MEETING JACKIE: A CANADIAN ENCOUNTERS CAMELOT
Oh Jackie, Jackie, Jackie O, will there ever be another icon like you?
Fifteen years after her death and nearly 50 years since she first, somewhat reluctantly, stepped into the spotlight’s glare, Jacqueline Kennedy’s star is undimmed. She’s invoked on The Simpsons, channelled on Mad Men and referenced in regard to any national leader’s wife who shows even a hint of glamour — whether it be Mila Mulroney (yes, once, briefly), Carla Bruni-Sarkozy or Michelle Obama. To 20- and 30-something women looking beyond their mothers’ generation for a pre-feminist model, Jackie is The One. There’s even a how-to-be-like-Jackie handbook entitled What Jackie Taught Us, in which author Tina Santi Flaherty states unequivocally, “Jackie captured our imagination as no other woman has or probably ever will again in our time.”
With Americans having recently inaugurated another generation-shifting, handsome young president with an accomplished wife and two small children, Camelot comparisons are inescapable. Tempering them, of course, is the grim reminder that the “one brief shining moment” of the early ’60s ended with an assassin’s bullet.
For those of us born into Boomerdom’s first cohort, one memory we have on instant recall is how we first heard the shocking news of Nov. 22, 1963. I was in First Form (Grade 9) at Upper Canada College in Toronto when French master Louis Paichoux began our afternoon class by asking, “’Ave you ’eard dat Prez-ee-dent Kenn-e-dee ’as been shot?” There was a flurry of shocked chatter before teaching resumed. It didn’t occur to us that this “shot” could have been fatal — until an hour or two later when a PA announcement informed us that the U.S. president was dead and classes were over for the day.
A flash-forward from that day to exactly 25 years later would find me sitting face-to-face with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis on Nov. 22, 1988 in New York. Jackie, by then, was a senior editor at Doubleday, and I was editorial director of Madison Press Books, a Toronto producer of illustrated books. Madison was rather a hot shop that year as we had recently produced a number of bestsellers. We had submitted projects to Mrs. Onassis in the past but had never before presented to her in person. Al Cummings, Madison’s president, had called me from New York the week before to say, “We’re on with Mrs. O for next Tuesday.”
“Fine,” I replied.
“You realize what day that is?” Al asked.
“Well,” I said, consulting the calendar, “it’s Nov. 22. Yikes! That’s the anniversary, isn’t it? And this year’s a big one, 25, I think. You’d better call and double-check. She’ll likely be at the eternal flame or something.”
Al called Jackie’s assistant who told him that Mrs. Onassis would indeed be in the office on the 22nd, as she didn’t want that day commemorated, only the president’s birthday. I also learned that our meeting time had been switched to twelve noon. “Great,” I said, “that’s not only the day but also the hour it happened. Let’s be careful we don’t say anything inappropriate.” I summoned up Jackie’s elegant glare from snaps taken by stalking paparazzi like Ron Galella.
But it would be haunting images of Jackie on that fateful day in Dallas that would greet me as I walked into 666 Fifth Avenue where Doubleday’s offices were then located. The newsstand in the lobby displayed Time and the other newsweeklies with their 25th anniversary covers face out. And all of them showed Jackie in her blood-stained pink suit. “My God,” I thought, “she has to walk past this all week. What must that be like?”
1. French President Charles de Gaulle with the First Couple in Paris. She so bewitched the nation the President famously quipped, “I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris”
2. Followed by persistent photographer Ron Galella in 1971.
3. Jackie sits with her then-fiance Senator John Kennedy sailing off the coast of Cape Cod in 1953. Images such as his cemented his vibrant image that belied his serious health problems
4. Jackie plays “Counterstrike” in 1975 as friends and schoolmates former White House Social Secretary Letitia Baldridge and former personal assistant Nancy Tuckerman look on
5. Wearing her favourite three-strand faux pearl necklace, she goes through some of the 225 daily letters during the election campaign
Celebrities in person are rarely quite as one imagines, and Jackie was no exception. At 59, she was no longer the radiant beauty of the White House years — and without make-up and under the office’s fluorescent lighting, her age was undisguised. Her hair was also a rather lighter tone than the familiar auburn and she was casually dressed in a turtleneck and checked slacks. As she toyed with her pearl clasp earrings, her manner was that of an East Side society matron amusing herself with a job in publishing.
“Now who is that nice man we have to speak to when we want to get something published around here?” she called out to her assistant at one point.
Nancy also arranged for us to visit the White House so we could interview staffers who had worked there under the Kennedys. Rex Scouten, a former White House chief usher, gave us a private tour, though the family quarters were off-limits since the Clintons were upstairs. In the basement, we were shown traces of smoke damage from when the mansion was burned by the British during the War of 1812. “Yes, we did that” I interjected rather too enthusiastically, “but only after you burned our Fort York!” The White House is surprisingly small and very public, with staffers crammed into tiny offices and tours trooping through regularly. It was easy to see how Continued on page 159
Jackie bridled at life in this goldfish bowl. “I have suddenly realized what it means to completely lose one’s privacy,” she wrote to her press secretary shortly after the 1961 inauguration. She would spend most of her life trying to regain it.
While in Washington, I had tea with Letitia Baldrige, Jackie’s former chief of staff and social secretary. A larger-than-life Washington figure, Tish is patrician yet ebullient, gracious but full of infectious laughter. Another former schoolmate of Jackie’s, Tish ran the East Wing and stage-managed much of the Camelot magic. She described the unprecedented public interest in Jackie during their first months in the White House when letters and gifts poured in by the vanload. Tish was quick to tell me that it was during the Kennedys’ state visit to Canada in May of ’61 that Jackie’s star quality was first seen abroad. The Canadian ambassador in Washington had met with Tish beforehand to warn her that Canadians were undemonstrative and that even the Queen was a trifle disappointed by the cool reception she received in Canada. But when the Kennedy motorcade drove into Ottawa, it was greeted by large crowds, and chants of “Jack-ie!, Jack-ie!” Governor-General George Vanier and his wife were dumbfounded. Jackie wore a red wool suit, which worked perfectly for photo ops with red-coated Mounties; her husband planted a tree at Rideau Hall and threw his back out in the process. He reportedly disliked our then PM, John Diefenbaker, preferring his successor, Lester Pearson.
My meeting in Washington with Tish was more fortuitous than I knew. Some months later, after we had secured a successful sale for In the Kennedy Style to Jackie’s former employer, Doubleday, Nancy Tuckerman withdrew from the project. A gossip columnist for Town & Country, the bible of the social set, had run a small squib about Nancy joining the long list of Jackie’s friends who were now “squealing” on her in books. A deeply upset Nancy explained to me that, in her last days, Jackie had said, “Well, Nancy, at least I know you will never do a book about me.” Despite my efforts to persuade her that this was hardly a tell-all book, Nancy was resolute.
In despair, I telephoned Tish who eventually agreed to become the author of the book. She proved to be great fun to work with and a marvellous fount of Camelot stories. At one point, I described my 1988 meeting with Jackie and asked if she was really as, well, flaky, as she seemed. Tish replied that Jackie was anything but a flake, that she was very astute, sophisticated, a good judge of people — and a wicked mimic. She thought that Jackie must have been on auto-pilot during that anniversary day.
I suspect, however, that Tish would not have found anything unusual in Jackie’s slightly artificial manner — it was not uncommon for women of her generation to don a contrived social persona to go along with the hat, handbag and gloves. Tish did confide, however, that Jackie was rather spoiled and sometimes difficult. She recalled how she often had to call on Lady Bird Johnson (whom she dubbed “Saint Bird”) or another of the Kennedy women to stand in for Jackie at the last minute. Jackie was passionate about projects like restoring the White House or persuading France’s culture minister André Malraux (for whom she had a special sparkle) to lend the Mona Lisa to the National Gallery of Art. But she found many other First Lady duties to be tedious — particularly the endless receptions for groups of women.
The tireless Tish knew that Jackie was a huge asset to the administration and there was a constant tug of war between her office and the private quarters upstairs. Tish became known as Miss Push-and-Pull and, by early ’63, her relationship with Jackie had become so strained that she gave notice and departed in June. Only a few months later, however, Tish would return to a deeply solemn White House to help out with planning the president’s funeral. She was even asked to choose his coffin and annoyed the undertaker by choosing a mid-priced one, knowing that it would always be covered by an American flag.
Jackie’s strength at this time was awe-inspiring. As Tish later wrote in the conclusion to In the Kennedy Style, “Even in mourning, Jackie’s poise did not desert her. She carried through those awful days with as much dignity as any woman in public life has ever shown in a time of tragedy.”