Reaction to the recent release of Jacqueline Kennedy’s half-century-old conversations with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. focused largely on a winsomely innocent reverence for her husband. The author sees a different Jackie: savvy, manipulative, disingenuous—and lacking the class for which she was so admired.
If you were to set a competition for the headline most unlikely to appear in an American magazine, the winning entry would surely be jackie tacky or tacky jackie. In her life and even posthumously, it always somehow fell to Jackie Kennedy to raise the tone. An exacting task in her case, and exquisitely so when one appreciates that she had to raise the tone without ever actually admitting that the tone could use a bit of raising. But it was always implicitly acknowledged that a dash of Bouvier was needed, like a tincture of yeast in the lump, to refine the rather coarse mixture of The Last Hurrah and bootleg that was the original Kennedy patrimony. And the new First Lady—a working title she disliked, incidentally—possessed just that hint of class that is respected by the mass. (You may wish to attempt enunciating my last phrasing in the tones of Hyannis or Back Bay or Harvard.)
Yet now, reading and listening through her half-century-old sit-downs with the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., recorded shortly after her husband’s assassination, I am once again visited with that vague feeling that the lovely widow has actually rather lowered the tone. Much of the commentary on Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy has focused on the self-subordinating, near-doormat opinion that Jackie voiced of her own status as a wife. Enhanced by the unexpected breathiness of her voice (almost Marilyn-like on some portions of the tape), the avowal of being confined to an awful Victorian or “Asiatic” kind of marriage, or a “Japanese” one, as Schlesinger prompts her to say, has upset her granddaughters and those ladies on The View, who believe in the tradition of strong womanhood. But when examined carefully and in context, the pouting refusal to have any ideas except those supplied by her lord and master turns out not to be evidence of winsome innocence but a soft cover for a specific sort of knowingness and calculation.
Left out of the boys’ conversation and kept in the dark, eh? She tells Schlesinger, when the subject of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights is raised, that she regards Dr. King as a moral monster who goes as far as to arrange orgies in Washington hotels. She can have been in a position to say this only if, as a special treat, she had been cut in on the salacious surveillance tapes by which J. Edgar Hoover kept the enemies of the Kennedy clan (and Kennedy himself) under his thumb. This was the rawest and raunchiest underside of access to crude power. It has to make one ask how much else she knew, about the president’s stupefying consumption of uppers and downers, for example—rather difficult to conceal from a wife—let alone how often she had to close her eyes or her ears as the door practically banged on the heels of a departing mistress or hooker (or Sam Giancana’s moll Judith Exner).
Bambi-like looks notwithstanding, it sure was the sexual channel along which she directed her antennae. And quite a wised-up channel at that: why would tough babes such as Clare Boothe Luce and Madame Nhu seem to care seriously about the politics of the politicians they championed? Did such ardent attachment, Mrs. Kennedy speculated, suggest the heated effect of Sappho’s incandescent verses:
“Madame Nhu tearing all around, saying things about him [President Kennedy]—I suppose she was more of an irritant. But once I asked him, ‘Why are these women like her and Clare Luce, who both obviously are attracted to men, why are they—why do they have this queer thing for power?’ She was everything Jack found unattractive—that I found unattractive in a woman. And he said, ‘It’s strange,’ he said, ‘but it’s because they resent getting their power through men.’ And so they become really—just hating men, whatever you call that. She was rather like Clare Luce. (whispers) I wouldn’t be surprised if they were lesbians.”
While Jackie was not always wrong by any means when it came to rendering a thumbnail of some dame (clichés they may be, but you can’t dispense with lemons and prunes when analyzing the chemical composition of Mrs. Gandhi), it’s still slightly off-putting to find her so eagerly searching for the bitch-slap put-down (“She is a real prune—bitter, kind of pushy, horrible woman”), based on experience she can have gained only by accepting the role of insider and distinctly relishing it. Michael Beschloss, who has steered this frail craft of last-sip publishing into harbor, may have overstepped himself as a historian by saying that the tapes show Jackie as a major player in the Kennedy administration. But they certainly make it difficult if not impossible to accept her at her own paradoxical valuation, as merely a self-effacing hostess and decorator.
If the subject were being a major player in establishing the popular reputation of the Kennedy administration, that would be an entirely different story. With amazingly professional velocity, she seized control of the image-making process and soon had an entire cadre of historians and super-journos honing and burnishing the script. And there again, as I revisit it, comes that weird feeling that the taste and style pressure were being exerted very slightly downward.
Take the single example that everybody knows best: the notorious interview she gave to Life’s Theodore H. White and the way in which it forced even cautious academic historians into emplacing a showbiz promotion into the heart of the American discourse. Here it is as Life magazine printed it while the hoofbeats died away, on December 6, 1963:
“When Jack quoted something, it was usually classical, but I’m so ashamed of myself—all I keep thinking of is this line from a musical comedy. At night, before we’d go to sleep, Jack liked to play some records; and the song he loved most came at the very end of this record. The lines he loved to hear were: Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.”
She liked that closing line so much that she insisted that White repeat it, and enshrine it, which he very thoroughly did, even ending his article with it. Now consider: The nation has just buried a president whose books were replete with the language of valor and grandeur—fit rhetoric for Profiles in Courage. Arlington cemetery has been garlanded as never in the century. The bugle calls can still be heard wafting on the air. And then: Oh, mercy me, why do I worry my pretty little head?—why, all I can call to mind is some plonking ditty from Lerner and Loewe that even the Broadway critics found a tad paltry. Odd, when you reflect upon it, that her first instinct was for the popular, the kitsch, and the second-rate. (And can you imagine what the Hyannis crowd would have said if Mamie Eisenhower and Pat Nixon had admitted to the same writhe-making cultural preferences?)
Then the inevitable second thought arrives: She’s the only possible witness to this supposed wish for posterity. Nothing else in the interview is vindicated by truth. (“She was horrified by the stories that she might live abroad…. ‘I’m going to live in the places I lived with Jack.’ ”) The other opinions expressed are patently insincere (“The Johnsons are wonderful, they’ve been wonderful to me”). Her need to make an immediate impression is evidently very strong. And yet her very first concern is to keep things within the mental and aesthetic grasp of the average, to reduce the horizon and shrink the frontier.
I suppose it depends on what makes you cringe. On the tape we hear the patter of tiny feet, and it’s little John-John scampering into the room. With amazing effrontery—and just three months after the president’s death—Arthur Schlesinger inquires what happened to his father. The little boy responds that he’s “gone to heaven.” Not yet content, Schlesinger asks the absurd question “Do you remember him?,” to which the kid replies first, “Yeah,” and second, “I don’t remember any-thing.” I don’t even want to suspect that this little encounter was choreographed to the slightest degree. But somehow, if it was … At any rate, there can be little doubt that, throughout the taping, Mrs. Kennedy was in permanent and vigilant damage-control mode. She maintains the often exploded falsehood that her husband, and not his trusted consigliere Theodore Sorensen, was the true author of Profiles in Courage, which had earned the aspirant candidate an attention-getting Pulitzer. And she stoutly maintains that the new president wrote his own inaugural address, when it has been well established that the weightier hands on the manuscript were those of Adlai Stevenson and John Kenneth Galbraith. In sticking to the party/clan “line” in this way, moreover, she doesn’t just exhibit faith in her husband’s undiluted talents. She evinces a sound working knowledge of all the infighting and backbiting that accompanied both plagiarism scandals. In fact, or in retrospect, this awareness that it wasn’t a safe subject may have impelled her, in that White interview, to steer attention away from the “classical” and noble invocations of Profiles and toward the safer destination of light opera.
You don’t have to be a cynic to detect something stale and contrived in any further milking of the Camelot tale and its sole author. Recent years have seen the departure of Schlesinger and Sorensen from the scene, and a continued slow erosion of the old bodyguard of liars, prepared at least to prick themselves with their swords as they contested any additional unwelcome disclosures about what had sometimes gone on down Camelot way. The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library is now renowned among presidential and other scholars as the most obstructive and politicized of the lot. The opening of hitherto sealed official archives and records has tended to remove rather than to add luster to the magic years of 1960–63, germinal soil for the later misery of Vietnam. A truly deft Kennedy apologist might decide that a period of relative reticence would be advisable.
And so might holding it down a bit on the knockoffs and the franchises. For some people, the 1996 public auction of Mrs. Kennedy’s private effects, down to the most trivial and tangential (such as her Hermès hairbrush), was when the wrong scent began somehow to cling to the business. For others, it was Caroline Kennedy’s release in 2001 of a volume fragrantly titled The Best-Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, which one hopes would not have seduced the incautious purchaser into supposing that the First Lady had ever extended herself into verse. If they did fall for that, then at least they got some quite decent poems that, at one time or another, Jackie had indeed best loved. Certainly a superior bargain to the buying of Why England Slept (an account of Britain’s moral collapse in the face of Hitler), rushed into print in 1940 by the evil patriarch Joseph Kennedy and passed off as the work of J.F.K. Again, it turns out that full and proper credit may not have been given to the book’s chief author, the biddable journalist Arthur Krock. In presidential terms, plagiarism is not high among the list of vices. In fact, it’s so rare as to seem almost … sophisticated. And yet, kleptomania is among the most vulgar of crimes. Better on the whole, though, not to make it into a family failing. And even plagiarism is to be preferred to the recycling of mythical or distorted history. It could be that very element that caused Mrs. Kennedy, given so many chances to uphold a gold standard, to discard it in favor of the reverse alchemy now on show.