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.

I needed a haircut and recall watching scenes of near-hysterical U.S. public grief on a black-and-white TV in a barbershop on St. Clair Avenue. The reaction in Canada was, naturally, more muted, though for young Canadians, JFK had generated the kind of excitement we would not find in our own politics until Trudeaumania five years later. When I returned to my UCC dorm room, I was told that a memorial service for President Kennedy would be held in the prayer hall following dinner. It was a sombre and untypically quiet group of UCC boarders (which included such future politicians as Perrin Beatty and Michael Ignatieff) that filed into the pews as my brother played Bach on the organ.

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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?”

I greeted Al in the foyer at Doubleday, and we both leafed through the fall publishing catalogues as we waited. We expected the receptionist to direct us to her office but then, suddenly, Jackie was there to greet us. There were no introductions. She seemed to know who we were, and we certainly knew who she was.

“So, what are you reading?” cooed Jackie in that unmistakable voice.

“We were just looking at the Doubleday catalogue,” we both rather stumblingly responded.

“Oh, is that what that is?” she sighed.  “I must have a look at that sometime.”

As she led us to her office, Al and I glanced at each other quizzically. “Surely, she knows what the catalogue is,” we thought, “Everyone in publishing knows that.”

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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.

Again, we both thought, “But she knows how to get things published around here — she’s a very experienced editor, she edits Nobel prize-winners! Authors would beg their agents to submit to Doubleday on the merest chance they might be able to say “Yes, my editor, Jackie Onassis…”

Jackie’s true intelligence, however, shone through when we showed her a mock-up of a book of unpublished portraits by a legendary Life photographer named John Phillips. It was clear that she knew most of the people in the photos and was familiar
with the work of those who were writers and artists. As we described the book, we both experienced Jackie’s famous “lighthouse look” — the rapt, fixed gaze that made people feel as if what they were saying was of the utmost interest. I couldn’t help thinking that this was the same look that had dazzled Khrushchev and Nehru and turned de Gaulle to gelée.

The presentation was going rather swimmingly until church bells suddenly began tolling. Jackie’s small office had a window that faced Fifth Avenue and St. Patrick’s Cathedral was nearby. As one deep, sonorous clang followed another, I was forced to pause. All three of us exchanged glances, each knowing exactly why the bells were tolling at that moment. (Is she remembering? I wondered.) After some throat clearing, I quickly

resumed our pitch. Afterwards, just for interest, we showed her one of our children’s books over which Jackie purred, “Oh, how I wish my son were a little boy again,
so I could put him on my lap and read this to him!”

(“That’s JFK Jr. she’s talking about!” flashed into my brain.) Her son was then America’s most eligible bachelor and, for a split-second, I thought of quipping “Yes, there are a lot of people who’d like to put him on their laps,” before wisely refraining.

Jackie’s self-effacing, slightly daffy manner was so successful in putting us at ease that it was not until business cards were exchanged, and I read “Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis” on hers that I had a genuine oh-my-gosh moment. As she graciously ushered us out to the lobby, I couldn’t help noting her rangy horsewoman’s walk.  (And yes, like Garbo, she did have rather
large feet.)

Doubleday eventually declined the book, and we never presented to Mrs. Onassis again. I had a Jackie-sighting while in New York a few years later at a popular Sunday brunch spot on the West Side when she and her companion, Maurice Tempelsman, sat down at the next table. She looked more like the familiar public Jackie, with auburn hair and large dark glasses. Everyone in the restaurant recognized her but no one intruded. I couldn’t help, however, overhearing snatches of her distinctive, cooing voice and the upper-class drawl so familiar from

her televised tour of the White House (“the Blew R-u-u-m …”)

“I hated it when Jackie used that voice!” exclaimed Nancy Tuckerman as we walked through the museum at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library where Jackie’s 1962 White House tour was playing continuously on video monitors. In May of 1996, Nancy and I were on lunch break from doing research in the JFK presidential archives upstairs.  As Jackie’s lifelong friend and aide, Nancy had caused us to be very warmly received at the library and staffers had scurried to bring us research files for a book to be called In the Kennedy Style. Jackie’s death two years before had spurred a flood of published remembrances, and Madison Press had managed to score Nancy as the author of a book about the legendary evenings of the Kennedy era — from the night Pablo Casals played the cello, to the dinner for the Nobel laureates. Jackie’s famous French chef René Verdon had agreed to contribute menus and recipes.

The Jackie “voice” that Nancy found so annoying was the breathless “little girl” one she affected for TV — not the upper-crust inflections that Nancy herself shared. This now-vanishing accent was seemingly once common among the girls at Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Conn., where Nancy, then known as Tucky, had been Jackie’s roommate. Nancy would later become one of Jackie’s bridesmaids, her White House aide and then faithful assistant during and after the assassination.

 

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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.

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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.”

Discussions of the Kennedy legacy and the might-have-beens about his presidency are unending. Would JFK have avoided the quagmire of Vietnam? Without the Vietnam war would the ’60s counterculture that so influenced a generation have flowered? Would the thousands of draft resisters that poured into Canada have stayed home? Many believe that this era nudged Canada’s politics to the left but caused the U.S. to later swing to the right.

Even after the endless (and exaggerated, says Tish) revelations of Kennedy’s infidelities and Jackie’s marriage to a slightly shady Greek tycoon, the mystique of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis retains its lustre. When asked later in her life about the public’s enduring fascination with
her, she would only quietly say, “It isn’t about me … One’s real life is lived on another private level.”