so there’s this vanity fair article this month. “How Jackie O Played Matchmaker to Two of America’s Greatest Minds.” it has unsettled me and i’m not entirely sure why so let’s dig in…
this article is- and i’m being very reductive but this is, indeed, the crux- about how the writer brought together his harvard professor and a journalist by using jackie onassis. he writes: “I wrote Jackie—from now on in this story she’s not Mrs. Onassis anymore—and asked if she’d seen the piece on Stone [the journalist], and did she remember our conversation about Finley [the professor]? Wouldn’t it be fascinating if these two men met? Snail mail being quicker then, in less than 24 hours the unmistakable throaty whisper on the phone was telling me what a perfect idea this was.”
the dinner party was a collaboration: “Jackie and I discussed who else should be there, and we came up with a couple of Harvard men and their wives whom she knew, men Finley had known as undergraduates. The idea was we’d be comfortable wallpaper decorations for Finley, putting him at ease and making Stone feel like performing to impress us.”
if you’re like, omg, this is the most uninteresting story ever, yes, yes. it is an amazing job of intellectual wanking, but bear with me. i am setting the stage and now arriving at a point.
what of jackie? “I have absolutely no idea what Jackie wore. Whether she glided around the room in a diaphanous gown or a simple blouse over a peasant skirt—in both of which outfits I later saw her—I haven’t a clue.” BUT. “She was a sylph; isn’t that enough? It will have to suffice that in my memory she was, like Flaubert’s idea of an author and God, everywhere present, nowhere visible.”
let’s acknowledge that, even though it’s 1978 when this is taking place, we are DEEP in the camelot dream… “The evening’s atmosphere comprised equal parts of light and warmth. You wanted to be there, and you wanted it to go on forever.” which is all well and good, but what i do not like, what has made me uneasy, is this:
“In the presence of Izzy Stone and John Finley, Jackie Onassis transformed herself into the most benign of interviewers—curious, searching, probing, improvising as she went along. But she was not only a good questioner; in fact, that wasn’t her greatest talent. What she did best was listen. In a way this made her a very old-fashioned woman, always alert to absorbing the tales and lessons of men. Yet in her it was different; in her, as she listened, it was clear she was not simply a blotter for others’ words but a discerning judge. She raised listening to an art form. Her large shining eyes, glowing from some hidden well, would fix a speaker as though he were in a spotlight. He—yes, it usually was he—had to be brighter, more pointed, concise, with a better dénouement, or at least punch line, than he knew he had in him.”
so here’s the thing. this is not the first time a man- and it is always a man- has testified to the fact that jackie’s gaze was a beam of light in which men came alive and attained a brilliance they had not, outside it, known. i actually quote two of them in the draft of my book without ever thinking too deeply about it. but let’s think deeply about it.
let’s break this down. what is this paragraph doing? what do we mean when we say jackie was a dazzling listener?
to me, this paragraph- through the evocation of “a very old-fashioned woman”- suggests she listens because that is what she was trained to do. not because these dudes are talking about subjects she’s genuinely interested in. she listens because she is the hostess.
“The talk was not merely sparkling but inspired. Even inspirational.” and yet her questions are “good” but “benign.” and so when she speaks she’s merely, passively, guiding the tenor of the conversation rather than contributing to it. (in the writer’s defense, he’s a by-stander too and they’d agreed to play “wallpaper”, but this isn’t a story about the writer. it’s a story about how jackie fostered what is essentially an academic bromance, and in that story, she is “old-fashioned” in her passivity. what i’m critiquing is the way she is written.)
her greatest strength here, he suggests, “her greatest talent” even, “What she did best was listen.” if these guys were “america’s greatest minds,” she is, here, america’s greatest listener: “a discerning judge” who “raised listening to an art form.”
and i do think she was a great listener. i’m not contesting that. what i’m contesting is the way the listening is rendered here and elsewhere.
i am contesting the gender business at play… “Her large shining eyes, glowing from some hidden well, would fix a speaker as though he were in a spotlight. He—yes, it usually was he—had to be brighter, more pointed, concise, with a better dénouement, or at least punch line, than he knew he had in him.”
in these portrayals where jackie listens to a man, she is never portrayed as a thinker. it is not that she is listening to this guy because she is intellectually engaged in the issues they are discussing. it is because it is because she is a hostess and it is her destiny to listen as a great listener so that the man/men can achieve new heights in his/their thinking. greater thinking “than he knew he had in him.”
listening, jackie enables men to be their best selves.
(if we were portraying these men as women are portrayed, then we would say that under jackie’s gaze, the men perform more adroitly…)
alas, the greatness of her listening as an achievement is totally undercut by the admission: “Not that the guests of honor needed much prodding.”
“the gregarious Stone” “was eager to dispense his newfound wisdom about Socrates’s anti-democratic tendencies.” Finley “spoke a little haltingly, appearing reluctant to interrupt.” btw, i’m glad it was the writer’s dream come true because this dinner party sounds hella awkward. behold: “When Stone paused for a bite, and Finley proposed something as modest as the fact that Socrates after all bequeathed the very kind of dialogue they were having that evening and that Plato, to his credit, understood that, Stone came right back with the bias against democracy that Plato had shown in his defense of Socrates. At precisely this moment, Esther Stone [Stone’s wife: “as winning in her way as our hostess”], like a judge who had heard quite enough from the prosecution, said, ‘Shush, Izzy, this man really knows.'”
after dinner, stone holds forth on the importance of slavery in democratic athens and “The effect was of an electrical current coursing through Jackie’s living room; we were not so much being instructed as illuminated.”
when it was all over, jackie was deluged with thank yous. stone: “one of the most wonderful evenings we have ever spent. Meeting Prof. Finley at dinner with your engaging young friends made us think of the 18th century, when great ladies in Paris attracted the philosophes to their salons, and in that setting, before an audience of beauty, turned learned debate into an adventure in wit. Your lovely presiding presence was itself an illumination. I. F. Stone.”
from finley: “Shining memories and a general zephyr have wafted me home. You woo the soul into freer skies than it commonly inhabits and which it thinks for the moment its native element—partly rightly, because one will never forget.”
so why have i just recapped this incredibly boring article (i mean, vanity fair, COME ON) in ruthless detail? in part, to suggest that even jackie onassis isn’t enough to make a story of academic dinner party debate exciting to people who were not there. and also to emphasize how very much we see what we are taught to see. its easy to take jackie’s salonist role at face-value. it was, undoubtedly, something she enjoyed and knew how to do.
but how often do we do the things we know how to do? and how often are women written into stories as though that is all they can do?
was she intimidated by the arguments of these men? frankly, they sound like pompous asses to me so i would’ve wanted them out of my living room ASAP. but they were discussing things she was interested in and about which she knew a great deal.
what did she think of them? why did she stay silent? why did she only ask “benign” questions and listen? and what might that listening mean?
i am a 21st century woman. i am a feminist. but put me in certain rooms and i know how to do several versions of this exact thing. either to recede so that the men may talk- the modern equivalent of their leaving the room for cigars and brandy; now women remain seated at the table and simply stay silent. or to gaze at them in wonder, so they are at liberty to go on and feel they are better than usual, because the women around them are devoted and rapt.
sometimes, this is genuine. other times, it is a performance given in defeat. because, sometimes, listening is easier, safer, because it is what is- whether consciously or unconsciously- we expect.
the thing that is funny here, which you would never know from this article, is that jackie loved witty, bright men, loved bringing interesting groups together over dinner, and she HATED harvard with the fire of a thousand suns. this recurs in her letters.
“I can think of nothing that would give me greater pleasure than to leave the Harvard Corporation with its mouth watering,” she wrote robert mcnamara. something that would, she noted, give rfk and jfk “a wry laugh in heaven—.”
to richard neustadt: “I look forward to seeing you this fall and to seeing you bring Harvard to her knees.”
so of all the things in this essay, the fact that the author told her that “Finley was especially famous for saying that Harvard was a conspiracy of alcohol, intellect, and athletics to postpone sex,” strikes me as the greatest insight into why she invited him to her home.
what i want to suggest here is the complexity of her listening and, by doing so, the fullness of her humanity, both of which are absent in these anecdotes, where it is always, instead, a man praising the beam of light she briefly cast upon him, once upon a time.
“She was a sylph; isn’t that enough?” no. it is not.