"Some may believe that there is such a thing as 'The Kennedy Curse'....There is no doubt, however, that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis could rightfully be called "the Kennedy Blessing," states author Tina Flaherty in her recent book, What Jackie Taught Us.
If she had lived, Jackie would be 85 years old today and she is still a mythical magic figure.
• When Tina kicked off her collected essays on Jackie, she asked me to write the introduction to her book. She and publisher John Duff also agreed to offer a symposium on Jackie for Hunter College's writing courses.
We were Tina herself, writer Malachy McCourt, the Municipal Art Society's Kent Barwick and the Morgan Library's Declan Kiely. I was moderator.
We set this to happen at Roosevelt House on East 56th Street and I guess we thought the auditorium there would be more than adequate.
But we were over-whelmed and played to Standing Room Only, with lines around the block. I was astounded at the enthusiasm for all things Jackie and the symposium came off as a huge hit, leaving people asking for more.
Tina has asked me to reprint here my introduction to her book and I am delighted to do so. But I keep thinking back to the three books I took along, by one of Jackie's favorites Frederic Morton. We held an impromptu drawing of these as gifts and we were all but stampeded by an audience who couldn't get enough of Jackie. And anything she had liked.
Here then is my offering on Jackie and the small role I played as an interested observer of her life:
"Veiling Truth in Mystery: An Introduction"
By Liz Smith
Veiling Truth in Mystery: An Introduction:
In my 60-odd year career of writing about celebrities and the prominent, I've realized I've had the chance to observe the lives of five of the most famous and vital women of the 20th/21st centuries:
Marilyn Monroe, more famous now than when she died dramatically in 1962... Elizabeth Taylor, movie star of stars, and my friend, who left us in 2011... The still provocative pop queen deluxe Madonna, constantly pronounced "finished," who made more money last year than her younger competitors... Princess Diana, declared the VIP most people would like to bring back to life after her tragic early death in 1997... and Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis -- the most mysterious and inexplicable of them all -- gone of illness in 1994.
Virgil wrote about "veiling truth in mystery" and Jackie's legacy has been just that.
This Commemorative Edition of What Jackie Taught Us, published on the 20th anniversary of Jackie's death, not only includes the insights from her life about how to live with poise, grace, and zest as Tina Flaherty articulated them but also the memories of her by a number of astute observers. But this book won't pretend to solve the variousness, the depth of unusual ideas, theories, and contradictions about Jackie.
For she alone of the five, maintained an almost impenetrable air of reticence and spiritual-psychic secrets. One way or another, the other four were flamboyant exhibitionists! But Jackie gave away only what she wanted people to know and think, and she left us always wanting more.
The world press almost went crazy because though millions read the rumors that she was indifferent to infidelities, or promiscuous herself, and all the rest of her contradictions, during her thousand days as First Lady -- she gave up almost nothing. Her voice, downy and pillow soft, her televised tour of the White House with Charles Collingwood, her heroic behavior at the Dallas assassination, a final move to New York City to "escape" the public, the downhill phase of her marriage to Aristotle Onassis, and her private life as a book editor raising two first-rate children -- Jackie never gave anything away in rare unintended interviews. If she did say something -- as with Teddy White and to William Manchester after JFK's death -- she soon relented and denied it. Or sued to keep it quiet. Even the indefatigable Barbara Walters, who won the elusive Katharine Hepburn, never got to ask Jackie what kind of a tree she'd like to have been.
Jackie didn't exactly despise her fame; she just didn't want to cooperate with it unless on her own terms. She evidently knew who she was and she didn't have to massage her ego or maintain and extend curiosity about herself. So she never did.
Thus, the plethora of rumors continued: she spent a fortune on lingerie; she accepted a million to stay married to Jack; she had an affair with her brother-in-law; she told the famous writer Phillip Roth when he dared kiss her cheek, "Oh, what did you have to do that for?" and dismissed him; she said or didn't say to the Metropolitan Museum, "I don't give a shit about the Temple of Dendur."
She did protect her privacy to a large extent. Even the persistent Ron Gallela, demmed the "King of the Paparazzi" by Time magazine, finally -- and legally -- had to keep his distance. (He says now she should have paid him for the iconic hair-blowing shot of her walking away looking mysterious!)
I, for one, kept my distance and declared her son and daughter off limits. I was told she read my columns with relish, and Lyndon Johnson aide, Horace Busby, told me she adored gossip and mostly looked on life as a kind of French film farce. She told our mutual pal Joe Armstrong that "the Kennedys will never forgive Liz Smith for writing about Jack and Judith Campbell Exner." But she seemed not to include herself in their number.
In time, I was introduced to her at book parties after she became an editor. I would see her often at get togethers, social and charitable. I always stayed away from her at these gatherings, but I got the impression that she would seek me out -- ask in a friendly complimentary manner who did my hair or talk about our mutual avidity for books on Austrian and middle European history or her charitable interests, like saving Grand Central Station. She even sent me nice hand-written notes when I mentioned her authors and books.
On the night I was given the Municipal Art Society medal of honor, I wondered if, as she hung it around my neck, she might want to wring it instead. But she simply said, "Congratulations, Liz!" and moved on. She was the eternal sphinx.
Jackie is the star about whom I feel it has become almost pointless even to speculate. Usually humorous unless crossed, I am told she could turn as cold as ice and people were hard-pressed to know what they had done. According to her Secret Service man, Clint Hill, she was an angel and he couldn't do enough to please her. According to the recent biography, These Few Precious Days: The Final Year of Jack and Jackie by Chris Andersen, she was miserable at Jack's infidelities but adjusted in the White House until tragedy struck. In Nemesis, Peter Evans' book about Onassis, he reports that Jackie went to his funeral with a curious half-smile on her face, causing his daughter Christina to leap out of the car she was sharing with her father's enigmatic widow. Jackie didn't explain.
She never spoke for herself. She didn't give interviews. The press and public had to do all the work. That is something like mining for gold - forever -- without hitting paydirt. But still, she seems rich in spirit and personality beyond our wildest dreams. It is only in dreams that she really exists and in our imaginations. She didn't allow much of anything more.
At the end, her best personal revelation about her illness was only this: "Why did I bother to do all those push ups and exercise before non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma!" She died as she had lived, privately, with family, friends, and her long-time companion, Maurice Tempelsman, by her side. Of her death, her son John said that she died "in her own way, on her own terms, and we all feel lucky for that."
The most attractive, exasperating, intelligent, frustrating historical icon ever. She was the First Lady to end all First Ladies for never giving herself away.