Reading Jackie: Her Autobiography in Books by William Kuhn
I really don’t remember when I first jumped on board the gilded train to Camelot. All I know is that by the end of high school, I had begun curating a respectable collection of Kennedy-related literature: Jackie Style, In the Kennedy Style, Jack and Jackie: Portrait of an American Marriage. By college, I had even acquired what can only be a cruel joke by a wrathful God on America’s most cherished icon of haute couture. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Paper Dolls begins with a young Miss Bouvier bared cheerfully to her skivvies, before an ominous warning on the debutante page not to “cut out white area between arm and body.”
What is absent from my archive of kitsch is anything dressed up as a “literary” treatment of the Kennedy myth (and myth, it so happens, was one of Jackie’s favorite literary subjects). Luckily for me, any misgivings I may have had about the frivolity of my inclinations have been graciously dispelled by William Kuhn’s recent addition to the Jackie canon. Reading Jackie: Her Autobiography in Books -- a work that is part popular history, part industry gossip, and part literary exegesis -- attempts to fill in the “white area” between this perennially alluring widow and the QVC jewelry now made in her image. Using the titles Jackie edited for Viking and Doubleday after both her marriages had ended, Kuhn attempts to “tell a story about her that she was never willing to tell in her own lifetime.” The problem is that -- much as it pains me to admit it -- Jackie’s professional accomplishments do not form an enticing enough subject for a nearly 300-page narrative, and for substance on the issues she cared about we’d be better off going straight to the books that Kuhn finds so revealing of her tastes and tribulations.
The difficulties all announce themselves in the prologue, when Kuhn observes that “The woman who had taught a nation what it was like to have courage had an instinct not to overdramatize things, to play it low-key, to stay upbeat.” And while that may be true of Jackie’s personal life (to which this book admits its scarcity of access, since its conceit is, respectfully, her work), it is a tough pill to swallow in regards to the images that are her most recognizable legacy. This is after all “the woman who launched the idea of Camelot,” who modeled her slain husband’s funeral after Abraham Lincoln’s and added a little boy’s iconic salute. The humanizing premise of Kuhn’s book contradicts the larger-than-life reason for its existence, as is made clear by his comparison of Jackie’s editorial oeuvre with Edith Wharton’s library. “[I]t was so central to understanding an important writer’s mind,” he remarks of the latter, clumsily sidestepping his own observation of Jackie’s desire for professional self-effacement. My Kennedy-loving credentials having been established, it seems fair to state the obvious here: Jackie O was not an important writer, and people aren’t really captivated by her mind, agile though it may have been.
This is not to say that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was not smart as a whip, in other words, but that she is most interesting in having masterfully exploited the gap between herself and her image. She wore high culture like an opera glove, delicate hand outstretched with Balanchinian flourish but withdrawn before the satin can be slid off. Though Kuhn is clearly trying to explore this disjunct and perhaps make it seem less pronounced, the result is that he foists literal readings upon a central character who inclines toward metaphor. Out of deference to Jackie’s winking cultivation, her finely tuned sense of rules, hierarchies and their subtle manipulation, I do not want to envision her plopped on the floor laying out books on ballet or eighteenth-century courtly life, bellowing “‘Oy vey,’ loud and low, in a deep voice.” And in his unrelenting efforts to nuance the image of Jackie as “the gossamer creation that she appears to be in many of her photographs,” Kuhn occasionally strays into absurdity and trite condescension. We find that her skills on the job weren’t so much a product of taste or social connections, but of her more relatable experience as a mother. Or that “Jackie’s discovery in these years was that reading by herself in a corner, sailing on a yacht, and buying couture clothes in Paris were all a great deal less sustaining than going into the office and drinking coffee out of a Styrofoam cup.” I’m sure. And Jackie would have strolled through Target arm in arm with Michelle Obama if only given the chance.
Making the case for Jackie as a practical working woman with feminist inclinations is also where Kuhn drops some of his least illuminating wisdoms. Did you know, for example, that “There was a gap between the 1950s… and the 1970s,” or that “In those days, when women from her background didn’t work, many women considered a prospective husband’s finances before they married”? In chapter sub-sections with titles like “From Privileged Women to Everywoman,” Kuhn goes to plausibility-defying lengths to show how Jackie’s intimate experience is linked to the titles she edited on “women’s contributions to history” (which, as you may also not realize, “is now a standard part of university history curricula”). Unfortunately, the connection he’s trying to sell is both so thin and so blunt as to demand a bit of grotesquerie, such as the uncanny likenesses we’re told exist between the debutante-turned-first lady and Thomas Jefferson’s slave mistress Sally Hemings. Sally Hemings spent time with Jefferson in Paris -- Jackie Kennedy spent time in Paris, too! Thomas Jefferson lived in Virginia -- Jackie Kennedy hunted on horseback in Virginia! “Most of all,” Kuhn writes, “Jackie knew about presidential mistresses,” and could therefore provide “insight on why Hemings might have chosen to stay in bondage to such a man” even though she maybe sort of had a chance once to go free. If insights like this are intended to satirize Jackie’s cloistered cultural milieu (and I don’t think they are), then the book does its savvy subject an injustice.
The connections between Jackie and her list do not grow more profound as Kuhn sputters toward his conclusion, and his readings get increasingly repetitive (Jackie’s daddy issues with “Black Jack” Bouvier, among other things, form a tiresome motif). There are tear-jerker moments, like when Prince Rainier teases Grace Kelly about the flowers that she had begun collecting, pressing in telephone books and auctioning off as collages, to later form the basis of a book on (you guessed it!) Grace Kelly and flowers: “Grace, like Jackie, longed to find a role other than pretty face or princess-on-demand.” By Chapter 8, over halfway through Reading Jackie, Kuhn appears to have thrown up his hands and departed for richer historical terrain, and books on ballet are related to nothing more revealing than Jackie’s thinness and a generic consciousness of body image. The language becomes less decisive, as if Kuhn is hesitant to stake even the broadest of claims. Prima ballerina Gelsey Kirkland, in her autobiographies about Baryshnikov’s orgasms and cocaine abuse, “revealed the secrets of many women, perhaps even Jackie.” If such assertions were backed up in any detail, perhaps I would have turned back less often to the pictures section for relief.
Kuhn clearly has an eye for elite institutions, and enjoyably pokes fun at them from time to time (I chuckled at his early portrait of Miss Porter’s School in Connecticut, and a comparison of fashion mogul Diana Vreeland to Wittgenstein). Beyond that, it’s clear that his respect for Jackie’s dynamism, intelligence and hard work is genuine, even as he observes the many privileges her life afforded. At the end of the day, though, I was all too happy to reach parts of the book that should have been auxiliary to its main themes of Jackie’s rarified aesthetic giving way to a more practical edge, and I sheepishly wished that things like the brief description of her work with Michael Jackson had been juicier. This is not because I misunderstand Kuhn’s intentions as some kind of thinly veiled addition to the Kennedy gossip mill, but because I think its intentions are flawed. If you want me to appreciate Jackie’s unsung combination of regality and brains, refinement and versatility, then let her work speak for itself. Otherwise, just send me back to my paper dolls to admire the thing she did best: the pose, the posture, the orchestrated image of almost tactile charisma and not the explanatory narrative that turns the dance into the playbill.
Reading Jackie: Her Autobiography in Books by William Kuhn
Nan A. Talese