How to be a wife

Colm Tóibín

  • Janet & Jackie: The Story of a Mother and Her Daughter, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis by Jan Pottker
    St Martin’s, 381 pp, US $24.95, October 2001, ISBN 0 312 26607 3
  • Mrs Kennedy: The Missing History of the Kennedy Years by Barbara Leaming
    Weidenfeld, 389 pp, £20.00, October 2001, ISBN 0 297 64333 9

On 29 January 1884 Henry James noted a story which he had heard from Gertrude Tennant. It struck him ‘as a dramatic and pretty subject’. Young Lord Stafford, it seemed, was in love with Lady Grosvenor, whom he had known before her marriage, but had now no expectation of being able to marry as her husband was alive and robust. ‘Yielding to family pressure,’ as James put it, ‘he offered his hand to a young, charming, innocent girl, the daughter of Lord Rosslyn.’ The girl, however, came to feel that Lady Grosvenor, although not able to marry young Lord Stafford, ‘must be queen of his thoughts and will finally end by becoming his mistress’. In one possibility for his story, James considered that she would agree to the marriage, ‘but I don’t ask for your affection … I leave you free in conduct. Let me be your wife, bear your name, your coronet, enjoy your wealth and splendour; but devote yourself to Lady G. as much as you like – make her your mistress, if you will.’

The daughter of Lord Rosslyn was more compliant than the daughter of Earl Spencer would be, but the feelings of young Lord Stafford and Lady G. were eventually acted out in full view of the tabloids by Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles. James knew a dramatic subject. In some contemporary writing about lone, long-suffering and much-photographed female celebrities who have haunted our dreams, there is an attempt to compare them to figures from Greek tragedy. In many ways, however, they are closer to the heroines and adventuresses who people James’s fiction. With all the ambition and greed and betrayal and tribulation that surrounded her, the question about Jacqueline Kennedy is not who she would have been in Greek drama, but who she would have been in Henry James.

She was, to begin with, Maisie in What Maisie Knew. Clearly, she loathed and feared and needed the approval of her snobbish, dull, shrieking and ambitious mother Janet Lee Bouvier as much as Maisie loathed and feared and needed her mother; she flirted with her father, who drank and spent money and flirted in turn with anyone who came his way. Her parents made no secret of their disastrous marriage and the great gap between her mother’s rage for order and the charmed chaos which followed Black Jack Bouvier everywhere he went. Thus Jackie knew everything. She knew how to fawn over her father; at the same time she knew that he was a drunken old fool. She learned to live with her mother. Her parents separated when she was seven and divorced three years later.

Janet, her mother, loved horses. In 1934, when Jackie was five, the New York Daily News published an extraordinary photograph. Janet is sitting on a fence admiring some horseflesh while Black Jack behind her surreptitiously holds the hand of another woman. In Janet & Jackie, Jan Pottker manages, in general, to be most respectful about Janet, and tells us a great deal about what she was wearing (‘Janet donned sheer silk stockings, fastened to garters, and sensible soft-leather pumps with a moderate heel’) and what she was feeling (‘Janet was already excited by the time an usher walked her to her pew’) and what her habits were (‘That year she had perched a French poodle hood ornament on her favourite car’) and how much her daughter depended on her (‘Janet also stepped in when a particular group bored Jackie, as did the coffee hour at the White House for the wives of the New York Stock Exchange members or the social for the International Council of Women’), but Pottker’s most telling sentence concerns that photograph of Jackie’s mother looking the other way while her husband cavorted. ‘Sometimes,’ she writes, ‘when Lee or another friend visited the private quarters of the White House, Jackie would pull out that old photo . . . and howl with laughter until tears ran down her cheeks.’ When Maisie grew up, she would have understood.

Sir Claude, Maisie’s rescuing stepfather, came to Jackie in the guise of Hughdie Auchincloss, whom her mother married in 1942. Hughdie had been married twice before, and was already in possession of three children, one from his first marriage and two from his second. Hughdie’s second wife, Nina, came armed with a ten-year-old son, known to us all as Gore Vidal. Vidal would have much to say about his stepfather. Hughdie was, Vidal said, ‘a magnum of chloroform’. He also owned an estate in Virginia, a farm and a mansion at Newport and an apartment on Park Avenue. His mother had Standard Oil shares. ‘He ejaculated,’ Vidal wrote in his memoir Palimpsest, ‘normally, but without that precedent erection which women require as, if nothing else, totemic symbol of a man’s true love . . . Since Hughdie wanted children, Nina was obliged, in some fashion that she . . . vividly described to me and I would promptly erase from memory. I think she inserted – with a spoon? – what she called “the bugs” in order to create my demi-siblings.’ Hughdie’s mother, Vidal remembered, attributed all this to Hughdie’s excessive masturbation in youth.

Vidal also remembered that his mother, who wanted to move on, had introduced Janet to Hughdie when Janet was ‘a financially desperate “social climber” with two small daughters to raise’ and ‘eager to marry someone . . . just like poor Hughdie’. Thus Jackie moved into the bedroom vacated by Vidal. ‘When I first moved in here,’ she later told him, ‘I found some old shirts of yours. With name tags. I used to wear them riding. Then Jack and I stayed here after our honeymoon. I must say he suffered a lot in this house, from Mother.’

Janet had found sanctuary for herself and her two daughters. She had two more children with Hughdie. Gore Vidal’s mother was sure that Janet’s last name, Lee, had been shortened from Levy. ‘Apparently,’ he wrote, ‘Janet’s father had changed his name in order to be a vice-president of the Morgan bank.’ In fact, the Lees were Irish Catholics, even sporting an old crone of a grandmother who came to live with them. She was ‘dressed in black with an Irish brogue . . . she stayed hidden when guests were in the house. Only occasionally would a visitor catch a glimpse of an old lady in black, head down, quickly scuttling out of view.’ Janet, pace her grandmother, now had the time and energy and position to put it about that she was descended from Robert E. Lee. She became, like Hughdie, an Episcopalian.

Jackie and her sister Lee had two mansions in which to cavort during their teenage years. Their status, however, was precarious. In the summer at Newport, for example, only Hughdie’s real offspring had bedrooms with sea views. The Bouvier girls were at the back. And they hadn’t a penny. Black Jack Bouvier was busy drinking all his money and Janet’s father did not warm to either of them and was, in any case, mean. He was prepared to give them nothing. ‘The three stepchildren of Hugh D. Auchincloss,’ Vidal wrote, ‘Jackie, Lee and I, were brought up in a wealthy manner and yet were penniless, unlike the gentleman’s five official children. Of necessity, Jackie married twice for money, with splendid results. Lee married twice far less splendidly. I went to work.’

While Jackie was an unconventional shape and bookish and interested in French and embarrassed by her mother, who spent all day on the phone discussing Newport life with other matrons of the same ilk, Lee, three years younger, managed to get all the best lines in the many books written about the family: ‘In college Lee majored in men.’ ‘Even Lee’s affectation of having her maid dash into the bathroom to drop a gardenia into the toilet after it was flushed struck Jackie as amusing.’ ‘Only recently have I learned that the Secret Service name for Lee Radziwill was “Rancidass”.’ (The last comes from Vidal.)

Henry James would have understood the delights, the trials, and indeed the vulgarities of the third Mrs Auchincloss and her daughters. He, too, was concerned to keep his Irish ancestry in the background. In 1907 in ‘The American Scene’, he wrote tenderly and beautifully of the Newport he had known in the 1860s, before the arrival of the very rich, ‘when the strange sight might be seen of a considerable company of Americans . . . who confessed brazenly to not being in business . . . a collection of the detached, the slightly disenchanted and casually disqualified’. These people, he wrote, ‘appear to have left no seed’. Then he began to rail against the new rich of Newport, who had built their mansions along the coast. Their houses, he said,

look queer and conscious and lumpish – some of them, as with an air of the brandished proboscis, really grotesque – while their averted owners, roused from a witless dream, wonder what in the world is to be done with them. The answer to which, I think, can only be that there is absolutely nothing to be done; nothing but to let them stand there always, vast and blank, for reminder to those concerned of the prohibited degrees of witlessness, and the peculiarly awkward vengeances of affronted proportion and discretion.

Into this world of affronted proportion and discretion, in May 1955, strode Joe Kennedy to arrange the wedding of his son the senator to Janet’s elder daughter. Although Janet and her husband wanted a quiet, discreet affair, the Kennedys viewed the wedding ‘as another political campaign to manage’. Janet moaned to a friend: ‘The wedding will be just awful – quite dreadful. There will be one hundred Irish politicians!’ Look and Life magazines competed for exclusive coverage. According to Jan Pottker, Jack Kennedy told one of his friends that the Auchinclosses were ‘convinced that one of the last strongholds of America’s social elite is being invaded by mongrels without pedigrees’. They had been woken from their witless dream.

The Kennedys agreed to pay for the wedding, and the Auchinclosses agreed to host the reception at their mansion in Newport. And all were agreed that Black Jack Bouvier should be dealt out of the deck. He came to Newport anyway, ready to march up the aisle with his daughter, complete with his wedding clothes and his vast thirst. When it became clear that he had been drinking, Janet banned him and insisted that Hughdie walk Jackie up the aisle. Fortunately, however, as Pottker writes, ‘the wedding guests had no idea of the dramas playing out behind the scenes. They saw only a 2.9-carat diamond set next to a 2.8 carat engagement ring, an archbishop performing the ceremony, and a fifty-yard silk wedding dress.’

The relationship between Jack and Jackie, as outlined in lurid detail in Barbara Leaming’s Mrs Kennedy, takes Jackie from her role as Maisie to the role of Maggie Verver in The Golden Bowl. She had her prince and her life of luxury. When she went every day to classes in American history at Georgetown University she was accompanied on the short walk by her cocker spaniel. ‘When she arrived at her building,’ Pottker writes, ‘she turned the spaniel over to her maid. Both the maid and the dog would wait outside until class ended, when Jackie would come out to walk the dog – and the maid – home.’

Leaming manages to account for every day, and at times every moment, of Jackie’s time in the White House. Like Maggie Verver, Jackie discovered soon after her marriage that her prince’s attitude towards their marriage vows was lax indeed. Her entire upbringing and education led her to become skilled in the art of self-suppression and pretence. She had pretended she was rich; now she could pretend she was, as the phrase goes, happily married. During her years in the White House she did the second of these with immense style and care and some success, so that her relationship with Kennedy remains as complex and interesting as that of Maggie and her prince.

She made sure that she was absent from the White House two or three days a week, usually at the house they rented in Virginia, to give him space and privacy. ‘In Jackie’s absence,’ Leaming writes, ‘the President, whether at lunchtime or after his last appointment in the evening, could often be found in the pool – a favourite locale for sex because of his bad back – or upstairs in the family quarters with one or more women.’ He liked them in twos and he also enjoyed getting it all over quickly. He was the Amerigo in The Golden Bowl, but there is also a whiff of an ageing Chad from The Ambassadors about him, an empty vessel, prepared to be influenced by anyone around him, from his father to Harold Macmillan to his brother. Macmillan would later regret that Kennedy had depleted his powers by ‘spending half his time thinking about adultery, the other half about second-hand ideas passed on by his advisers’.

What is extraordinary is how little influence Jackie had on his policies and decisions, how little she seemed even to know about the outline of what he was planning, or doing, or thinking. She organised decoration and dinners. She thought constantly about what would interest him and who would amuse him, and she learned to have these ready. They were never alone in the White House in the evening. There was never an evening when he said he was tired and would like just to watch television and go to bed early. There was always a little dinner arranged. Both Kennedys viewed the evidence of the former incumbents’ lifestyle with horror. When Jackie went to pay a call on Mrs Eisenhower before the Inauguration, she told Vidal that ‘the upstairs room, the oval one, was worth the whole visit. They had two TV sets, his and hers, with little tables in front of them, where they had their TV dinners, he watching his westerns and she her soap operas.’

Thus every evening at 7.30 when Jack Kennedy returned to his private quarters he would, Leaming writes, ‘discover that Jackie had a treat ready and waiting. Most of the time she conceived these evenings as a kind of surprise . . . which he only had to sit back and enjoy . . . Virtually every night during the Presidency, Jackie orchestrated some sort of light entertainment for her husband.’

She was skilled also at talking to powerful men, beginning with her father-in-law, who adored her, and including de Gaulle and Khrushchev and Macmillan. ‘Seated next to de Gaulle at lunch,’ Leaming writes, ‘Jackie underwent a miraculous transformation. The nymphet metamorphosed into a highly intelligent woman who engaged the General on recondite matters of French history and culture. She and de Gaulle discussed Louis XVI, exchanged views on the duc d’Angoulême, and reviewed the dynastic intricacies of the later Bourbons. Enjoying herself tremendously, she leaned very close to de Gaulle as they talked.’ Leaming has much the same sort of thing to say about her dinner with Khrushchev, who was ‘delighted by her nerve and unpredictability. Face to face with the piquant personality that had charmed de Gaulle, he was charmed as well. During the musical entertainment after dinner, Khrushchev, assisted by a translator seated just behind them, whispered funny stories in Jackie’s ear and took immense pleasure when, every now and then, she covered her lips with a white-gloved hand, threw back her head and laughed.’

All of this is nonsense of course, but it is the sort of nonsense which was reported at the time and that made her name as a new, young, stylish and Frenchified First Lady who did not spend her evenings like Mamie Eisenhower, eating TV dinners. She could charm the great; or at least her skills at charming the press, and making the story they must tell irresistible, were developed to an astonishing degree.

Working day and night on her guest list while the Bay of Pigs was being invaded, or selecting colour schemes while the Cuban Missile Crisis was going on, could not have made her the most interesting person for ambitious and easily bored foreign visitors. Indira Gandhi, when she visited with her father, ‘was full of indignation’ at being left with Jackie and ‘made no secret of her resentment at being sent off with the President’s wife, child and friend . . . when vital matters were being discussed elsewhere. The two women did not hit it off, to say the least.’

Jackie, in her role as Maggie Verver, was presented with her Charlotte Stant in the guise of a woman named Mary Meyer. Mary Meyer was a breed apart from the run of secretaries, starlets and upmarket rentgirls normally favoured by JFK. Her family was wealthy; she had, like Jackie, been to Vassar; she was a sister-in-law of Kennedy’s friend Ben Bradlee. She introduced the President to the joys of marijuana and planned, with the help of Timothy Leary, to introduce him to LSD. Leary remembered her as ‘amused, arrogant, aristocratic’. She was added to the list of those who came regularly for intimate suppers with the President and his wife, just as Joseph Kennedy’s mistresses had done in the old days. She was quite brazen. When Betty Spalding, a family friend, found them sneaking upstairs to have it off in the nursery during a dinner at the White House, Mary and the President remained completely unfazed. ‘Up comes Jack and Mary Meyer,’ Betty Spalding told Leaming, ‘headed for that place where Jackie had a nursery school on the third floor for the kids. I figured they were going in there for a little sexual action.’ She figured right. Mary Meyer’s ‘willingness to show contempt for Jackie by slipping off with her husband had been a kind of love call to Jack,’ Leaming writes, ‘a signal that, like him, she was a superior person who did as she pleased.’

The President added her to the list even when he himself was going to be absent, thus forcing Jackie to entertain her. ‘The grotesque evening that followed,’ Leaming writes, ‘in the newly redone President’s dining room was one that few wives could have forced themselves to endure with dignity. Jackie, with a steeliness that served her well in such circumstances, managed to be pointedly gracious to Mary, as if this were not the woman who had been sleeping with her husband all summer. Shortly after ten, the unmistakable roar of helicopters signalled that Jack was back in time to see his mistress before the evening ended.’

The inclusion of Mary Meyer in his family life did not impede the President in more fleeting sexual pursuits. He continued his pool parties, often beginning within seconds of his wife leaving the White House grounds. After the Profumo affair, he congratulated himself, according to Leaming, on ‘his emotion-free, and in his view, danger-free couplings’. These included an East German called Ellen Rometsch, who was also alleged to be having an affair with a Soviet attaché in Washington, all under the beady eye of J. Edgar Hoover. Rometsch became a great favourite of the President; according to his friend Bobby Baker, she gave ‘the best oral sex’ he ever had.

Between the assassination of Kennedy in November 1963 and her marriage to Aristotle Onassis in October 1968, Jacqueline Kennedy’s life had much in common with that of the governess in The Turn of the Screw, constantly frightened by ghosts, apparitions and fresh horrors. She had two beautiful small children in her care, and she took her role as mother immensely seriously, managing to protect them from the worst excesses of their Kennedy cousins, and managing as best she could to protect and promote her husband’s memory.

After the assassination, she remained close to Lyndon Johnson; there is an extraordinary tape of her phone calls to him, her voice all breathy and kittenish and sweet, far away from the allure and theatre and mystery of her appearance in photographs in these same years. She advised him to take a nap every day after lunch. ‘It changed Jack’s whole life,’ she told him.

Like the governess in James’s story, she found that every time she looked out of the window there was a nightmare or a memory of a nightmare. She regularly mentioned that she had held a piece of her husband’s brain in her hands in Dallas that day. She was turfed out of the White House with no idea where or how to live. The world became obsessed with her. Everyone wanted to take a good look at her, from the Pope to Andy Warhol. Her sister Lee offered her support and then gossiped about her to Truman Capote and Cecil Beaton. (‘You don’t know what it is like being with Jackie,’ she told Beaton. ‘She can’t sleep at night and she can’t stop thinking about herself and never feeling anything but sorry for herself.’) When Ben Bradlee and his wife suggested that she might marry again, she wrote: ‘You were close to us so many times. There is one thing that you must know. I consider that my life is over and I will spend the rest of my life waiting for it to be really over.’ She was 34.

She had kept her mother both close and at a distance during her time in the White House. She made sure, for example, that Janet and Hughdie got lousy tickets for the Inauguration while her step-siblings, who travelled with them, got better ones. JFK told a friend that he spent as much time dealing with Janet as he did with Khrushchev. When Jackie discovered that Janet, on the day of the assassination, had taken the children from the White House to her own house, she ordered them back. Yet that day, she also asked Janet and Hughdie to sleep in the President’s bed in the room beside hers. In the years after the assassination, Janet did not help by insisting that the event had been plotted by Lyndon Johnson as a way of becoming President.

Over the next few years Jackie made a valiant effort to civilise Bobby Kennedy. ‘I suspect,’ Vidal wrote, ‘that the one person she ever loved, if indeed she was capable of such an emotion, was Bobby Kennedy . . . There was always something oddly intense in her voice when she mentioned him to me.’ With his assassination, the screw was turned once more. Jackie had already been planning to marry Aristotle Onassis but had agreed to postpone any announcement until after the November 1968 election so that it would not damage Bobby’s chances. Now, with Bobby dead, there was no one to stop her. Pottker calls her chapter on the arrival of Onassis ‘From Camelot to Caliban’.

He appeared in Newport affronting both proportion and discretion, ‘squat, sallow, wrinkled and 62 years old’, as Pottker puts it. Janet’s friend Eileen Slocum spotted him at the beach: ‘He was the strangest sight. He had long, long arms, with short legs and a chest covered with dark hair.’ Pottker continues: ‘And the oddest swim trunks that anyone on Narragansett Bay had ever seen. While the Newport men wore Bermuda-shorts-length madras trunks, Ari’s were minuscule – barely covering his hirsute loins – and were tightly woven of white wool. As he moved jerkily towards the water, Slocum thought to herself: “He resembles a frog.”’

Later, as they gathered for the wedding on Skorpios, Onassis’s private island, whenever Janet could find Jackie alone, she would buttonhole her: ‘Don’t go through with this. Tell him you’ve changed your mind. It’s not right for the children.’ As Jackie walked up the aisle, her mother followed close behind. This time there was no Black Jack Bouvier to banish. Instead, as she told Slocum, who told Pottker, she moved as

close behind Jackie as she could – so close that her chin was nearly touching Jackie’s earlobe – and began to whisper in Jackie’s ear in an urgent yet hypnotic tone: ‘It’s not too late you don’t have to do this.’ As Jackie and Hughdie walked towards the altar, she repeated her frantic whispers over and over again: ‘Jackie, you don’t have to go through with this. It’s not too late to stop. You don’t have to do this. You can change your mind. We can leave. It’s not too late.’ Jackie ignored Janet completely and never looked back at her mother . . . Dejected, Janet sat down and watched the priest begin the ceremony. Her worst fears had just been realised.

Neither Leaming nor Pottker goes into the details of what happened next. This privilege has been embraced by others, among them, Sarah Bradford in America’s Queen (2000): ‘They would have sex in all sorts of unconventional places, aeroplanes, small boats, the beach, regardless of who might be watching or photographing. The brother of one of Jackie’s Washington friends was shocked by the way Onassis would drag Jackie suddenly into any one of the cabins on the Christina and make love to her without bothering to shut the door.’

Within a short time Jackie had become Isabel Archer, locked into a marriage with a husband who did not like her, who soon resented her independence and slowly became irritated by her. Just as Isabel gradually discovered that Osmond was a bully who had married her for her money, so Jackie discovered that Onassis was a monster who had married her for the glory. Within a short time of the wedding, Onassis began to see Maria Callas again.

The years after the death of Onassis, when Jacqueline Kennedy returned to live in New York, lack the fierce drama of her years with Kennedy or the sheer brutish languor of her years with Onassis. Jackie worked in publishing; she acted high and mighty in the world of the arts in New York. She looked after her children, now in their late teens and early twenties. She made clear once more that she liked men who were rich and powerful by forming a liaison from 1980 with Maurice Templesman, who was to diamonds what Onassis was to shipping and Kennedy was, when she married him, to politics.

In the later accounts by writers and journalists, there is a strange defining eloquence, as though they are trying to compete with the camera or the silkscreen print. William Manchester, whose book The Death of a President caused her such grief (she believed it had invaded her privacy and compromised her relationship with Johnson), remembered his first meeting with her as he researched the book: ‘My first impression – and it never changed – was that I was in the presence of a very great tragic actress. I mean that in the finest sense of the word. There was a weekend in American history when we needed to be united in our sadness by the superb example of a bereaved First Lady, and Jacqueline Kennedy . . . provided us with an unforgettable performance as the nation’s First Lady.’

Jackie made contact with the Irish novelist Edna O’Brien when O’Brien’s play about Virginia Woolf was in rehearsal in New York. O’Brien wrote about her:

So many of her qualities – that breathless enthusiasm, a certain giddiness late at night, a passionate love of clothes – revealed the perennial child. But the barriers which she built around herself betray a woman who had espoused self-preservation from the start . . . Distance and distancing were central to her, not only from others but from huge parts of herself. It was what gave her that inexplicable aura. Her mystery was that she was a mystery to herself. She was caught in the gap between ingénue and empress, between innocence and worldliness.