Lest you think biographers do nothing but lazing about eating bonbons and sipping champagne, it actually boils down to, for me anyway, rather a whole lot of intellectual/psychological heavy lifting about motivations and character and societal demands. Fun times!
My primary research interests are expectations and choices. For example, what were the expectations society would hold for someone like Jackie (ie. she HAD to marry! she HAD to marry an american! she HAD to have his kid!), the expectations she would have for herself (ie. she HAD to have money! she HAD to have freedom!), and then what choices were available to her and which choices did she make, AND where did those choices deviate from expectations (ie. the vast gulf between her having to marry an american and have his kid and the fact that she married a wealthy greek and, instead of getting knocked-up, walked around braless and barefoot, looking all scandalously euro-boho).
My secondary research interest (which is just the formal way of saying ‘things I really like to think about’) is story-telling. So what’s the dealio with story-telling, you ask? Well, as is the case with most things, this question is perhaps best explored through the lens of the sex lives of dead people, Jackie ❤ RFK edition.
So’s it’s 1964. Like Jackie, Bobby was absolutely wrecked by his brother’s death and, in their grief, the pair grew closer. ‘He’d get on the phone and say, ‘Jackie, get yourself feeling up! Don’t just sit around there and mope!”’ recalled Roswell Gilpatric. ‘He was very good in keeping up her morale and spirits when she might get into a depression.’
Seeking to escape the frenzy that surrounded her in Washington—where her home had become the city’s #1 tourist attraction— in the spring of 1964, Jackie relocated to New York City, where her sister and sisters-in-law maintained homes. That same year, Kennedy also took up residence in New York, in preparation for his run for the Senate from that state.
Solange Batsell, an old friend and neighbor of Jackie’s who saw her often during this time, remembered: ‘She was really in her shell then and Bobby made her give dinner parties. And she wore the same old yellow dress– it was practically unraveling– for every single dinner party she gave [at her apartment in New York] at 1040 Fifth. I don’t think she cared much about herself in those days, like wearing a pretty dress or a new one.’
Their connection was undeniable, its nature unclear, and the people around them took note. In the morning, Bobby would often be at her house to breakfast with the children and there were whispers among the household staff that he slept there overnight. Staffers in Kennedy’s campaign office wondered whether the relationship was romantic. Mary DeGrace, an employee of Ethel Kennedy at the time, remembered: ‘It was back-room gossip at the compound [in Hyannis]… The staff at the compound were all abuzz about these rumors. There was more a feeling in the air than anything that anybody actually saw.’
In 1964 and 1965, they were together a lot. Each seemed to be the only one who could understand the depths of the other’s pain. In Antigua in March 1964, she gave him a copy of Edith Hamilton’s The Greek Way, a book that helped him come to terms with his grief. One of Kennedy’s secretaries recalled: ‘The word we got was that she was shell shocked […] I think they needed each other, both trying to recuperate. Bobby never smiled, and in private he would cry.’
They were allegedly affectionate in public, the widow and the brother, and were reportedly seen holding hands, whispering conspiratorially.
These stories evidently wound their way into the gossip columns. Later, Rowland Evans, in a discussion of the alleged affair, admitted the relationship was close but not as ‘you used to read in the gossip columns.’ And yet, forty-year-old gossip columns are a hard source to come by and so, whilst we’ve got movie magazines treating the pair as close friends, no contemporary newspaper accounts exist which attest to these reports of an affair.
Biographer C. David Heymann cites a story in the New York Express alleging that Robert and Jacqueline Kennedy were ‘being seen together all the time,’ but I haven’t even been able to confirm the existence of such a paper, raising the potential that it’s a bogus source or the less sinister possibility that it’s an irretrievable one.
Similar wording appears in a 1978 excerpt from Kitty Kelley’s Jackie Oh! featured in the Palm Beach Post: ‘Bobby and Jackie were being seen together in New York so much that people began to gossip that their friendship might be more than familial. Jackie not only ignored the vicious rumors but fueled them by embracing her brother-in-law in public, holding his hand and kissing him.’
The gossip printed in the papers provides the biographer with a concreteness that’s false at best, as such stories weren’t intended to serve as historical fact, but were, rather, stories in the making, based on impressions that shifted from day to day, hour to hour.
The impressions of the people in close proximity to the people gossiped about prove equally tricky, for they are precisely that: impressions. These are the stories sprung from the whispers, and they have calcified into ‘facts’ through the years. For this is now a relationship written in tones of certainty. Though the stories are all based on assumptions and characterized by tinges of wish, they are presented as ‘facts.’ It has become a ‘fact,’ though its nature is something we can never, for certain, know.
And so how is this story told by the people who were there then?
Truman Capote, ever unreliable, a few years before his death reportedly told his friend, the television, theater, and film producer Lester Persky, that the relationship between Jackie and Bobby was ‘perhaps the most normal relationship either one ever had […] It was the coming together of a man and a woman as a result of his bereavement and her mental suffering at the hands of her late, lecherous husband. In retrospect, it seems hard to believe that it happened, but it did.’
‘As I let the drama idle away in my mind,’ reminisced Gore Vidal in his memoir, ‘I suspect that the one person Jackie ever loved, if indeed she was capable of such an emotion, was Bobby Kennedy. There was always something oddly intimate in her voice when she mentioned him to me.’
‘As I let the drama idle away in my mind…’ There was ‘a feeling in the air…’ It all seemed to make so much sense.
It’s easy to write that as a love affair. How easy then might it have been for those around them to jump to the same conclusion? Franklin Roosevelt Jr. hadn’t actually seen them dancing at Le Club. ‘People’ had seen them and told him.
A film producer’s friend stayed in a hotel suite opposite Jackie’s at the Carlyle, saw her leaving with Bobby, and concluded they were having an affair because, according to the film producer, ‘you can look at people and tell if they’ve been intimate… my friend could tell.’
In the heady aftermath of John Kennedy’s death, when everyone was emotionally unmoored and stricken with grief, when Bobby was spending a lot of time with Jackie, it wouldn’t have required such an imaginative leap to assume they were having sex. People thought Ethel Kennedy believed it.
‘Though there was no affair,’ contended George Smathers, ‘I believe Bobby’s wife thought there was one.’
‘Her suspicions were well founded,’ remembered Ethel’s friend Coates Redmon. ‘I’m ninety-nine percent certain they were involved, and I’m sure Ethel caught on at some point. You’d go to dinner parties in New York and Washington, and people would talk. And you could see how it might have all started, and how, after JFK’s death, they could have had a mad, morbid attraction to each other, and how this initial attachment continued to grow.’
People would talk. You could see how it might have all begun. It’s easy to piece the ‘facts’ into the story of a love affair, but important to remember that the ‘facts’ are people’s impressions remembered of events of long ago. We are all of us—them, me, you— surmising here, pulling experiences into narratives, collecting memories into stories that do, from the vantage of the present, seem to make so much sense of things we do not, can not, truly know.
‘The problem with history? It’s full of dead people.’ The words of the dead cannot be double-checked. The assertions of previous biographers cannot always be sourced and, to complicate matters more, even when alive, sources are, at times, unwilling to stand by what they have, incontestably, said. Vidal’s memoir, wherein he confessed to having let the drama idle away in his mind, was published in 1995. There is no getting around the fact that he claimed credit for those lines. However, in 2009, upon the publication of Heymann’s Bobby & Jackie: A Love Story, in which Heymann quotes the passage and cites Vidal’s memoir as its source, Vidal’s representative told reporters his client didn’t remember having ever said such a thing.
The telling of stories is a shaky business. The stories shift as do the people who tell them, the people who write them. We are all of us, always, reshaping, revising, trying to make sense of the things we think we know.
Maybe it means nothing. Maybe it was nonsense. ‘Rubbish,’ declared Robert Kennedy’s spokesman, Frank Mankiewicz. ‘In people’s fantasy world of what the Kennedys were like, yes. In the real world, no.’
The newspaper columnist Rowland Evans in a 1970 interview with Roberta Greene…
EVANS: I think Jackie always liked Bobby. I don’t think the relationship with Ethel and Jackie was all that close. It wasn’t brittle, but it wasn’t very close. I think it developed. It was always there. I think Jackie and Bobby had a relationship, but it obviously became much closer because he would see and protect her and do all her stuff, all her dirty work. But close in the sense that you used to read in the gossip columns, about some kind of incipient romance, it was totally not.
GREENE: As Lasky says—that is the most amazing book. Someone should do an analysis of it. But that’s a perfect example of the way he writes: ‘People have said that there’s some kind of illicit relationship. However, I can say for a fact…’
EVANS: ‘That I never saw it.’
GREENE: ‘Now that I’ve planted it in all of your minds, it’s not true.’
To Theodore Sorenson Jackie reportedly later said: ‘A few of us should be forgiven for some of the things we did in the years immediately following the President’s death.’ Sorenson believed ‘she was not only excusing me but also excusing herself.’
Was she? Our reading of this moment is dependent upon his having initially read it right. Did he? Do we trust him?
We so rarely communicate clearly in life. How horrid to be held hostage to the things you said which others misunderstood.