snapshot

 

Socialite Alexandra Webb provides the most vivid portrait of Jack and Janet Bouviers’ relationship: “Janet married him because his name appeared in the [Social] Register. He married her because her father operated a bank. She was a bitch and he was a bastard, and in the end both were disillusioned.”

An entire marriage cannot be adequately encapsulated in a pithy paragraph, but Webb’s is an assessment in which the elements that would define the life of the Bouvier’s eldest daughter are all present: society, power, money. This is what she would be born into, a world where, particularly for women, the attainment and the keeping of social status, power, and money were one’s raison d’etre. That was the fundamental lesson to be distilled from the lives of Janet and “Black Jack” Bouvier.

Jacqueline– pronounced Zhak-leen (“rhymes with Queen,” the Kennedys would tease)– adored her father, a dashing rake with matinee idol looks and a year-round tan. He was to have the greatest impact upon her early life, but his influence had a dark side. Black Jack was obsessed with the superficial, profligately spent money he did not have, and was always, always an incorrigible letch. From him, Jacqueline inherited her widely-spaced eyes, a propensity for retail therapy, and an indefatigable love of sexual gossip. At school or social functions, much to his daughter’s amusement, Black Jack would point out the women in attendance whom he had bedded.

Is it any wonder she went on to marry one of the century’s great bed-hoppers? As John “Demi” Gates, an early admirer, later admitted: “She had all the wrong standards, all the wrong standards, and yet she became something very special in spite of this.”

For all his faults, Black Jack lavished Jacqueline with praise. In his memoir of her youth, Jacqueline’s cousin John Davis wrote: “At Bouvier family gatherings it was almost embarrassing to hear Jack extol Jacqueline’s qualities before everyone.” In her father’s eyes, she could do no wrong. This came in stark contrast to Jacqueline’s relationship with her mother.

Janet Bouvier has not fared well with biographers. Thanks in large part to the damning testimony of a former maid, she emerges as little more than a money-grubber, bitch-slapping everyone who got in her way. But, if we’re being objective, Janet was in an impossible situation. With two young children, she found herself married to a broke, womanizing alcoholic. This was not what she had signed up for. After a newspaper published a photograph of Black Jack holding hands with another woman while Janet stood ignorantly by, blithely beaming, the couple separated. After the divorce– a shocking, ostracizing action for anyone, much less a Catholic, in the 1930s– Janet had to solicit financial help from her parents, a humiliating experience for a woman already reputed for her sense of dignity and implacable pride.

A meticulously mannered, socially ambitious woman, Janet demanded perfection from her daughters– particularly her eldest. Janet’s daughter Lee later mused: “I don’t think [Jacqueline] ever disliked my mother as you’ve heard. I think that she was always grateful to her because she felt that she had intentionally enlarged her world– our world– for our sake.” If Black Jack had failed her, Janet would not fail them. She knew the pressures her daughters would face as they grew up in Society and she tried, in her own way, to equip them to meet those challenges, drilling into them, both in words and by example, a belief that would underpin their actions from then on: that, for a woman, financial security was foremost. Janet had been forced to crawl back to her parents and admit her failure. She hoped to protect her daughters from ever having to endure such an indignity by instilling in them an almost pathological fear of penury.

While Janet’s aims were benevolent, her methods were not always kind. Jacqueline’s eerie resemblance to Jack Bouvier inevitably provoked Janet’s temper. The young girl was berated for her “messy” hair, large hands and feet, and broad shoulders, which were perceived early on as liabilities in the marriage game. During the divorce, a disgruntled Bouvier maid testified on Black Jack’s behalf that she had seen Janet hit her daughters. Even Jacqueline’s sister Lee, considered by many to be the family beauty, admitted: “there was an awful lot of criticism.”

By the time she was a teenager, the young Miss Bouvier had absorbed the lessons of her parents—the longing for lovely things, the craving for cash, the need to catch a husband— and established a rigid, protective distance from the world. There were pieces of herself she refused to share, instead retreating into what one acquaintance characterized as “a world of manufactured dreams.” She formed a nearly impenetrable persona, cultivating a seductive, breathy voice that lent her the air of a simpleminded flirt. It was a convincing act, but the stage whisper hid an archly intelligent, imaginative woman.

Acquaintances do not recall Jacqueline as warm and friendly, but the words “sympathetic,” “understanding,” and “thoughtful” crop up with surprising frequency. A picture emerges of a gentle, tenacious girl, both deeply sensitive and alarmingly tough. A classmate later recalled, “She was so striking. She had such a spirit, such a dignity, and a bearing, and a feeling, that while none of us would come up and speak to her, we all knew who she was.” She would go on to attend Vassar, spend a year at the Sorbonne, tour Europe twice, graduate from George Washington University, win and decline Vogue’s prestigious Prix de Paris prize, and land a job as the “Inquiring Photografer” at the Washington-Times Herald. All by the age of 23. It was a daring route: “For a young woman of our background and time,” recalled Jacqueline’s friend Vivian Crespi. “It was still considered almost revolutionary to go to college, let alone have a career.”

Jacqueline did all of this and yet, still she was floundering. On January 21, 1952, the Times-Herald reported Miss Bouvier’s engagement to John Husted. Before the engagement was even announced, she had doubts and began distancing herself; by March, the couple had split. She later admitted, “I knew I didn’t want the rest of my life to be [in Newport]. I didn’t want to marry any of the young men I grew up with– not because of them but because of their life.” She did not know what she wanted and such reflections belied the increasing pressure to marry and to marry well. In the intervening years since the Bouvier’s divorce, her father had only suffered further financial losses, and since Janet’s remarriage to Hugh Auchincloss, Jacqueline was merely wealthy by proxy. She had no money of her own.

Though Jacqueline’s choices up to this time—college, travel, a newspaper job—had diverted from the typical debutante trajectory, in the end there seemed to be but one path. No matter how long she deferred it, she had to marry and she would likely marry someone from her class. But, as evidenced by the busted up Husted engagement, she would not settle. She wanted excitement and adventure and love. And she had already set her sights on someone else.

Congressman John Kennedy had casually entered Jacqueline’s life a few times before. In a 1948 letter, penned on a bumpy rail car, the Vassar sophomore wrote home that a “tall thin young congressman with very long reddish hair, the son of a [former] ambassador” had been insistently flirtatious with her. It would be the spring of 1951 before John and Jacqueline were finally introduced at a dinner party hosted by Charles and Martha Bartlett. The Bartletts hosted another party on May 8, 1952, which both Jacqueline and John Kennedy would cite as the advent of their relationship. Kennedy later told Time magazine that Jacqueline had impressed him that evening, “So I leaned over the asparagus and asked her for a date.”

Theirs would be a frantic courtship, unfolding as Kennedy jetted back and forth between Washington and Boston during his Senate campaign. “He’d call me from some oyster bar up on the Cape with a great clinking of coins,” she said,  “To ask me out to the movies the following Wednesday . . .” She loved him, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to marry, a quandary the Senator shared. Aileen Bowdoin Train mused: “I don’t think it was indecision about him. She was worried about being taken over by politics and another family, because she always wanted to be herself, and I think that losing her own personality was what she was most worried about.”

In his own way, Jack Kennedy was a radical choice. The Bouviers themselves didn’t have the fanciest of family trees, but they flattered themselves they were Old Money. And though the Kennedy social stature had been improved by a decade of civic duty, theirs was still a fortune tainted by the nouveau riche entrepreneurial stink of bootlegging and Hollywood. A matter not helped by the fact that Jack Kennedy was an Irish Catholic politician. He wasn’t from Tammany Hall, but he wasn’t quite far enough from it for Newport society. Thus, it was a marriage someone like Janet Auchincloss would have seen as a decided step down. And perhaps, to Jacqueline, that just made it all the more appealing.

At the time she said, “Since Jack is such a violently independent person, and I, too, am so independent, this marriage will take a lot of working out.” Though Kennedy was deeply attracted to her intelligence and wit, his compulsive unfaithfulness and the “violently conflicting signals” he sent further eroded Jacqueline’s self-image and deepened her emotional defenses. She made every effort to impress her new husband, reinventing herself as an elegant, Givenchey-clad political consort, but try as she might, Jacqueline could not capture his undivided attention. In a 1968 letter to Cecil Beaton, Jacqueline’s sister admitted: “Jack used to play around & I knew exactly what he was up to & I would tell him so. And he’d have absolutely no guilty conscience & said, ‘I love her deeply & have done everything for her. I’ve no feeling of letting her down because I’ve put her foremost in everything.’”[18] Jacqueline hid the full extent of her unhappiness. Chuck Spaulding, a friend of the couple, observed: “She has a toughness, like a fighter who doesn’t go down, but gets hurt. I think she probably suffered to beat the band, but nobody ever saw the hurt.”

The complexity of the Kennedys’ relationship has become legendary. In January 1961, even Time had to admit that “[i]n the gossipy circles they moved in, it was an open secret that the Kennedys’ married life was far from serene.” It didn’t help that within months of their wedding the couple were beset by the first in a string of difficulties that would have tested even the most solid relationship: John Kennedy’s eight-month incapacitation from back surgery in 1954, a series of miscarriages, a still birth in 1956, the subsequent brief separation, and the sudden death of Jacqueline’s father, who had spiraled into a dismal tailspin of bankruptcy and booze. The 1957 birth of their daughter, Caroline, solidified the Kennedys’ shaky bond, but their relationship would always be fraught. Following his high-profile appearance at the 1956 Democratic Convention, John Kennedy spent the years prior to the 1960 election traversing the country, campaigning on behalf of fellow Democrats and laying the foundation for his presidential bid. Jacqueline once complained that she rarely saw him for more than two days in a row. When she found herself six seats down from him at a campaign function, she quipped: “This is the closest I’ve come to lunching with my husband in four months.”

Jacqueline once characterized herself and her husband as icebergs, “with the greater part of their lives invisible. She felt they both sensed this in each other and that this was a bond between them.” It was also an obstacle. In the mid-1950s, according to one of John Kennedy’s female confidants, “He just couldn’t stand her. That’s all I got. I mean he couldn’t understand or stand her at all at that stage.” And yet, he was still fascinated. At a Washington birthday party, Kennedy confided to Priscilla Johnson Macmillan that he only got married because he was thirty-seven, and if he remained a bachelor people would think he was “queer.” As Macmillan recalled,

He was saying this to me sotto voce all through dinner, [ . . . ] and across the table was [Jacqueline], being a perfect spellbinder as always, and he was eyeing her the whole time [ . . . ] And I think the impression I got that night– and I think it was the first time he overtly made a play for me– was that because of her extreme attractiveness [sic] that he didn’t compete with it, he assimilated it and it made him more refulgent. He wasn’t eating any food and he was eating her up with his eyes and she somehow enhanced him and made him more of a sun god in his own eyes.

Throughout their marriage, the couple would struggle to overcome what Jacqueline once referred to as “an emotional block” between them, a block that arose because “his love had certain limitations and hers was total.”Jacqueline would later say that in her mind she could “drop this curtain” over unpleasantness, blocking out pain through sheer willpower. Kennedy’s ascension to the Presidency would only further test her resilience.

It’s dangerous to reduce a person to a single story. We are all more complex, more nuanced than any handful of anecdotes could convey, but there are two accounts that stand out among the rest to capture the extremes of Jacqueline’s personality. The first comes from a female acquaintance, who once complained of Jacqueline: “She had so many sides. She behaved very capriciously. She’d be very seductive to a man at a party, sitting next to him, and then stub her cigarette on his hand.” The second, from Jacqueline’s housemate during her year at the Sorbonne: “Jacqueline had enormous strength of character, but she also had her weaknesses. It wasn’t always easy for her. When you’re the kind of person who wants only to be strong– well, she suffered from this. She couldn’t accept her own frailties.”

One story captures the hidden audacity, the downright grittiness of the woman the world would later know as “Jackie O”; the other, the sensitive fragility of a woman who was never nearly as tough as she looked.


we real cool

(1 november 2010)

the pile of important papers that i keep less than six inches away from the liter box is the organizational equivalent of my physical response to being a biographer.

a friend pointed this out the other day. look at you, trying to play it cool, she said.

i’m pretty sure it’s a bad act. i’m pretty sure she could see. i was totally busting out on the inside.

the problem is that while i know that what i’m trying to do is cool, and while most everyone i know who knows what i’m doing knows it’s cool, i don’t want everyone else knowing i know, because then they’ll know and i’d rather they not know in case it doesn’t pan out. if only i know i know how cool it is, only i will know how badly it blew up. you know?

you may have noticed how cool i was up there. in my use of the intransitive verb. my stubborn refusal to admit that i’m actually already doing this thing i say i’m trying to do.

it’s hard. being this cool.

way back in the early spring, when i was working for a fellow biographer, i went strolling down dearborn with a friend. i told him about her excitement. about how she was so enthusiastic about this project. about how she said i had to do it. NOW. when he eagerly assented, i recoiled as though he’d turned the cupcakes in my hand to snakes. much to my horror (and slight amusement), months later this is still my first response.

for the last eight years i’ve wrestled with the notion of how one becomes a biographer. now i’ve reconciled myself to the idea that maybe that’s what i should be- really, what i’ve been all along- i’m having the damnedest time owning it. and i’m discovering that my unwillingness to take myself seriously has an ocular manifestation involving, quite possibly, the most devastating eye-roll of all time.

an eye-roll so spectacular that it undercuts 15 years of study, a thesis, a $64,000 education, an archive of 379 magazines plus a 242 page book to make me look like an ungracious teen.

awesome.

i do not know why i do this. i do not know why i can’t stop. maybe because i am not a proper adult or because i’m a silly girl. maybe because sincerity is fearsome and failure is worse. maybe because i cannot take risks without first elegantly draping them in the fiercest possible sarcasm. or maybe i’m just being ridiculous. it could well be that simple. i really don’t know.

in the meantime, i play it cool. i keep moving forward. i try to exert facial control.

and, as though letters from the daughters of iconic american women came rolling into my house every day, i toss everything onto the pile on the floor, approximately six inches from the liter box. the pile that the cat has taken to sitting on as though it weren’t a book in the making but, rather, a throne.

2 words, 15 letters, 6 vowels

(21 october 2010)

mail from famous people is impossibly scary to open. the simple fact that it might have been caressed by famous hands or licked by famous lips (or more likely the hands and lips of those in their employ) lends such missives a distinctive fragility. as though they were highly bruiseable, like an infant or a thin-skinned fruit.

as the recent recipient of celebrated correspondence, i’ve observed that, when given the opportunity, people exhibit an extraordinary reluctance to handle said correspondence themselves.

i should be more clear. the correspondence they will handle. it is the envelop they fear.

thus, time and again as i’ve handed a letter over for perusal, it comes sailing back to me just as quick, with a brusque no, no, you do it- as though i am somehow more adept at these matters.

i’m trying to maintain a balance here, dancing on the fine line of being overwhelmed by the awesomeness of what i’m doing and underwhelmed by its actually happening. to this end, i’ve taken to storing the really really important things in a pile of papers on the floor located approximately six inches from the litter box.

so when a friend asks to see, i shove the cat from the paper pile by her bathroom and fish out the letter that has been requested. blowing off the litter dust that has lent it an antique aspect rarely found in mail less than three days old, i anticipate the no, no, you do it and slip the letter from its sheath.

i find i can only feel this- the excitement, the immediacy, the sense that things are really happening- through other people. i do not know what to make of the fact that there is so little wonder in it for me now.

and so i toss the thing to her as though it were a month-old us weekly and smile as her cupped hands catch it like a semi-precious gem.

and i watch her fingers run gently, reverently over the 15 letter name written in 11 pt., bookman old style, pantone 287 at the top.

no, no, you do it. yes, yes, i will.

more on michael landon’s loins

(11 november 2010)

the most widely-read thing i have ever written is a post entitled “michael landon’s loins.”

michael landon’s son died in 2009, a fairly banal circumstance that raised a million questions detailed in a post i published elsewhere and then again HERE.

that’s where things got a little strange.

thanks to wordpress’s internal statistic tracker, i know that the only thing that has consistently brought people to what was meant to be my “professional” website is an article i wrote analyzing the sex life of michael landon.

for reals.

there is apparently a great dearth of information in this field and the people, particularly in arizona and singapore, they are desperate for it.

i do not know how to feel about this.

on the one hand, it is deeply flattering that an audience from around the world is flocking to read my work. on the other hand, the people are flocking by virtue of having googled a combination of words that leads them to an essay on the genitalia of the father from little house on the prairie.

my target audience has always been an amorphous thing, but the one thing i do know is it is not comprised of people who would google that.

the very great biographical importance of campaign finance reform

(17 october 2010)

let’s talk about campaign finance reform. because campaign finance reform is a very important biographical issue. personally, i heart campaign finance reform because i do not know how there was biography before campaign finance reform. i do not know how anyone ever found anyone- much less wrote and sent grandiose pleas to their homes- before campaign finance reform.

you see, in the interest of transparency, campaign finance reform has done this amazing thing. it has led to the creation of a database listing anyone who has ever contributed to any campaign. a database that includes addresses. thus, anyone who has made a sizable contribution since the 1970s is there in their full benevolent glory. and these addresses are now out there and they’re fair game.

privacy-wise, this is maybe not so great for those people, but biographically speaking, O.M.G.

and yes, i realize this is meant to be stamping out corruption and greed and whatnot and that really is great and all, but seriously, arrianna huffington, thank you from the bottom of my biographical heart.

process

(13 october 2010)

it’s amazing how easily people can be found. it’s easier than you’d probably ever imagine.

there is a biographer whom i need to ask a very important question. a rather famousy biographer whom i’ve admired since my mother wouldn’t let me read his marilyn monroe book because there was a nearly naked lady on the cover. thus, i had to buy it at walden’s during an unsupervised shopping trip at the cool springs galleria and read it secretly at school.

i have a very important question for this biographer but i have no idea where he is. thanks to wikipedia, i quickly establish that he is living with his husband in a small village an hour outside of copenhagen. by googling the hell out of his name coupled with danish villages i recalled from the regionstog, within 10 minutes i have not located the biographer but i have found the biographer’s husband’s work email address.

i promptly send the biographer’s husband a humble missive along the lines of “if you happen to know this biographer i am trying to reach could you please let me know how he might be contacted.” the unstated sentiment being: “dude, i know you’re married to him so come on and help me out.” 3 hours later, the biographer responds.

finding people is easier than you’d ever imagine. i now know this biographer’s hometown, wedding date, publication history, volunteer activities, sexual orientation, his stance on the death penalty and his husband’s work extension. which is funny because the biographer’s email address is his first name and his last name.

all that digging and all i needed was his names. which i had already.

family time

(14 September 2010)

 

I returned from a vacation in Denmark with a million dirty clothes, a heap of right-wing British political magazines, the world’s largest lollipop, and a slew of Jackie-related voice messages.

Three of them do not count as they were from my father, who deployed the family Caroline Kennedy voice in a series of comical weeeeeeeeeeelcooooooooomes and plaudits for my dediiiiiiiiicaaaaaaaaaaaaatioooooon and sprawling pleas that I meet him in the liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiibraaaaaaaaaaaaary.

(Yes, we have a family Caroline Kennedy voice and the family Caroline Kennedy voice is based solely on a speech Caroline Kennedy gave in 1979 welcoming people to the dedication of the JFK Library wherein the only thing she said was, Welcome to the dedication of this Library. Thus, the family Caroline Kennedy voice is strictly limited to topics surrounding libraries, dedications and welcomes- topics that, when one’s family has a family Caroline Kennedy voice, come up with surprisingly greater frequency than one would ever imagine.)

The remaining messages, however, were from actual Jackie-related people. Impeccably mannered with such sprawling WASPy vowels that every time this happens, every time I hear them, I almost want to cry. Because people talk like that no longer. Those voices, these accents, they are a dying breed.

The manners are of a different age as well. Even when they are unwilling to speak to me, still they call, their messages acknowledging receipt of my letters and asking that iI, kindly, leave them alone. A display of such politesse that it has on more than one occasion prompted my grandmother, a life-long republican, to commend the grand etiquette of “those dread Kennedy people.”

What we learn from these messages is that most people are, apparently, willing to speak to me. People who actually knew Jackie. People for whom she was not a tabloid construct or a character played by Roma Touched By An Angel Downey in a made-for-tv movie in 1992.

I assume they think I’m about 54. I imagine my youth will surprise them and that I will need to go easy on the eyeliner when we meet.

Because, by this point, I’m pretty sure we are destined to meet. So, you can see, it’s absolutely ideal that at this same point- thanks to an infelicitous rereading of Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman– the prospect of talking to these people would suddenly be totally revolting to me.

I should be more clear. It’s not so much the prospect of talking to them, as I’ve done that several times without a hitch so far. It’s more the prospect of groveling at their feet, begging for scraps of information. Above all, it is the prospect of hurting their feelings.

Admittedly, in the face of Janet Malcolm’s distaste for any biographical endeavor that prizes an investigation of the dead over the emotions of the living, it would be challenging for anyone with an inquiring mind and a soul and a desire to wrench the family treasures from Jackie’s loved one’s hands not to feel a world-weary sense of moral decay. But still.

It’s a terrible time to develop a biographical conscience.

My friends who are historians all have their people, but their people are all old. They are all safely dead and their friends are too. There is no need for approval. No relatives to rise up with pitchforks, incensed. No lingering sensation of impending familial fury, as though each and every sentence put on the page were a step forward into literary leprosy, a future forever constricted by kennedy condemnation.

There is no one with whom I can discuss this. The delicacy of not pissing off Jackie’s college roommate. The least offensive means of approaching Caroline Kennedy and abasing myself for the family treasures. I know no one who knows how to do this, and so I bumble along. And so I will keep bumbling along until it’s done and done well.

Because it is Jackie. Because there has always been Jackie. And because, I know, for whatever reason- the feelings of everyone else be damned- I must not disappoint this dead woman I never knew.