it is like a nesting doll, my life with jackie. a series of anniversaries, each now saturated in its own memories.
because when you write about someone else, you are ultimately writing about yourself.
when you write about someone for twenty-five years, writing about that person is actually you living your life.
i was very young when this began.
her death was a blow i did not understand.
ten days after jackie’s death, i received this t-shirt for my birthday.
that is how young i was. this was a t-shirt i actually wanted.
it occurred to me this morning that i have probably thought about jacqueline kennedy onassis at least once every day in the twenty-five years since.
which is totally my normal but also maybe kind of weird.
there are reasons for this.
hillary. being 12. purity culture. magazines. growing up in the south. feeling a mis-fit. the loss of david silver’s virginity on 90210. hard copy. feminism. the unrelenting drive to be a successful, attractive, interesting and valued human woman and the need for some sort of template to become that.
simply put: it was the ’90s.
or, “the late 1900s,” as my students now call them.
there was a time, after i’d banged out the first draft of a book that a number of people have felt is definitely unsellable and possibly unreadable, when i would just constantly, in conversation, point out that we’re all going to die.
this was, no doubt, terribly fun for the people who loved and lived with me during this time.
and so as we sat in the library talking about our research or our lives, my dear friend N would see me sit up straighter in preparation for my inevitable truth bomb, and she’d head it off. i know, i know, she’d say, gently. we’re all going to die, but can we just talk about why this professor hasn’t written me back?
it was a time where i felt it needed to be said because that is what i had learned from writing about jackie.
i’d written an entire life in a one-year period.
i wasn’t drunk on power so much as scared shitless that it was that easy. that it happens that fast.
it all goes so fast.
my father always warns me that time passes so quickly. you just don’t know, he says. and i am like, no, man. i KNOW. i have SEEN.
he doesn’t believe me.
writing isn’t the same as life, i imagine he imagines. i’m not so sure i agree.
life is so fragile.
that spring, after finishing the draft, i stumbled around DC like an open wound, incapable of writing, incapable of reading what i had written.
it was probably a bad time to be doing archival research at NARA on american military efforts to de-nazify the german people through the use of culture.
a bad time to be spending entire days confronting evidence of how horrible people can be. how horrible the world is. how we’re all going to die.
i spent so much of my life in 2015 talking about this.
the fact that we are all going to die. and also that we can never even really know ourselves, much less other people.
to the degree that my mother would casually say things like, yes, but even though we’re all zones of obscurity………..
it all seems rather futile. once you realize that.
beautiful but futile.
there was this one moment, shortly before i defended my phd the following year. in london, at the intersection of goldhawk road and shepherd’s bush, around 3 or 4 pm on an afternoon shortly after an early spring rain, where the light has that golden edge and hits the puddles at such a degree that the scene has an over-saturated instagram quality; it was a moment where i was hit hard by the fact that we–myself and all of the people physically near me in that moment– were all alive right then.
in that moment, the thing we had in common was that we were all alive then. subsequently, there was no guarantee that would be the case.
it’s fragile. and in that one moment, it seemed very easy.
in that moment, i wondered why we couldn’t all get along.
then the light changed.
five years ago, writing this, i was on the megabus, on my way to new york to interview gloria steinem.
today, i am alone, on a farm in mississippi, avoiding writing a book review that’s due tomorrow by writing this and reading short stories about russian immigrants.
i am, of course, fretful about tone. about how naive and silly and unlikeable and faux-insightful this all sounds. but i’m also very angry, because life is short and it goes so fast and we people are so often so careless, so cruel.
so there’s a part of me that truly, deeply does not care how shrill i sound.
it seems an impossibility: to simultaneously care but also not.
as a woman, i occupy so many impossibilities. this is what it is to be human, right?
time is like an accordion… sometimes it’s extended and stretches out so that the past feels the furthest point from where you are now. but then, other times, it squeezes in, so near there’s the sense that if the eyes could just close tighter, if you could just breathe more deeply, if you could just still yourself, you could almost get at it, almost touch it, almost feel it so that the words would come differently, better- they’d be a better fit. i’d be more dexterous with them.
i wrote that five years ago and felt myself to be terrifically profound when i was, in reality, just elaborating on a conor oberst lyric.
the thing that is most striking this year is how many people have died.
lee, yusha, nancy tuckerman, bunny mellon, jayne wrightsman, et al.
there was a time where i was writing letters to all of these people who had, previously, just been names in books or talking heads in documentaries. and sometimes they would write me back; other times, they’d die, like, the next week.
during this period, true story: i maintained an excel spreadsheet entitled “dead or alive.”
et al. = sister joanne.
i do not remember how i started writing her.
i remember i found her email online, from some book review she’d written for a blog, and asked her for an interview.
i knew of her from a 1995 discovery channel documentary on jackie that my father had taped and i’d watched at least 100 times since.
the thing is that people usually have the one story and then they tell it to everyone. so when you ask someone who’s been interviewed before to speak to you, it feels like you’re basically just asking them to tell you the same story again so that it’ll be yours.
and some times that is all you get. words you’ve already heard before.
other times, you get something altogether else.
you think you know what is coming.
you do not.
sister joanne and i spoke on the phone in probably 2014. maybe i wrote her a letter of thanks? or wishing her a happy easter or something.
she wrote back and we kept writing.
i met her once, during that trip to look at horrifying things in archives in DC. flew into baltimore so that we could spend an hour together.
she was 95 at the time.
we sat in an alcove, in the sunshine.
i remember how the sunlight glowed through her hair so the ends were like fairy-lights. the tiny wrinkles creasing her earlobes. how she pronounced beautiful like beauty-full.
it isn’t just writing. it’s living.
that’s the thing you have to remember.
that’s the part that is maybe the most profoundly weird.
in your writing life, you play with the lives of real people like they were paperdolls.
in your real life, a man who wants to sleep with you compliments you on your perfume and the words thank you, jackie’s sister’s ex-husband’s cousin, the countess, gave it to me come out of your mouth and they are actually true.
i had a chance to go aboard the christina. it was for sale and i emailed the agent and he let me crash a viewing.
while he showed it to clients, i wandered the boat alone.
i was there for, like, two hours. it actually isn’t that big of a ship. i spent a lot of time walking very very slow.
on four separate occasions i experienced the once-in-a-lifetime experience of entering the bar area and beholding the infamous whale testicle covered bar stools in real life.
sometime during the second hour, i began engaging in the game of trying to imagine what it must have been like, though all i felt was that it must have been claustrophobic, all closed up in there, trapped on the water, confined.
i find the ceilings in grand interiors are always disarmingly low.
in these moments, you find yourself waiting, looking, hoping that something will happen that you can later write about.
this is when i feel most alive: when i am living in a moment that i know i will later be writing down.
there’s tremendous freedom in the collapse, in the shrinking of the space between life and words.
there was a moment.
at the blue lapis fireplace in the… den? living room? i do not know what one calls such living spaces on a yacht.
but i put my hand on the blue lapis fireplace, which i’d always heard described in documentaries and in books, and i thought to myself, she must have once put her hand here too!
and it was a moment at once deeply powerful and super lame, which is pretty much a description of the whole experience of writing biography.
it is both deeply lame and incredibly necessary to care this much.
five years ago, gloria steinem told me that if anyone had to write about jackie, she was pretty sure jackie would be glad it was me.
a few years before that, yusha auchincloss said that jackie would be pleased with what i was doing.
i love these statements even as they strike me as hilariously not true.
be kind, sister joanne wrote.
which is really just solid advice for living.
for reasons i will likely never fully know, twenty-five years ago, my twelve year-old self picked the recently deceased jacqueline kennedy onassis for a fairy godmother.
there is a powerful desire to do well by her. accompanied by a crushing awareness of the many ways in which it is possible to fuck it up and the inevitability that, in at least some way, i probably will, even if it’s just that i’ve committed my whole life to writing a book(s) that will never be published and done.
because words and stories matter so much and they are so slippery and we can never really know anyone, not even ourselves and so much less someone we’ve never even actually known.
but, oh, the valor in the trying and the freedom of the collapse, in the stretch and contraction of time, the fluttery beguiling sensation of having just missed catching it while still being almost very nearly there.