girl." Another member of the club remembers a wistful Jackie wandering around "like a motherless kitten," talking to the grooms and lavishing attention on the horses. "You somehow sensed she was a thousand miles away, existing in a world of manufactured dreams." With some justification, the Lees blamed Black Jack: "There was no excuse in the world for Black Jack," Janet's younger sister, Winifred d'Olier, said. "He was a terrible guy ... He was the worst man you could possibly find."
The next summer, 1938, Janet rented a house at Bellport, forty miles from her daughters' beloved East Hampton, to set a distance between herself and Black Jack. The girls spent August with their father, but even at Lasata life was falling apart at the seams and the family were more than ever at each other's throats. The Major had fallen in love with an Englishwoman, Mrs. Mabel Ferguson, who lived and worked in New York. "When Grandmother found out about it," Edie Beale said, "her heart shattered. The affair killed her ..." Maude died less than two years later, on April 2, 1940.
For Jackie, the heartbreak was private, the humiliation public. On January 26, 1940, the New York Daily Mirror broke the news of her parents' separation under the headline "Society Broker Sued for Divorce," and published details—supplied apparently by Janet's lawyer—of Black Jack's women, with dates and photographs. Then the big news services ran the story and it was reprinted in tabloids and newspapers across the country. In public Jackie developed a protective shell of reserve, so none of her school friends or teachers seem to have realized the hurt that lay behind it. "It was, of all the divorces I've heard about and watched, I think probably one of the very worst," Lee recalled, "because there was such relentless bitterness on both sides, only myself and Jackie, one felt constantly pulled in the other one's direction, and then they spoke of each other in such very unpleasant ways."
It was now that Jackie developed the capacity to shut out things she didn't want to hear, to block out pain, which stood her in good stead later in life. "Jackie was really fortunate to have or acquire the ability to tune out, which she always kept," Lee said. "It was like for the years from ten to twenty never hearing anything [from your parents] except how awful the other one was. Until it gets like a broken record and you start to ignore it because you know when it's coming ... I envied her [Jackie] so much being able to press the button and tune out ..." But even Jackie could not tune out entirely. The bitterness of her parents' divorce and its public nature left her with deep insecurities, repressed anger and a fawnlike shyness of the world beyond a circle of trusted friends. It also enhanced the escapist, romantic side of her nature, her love of poetry and books, a fantasy world in which she could lose herself and hide from unpleasant reality. All her life she preferred to skim the surface, afraid to probe at what might lie beneath. She found physical release from her demons in riding hard over fences, and was a courageous, competitive horsewoman. Black Jack told her future husband, John F. Kennedy, "If you have any trouble with Jackie, put her on a horse."
In 1939, as her East Hampton world was breaking up, Jackie, aged ten, wrote a poem celebrating her love for the ocean, illustrating it with a drawing of herself, head thrown back, hair blown by the wind, standing in front of huge rolling breakers:
When I go down to the sandy shore
I can think of nothing I want more
Than to live by the booming blue sea
As the seagulls flutter around about me
I can run about when the tide is out
With the wind and the sea all about
And the seagulls are swirling and diving for fish
Oh—to live by the sea is my only wish
Posted October 25, 2013
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