National Treasure

Christopher Hitchens

  • Jacqueline Bouvier: An Intimate Memoir by John Davis
    Wiley, 256 pp, £14.99, October 1996, ISBN 0 471 12945 3

The 44 Restaurant in the Royalton Hotel at 44 West 44th Street is a pretty suave and worldly Manhattan lunchery. So at any rate it seems to my provincial, country-mouse Washingtonian optic. I am sometimes taken there for a treat by my editors at Condé Nast, who use the place as a sort of staff canteen. My old friend Brian McNally, demonstrating that le patron mange ici, occasionally lets me sit at his table. I have learned not to point and squeak and say: ‘Look, isn’t that the girl from Dirty Dancing!’ Everybody acts very unconcerned about celebrity, though you get the occasional ‘Hi, Tina.’ The deliciousness of the food and the epicene beauty of the staff absorb most of one’s energy in any case. So I have a distinct memory of the occasion – not very many months before her last illness – when Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis stopped by for a snackette. I happened to be browsing and sluicing myself there that day, and was amazed to see hardened New Yorkers acting like the most abject stage-door Johnnies, and indeed Janes. The former First Lady sat in the main booth with her friends, looking serene and detached, while all sorts of people took their time collecting their hats or whatever, and rubbernecking shamelessly.

What was this? It was more than fame and more than glamour. And it was a bit less than Edmund Burke’s fierce gallantry on glimpsing the figure of Marie Antoinette. Yet there was history in it, somehow. The images of Dallas, and of the exquisitely grave widow at the state funeral, are the shared televisual experience of a generation. They also dimly represent, for people now in their late forties and subject to faint Sixties nostalgia, a transmission from another time: the time before things started to go downhill. In The All-American Skin Game, a collection of essays by the black blues writer Stanley Crouch, I came across a tribute which shows the depth and range of feeling that the lady was capable – very probably to her own surprise – of evoking:

Gatherings of domestic workers in my mother’s kitchen would admire her poise and clothes, something they had learned about from working in the homes of the extremely rich but the less than famous ... They knew that neither the blues nor stupidity nor callousness nor any of the maladies of human life fall down before money. So their experience made them high-quality critics of those privileged Americans who would be aristocrats, most of whom, like rock and movie stars, had only money – no grace, no manners, no taste – and were forever lost in the praises of those intimidated by their positions.

When she sat in that limousine with Jack Kennedy’s brains in her hand, her life crossed a line into blues territory that few of the privileged or the destitute ever know ... Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy had reached across a century to take the hand of Mary Todd Lincoln, to experience the gangster politics of murder most foul.

Steady on, Stanley, I remember thinking when I read that. Mrs Lincoln didn’t go on to marry a bulbous Levantine entrepreneur. Nor did she summon Theodore White for an interview and, slyly determined to ‘own’ the first draft on history, confide in him that her late husband had a special fondness for a corny musical about King Arthur. But, as a staunch Camelot-scoffer all my life, I was in for a huge shock when Jackie finally died. Every American female I know took it entirely personally. My scoffs were absolutely at a discount. And then I read a memorial interview with that old self-server and mass-murderer Robert McNamara. He recalled an occasion, quite early in the Lyndon Johnson presidency, when Jackie had come up to him at a reception in New York and beaten her fists on his chest, calling on him to stop the killing in Vietnam. Of course, one could object and say that she never took her prestige and committed it publicly against the war, but still ...

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