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Reading Jackie: Her Autobiography in Books
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Reading Jackie: Her Autobiography in Books

by William Kuhn

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Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis never wrote a memoir, but she told her life story and revealed herself in intimate ways through the nearly 100 books she brought into print during the last two decades of her life as an editor at Viking and Doubleday. Based on archives and interviews with Jackie's authors, colleagues, and friends, Reading Jackie mines this significant


Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis never wrote a memoir, but she told her life story and revealed herself in intimate ways through the nearly 100 books she brought into print during the last two decades of her life as an editor at Viking and Doubleday. Based on archives and interviews with Jackie's authors, colleagues, and friends, Reading Jackie mines this significant period of her life to reveal both the serious and the mischievous woman underneath the glamorous public image.

Though Jackie had a reputation for avoiding publicity, she willingly courted controversy in her books. She was the first editor to commission a commercially-successful book telling the story of Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with his female slave. Her publication of Gelsey Kirkland's attack on dance icon George Balanchine caused another storm. Jackie rarely spoke of her personal life, but many of her books ran parallel to, echoed, and emerged from her own experience. She was the editor behind bestsellers on the assassinations of Tsar Nicholas II and John Lennon, and in another book she paid tribute to the allure of Marilyn Monroe and Maria Callas. Her other projects take us into territory she knew well: journeys to Egypt and India, explorations of the mysteries of female beauty and media exploitation, into the minds of photographers, art historians, and the designers at Tiffany & Co.

Many Americans regarded Jackie as the paragon of grace, but few knew her as the woman sitting on her office floor laying out illustrations, or flying to California to persuade Michael Jackson to write his autobiography. Reading Jackie provides a compelling behind-the-scenes look at Jackie at work: how she commissioned books and nurtured authors, as well as how she helped to shape stories that spoke to her strongly. Jackie is remembered today for her marriages to JFK and to Aristotle Onassis, but her real legacy is the books that reveal the tastes, recollections, and passions of an independent woman.

WILLIAM KUHN is a biographer and historian. He is the author of three previous books, including, most recently, a controversial biography, The Politics of Pleasure: A Portrait of Benjamin Disraeli. His Henry and Mary Ponsonby: Life at the Court of Queen Victoria was a BBC Radio Four Book of the Week read by actor Geoffrey Palmer.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
During the last two decades of her life, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis worked on nearly 100 books with varying degrees of responsibility as an editor, first at Viking--she resigned after being castigated by the New York Times about a Viking thriller with a Ted Kennedy–like protagonist as an assassination target--and then at Doubleday, which promised to avoid any similar embarrassments. Her love of dance led to Onassis publishing a biography of Fred Astaire and autobiographies of Martha Graham, Judith Jamison, and Gelsey Kirkland. Kuhn (The Politics of Pleasure: A Portrait of Benjamin Disraeli) is particularly dismissive of Kirkland and her then-husband/collaborator Greg Lawrence's bestselling tell-all accusing George Balanchine of cruelties; not coincidentally, Lawrence is the author of a competing book, Jackie as Editor. With biographies of Clara Bow and Jean Harlow, the quietly feminist Onassis insisted on getting beyond publicity photo images to tell a woman's true story, says Kuhn. Being seen as royalty herself as the widow of JFK, the often imperious Onassis commissioned more than a dozen books on the royalty of India, ancient Egypt, Versailles, and Romanov Russia. Although this lucid, amply detailed catalogue of Onassis's publishing projects offers a window into her passions and opaque personality, it is far from what Kuhn dubs "the only autobiography she ever wrote"--most readers will not find it revelatory. (Dec.)
Kirkus Reviews

A clever, surprisingly substantial take on the life of Jacqueline Onassis (1929 –1994).

Kuhn (History/Carthage Coll; The Politics of Pleasure: A Portrait of Benjamin Disraeli, 2006, etc.) admiringly portrays this American icon as a bookish creature born to uncertain privilege who embraced her more wealthy, connected husbands for security rather than a meeting of artistic minds. "Jackie," as the author calls her throughout, came into her own as an editor only after second husband Aristotle Onassis died. Kuhn asserts that through her publishing list of nearly 100 books, first at Viking, then at Doubleday, this most private public person truly revealed what she cared passionately about. The author's brisk, officious, often repetitive narrative moves quickly over Jackie's early career, characterized by the thwarting of her earliest desires to be a ballet dancer and then a writer. Landing a job at Viking in 1975 fulfilled a kind of dream postponed—she had won Vogue's Prix de Paris for her essay as a 21-year-old college student, gaining her an internship at the magazine's Paris office, only to be forced by her mother to decline. She also found an important new mentor in formerVogueeditor Diana Vreeland. Through Vreeland, Martha Graham and Bill Moyers, she developed her first successful books. The author traces Jackie's professional development, from a "shy celebrity recruit" to a macher who could bring in big names via books by Michael Jackson, Naguib Mahfouz and Gelsey Kirkland. Kuhn argues that Jackie touched on forbidden themes in her own life—her husband's adultery, the humiliation of marriage, political machinations—only through her list, including such books as Barbara Chase-Riboud's controversial novelSally Hemings (1979) and Elizabeth Crook's novel about Sam Houston and Eliza Allen,The Raven's Bride (1991). In between chronicling the titles shepherded by Jackie, Kuhn offers delicious tidbits of gossip, such as Jackie's evident glee and pride at her salary increase and promotion to senior editor.

Both respectful and scintillating.

From the Publisher
“A fascinating window into an aspect of Jackie Kennedy Onassis that few of us know.”
—USA Today

“Sheds new light on the part of Jackie’s life that she most clearly chose for herself. . . . An essential chapter in a remarkable life. . . . What’s clear from [Reading Jackie] is that Jackie was a remarkably perceptive and sensitive editor with a regard for writing and a sense of what makes writing good—far more than just a socialite in an office with a drop-dead Rolodex.”
—Los Angeles Times

“This book shows Jackie not as a First Lady or fashion icon, but as an intellectual, well-read woman.”
—New York Daily News
“Jackie O loved powerful men, but her passion was for writers. . . . [Kuhn] reveals some fascinating facts about the literary Jackie.”
—O, The Oprah Magazine

“William Kuhn reveals the Jackie I knew as a person and professional: serious, smart, intuitive about ideas and aesthetics, but also down to earth in the sense of understanding the potential audience for a book. In Reading Jackie I learned so much about her I didn’t know, and Kuhn tells the story with such flowing grace of phrase and structure. A splendid work.”
—Bill Moyers
“Unexpectedly and intelligently dishy. . . . Quite a fascinating portrait of a complex woman, who had the interests and enthusiasms of her class and was allowed to indulge those passions with singular force and focus.”
—The Boston Globe
“It is enlightening to see [Jackie] not simply as the stylish wife of two powerful men, but also as a career woman who oversaw the publication of close to 100 books in her two decades at Viking and Doubleday, and to know she was greatly admired by both her peers and the authors she edited.”
—The Star-Ledger
“Absorbing. . . . Fascinating. . . . A treat for bibliophiles and Jackiephiles—and especially for those whom those interests overlap.”
—Richmond Times-Dispatch
“Enlightening and surprising. . . . Impeccably researched. . . . Provides insights that would never have been available to outsiders.”
—Buffalo News
“Embedded in the book is a fascinating look at the vanities of New York publishing in the late 20th century: how books got acquired, edited and sold; how the tastes of a few individuals shaped reading habits of the masses.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“Reading Jackie illuminates a literary life. . . . The portrait that emerges is of a highly cultured, witty woman who loved ballet, art and history and developed a deep knowledge of many topics.”
—Fort Worth Star-Telegram
“[Kuhn] makes the compelling argument that Onassis was much more intellectual and thoughtful than many portrayals in the media suggested.”
—Town and Country

Library Journal
Rather than diminishing her status as "American royalty," Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis's 1994 death enshrined her in immutable seclusion and mystery. Her reticence to grant interviews (the last was a full 30 years prior to her death), pen memoirs, or dish intimacies continues to fuel the public's hunger to know her. Biographer/historian Kuhn (The Politics of Pleasure) has sagely plumbed her editing career for insights, a fitting Rosetta Stone for decoding a woman afire with a lifelong love of reading, words, and books. Actress Susan Denaker's reading is appropriately invisible to the listener, never stealing the limelight from the true star of the tale. Recommended for all those who enjoy delving into the lives of fascinating personalities. ["A revealing, readable, and insightful book," read the review of the Nan A. Talese: Doubleday hc, LJ 11/15/10; the Anchor pb will publish in October 2011.—Ed.]—Judith Robinson, Dept. of Lib. & Information Studies, Univ. at Buffalo

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
7.12(w) x 11.70(h) x 1.18(d)

Read an Excerpt

chapter 1


-Jackie to her roommate, Nancy Tuckerman,

at Miss Porter's School

Miss Porter's School is a college prep school for girls arranged in a dozen historic houses on either side of a two-lane highway running through Farmington, a suburb of Hartford, Connecticut. Most of the girls are boarders, but a few are day students from the neighborhood. The most remarkable thing about the adolescent girls who go there is how utterly at ease they are with adults. They look you in the eye, smile, say hello, and are unafraid of strangers, as if to say, "If you are here, you must belong here, just like I do." Nancy Tuckerman's explanation of what made the school tick in the 1940s was that it was "very much a family school. My mother went there, her sister went there, my sister went there. Jackie's sister, Lee, went there, and their half-sister, Janet Auchincloss, went there too." All that was long ago, before the school started reaching out to nontraditional constituencies in hopes of increasing diversity and reducing its reputation for exclusivity, but even now the place has the feeling of educating polished, confident girls who will one day have a chance both to earn and to inherit everything good that life has to offer. Everybody thinks that Jacqueline Bouvier was the sort of girl who was made for Miss Porter's, but in fact an important part of her never entirely fit in there.

She was shy, something of a loner, and looked for ways to spend time by herself. At the end of the day, when the girls would gather in one another's dorm rooms before lights-out to talk and gossip about the day, Jackie preferred to stay alone in her room reading a book. "Often French literature," Nancy Tuckerman reminisced, distinctly pronouncing it "lit-ra-toor" and conveying the idea of the very proper school Miss Porter's was when she and Jackie were there together. One girl's mother wouldn't have her daughter rooming with Jackie because she thought one of the points of Miss Porter's was to socialize and meet people. Rooming with Jackie would mean rooming with someone who didn't much like to mix with the other girls. It wasn't that Jackie was unpopular or disliked by the other girls, but she 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.

Girls near graduation who had good academic records were allowed to spend study hall in their rooms. Jackie had this privilege. The room she shared with Tuckerman was at the top of a big Classical Revival house built in 1800, their two single beds wedged in under sloping eaves and their window looking out on old shade trees. Sometimes they would both be up there together, reading their books in bed. Tuckerman loved to laugh and was drawn to Jackie's sense of humor. The friendship Jackie extended to her was so rare a privilege, it would have been hard not to prize it, even when sometimes, late in the day, Tuckerman would think it was all right to raise some conversation, only to be interrupted by Jackie, who would say, "Ssh! I'm reading" and give her a look that made them both lie back laughing against the pillows.

Despite Jackie's love of books, she spent a lifetime trying to prevent people from writing them about her. Yet she did authorize one biography, written and published by Mary Van Rensselaer Thayer. Thayer was a member of one of New England's founding families. Her ancestors had settled in the Hudson River valley as far back as the days when New York was New Amsterdam. She was a friend of Jackie's mother, and her book, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, was published in 1961 as part of the publicity blitz that accompanied the beginning of John F. Kennedy's presidency. The book is far from a tame whitewash of Jackie's early life, however. When Jackie found that in an early draft of the book Thayer was quoting from letters that her mother had lent to Thayer, she asked her mother and her friends to stop cooperating. Jackie did not stop the book, but she made her displeasure with some of what the book revealed known.

Thayer noted that when Jackie was still young, she started putting together a little library of her own of books about ballet: "She knew she could never be a ballet dancer but she did think, for a bit, that she might be part of the show, by designing ballet and theatrical costumes." That sense early on of what she could not do was at the nub of Jackie's self-image as a reader. Coupled with the sense of limitation was a determination to work around it, to participate in the creative and artistic activity that gripped her imagination. 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.

Thayer's biography tells of the books Jackie read when she was young. She read Gone With the Wind three times. There were ways in which some of the operatic characters from the book resembled people in Jackie's own family. Jackie's mother, Janet, divorced Jackie's father, Jack Bouvier, in 1940, when Jackie was eleven years old. The man who had got his nickname, "Black Jack," from his permanent suntan spent the rest of his life in a succession of New York apartments, sometimes looked after by girlfriends, sometimes not, spending beyond his means and trading on the stock exchange. Janet remarried in 1942. 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. He had a son from a previous marriage, just two years older than Jackie, who was known in the family as Yusha. Yusha Auchincloss remembered that Jackie also loved the movies, and Gone With the Wind was one of her favorites. "Rhett Butler reminded her of her father, Scarlett O'Hara of her mother," he said. The grand southern house of the movie, Tara, reminded her of Merrywood and Hammersmith rolled together. Jackie's stepbrother also thought that Jackie "had a lot of Scarlett's qualities, the same ones as her mother had, good and not so good." Jackie grew up patterning herself on one of the most famous temperamental divas of the 1930s and '40s, both the character in the book and Vivien Leigh's depiction of her on the screen. Scarlett O'Hara could be shrewd and selfish as well as self-sacrificing, and it's difficult to tell which of those features drew Jackie to read about her again and again. Jackie might also have seen that her own family dramas sometimes paled before the melodrama on the page, and in that sense the saga of Scarlett and Rhett was a comfort.

Jackie learned to look for men in books, too. Yusha Auchincloss recalled that "as a teenager she devoured Tolstoy's War and Peace and Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe. Courage and chivalry were tops on her list of qualities she admired most in men." Another model for how men should behave was in the children's story Little Lord Fauntleroy, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, about an American boy living in Brooklyn who discovers that he is heir to an earldom when his English grandfather, the earl, sends a lawyer to visit his mother. The American boy, undaunted by the prospect of a big house and a title, inadvertently teaches his grandfather about kindness and compassion toward the less well-off. Jackie wrote in her essay for Vogue that little Lord Fauntleroy's grandfather was one of her heroes. It is interesting that she identified with the corrupt old aristocrat rather than the hero of the story. Perhaps she dreamed of high caste and riches, as many little girls do, but appreciated adult wickedness, too. All three of these books imagine a life lived in castles and palaces, among reckless and courageous European nobles. The humble March sisters of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women were not for Jackie.

Nor is it surprising to find her a little in love with Lord Byron, the bad boy of English Romantic poets, a dandy who had affairs with young men and his own half-sister as well as a string of eligible women. Thayer notes that as Jackie "edged into her teens, Lord Byron became a beloved companion. She read and reread his poems and lived his life through the pages" of Byron's biography. Her father, who was a dandy too, who was rumored to have been bisexual (he had been a friend of Cole Porter's at Yale), and who had the insouciance to be photographed holding the hand of one of his girlfriends as he stood behind his wife's back, was about as Byronic a man as one could find on Long Island in the 1930s. Rhett Butler, Byron, and Black Jack Bouvier merged together in Jackie's reading life to sustain her image of where she came from as well as to give her an idea of where she might like to go.

One of the letters from Jackie's father that Mary Thayer put into her book tells of how much he was going to hate losing her when she found a boyfriend or a husband. Black Jack wrote that he supposed "it won't be long until I lose you to some funny-looking 'gink' "—slang for an odd boy—"who you think is wonderful because he is romantic-looking in the evening and wears his mother's pearl earrings for dress-shirt buttons, because he loves her so." In other words, he was afraid she'd marry a mama's boy who wore ladies' pearls in his shirtfront. As a snazzy dresser himself, perhaps Bouvier was projecting some vision of himself that she might like to marry, but there's no question that she remained attached to him long beyond the grave. As an adult, she kept no pictures of JFK or Onassis in her library, her favorite room in her New York apartment. The biggest framed photo sitting on a side table was of Black Jack.

Romances by the Book

A few years later, one of the ways in which Jackie first connected with JFK was via books. When she went to Europe on an assignment in 1953 for the Washington Times-Herald, her companion remembers, Jackie loaded her suitcase on the return trip with books to take back to the young senator she was dating. One of JFK's favorite books, Lord David Cecil's biography of the nineteenth-century British prime minister Lord Melbourne, captured the very era in which Byron flourished. Melbourne's first wife, Lady Caroline Lamb, had been one of Byron's lovers. The biography describes untamed aristocrats who were committed to public service at the same time that they did not give a damn what the public thought about their louche private lives. In that era, before many people could vote, they did not have to care. JFK had first learned to admire the idea of a wealthy aristocrat's obligation to serve the state-noblesse oblige-when he had lived in London with his father, who was the American ambassador to Britain in the late 1930s. This idea of state service combined with playing a role in history and doing whatever you pleased in private life was one of JFK's key points of contact with Jackie.

As a reader of history and lover of books, Jackie was highly conscious of the way in which European monarchs had encouraged the creation of works of art by becoming patrons of artists. In the White House she saw her job as nothing less than raising the profile of the creative arts in America. Book collecting was one of the most important attributes of European kingship. The core of the British Library, one of the best collections in the world, was the product of King George III's passion for book collecting. The gift of his library to the British nation was one of his legacies, more memorable than his blindness about the American colonies. Jackie refused to accept the traditional cultural divide between Britain and America, between European and American attitudes toward the arts. She took European court culture as her pattern. One of Jackie's lesser-known projects in the White House years was beginning the work to found a White House library, later completed under President Johnson. She asked the academic editors of the Adams Papers and the Jefferson Papers to advise on the creation of such a library, one that would be appropriate to a house built in the early decades of the nineteenth century and to the shared philosophy of the nation's founders. What books should it have? She wanted the library to be available for use, not just for show. In 1962, Arthur Schlesinger, on leave from Harvard while he served on JFK's staff, was helping her to select a book to take as a gift to Jawaharlal Nehru when she went on a state visit to India. They agreed on a first edition of Thoreau's Civil Disobedience as being intellectually related to the philosophy of India's founding statesman, Mahatma Gandhi. She wrote a letter to Schlesinger agreeing that "a library is dead if not used." She also observed that White House staffers were entirely capable of "pinching" the books and teased Schlesinger by asking him to sit in the library dressed in historic costume to discourage theft.

Late in her life, in a note to Carl Sferrazza Anthony, who was writing a book on American first ladies, Jackie went out of her way to say how she cared about American history. Anthony had started doing his research early. When he was a boy in the 1960s he began writing to Nancy Tuckerman in the White House, asking her for memorabilia. Perhaps because of this persistence and the fact that both women could remember that he had written to them years before, Jackie was unusually frank with him. It still bothered her that many Americans considered her unpatriotic-in the 1960s some had accused her of being too French or European. Jackie told Anthony that she remembered her step-uncle, Wilmarth "Lefty" Lewis, the editor of the Horace Walpole Papers at Yale, telling her as a girl that of the three greatest men alive in the eighteenth century—Denis Diderot, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson—two were American. She did not want to make the White House European. She wanted to raise the public profile of a long intellectual tradition that stood behind the American presidency, one that was the equal of any European court.

Meet the Author

William Kuhn is a biographer and historian. He is the author of three previous books, including, most recently, a controversial biography, The Politics of Pleasure: A Portrait of Benjamin Disraeli. His Henry and Mary Ponsonby: Life at the Court of Queen Victoria was a BBC Radio Four Book of the Week read by actor Geoffrey Palmer.

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