(19 may 2008)
this friday, it will have been 14 years since seventh grade oline sat in mrs. watson’s science class in a pair of white shorts and a green shirt—freezing because the AC was on high and it was a bit too early for said white shorts—straining to hear anderson cooper’s mournful channel one report on the death of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis over the gaggle of sunflowers-scented blathering cheerleaders at the back of the room.
try as i might, deafO that i was and am, i couldn’t hear a word. i could only sit and watch the photos flicker past, a lifetime condensed into an eleven minute montage.
i knew nothing about her beyond what had been captured in a two-paragraph blurb on a badly xeroxed women’s history month handout distributed in mrs. pavlick’s english class the year before. so i knew she was on par with florence nightingale and madame curie. but these gals, with their ruffled blouses and bunsen burners, seemed at home on badly xeroxed handouts. jackie’s feathered bouffant and onassis earrings bespoke a modernity uncharacteristic of historical heroines. she seemed epochs away.
i paid her no attention at the time. she meant nothing to me then.
actually, that’s kind of a lie. because this was back when i went to bed at 8:30 every night and woke up early enough to crawl into my parents’ bed and watch the headline news hollywood minute at the bottom of the half hour and eight minutes of the real news at the top. so i heard things. i knew she was sick.
and i knew who she was. i’d been playing with tom tierney paper dolls since i was old enough to wield my mum’s manicure scissors and the kennedys were the apex of the presidential families series. so i knew caroline kennedydoll had a pony named macaroni, that JFKdoll had by far the best underwear of the presidents, and somehow i discerned that jackiedoll would’ve dumped JFKdoll and pursued teddy roosevelt’s scandalously younger son kermit, the dreamboat of the presidential paper dolls.
but this was not reality. it was a world in which jackie could party with rhett butler and lady di. so we’re going to ignore that whole history because it isn’t really history.
dolls don’t count.
so my real introduction to jackie was that soundless channel one report. that night, a riveting tribute on hard copy with more pictures set to an off-the-wall remix of copland and ravel further piqued my interest. jackie smoking while pregnant. jackie in pink chanel. jackie at funerals. jackie in jeans. she seemed such a renegade, in much the manner of drew barrymore or dr. quinn. i vividly remember the jarring transition between the somber hard copy closing credits to the beverly hills: 90210 season four finale. the loss of david silver’s virginity seemed so trivial now jackie was dead. two days later, TIME magazine’s tribute landed in our mailbox and i sat on the front lawn—reclining against my bookbag, feet propped up on the collie of my childhood—devouring it.
within a matter of four days, i had met my jackie—and this makes sense of so much—through a silent movie, magazines and tabloid tv.
with her typically impeccable timing, mrs. onassis expired just as the eaton family became antique-crazed. suddenly car trips that, in the months before, had been interminably dull, punctuated by stops at road-side stores filled with other people’s discarded pee-wee herman dolls, became treasure hunts. places like chattanooga and danville rivaled alibaba’s cave.
the magazine madness began, simply enough, with LIFE magazine. this was back in the days before al gore invented the internet. later, i would be armed with vast bibliographies and spreadsheets and photographic archives and ebay. then i was winging it. i was trixie belden on the hunt for what my dear macabre family dubbed “the jackie mausoleum.”
early in that summer of 1994, LIFE was kind of enough to feature all their jackie covers on the back of their special edition. hunched over it with a magnifying glass pilfered from my father’s desk, i eventually made out all 16 dates. this triumph of deciphering insanely small type left me elated. it felt titanic. in reality, it was terribly small.
it’s hard to realize the scope of something until you’re in it. really really in it. like, mired for years and years and years. there were 16 covers of LIFE. that seemed a reasonable pursuit. a hobby containable in a lone grocery bag. it didn’t seem obsessive. it didn’t seem like an interest that would prompt future boyfriends to grimace in embarrassment and make movers cringe in horror. 16 was a reasonable number.
this is probably how those women wind up with 87 cats. i didn’t see it coming. things just spiraled out of control after the first dozen…
to strut my math skills a moment, imagine this: in the american, english language mainstream tabloid press alone—thus, excluding every publication produced everywhere else in the world, “respectable” mainstream u.s. mags like LIFE, LOOK, mccall’s, and also the tabloid-sized fringe tabloids like the enquirer—there were approximately 40 movie magazines circulating in any given month during the ’60s and ’70s. during every month in those 20 years, jackie would cover on at least half.
4,800 issues. at 30 cents an issue, give or take 750,000 copies sold of each, during her heyday—in movie magazine sales alone—she brought in $1 billion.
$54 million per annum.
which is interesting because it’s freaking unbelievable.
so my hobby has wound up a math problem. who saw that coming?
everything works out in the end. i believe this. the magazines i bought in the summer of 1994 meant nothing beyond pretty pictures. i never dreamed they’d have a use. much less that i’d spend the majority of 2004 poring over them as though their stories contained the key to finding Christ. i could never have imagined i would wind up discovering entire publishing empires built upon a literary playtime that didn’t deviate too very far from my paperdoll world in which jackiedoll went to the movies with greta garbo and had a fling with errol flynn. you just don’t think of these things in the beginning.
i don’t know where all this started. but that’s a lie. it started in mrs. watson’s 7th grade science class as i sat there straining to hear anderson cooper’s mournful channel one report over the gaggle of blathering cheerleaders at the back of the room. but i don’t know why it stuck with me or why it mattered. or why it still matters. i just know she does.