I was never on the Jackie O. bandwagon, and I never will be now.
I am trying to get a handle on the latest publishing event: the transcription and accompanying CDs of Jacqueline Kennedy’s interviews with Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. in 1964, less than four months after her husband’s assassination. Upon her order, these tapes were not to be released for 50 years, but her daughter jumped the gun by three, publishing them now to commemorate the 50th anniversary of her father’s election to the presidency. I first read excerpts from these interviews in a front page story in the New York Times. The story’s tone was reverent but the quotes were rather bitchy, making me want to see if greater context would help explain the reverence. Thus I paid $60 for the transcripts and CDs.
- Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy, introduction and annotations by Michael Beschloss. 400 pages. Hyperion. $60.
Before reading the book and listening to the tapes, most of my impressions of Jackie Kennedy came from having seen that much-lauded televised White House tour. Even as a child — I was 9 at the time — I was confused by Jackie Kennedy. Why was a grown woman speaking like a 4-year-old? What was going on beneath the baby doll surface? In her foreword, Caroline Kennedy says that she wanted to publish these interviews so that people would have the chance to see her mother in the round: “They may have a sense of her style and her dignified persona, but they don’t always appreciate her intellectual curiosity, her sense of the ridiculous, her sense of adventure, or her unerring sense of what was right.”
The qualities Caroline mentions were not evident to me in reading the book or listening to the CDs. I read the transcripts first, and what struck me most was the sense of complacency that percolated through the pages. How does one distinguish dignity from hauteur? Is it a fine line, a matter of perspective, a case of one’s own position in the social hierarchy? I felt I was in the presence of a woman who could not see beyond the world in which she was born and raised. And yet there was also something extraordinary middle-class — the French would say bourgeois — about her views. Almost all her comments were personal, something she frankly admitted and seemed proud of. At one point, she notes in characteristic halting fashion — not halting owing to shyness or uncertainty, but out of what to this reader seemed like regal self-absorption:
But I mean, in marriage, I could never conceive — and I remember I said it in an interview once, and these women — we got all these irate letters-someone said, “Where do you get your opinions?” And I said, “I get all my opinions from my husband.” Which is true. How could I have any political opinions, you know? His were going to be the best. And I could never conceive of not voting for whoever my husband was for. Anyone who I’d be married to. I suppose if I was married to — well, you know. So that was just so strange because that was — I mean, it was really a rather terribly Victorian or Asiatic relationship which we had, which I had...
She might as well have advocated for the retraction of female suffrage. And what does she mean by “I suppose if I was married to — well, you know.” Actually, I don’t know. What sort of man is it that she would not have taken her opinions from? Why do I sense class as well as intellectual snobbism operating under the surface here, strangely linked to her regressive view of the female role? Her statements seem to me shocking, even though it was 1964, because, after all, it was 1964. My mother had opinions, as did her friends, as did plenty of women before them. Virginia Woolf had opinions, George Eliot had opinions, Mary Wollstonecraft had opinions. These were gifted writers, but they voiced opinions that resonated for other women of their time. Jackie was presumably well read, particularly in French literature and history, and French women hosted salons way back in the 18th century where they did nothing if not have opinions.
One might forgive Jackie Kennedy for her “Asiatic” lack of opinions were she more forgiving of women who did have them. Of Madame Nhu and Clare Booth Luce, she whispers to Schlesinger: “I wouldn’t be surprised if they were lesbians.” Of Mrs. Gandhi: “she liked to be in with the men. And she is a real prune — bitter, kind of pushy, horrible woman.” But if Jackie Kennedy denigrates women who have opinions, she is no kinder to those who don’t. She ridicules Lady Bird Johnson for taking notes on her husband’s conversations, “like a trained hunting dog,” and she condescendingly notes that her knowledge of Pat Nixon derives only from having seen her preside over bandage rolling by the Senators’ wives every Tuesday. Catching her tone, Schlesinger snickers: “I think she’d be perfect at bandage — bandage rolling.”
Along with the sense of privilege and the relentless focus on the personal, these tapes are characterized by the lopsided way in which Jacqueline Kennedy judges other people. Everyone within the very small closed circle of her family comes in for no criticism whatsoever, whereas everyone outside comes in for a lot. It is indeed almost impossible, with a few exceptions related to a very loyal Kennedy cadre, to find anyone unrelated to her whom she doesn’t either directly lambaste or more obliquely denigrate. This includes Ted Sorenson, who “had such a crush on Jack," but nonetheless, she says, tried shamelessly to steal credit for Profiles in Courage; Dean Rusk is “poor Dean Rusk” (there’s also “poor Fulbright” and “poor Allen Dulles,” who get to share her condescension with “poor McC” [Joseph McCarthy]). Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg is succinctly skewered: "I was really horrified. But, I mean, I know he’s brilliant. I just think it’s such a shame to be so pleased with yourself.” Adlai Stevenson, she says, appealed to women “who were scared of sex," and boasts that, to placate him after a political disagreement with her husband, it “really made an awful difference to Adlai when I went to lunch at the U.N. and I gave him a little watercolor that I’d done. . . And he framed it and everything, and then he did come down to a party." There’s the reporter, Miles McMillan, “a terrible man . . . a wild-eyed liberal creature;” the first White House curator, Lorraine Pearce, who "just got so grand that, after a while, she stopped being useful and you had to get rid of her;" and, of course, Lyndon Johnson: "[Kennedy] gave Lyndon so many things to do. But he never did them. I mean, he could have made his council on human rights or whatever it was into some — you know, gone ahead with it — equal opportunity, whatever it was.”
Especially jarring to us Francophiles is her statement that Kennedy “you know, basically he didn’t like the French, and I loathe the French. There’s not one French person I can think of except maybe two very simple people…You know, they’re really not very nice. They’re all for themselves.” This will no doubt come as quite a surprise to the French, who worshipped Jack and Jackie.
Finally, there is the irony of her dislike for Martin Luther King, Jr., whom she dubs a “phoney” because of his assignations with women — caught on government wire taps that were obviously shared with her. Was Jackie Kennedy really so ignorant of her husband’s behavior? Or is this a case of obliterating from consciousness any deviation or failing within her own circle? Admittedly, her husband had just died a very violent death and Jackie’s mourning had been a public affair. But, then, the fact that she can ramble on in such a fashion only four months after the fact is odd, too.
While Jackie Kennedy criticizes most everyone outside the Kennedy circle, the Kennedys themselves are represented without blemish. Kennedy himself is represented as god-like, with occasional endearing peccadilloes like the fact that he changed into his pajamas to take naps. Her father-in-law Joseph Kennedy is a darling creature, when anyone who knew anything about this man thought him a viper. She explains her husband’s failure to distance himself fully from Joseph McCarthy as a function of her father-in-law’s loyalty to the Irish (“Mr. Kennedy was so loyal”) combined with her mother-in-law’s predilection for Catholics.
In reading the transcripts, I was impressed by Jackie’s ability to call up names of people and historical events and make references to reading matter, particularly in French history and literature. Then I listened to the tapes and even this impression was dissipated by her manner of presentation. Her voice was not the same 4-year-old’s voice I remember from the White House tour. It was more confident and thus more unnerving. It had a kind of determined triviality about it, so that details that had seemed rather impressive in print, sounded like the hoardings of a small mind on the tapes. She could remember certain dates and names, but she never once dealt with the issues associated with these facts. These seemed to exist as a function of the campaign or the presidency and not as substantive legislation that affected human beings (“[Johnson’s] council on human rights or whatever it was... — equal opportunity, whatever it was.”).
People, like music, can be a matter of taste. We may be tone deaf to individuals whom others find to be a veritable symphony of layered and rich expressiveness. Caroline Kennedy, who writes the foreword to the book and who speaks at the beginning of the tapes, clearly heard her mother differently and was greatly nurtured by her. (Caroline’s voice and style, by the way, seem diametrically opposite of her mother’s: clear, concise, no-nonsense.) But when I heard the tapes, I heard only the flat, smug tones of a woman of privilege who was something of a mean girl. Her relentless focus on herself and how people treated her and her family make her seem, for all her style and taste, rather vulgar. Movies have immortalized the type in the perfectly turned out, spiteful sorority sister: someone who, if you happen to cross her, will try to destroy you. I always felt that the outline of this plot was there when Jackie grabbed Aristotle Onassis from the great diva Maria Callas — but the ending was wrong; in the movie, Callas would have found a way to triumph over her mean girl rival. Jackie notes how John Kennedy was so much more forgiving than she was and praises him for it — but you also feel that she is rather proud of her grudges toward those who don’t show her or her family proper deference.
Several commentators who knew Jackie Kennedy as she grew older claim that she changed greatly over the years. It is true that people change and grow, but the question is how much do they, really? I know that I will be offending many of Jackie’s admirers in this piece. My late mother, for all her differences, was an admirer. I would have liked to question her now about the reasons for this, and get her reaction to the recently released transcripts. She is someone who might have helped me see things differently.
Caroline Kennedy mentions in her foreword that her mother and father used to listen to the musical Camelot in the evening before they went to bed. I can’t help but feel that, like the Broadway show, Jackie Kennedy was all about staging. These transcripts and CDs give us a peek behind the scenery. What’s there, at least to this observer, is not pretty. • 5 October 2011
Paula Marantz Cohen is Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University and host of The Drexel InterView, a talk show broadcast on more than 300 public television stations across the country. She is author of four nonfiction books and four bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale Review, The American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest book is What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Jack the Ripper and Henry James .