oh mother dear, we’re not the fortunate ones

(19 may 2010)

Like millions of former English majors working in borderline abusive secretarial jobs, I have written a book. It has not been published, which is pretty much the same as having not written anything at all.

There’s this book I’m meant to write. I’ve known it since before the other. And yet it is hard to ratchet up whatever it is that it’s going to take to write what’s next.

It is challenging to write a follow-up to something that has never been read.

That makes it sound far more important than it really is. It’s not the gospel or an epic or, heaven help me, Fiction. It’s just biography and it’s just Jackie- a subject that is the biographical equivalent to the beauty pageant answer “world peace.”

So in the large scheme of things like God and Franzen, it is relatively unimportant that there’s this Jackie book I’m meant to write. And it’s fairly inconsequential that this is THE Jackie book and that I really really don’t want to write it because it is an inferno of impossibles.

Because biography done well is a whole hard world of difficult and I’m not ready to fling myself in the abyss just yet.

These are all things I should have considered before mentioning this Jackie book to a fellow biographer; before casually tossing it out over the humus plate in the simple hope of garnering that amorphous credibility that comes from the respect writers have for one another’s as-yet-unexecuted Great Ideas.

It is a great idea so I was stupid not to have foreseen the explosion of enthusiasm its revelation would trigger. I should have anticipated the overpowering gung-ho.

There are three reasons why this project, this Jackie book- otherwise perfect- appalls me to no end:

1. It involves a language I do not speak.
2. It involves money I do not have.
3. It involves sources that do not exist.

Never mind that the few sources that do exist appear to be systematically dying as I approach them.

There’s an Elvis song entitled “It’s Impossible.” The actual opening lyric is “It’s impossible to tell the sun to leave the sky.” My family bastardized this line into the distinctly different yet equally truthy observation that “it’s impossible to stick a piano up your nose,” the sentiment that perhaps most accurately captures my feelings towards this project.

This Jackie book? It is a piano up my nose.

I do not say any of this to the fellow biographer when, three months later, she returns to the subject of the dreaded Jackie book. I do not tell her it’s a piano up my nose. Instead I nod and smile as she says Jackie book’s time has come. That it is a story that MUST be told. NOW.

It could be a documentary! A mini-series! A Sophia Coppola-directed feature film!

The fellow biographer tells me this and only then does she avert her gaze toward her falafel and drop the bomb for which I have been waiting all this time.

That it would be better were I an academic or an older, previously published white man (sadly, I am neither), Because there is no funding for girls like us.

A sentence that, just hearing it spoken, I know is going to be hell on earth to repeat to my parents.

When I do, a full week and a half later, my mother says- her voice fraught with the hope that her daughter is the reasonable, financially cautious young woman she was raised to be and an inkling that she probably isn’t-Well, maybe someday you can really do it, but the timing’s just all bad right now, right?

And I couldn’t help but laugh. Because though I’m a woman of few philosophies, the one I’ve held most dear is that one must imagine somewhat more boldly than may be socially acceptable and that when things are at their most inconvenient and impossible, that’s when they’d really best be done.

Which is essentially what the biographer meant when she said, We’re story-tellers and, really, nothing else matters when you’ve a story to tell.

So maybe this is it. Maybe Jackie’s time has come and it will be the year that- without French or funding and with sources dying right and left- I finally try to tell this story that all the older, previously published white men have inexplicably overlooked. This story that— I am quite sure— was left behind just for me.

“Look Up, And Swear You’ll Never Forget”

(7 December 2006)


JFK died on a hot Friday afternoon. The Friday before Thanksgiving. He met with supporters in the rain that morning and shook hands. He teased that it took his wife longer to get ready than most people, but then she always looked better. He had specifically asked her to wear the pink Chanel suit so she’d show up the hoity-toity, new-monied Dallas dames. He joked at a pancake breakfast that no one cared what he or Lyndon Johnson wore. That the only person anyone wanted to see was Jackie.

It was ridiculously sunny and Jackie kept slipping on her sunglasses, much to JFK’s annoyance. The last words he said to her: Jackie, take off the glasses. Then, either a bunch of conspiring, cross-dressing, homosexual loons rocking some unforgiveably bad hair killed the President (if you believe Oliver Stone) or Lee Harvey Oswald leaned out the window of the School Book Depository and made three good, not implausibly lucky, shots.

John Kennedy died on November 22, 1963. We all know that, but we forget how huge it was. Because now, it really isn’t that huge. In retrospect, we know JFK died and we know the country endured. And knowing that, the death of JFK seems less cataclysmic than it did the day after.

It seems less cataclysmic now because the most shocking result of his death— the way it was heralded to the world through continuous media coverage—has become routine. We’ve been subjected to 24-hour news all our lives. We’re used to stories that unfold all day long, for days on end.

Remember 9/11? Unless you’re under the age of five, undoubtedly you do. For three weeks after 9/11, VH1 and MTV played mournful music non-stop. There were no commercials. Only hours and hours of R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” and U2’s “One.” And the occasional screening of a video hastily assembled by the group Live, which featured Ground Zero coverage and seemed anathema to the healing process the melancholy music video barrage was supposed to foster. I thought this was beyond bizarre, but I couldn’t tear myself away, simply because it was so novel. In my lifetime, there had never been a tragedy so great that even the music video channels could not go on. For the first time, I got a sense of that weekend in November 1963.

JFK had personified the dreams of an entire generation and his murder was unilaterally stunning. It was a national nightmare. He won the presidency by one percent of one percentage point, yet after his death, 78% of Americans would claim to have voted for him. But it wasn’t the violence of his death so much as the media’s coverage of it that became JFK’s lasting legacy.

There was no 24-hour news in 1963. News programming ran on the networks in the morning, at noon, and in the evening at six and ten. But when JFK was killed, the networks interrupted the soaps and ran breaking news non-stop. For four days.

This had never happened. It was shocking.

It was the first time in history when people watched a major news event unfolding live on television. The first time they watched television even though nothing new was unfolding. Even though they were just watching the same tape they’d seen twenty times in the hour before. People stopped on the street, in the stores, in their homes and they watched.

The assassination was televised. While the Zapruder film was not shown in its entirety until the mid-1970s, within days it was filtering through the media (with the most graphic frames, in which the President’s head literally shatters, edited out). There was no shortage of footage of JFK arriving in Dallas and riding in the motorcade. His final moments played again and again, the President blithely off to meet his murderer.

The post-assassination information trickled into the media with astonishing haste. UPI reporters in the President’s motorcade began filing their reports over police radios as the motorcade sped toward Parkland Hospital. The photographer who took the famous picture of a bloodstained Jaqueline Kennedy standing alongside Lyndon Johnson as he took the Oath of Office aboard Air Force One had the photograph in the hands of television producers by the time Jacqueline Kennedy had landed at Andrews Air Force Base. There, viewers saw the former First Lady for themselves, her skirt and stockings and shoes still caked in the President’s blood. In her grief, she blamed all Americans. “Let them see what they have done,” she said.

They saw it all.

They saw Jack Ruby kill Lee Harvey Oswald as he was being transferred from the Dallas jail. They saw the murderer of their President murdered on live television fifteen minutes before they watched the cataflaque carrying the President’s coffin begin its journey to the Capitol Rotunda. The entirety of Monday was devoted to JFK’s funeral service and burial. In between official events, the networks continually ran retrospectives of the President’s life, interviews with the mourners who lined the streets of the cortege route, and reports gauging the international mood. The entire world had stood still and was watching.

We now take for granted our inclusion in the private dramas of public figures, but that was not the case in November 1963. The public did not expect to be so thoroughly included, but when given the opportunity, they remained glued to their television sets to be sure they saw everything. Ironically, it was Jacqueline Kennedy, the most private of celebrities, who insisted that they must see what had been done so they might know what they had lost.

Due to the drama of having news presented for days on end, those who watched would never forget the death of the President, the passage of power, the state funeral, the international grief. It would be crass to brand this as entertainment, but to some degree it was. People did not leave their homes for four days. The networks scored topshelf ratings.

We’re accustomed to this now. We watch the news as it’s breaking, cry a little, and wash the dishes. It seldom stops us in our tracks. Very rarely does the news change the way in which we interact with the media. But the coverage in the wake of JFK’s death did just that.

There is nothing new about tragedy. The only modern twist is the manner in which it is transmitted. For it is in times of great tragedy, when we are drawn into the global experience through grief or horror or shame, that we come closest to being there.When Abraham Lincoln died, it took weeks— in some cases months— for word to spread across the country. Within a minute of President Kennedy’s assassination, a UPI reporter had seized the police radio and the entire world knew what was happening.

The news is so often a bombardment of greed, stupidity, and small personal disasters that legitimate tragedy on a grand scale is the only thing that really hits us. It blows in out of nowhere and knocks us off our feet and it changes the way we think. To an extent, JFK’s greatest legacy is the way in which he was memorialized on television: the riderless horse, the sound of the drums, JFK Jr.’s salute, the eternal flame. A man whose reign barely eclipsed 1,000 days, the fallen leader was swathed in media-created mythology in less than a fortnight. And, in the end, it is the myth that we will never forget.

pride & prejudice

(29 october 2010)

my motivations toward princess diana were never pure. i was never interested in her for her own sake. it was more a nostalgia for the present, an awareness that a historical moment might be unfolding about which i might later deeply care. there was always the possibility that she might be The Next Jackie. having already missed the real one, i was fully determined to experience the next.

and by the phrase “The Next Jackie,” i don’t mean that princess diana shared any of the traits for which mrs. onassis was known. even at the age of 13, the designation simply meant that she covered on a hell of a lot of magazines. because even as i sat at the center left front row of ms. boyd’s 9th grade geometry class reading lady colin campbell’s diana in private: the princess nobody knows, magazines were all that mattered to me.

i do not think princess diana was very important. SHOCKING, i know. there are many things you could say to try to convince me otherwise. i know them all because i’ve written them down here and deleted them again and again and finally shoved them into a separate post that i’m choosing to ignore for the moment because all those arguments miss the point. the point being that i don’t think princess diana was very important.

so, suffice it to say, we are discussing a historical figure about whom i really care very little and for whom i have very little respect. which makes it rather curious that i am fanatically obsessed with reading biographies about her. and not simply reading them mind you, but rereading them. with much the reverence one would typically associate with oft-viewed classic films.

it occurred to me the other day that because i have read it at least twice a year since the summer of 2003, there is a distinct possibility that i have read sally bedell smith’s diana in search of herself as many times as- if not more than- pride and prejudice.

please know that i am not proud of this. i wish it were not so and, since having this revelation, i have devoted a considerable amount of brain space to figuring out why it might be true.

the reason i have arrived at is this: the biographies of princess diana have- by and large- been written by women. this should not make a difference. in the end it really does. and so, in studying how to write a biography of a woman, i have read these books about diana again and again.

because diana has, at least since her death, warranted serious biographical study by serious female biographers. she is looked upon as a woman who is interesting in her own right. someone who’s marriage was an important part of her story but who did this brilliant, brave thing in standing up to the british monarchy and changing it for all eternity to come.

i, for one, do not believe that, but that’s irrelevant here. what i wonder is this: biographers write well and seriously about diana because she is supposed to have had this big impact. biographers- sometimes even those same biographers who wrote well and seriously about diana- write badly and flippantly about jackie. what are we to suppose of that?

from my place in the jackie bell jar, i think it comes from the general ambivalence that continues to surround jackie’s place in american life. she is eulogized as “america’s queen”- an extremely awkward thing to be in a democracy. nonetheless, i would argue that hers was the most important female life of the american twentieth century. and i would go to the mat on that. (realizing i am probably the only one.)

it’s acceptable to write seriously about diana- a figure who was legitimately royal, legitimately rebellious and legitimately ill. it is somehow less acceptable to write seriously about jackie- a well-dressed ordinary woman with a falsified french past, who married a president and ran off with a pirate.

i do not like that. i don’t know what to do about it, but be aware, for what it’s worth: i do not approve.

the sisters

(12 november 2010)

in the arena of nonfiction publishing, things tend to move at a pace otherwise unacceptable in the natural world.

since first reading volpone in dr. william mcclung’s spring 2001 survey of english literature 1375-1785, i have been waiting to read more about lollia paulina, the woman who, wearing the gems of her family’s pillaged kingdoms, “came in like starlight, hid with jewels,” “emeralds and pearls strung alternately, glittering all over her head, hair, bandeau, necklaces, and fingers” though, according to pliny, “it was on no great occasion.” a historical figure known solely for having worn an expensive dress to a casual dinner. for nearly a decade i have found this gloriously hardcore. alas, lollia only just this year got a wikipedia page. a full book is, i fear, eternities away.

this is one of the many problems with nonfiction. a figure will languish without sparking interest for years and years and years and then, from seemingly nowhere, there will be veritable bonanza. as though someone threw open the tap, from whence there was once nothing, over a three month period will come a flood of diaries and letters and illustrations and lost novels and unauthorized tell-alls and revealing memoirs and recordings and coffee table books.

i say all this now because the mitford sisters, they are coming.

given that there were approximately a million of them and they not only all lived fascinating lives and inevitably crop up in the biography of anyone who lived during the 20th century about whom there is a biography, but they also wrote witty things to one another as well as to other writers and artists and themselves published fairly prolifically in the outside world, this should not be surprising.

and there is a reason for all these books. one would not expect the history of young jack kennedy, the british aristocracy, the american funeral industry, the rise of hitler, the marketing of guiness, the french military, the creation of the california communist party and the development of the twentieth century english novel to collide. that they do and all in the lives of five (six? seven?) supremely attractive girls just makes it that much more spectacular.

these mitfords, they are amazing. if you haven’t met them, here’s your chance.

because this fall will see the publication of three out-of-print nancy mitford books plus the reissue of two others along with a recording of rosemary davis reading “the highland fling.” also coming are the memoir of deborah mitford, the current duchess of devonshire, plus her letters to/from the artist patrick leigh fermor. and then there’s a biography of jessica mitford, the socialist american transplant anti-funeral industry crusader extraordinairre whom i deeply, deepy love. as if that weren’t enough, decca’s treatise on muckraking is being published by the new york review of books as well.

this hurts my heart.

there was a moment a few years ago when i realized i could never read all i wanted. this moment right here, this is different. this is the moment i realized i could never afford to.

deaf day

(16 august 2010)

bad ears run in my family. on both sides. so it’s not surprising that i was very close to my otolaryngologist as a kid.

thanks to the blood leaking from my eardrum, my right ear had to be perpetually plugged with a cotton ball which, despite repeated reminders from my parents, i always failed to remove during photo-taking so this time in our lives has gone down in family history as my “cotton ball years.”

1990 was especially rough. my mother and i went traipsing across memphis nearly every week so doctor franco could poke about in my head and ponder what he wanted to do.

i don’t remember much about these visits, except that- with the advent of lasers and modern medicine and whatnot- the methods seem severely primitive now. the anesthesia unnecessarily brutal. the recovery surprisingly difficult. and o the tools! they were like something from a museum devoted to Medicine Of The Frontier.

whenever doctor franco put his instruments in my ear, i would look plaintively at my mother, who sat in the corner of the room calmly smiling in a power suit. presumably this was meant to be reassuring but, in my characteristically melodramatic way, i interpreted her smiles as a failure to fully appreciate my pain. in retrospect, the process was as torturous for her as for me and the sad cow eyes i cast in her direction every time the otoscope nicked my inflamed ear canal undoubtedly did not make it easier.

this was back when the nerves still worked. when i could feel things. (it is, at times, a small mercy to be numb.)

several months into all of this, after an aggressive surgery followed by my stunningly poor performance on a particular hearing test, doctor franco took my mother aside and quietly warned her that there might be nothing more he could do.

my mother nodded curtly, gathered our things and shoved the cotton ball back in my dud ear. she put us both in the car and drove us one parking lot over to target, where she marched to the music section and fished a cassette out of the bargain bin.

this was presented as my great reward. for what, exactly, i did not know since i was well aware that in a test involving tones i had heard none.

that this cassette was composed of visibly cheap gray plastic only further lessened its value in my eyes.

but my mother said we had had a hard day and we did not know what the future held. and she put that tape into the tape deck of the mini-van she’d made my dad buy her only to realize she did not want to drive a van, and turned up the volume higher than i’d ever known her to turn up the volume on anything before.

and that is how i met elvis. on a day when, faced with the prospect of her daughter going deaf, my mother bought burning love & hits from his movies, vol. 2.

photographers snip, snap

(10 november 2006)

today, i gave my first autograph.

but let me begin at the beginning.

i hate umbrellas. almost as much as i hate birds.

but, no. i should go back further.

i should go back to my irrational fear of electrocution. yes, that’s the beginning. i used to have this irrational fear of electrocution. every doorknob held the threat of a shocking death. static cling left me quaking in my zippered boots. a logical hysteric, i developed a slew of preventative measures to delay my inevitable death by doorknob shock.

at some point, i wised up and transfered the irrationality to the more obvious threat: umbrellas. because, by God, umbrellas are frightful. as does most everything else, this comes back to my loathing of eyeballs. umbrellas have spikes. eyeballs-on-spikes. horror.

because i hate umbrellas, i ventured out into the icky chicago blustery rain this afternoon bundled in the green coat, the yellow scarf and the blue hat, and wearing the HUGE sunglasses because waterproof eyeliner has yet to be invented. (ed. note: it now has.)

walking down clark street, i was innocently bopping to brian eno’s “baby’s on fire,” savoring the dramatic irony that baby’s firey plight was unfolding while i was being drenched, when suddenly a hand clasped my arm.

fearful of an umbrella encounter, i lept back, only to see a benign kid. a girl of maybe 15 or 16 (i’m old. ages blur. she could’ve easily been 22.). this girl, wearing those pants where you can tell- even from the front- that there’s writing on the butt, stood there clutching my arm.

i looked for weaponry. because the sidewalk in front of The Weiner’s Circle seemed as good a place as any to be assaulted by a teenybopper with HOTT STUFF written on her ass. but no. hott stuff brandished nothing but a pen.

hot stuff seemed short of breath. she seemed to have a desperate need to speak to me. i shut up the eno and looked at her.

DAMN. NICK. hott stuff exclaimed, spitting the words as though she couldn’t get them out fast enough. both syllables dripping with unmitigated hate.

obviously, hott stuff had been electrocuted by the doorknob at The Weiner’s Circle and what i was witnessing were the residual twitches of the electrical currents combined with a mild case of tourettes.

hott stuff reached to pull something out of her bag. an umbrella?! i wondered, with furrowed, fearful brow. when  a battered back issue of STAR emerged, my relief was visible.

still recovering from the stress of her recent electrical shock, hott stuff fumbled through the magazine, increasingly frantic as the raindrops dashed across the glossy pages. finally, she heaved a sigh of content and thrust the open page toward me, pointing at the headline, Jess To Nick: You’re a Girlie Man!

hott stuff leaned closer. she offered me the pen, which i took for fear she might activate a button, upon which the harmless-looking pink sparkly writing utensil would explode into one of those umbrellas for cocktail drinks. eyeballs-on-balsa. ouch.

hott stuff thrust the magazine at me and leaned in, as though she were confessing a deep secret for which she had spent weeks ratchetting up the courage. hott stuff looked deep into my sunglasses.

she looked deep into my sunglasses and said, i just love your sister.

things it seems important to say upon hearing the news that jessica simpson has been dumped again

(15 july 2009)

jessica simpson and i go way back. back to the first weekend of may 1999- when, just a few weeks shy of graduation, me and a motley sextet of sexually confused high schoolers stood near a clump of trees facing the 2nd avenue stage of river stages passing judgement upon the approximately 35 teenyboppers who cared enough about jessica simpson to come see her sing at 10 a.m.

it seems important to establish where we were in my life narrative at this point in time. to make clear that i was young and impressionable and just about the most naive 17 a girl could be.

seven months before, a friend and i had asked her mother whether orgasm was an synonym for papier-mâché. i’d never been kissed. my grades were my world. and then, suddenly, with the coming of spring, my boyfriend was gay and i was running with a crowd that saw concerts in daylight.

it is difficult to convey how deliciously deviant this seemed, how glamorous, how incredibly hedonistic in what i see now was such a juvenile way.

and in the midst of this there was jessica simpson.

jessica simpson didn’t change my life. i know that. in reality, i promptly forgot about her. it was only years later, when she had made a career out of violating her own privacy, that i even realized this quasi-famous person was the girl with the big boobs and bad backup dancers who had squinted into the sea of sweaty adolescents of which we were a dubious, judgmental part and instructed us to “do it up yo yo yo.”

and then i felt kind of bad.

the two things i vividly remember from that day?

(1) the six (seven? three?) of us, everyone but me smoking, cynics all, after very limited debate reaching the conclusion that jessica simpson wouldn’t amount to much.

(2) the 125 degree angle made by the slender bicep/elbow/forearm of the cool kid in the group, his angelic facial features distorted by a grin one would expect from the joker rather than a closeted gay southern baptist, as he recklessly flung jessica simpson’s demo (charred by a dalliance with a lighter) into the dump.