Monday, September 5, 2011
Celebrity biographies aren't usually my first choice, but William Kuhn took a different approach to the former first lady Jackie Kennedy Onassis that caught my attention. In Reading Jackie, instead of focusing on the aspects of her life that have been most public, especially her White House years, including the assassination in 1963, he proposes to show a different look at her through her reading life, and especially her surprising midlife career as an editor.
The pictures that emerges is a woman full of contradictions. She experienced a life of privilege, yet often felt she didn't quite belong. As a girl, she loved to curl up with a book, a habit that continued through her life. Kuhn reports that as she approached her death, friends read to her from her favorite books (while her Kennedy sister-in-law perched in the corner, providing unnecessary commentary on visitors.)
When she began her career at Viking, no doubt many suspected she was hired for her connections--certainly useful in the publishing business. Throughout her career, though, she not only showed the work ethic that marked her successes, but she was often described sitting on the floor of her small, nondescript office, working on a layout, or running down the hall in stocking feet, working on a deadline.
Her colleague helped to protect her privacy. She was famously uncomfortable with photographers, for example, and sometimes canceled appearances at book parties when she learned too many would be in attendance. Her move to Doubleday came as a result of a decision to publish a Kennedy-related book despite her opposition.
At other times, though, she was able to overlook elements of books that might have been expected to make her squeamish. In her friend Diana Vrelland's book Allure, Onassis was able to look past sections including Marilyn Monroe and Maria Callas, despite these women's rather public connections to her late husbands.
Kuhn showed how Jackie promoted what she most loved--dancing, eighteenth century European life, collections and relics of royals--French, Russian, and Indian. Her travels often opened up her interests. She also championed causes important to her, adding books to her list related to Civil Rights--particularly opposition to George Wallace--before his political about face.
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was also shown as the "closet feminist" she has been called. She was reported to have advised that women avoid marriage and keep their money separate, something she clearly did with the last love of her life, Maurice Tempelsman. In her friendships and in the books she chose to edit, she often seemed acutely aware of women who had made marriages with powerful men who sought to overshadow or even belittle them.
I was surprised by some of the titles on her list, particularly The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell's book in association with the television series with Bill Moyers. As the woman who created the association of Camelot with her husband's administration, she has lived a life of myth. Through the lens of her books, readers will learn that she is a many-layered woman who grew far beyond her most public, tragic role.
Posted by Nancy at 4:30 PM