The Kennedys continue their reign as the royal family of publishing. One year after the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy set off an avalanche of new titles examining his death and presidency, it is the former first lady who is under the microscope in a pair of new biographies with differing agendas.
Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis: The Untold Story has a traditional birth-to-death arc, but midway through, the focus is on Jackie’s behavior after the assassination of her husband. Author Barbara Leaming makes a strong argument, based on original research, that Jackie suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) at a time before the condition had been diagnosed.
“I am a living wound,” said Jackie, who self-medicated with vodka and cigarettes. Guilt-ridden that she hadn’t been able to yank her husband out of the way of the fatal gunshot, Jack’s widow talked incessantly to friends—whether or not they wanted to hear—about that dark day in Dallas. To a priest she knew well, she revealed she was contemplating suicide.
While she had no interest in the investigation into JFK’s murder, she was contentiously obsessed with his legacy. After concocting the notion—for an enthusiastically complicit Life magazine—of Camelot as the theme of the JFK presidency, she battled writers whose views differed from hers. Her dispute with historian William Manchester, whom she commissioned to write The Death of a President, was so bitter and protracted that, in time, public sentiment turned against her.
The 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, just three months apart, had Jackie believing that she and/or her children would be next. It was in part to escape what she called “the outside world” that she married Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. The public was appalled—as was the media. (“Jack Kennedy Dies Today for a Second Time” proclaimed one headline.)
According to Leaming, whose previous subjects include Rita Hayworth and Marilyn Monroe, the Ari-Jackie marriage was stronger (for awhile) than most people realize. He “rescued me at a moment when my life was engulfed in shadows,” she once said. Onassis was also a good stepfather to Caroline and John.
The marriage to JFK had come about, at least on his part, largely for political reasons; the young senator required a wife to counter his playboy image. Jacqueline Bouvier, the product of a respected finishing school and a former debutante—who once said her life’s ambition was “not to be a housewife”—wasn’t nearly as pretty as the girls JFK typically squired, but shared his passion for reading and the arts. To Jackie, he was reminiscent of her bad boy-father (John “Black Jack” Bouvier), whose infidelities led to her parents’ divorce.
JFK had not exactly been the ideal husband—his infidelities were legend. But as his wife, and eventual First Lady, Jackie sculpted a legend of her own. To this day she remains the supreme White House style icon. (Sorry, Michelle.) Her credentials as a tastemaker contributed to her reinvention, in her latter years, as a book editor and outspoken advocate for historic preservation. As for her greatest achievement, she once opined, “I think it is that, after going through a rather difficult time, I consider myself comparatively sane.”
First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and her children, Caroline Kennedy and John F. Kennedy Jr., in John’s nursery, following a joint birthday party for the children at the White House in 1962.
A SON’S TRAGIC LEGACY
The Good Son: JFK Jr. and the Mother He Loved mines some of the same sources utilized in the Leaming book, but the emphasis is on Jackie’s close relationship with John Jr., and the tone is more tabloid-ish than refined.
Christopher Andersen, who has written a slew of celeb titles including a number of Kennedy tomes (among them, Sweet Caroline: Last Child of Camelot and Jack and Jackie: Portrait of an American Marriage), bookends the mother-son saga with the tragic death of John Jr. 15 years ago.
Reflecting on his celebrated childhood, the adult John couldn’t distinguish between personal reminiscences and public images captured by the cameras. (Of his famed salute at his father’s funeral, he admitted, “I’d like to say I remember that moment. But I don’t.”) Andersen tells us about Jackie’s efforts, in the aftermath of JFK’s death, to provide her son with a strong masculine role model. Robert F. Kennedy fit the bill. Indeed, Peter Lawford told his wife that RFK filled in for JFK “in all departments”—including as a lover to Jackie.
Aristotle Onassis would be an especially vivid and helpful father figure, a status Andersen depicts while simultaneously throwing in allegations that Onassis was a cross-dresser (using the name “Arianna”) who enjoyed himself with young Greek males. As is now widely known, he also continued seeing his former mistress, the opera great Maria Callas (whose nickname for Jackie was “the False Lady”).
Yeah, it’s got lots of dish, including plenty about the hunky John’s never-boring love life. There are myriad celebrity girlfriends, including Sharon Stone and Madonna (“a sexual dynamo,” according to John). He and Daryl Hannah were on-again/off-again for years; at one point they even got a marriage license—and she bought a wedding gown at a flea market.
Jackie, who was none too pleased with John-John’s Madonna hookup, and who took to shunning actress Hannah, passed away of non-Hodgkins lymphoma before getting to meet Carolyn Bessette. Tall, slim and elegant, the young woman who became John’s wife had many qualities similar to Jackie—and in contrast to John. She was orderly and tidy; he was haphazard and sloppy. She was coolly detached; he was warm and ingratiating. Their marriage would have probably ended in divorce, per their various friends’ accounts (toward the end they were constantly fighting), had they not died, along with Carolyn’s sister, in a plane crash off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard on July 16, 1999.
Andersen sees John’s legacy as one of unfulfilled promise. As delivered here, cleverly intertwined with Jackie’s story, it’s also one for the books.