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 ...

It’s annoying to have to call her ‘Jackie’ – nothing is more irritating than the use of celeb nicknames like ‘Di’ and ‘Ollie’ and ‘O.J.’ – but there isn’t much by way of an alternative shorthand. ‘Mrs Kennedy’ won’t do, and nor will ‘Mrs Onassis’. ‘Jackie O’ is even more vulgar and familiar. La veuve is too macabre. ‘Jacqueline’ is pretentious unless you are her first cousin or something, which is the status enjoyed by John Davis. His mother was Jackie’s father’s sister, and the list of his previous book-titles (The Bouviers, The Kennedys, The Guggenheims) shows a well-developed sensitivity to the uses of dynasty. This ‘intimate memoir’ joins a seasonal shelf of at least three books on the subject, with one more in preparation that I can swear to and several preceding ones, ranging from Stephen Birmingham’s work to Kitty Kelly’s Jackie Oh! to Jackie Under My Skin by the Yale semiotician Wayne Koestenbaum. Specialist markets within the domain of Jackie studies include Camelot freaks, of course, but also the ‘gay icon’ sub-strain which places her next to Liz Taylor and Ava Gardner as a sympathiser of the truly, wistfully stylish.

Mr Davis’s memoir takes us only through the years in which Jacqueline (as he is permitted to call her) retained her maiden name. Here we are in the world of horse-farms, finishing schools and débutante cotillions. Here we are, too, in the world of girls whose hearts belong to Daddy. ‘Black Jack’ Bouvier was a roaring swine, much given to the carouse and to loose gallantry and to improvidence on the Stock Exchange. He seems to have boasted to his daughter about his infidelities, and to have raised her boredom threshold some way above the pallid young men of good family who were thought fit to woo her. Given that she had a good mind to begin with, trouble might have been predicted. Mr Davis is silent on the much-debated question of whether she lost her virginity in a stalled elevator in Paris, but it’s clear from other sources that the family’s objection to that young man was his lack of means. Nor was Jackie sentimental when it came to money; family lore about Black Friday and the Crash was in her bones and she cancelled at least one betrothal on fiduciary grounds alone.

The Auchincloss-Lee-Bouvier family tree is one of those absurd growths that can flourish only in American soil. Were the Lees descended from Robert E. Lee? Was there Jewish blood in the line (as Gore Vidal has mischievously suggested)? Did the Bouviers come from the French nobility? The answer in all cases would seem to be no – just another generational leap from striving petit-bourgeois to finance capital – but an immense amount of worry about class and lineage appears to have gone on. Mr Davis has been through the armorial quarterings and finds the claim of French aristocracy to be entirely void. (On the facing page, though, he commits a wonderful tumbril remark by saying of Michel Bouvier that, ‘dying in 1874 at 82, he left what in today’s money would be a fortune of $10 million to his heirs.’) He also says, perhaps a little too strongly, that ‘most Americans are aware they are the descendants of penniless, uneducated, working-class proletarians who emigrated to America to escape poverty or political oppression.’ Not just working-class, but proletarian to boot!

Actually, many Americans have been at great pains to bury precisely that awareness. None more so than Joseph Kennedy senior, one of the great dynastic brutes of the American century. Descended from a potato-famine refugee, he could not wait to transcend the roots of his family tree, and to acquire some trappings. He made most of the decisions about his children – having his mildly retarded daughter Rosemary lobotomised and institutionalised, for example, and giving it out that she had joined a contemplative order of nuns. It seems probable that he pressed Jack to get serious about the Bouvier girl. ‘A politician has to have a wife and a Catholic politician has to have a Catholic wife. She should have class. Jackie has more class than any girl we’ve seen around here.’ That word again. Old man Bouvier wasn’t so thrilled, because he knew Joe was a villain and had indeed crossed him during Prohibition and Wall Street days, but he knew that the Kennedys had ready money. And, bored though Jackie was by the Kennedy’s ‘frumpish clannishness and sordid ethnic politics, she did allow to a friend that there was something about Jack which reminded her of Daddy.

She had actually met Senator Kennedy before, when working as a photographer in the early Fifties. The Washington Times-Herald, a right-wing lowbrow sheet, hired her to do spot interviews illustrated with snaps. (Her patron was Arthur Krock, later to be JFK’s lobbyist for his Profiles in Courage Pulitzer, not the first or the last Pulitzer awarded for plagiarism and ghost-writing.) It’s rather uncanny to think of the young Jackie, future lifetime victim of the paparazzi, buttonholing Capitol denizens of both sexes and asking questions like: ‘Which First Lady would you most like to have been?’ ‘Would you like your son to grow up to be President?’; ‘Should a candidate’s wife campaign with her husband?’; ‘If you had a date with Marilyn Monroe, what would you talk about?’; ‘What prominent person’s death affected you most?’

Her later answer to that last question only confirmed her in the public eye as a person of irreproachable taste; one of those women who can do nothing wrong whatever their ‘fashion statement’. At JFK’s inaugural she had an accidental dent in her pillbox hat; women everywhere copied the affectation. On the day of his murder she refused to change her blood-and-brain spattered clothes and that, too, seemed right. As a 31-year-old First Lady she had a Tiffany-style team of designers, a personal dresser, the first press secretary in the history of First Ladyhood and a Frank Sinatra-hosted inaugural party. All the things, in short, for which Nancy Reagan was later to be lampooned. But, as any one who has ever argued with a fan will swiftly appreciate, nothing is wrong if a Kennedy does it. ‘Class’, you see. ‘American royalty’ is the phrase most often and – for my money – most aptly and unironically employed.

It must be said to her credit that she wasn’t very good at wearing the mask. She never forgave Kennedy for leaving her alone to endure two miscarriages, for his repeated and cheap philanderings, for his endless cronyism and his crude taste in sports and in dance music. Not long after the Democratic Convention of 1956, where the young Senator had just missed the Vice-Presidential nomination and had neglected his bride throughout in favour of the political gangsters of his father’s machine, the couple were interviewed together by Chet Huntley for NBC. ‘You’re pretty much in love with your husband, aren’t you?’ simpered Huntley. ‘Oh, no,’ replied Jackie. A few moments later she murmured: ‘I said “Oh, no” didn’t I?’ Pressed one more time for an avowal that she was indeed in love, she responded: ‘I suppose so.’ That segment was snipped. It was probably the last honest ‘family values’ moment recorded by American television.

You need to know of episodes like these, and you have to read Gore Vidal’s Palimpsest, in order to become emancipated from the cloying propaganda of ‘elegance’ that is conveyed by Mr Davis and put about by acolytes even less discriminating. A forthcoming book by my learned friend Ellen Ladowsky will, or so I vainly hope, assist in performing the vital office of incense-dispelling. She rather confirms Vidal’s judgment that Jackie might have married for any combination of reasons, but that cold cash would always be one of them. Learning of her rage and discontent at her husband’s caddishness (and, perhaps, aware of a twinge or two of his own), old Joe Kennedy offered her a sizeable inducement to stay with Jack at least until after the 1960 election. From there, it’s not so short a step to Bobby Kennedy beseeching her to delay her engagement to Onassis until he could clear the nomination in 1968. The Kennedys had wanted class and now they were paying the retail and wholesale price for it.

One wants to skip over the Onassis business because it is depressing and because it lacks dramatic interest. It’s been calculated that Jackie harvested over $42 million from him, and it was evident even at the time that she cared not a bean for him or his children, and you might want to say, well, serve the old exploiter right. But he only protested once – at a single spree involving the purchase of 200 pairs of shoes. This was taking the confusion between retail and wholesale altogether too far. After a very chilly obsequy (this one Greek Orthodox) it was back to New York and the Vineyard and all that. A bit of ladylike publishing on the side: not many people know that Jackie could have aborted Jeffrey Archer’s second career if she had objected to Viking’s 1977 issue of Shall We Tell the President?, which nauseated the reviewers twice. (The first heave was at the prose, the second at the thought of a ‘novel’ about the assassination of Teddy Kennedy being published by Jackie’s firm.) Meanwhile, a little light work ensuring that the Kennedy Library remained a death-trap for serious or critical scholars, and a steady liaison with a man, Maurice Tempelsman, who should be better known for his repellent diamond-industry connections to General Mobutu of Zaire – another adorable former Protégé of the Kennedy Administration.

Norman Mailer came closer than perhaps he guessed when he wrote about Jackie in The Presidential Papers. In the course of their fleeting acquaintance, he fancied he saw two or may be three sides of her. There was the potentially naughty girl at Hyannis, wondering if she could take off to Provincetown at night wearing dark glasses. There was the woman who was rehearsing for the role of Riviera divorcee. And there was the national treasure, conducting the TV cameras round the newly-fashionable White House:

She walked through it like a starlet who is utterly without talent. Mrs Kennedy moved like a wooden horse. A marvellous horse, perhaps even a live horse, its feet hobbled, its head unready to turn for fear of a flick from the crop. She had that intense wooden lack of rest, that lack of comprehension for each word offered up which one finds only in a few of those curious movie stars who are huge box-office.

Mailer, who as you can see is a bit of a softie in these matters, blamed the charade on the ‘extraordinarily livid unreality’ of an official life. That was more than thirty years ago, and wasn’t a bad guess, or an ungallant one. A few weeks after Jackie’s funeral, though, the market for my scoffs went up again. She had authorised a posthumous auction of all the Kennedy memorabilia, and the showroom was crammed by every vulture-collector, vulgarian and opportunist in the 48 contiguous states, as well as by white-trash elements from all over. As the barkers and rag-pickers plied their craft on prime time, you could pick up authentic notes of shock. ‘My dear, it wasn’t as if she needed the money.’ No it wasn’t. Nor, if one reflected honestly, was it as if she’d ever thought it her mission on earth to raise the tone. As bidders fought over junk, for prices which made Park Avenue blush, one could take the long view of the whole business of ‘taste’, ‘class’ and ‘style’ In this season’s chick-flick smasheroo, The First Wives Club, there is a scene where a flashy bimbo attends an auction with a grande-dame socialite. As the former hesitates over a piece of costly rubbish, the latter whispers, ‘Jackie O had one just like it’ and the deal is clinched. So it’s now possible at last, in middle-brow circles, to raise the hitherto impermissible question – Was Jackie Tacky? Whether a Bouvier (French arriviste), an Auchincloss (Wasp ruling-class posturing), a Kennedy (lace-curtain and Tammany Irish) or an Onassis (Smyrna, the souk and the junta), this babe had always known the price of everything, and sensibly left the haggle over values to those who fondly believed that she was a lady to her fingertips.