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Austin Chronicle Saint Jackie

I Cover the Jackiefront

By Stephen MacMillan Moser

JUNE 12, 2000:  When asked what she fed her German Shepherd puppy, Jackie smiled slyly and said, "Reporters."

If John F. Kennedy were president now, when we scrutinize the private lives of our public officials so intensely, instead of in the Sixties, it seems unlikely that he would have survived the presidency, even if he hadn't been assassinated. His so-called "womanizing" (such a quaint word for basic trampiness) would have landed him in the doghouse shortly after he entered the White House. Imagine: No Camelot. No Thousand Days. No Macaroni. No pink suit. No Saint Jackie. Just a disgraced, impeached president and a long-suffering wife free to finally divorce him.

And, perhaps now, if that had occurred, we'd be thinking of Jackie in the same terms as, say, Joan Kennedy, who put up with her obnoxiously immature husband for far too long before divorcing him. Or even Betty Ford, whom we could all admire for dealing courageously with her personal problems, but who has seemingly faded into the woodwork. Much like Jackie would have liked to have done. But the public would not permit it. Not in her lifetime, and not in her death.

The sixth anniversary of Jackie's death has brought forth several new works about her. Fortunately, the most recent wave of ugly, trashy, yet undeniably readable, books about Jackie has subsided and in their stead we are offered several well-constructed, thoroughly researched, and mercifully kind books about her. Coming from a trio of authors, each of them reigning princes of the biography, who have proven in the past that they are no neophytes in the dirt-dishing department, this is a refreshing departure.


Jackie, Ethel, Joan: The Women of Camelot

by J. Randy Taraborrelli
Warner Books, 528 pp., $25.95

Jacqueline Bouvier, Ethel Skakel, and Joan Bennett had little in common except their privileged upbringings. Then they became Kennedys and had a great deal in common -- far more than just their new last names. Having read Taraborrelli's work before, it came as a surprise that this book about the Kennedy sisters-in-law was not a free-for-all character assassination. Not only does he reach far beyond his usual milieu of Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, and Frank Sinatra, but he also exhibits a sensitivity and depth of development as a writer that has previously remained hidden. Not that his earlier books weren't fun, mind you, but "bitchy" and "superficial" are two words that come to mind when discussing them. He was once president of the Diana Ross Fan Club, and wrote a book that was a fawning, gushing love letter to her. Then, something dreadful must have happened between them, because he followed that book a few years later with Call Her Miss Ross, which proceeded to eviscerate her, making her into the conniving, supreme-ly self-centered monster that we've always thought she was.

So it was with high expectations of low class that I embarked upon his tale of this unlikely trio. But shortly into it, I found myself thinking, "Where's the dirt?" There's precious little of it here, even though Taraborrelli had multiple opportunities to insert it. He should be commended for his unusual restraint. He gleans some of his information from Jerry Oppenheimer's 1995 book The Other Mrs. Kennedy, which covered the hitherto uncharted territory of Ethel Kennedy's private life. Oppenheimer, who also performed a scathing and delicious hatchet job on Martha Stewart, portrays Ethel as a jealous and abrasive woman, fanatically ambitious for her husband. His illustrations of her ability to be cruel and coarse, as well as a lousy mother to her 11 children, are abundantly presented in his book. Surprisingly, these are not the instances that Taraborrelli chooses to use. He has written an even-handed, occasionally sweet portrait of the complicated lives and relationships of the three wives, one that always weighs their sometimes inexplicable actions against the tremendous pressures of being full-time representatives of their husbands and public figures themselves.

Their strengths as well as their weaknesses have always been magnified, and Taraborrelli does not ignore this. He uses their strengths and weakness as the basis for the unbreakable bond between them -- even after they were no longer with their husbands. He presents much new material, including unpublished oral histories from the JFK and LBJ libraries, and correspondence between Jackie and Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson over a period of 40 years. He provides new insight into Jackie's reaction to Marilyn Monroe's death. She is told the news while escaping aboard her future husband Ari Onassis' yacht, where she'd gone to cope with the JFK/Monroe affair. When another guest persistently tries to talk about the sad affair, Jackie puts a stop to it by snapping, "Isn't it tragic enough without all of us sitting here under a full moon and gossiping about it?" and stalks off. Unfortunately, Taraborrelli clouds the veracity of this bittersweet incident by misquoting the line in a caption under a photo of Jackie on the cruise. The caption has her saying, "Isn't it tragic enough without us gossiping about it under the stars?" It seems too important a historical revelation to not get right. Nevertheless, Taraborrelli's bibliography and source notes are a scrupulous account of his research, and he has done a phenomenal amount of work in documenting for all future researchers the FBI file numbers that pertain to the Kennedys -- a previously unaccomplished feat that will save every future Kennedy chronicler an enormous amount of time and money. He goes on to thank a number of notable figures, including, mysteriously, RuPaul. And, interestingly, he also thanks fellow author James Spada, who, having previously written a book on another Kennedy-in-law, Peter Lawford, was able to assist by providing phone numbers, contacts, and ideas.


Jackie: Her Life in Pictures

by James Spada
St. Martin's Press, 177 pp., $29.95

The Taraborrelli/Spada connection is interesting because James Spada himself has just released his book about Jackie. Spada, too, leaves the dirt on the floor to present us with a gloriously intimate photographic tribute to Jackie. And he has done an amazing job of procuring nearly 200 never-before-published photos of her. Spada is no newcomer to the pictorial biography -- his early book on Marilyn Monroe set the standard for glossy, photographic celebrity bios, and he followed it with similar photographic tributes to Katherine Hepburn and Jane Fonda. With multiple nonpictorial biographies to his credit, which range from the adoring to the scandalous, Spada, who is also gaining renown as a photographer himself, is an expert at every biographical device. He knows how to flatter a subject, as well as how to yank the skeletons out of their closets, but in this sophisticated, beautifully produced work, he has chosen to let the photos of Jackie do all the talking. And she tells everything, with the help of his insightful and detailed captions to help propel the story. The story is completely in Jackie's face. If you hold the book at arm's length and flip through the pages, it's like a lovely movie about Jackie with views of her we've never seen before. Spada has much to be proud of.


Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis: A Life

by Donald Spoto
St. Martin's Press, 347 pp., $24.95

"I don't know why I did all those push-ups!" Jackie said after cancer had betrayed her immortality. With that simple statement, she revealed the humanity behind the legend. This seems to be the idea behind Spoto's book -- taking Jackie from the inscrutable to the comprehensible, underscoring her fine qualities that we already know about and yet lifting the veil of her secrecy. Spoto writes, "Since Jackie made her debut at eighteen, she had been destined for a kind of American queenship. Her marriage to John F. Kennedy and her subsequent accession to First Ladyship had fulfilled many of her mother's dreams and confirmed that part of her character which had longed for a noble destiny. ... After Kennedy's assassination, she was assigned the role of queen dowager -- very much like the beloved Alexandra, Mary and Elizabeth, the queens consort and the widows of England's King Edward VII, George V, and George VI." Like those women, Jackie kept the flame of her husband's memory alive in heart of the nation, but unlike those women, she knew how to get on with her life by creating a new one for herself and her children. Spoto illustrates Jackie's unwillingness to subjugate her own desires in order to remain the Widow Kennedy, but he reminds us that never, for any moment of her life after 1963, did anyone ever forget who she was. Not as racy as some of Spoto's earlier books (like his bios of Alfred Hitchcock, Ingrid Bergman, and, yes, Jesus), Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis: A Life is a very nice, but relatively dull, book.


HONORABLE MENTION

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Paper Dolls

by Tom Tierney
Dover, $4.95 (paper)

Another entry from the dazzlingly prolific Tierney, who was born in Beaumont and began his career in Austin. Tierney is unfairly known as "the guy who draws the presidents in their underwear."


Jackie After Jack: Portrait of the Lady

by Christopher Andersen
Warner Books, 542 pp., $6 (paper)

A dishy follow-up to Andersen's solo effort Jack and Jackie: Portrait of a Marriage.


The Uncommon Wisdom of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis: A Portrait in Her Own Words

by Bill Adler
Citadel Press, 176 pp., currently out of print

Jackie speaks.


Cooking for Madam: Recipes and Reminiscences From the Home of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

by Marta Sgubin
Scribner, 224 pp., currently out of print

The title says it all -- except for the fact that the author, a longtime Jackie employee, was the recipient of a very generous bequest in Jackie's will. Sgubin is very kind, as she should be.


A Very Private Woman: The Life and Unsolved Murder of Presidential Mistress Mary Meyer

by Nina Burleigh
Bantam Doubleday Dell, 368 pp., $13.95 (paper)

"Presidential Mistress" is an unfortunate epitaph for this fascinating and complex woman. Born into a privileged family that was riddled with tragedy and depression, Meyer emerged as a thoroughbred -- a striking, headstrong, freethinking woman during a time when well-bred ladies were merely decorative. Married to the CIA's Cord Meyer (who spearheaded the CIA's infiltration of student groups in the Sixties), she was on the fringes of the heart of the Washington power elite. Dispensing with her husband, Meyer became a ubiquitous figure in the art scene and a glamorous presence in the social stratosphere. She was a politically aware woman with decidedly independent ideas who experimented with LSD through her close association with Timothy Leary in the 1950s. As a Georgetown resident, she regularly entertained her sister Toni (who was married to The Washington Post's Ben Bradlee), as well as another Georgetown neighbor, the young Jacqueline Kennedy. It was inevitable that she would cross paths with the sexually voracious John F. Kennedy -- she already had, even as far back as boarding school, but as a mature and beautiful woman, she was irresistible to him. Their affair was fierce, and apparently, so was Mary Meyer's written account of it.

With her inside knowledge of the CIA (not only through her former husband, but family friend, CIA Director Jim Angleton) as well as her intimate knowledge of the president, she must have been considered the repository of valuable information during the height of the Cold War. Less than a year after Kennedy's assassination, Meyer was murdered as she walked a towpath along a canal in Georgetown. She was shot twice by an assailant identified by an eyewitness. The accused was a slightly built young black man who was acquitted of the charges in courtroom proceedings that were bungled by the prosecutor. That's the official story, anyway, but author Burleigh is skeptical and spins her tales of dark conspiracy and bolsters them with stunning evidence. Part thriller and part history, the book, described by The Washington Post as "Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil meets Camelot," is riveting in every aspect.


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