New books ex­plore Jackie’s other life — as edi­tor

Dayton Daily News - - L!FE - By Jocelyn Noveck As­so­ci­ated Press

NEW YORK — When most of us think of Jac­que­line Kennedy Onas­sis, we think back to the per­fectly coifed first lady of the early ‘60s in a stylish shift, a string of pearls, a pill box hat. Or the Jackie O of the next decade, the rich widow in huge sun­glasses that shielded her from the world.

We prob­a­bly don’t think of a mid­dle-aged work­ing woman mak­ing her own pho­to­copies, wait­ing on line to speak to the boss, or sit­ting cross-legged on the floor, ar­rang­ing pho­tos and puff­ing on cig­a­rettes.

Yet this was Jackie’s third act — the Jackie who joined the work force in her mid-40s and spent nearly two decades as a book edi­tor. By all ac­counts, it was one of the most sat­is­fy­ing pe­ri­ods of her life.

“She didn’t do this just to have a job,” says Bruce Tracy, a for­mer col­league at the Dou­ble­day pub­lish­ing house. “She loved this. This is what she was pas­sion­ate about.”

Sud­denly, in a span of just a month, two new books are ex­am­in­ing this lit­tle-known part of Jackie’s life, giv­ing read­ers a new slant on a woman who has fas­ci­nated Amer­i­cans like no other in our his­tory.

“Peo­ple think about Jackie’s clothes, about her mar­riages, maybe her re­dec­o­rat­ing the White House,” says his­to­rian Wil­liam Kuhn, author of “Read­ing Jackie: Her Au­to­bi­og­ra­phy in Books,” re­leased this month. “But her ed­i­to­rial ca­reer was longer than her two mar­riages com­bined. It says more about who she was as a per­son, be­cause this is some­thing she ac­tu­ally chose to do.”

Of course, she didn’t need the work. Kuhn notes how women of Jackie’s gen­er­a­tion were taught to be great wives and great moth­ers, mak­ing it all the more strik­ing that she would choose to learn a new ca­reer so rel­a­tively late in life. “It speaks to a kind of quiet fem­i­nism that she and other women of her gen­er­a­tion had,” he says.

Jackie was 46 when she was hired by Thomas Guinzburg at Vik­ing Press, not long af­ter the 1975 death of Aris­to­tle Onas­sis. Clearly Vik­ing wanted her for her name. And her early ef­forts — she spent only two years there, be­fore mov­ing to Dou­ble­day — were a learn­ing process. But her pro­duc­tiv­ity sky­rock­eted as the years went on. “Yes, some of this was handed to Jackie,” says Kuhn, whose book is be­ing pub­lished by Dou­ble­day it­self. “But the fact is, she amassed a list of books that pub­lish­ing pro­fes­sion­als are in awe of to­day.”

That list in­cludes books on ev­ery­thing from art to Euro­pean and Amer­i­can his­tory to pho­tog­ra­phy to fashion to re­li­gion. It in­cludes chil­dren’s books by Carly Simon, and Michael Jack­son’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, “Moon­walk.” She worked on a tril­ogy by the Egyp­tian writer Naguib Mah­fouz, sev­eral books by Bill Moyers, and a se­ries of Tif­fany style books.

And then there was her well-doc­u­mented love of dance, par­tic­u­larly bal­let, which led to the best-seller “Danc­ing on My Grave,” by bal­le­rina Gelsey Kirk­land and her hus­band, author Greg Lawrence. Work­ing with her on the book, an ac­count of Kirk­land’s de­scent into drug ad­dic­tion, was “a hum­bling ex­pe­ri­ence,” says Lawrence, who next month comes out with “Jackie as Edi­tor: The Lit­er­ary Life of Jac­que­line Kennedy Onas­sis” (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press.)

Lawrence re­calls how at an in­tro­duc­tory lunch with the cou­ple, Jackie burst into tears at their story, say­ing, “I want to do this book!”

“Jackie fought for us,” says Lawrence. “That’s what I re­ally ad­mired about her. She had to fight for her books. And when we ran out of money, she would call us and say, ‘I got you more, just don’t tell any­one.’” Later, she per­suaded the cou­ple that the book should be 300 pages rather than the 600 they were writ­ing. “That voice, it would just com­pletely dis­arm you,” he says.

There were perks to be­ing Jackie O — she worked only part-time in her of­fice and spent a lot of time work­ing at her Park Av­enue apart­ment, where she would sit in her li­brary with au­thors sur­rounded by her books, smok­ing out of a long, ivory cig­a­rette holder, Kuhn says — not to men­tion tak­ing the sum­mer on Martha’s Vine­yard.

But it was strik­ing to many how quickly she shed the trap­pings of celebrity, munch­ing on sand­wiches at her desk, wait­ing ner­vously in cor­ri­dors for face time with the boss, al­ways com­ing to the re­cep­tion area to meet her vis­i­tors and mak­ing her own calls.

“She never said ‘Get me so-and-so on the phone,’” says Tracy, the for­mer Dou­ble­day col­league, now a free­lance edi­tor, who as­sisted her on a num­ber of books.

Mike D’Orso found that out the hard way. Then a news­pa­per re­porter for The Vir­ginian-Pi­lot, his phone rang one day and the caller said: “Hello, it’s Jac­que­line Onas­sis.”

“Yeah, right,” he laughed, and hung up.

“Luck­ily, Jackie called back,” D’Orso said in a tele­phone in­ter­view from his home in Nor­folk, Va. “And that’s how my ca­reer as an author got started. I owe it all to her.” She edited two of his books, in­clud­ing his 1988 “Som­er­set Home­com­ing,” the story of a black woman who helped save the plan­ta­tion where her an­ces­tors had been slaves.

D’Orso says Jackie didn’t even mind when his 7-yearold daugh­ter an­swered the phone one day, then passed it to him, shout­ing, “Daddy, it’s the dead pres­i­dent’s wife!”

“She just laughed it off,” says D’Orso. He was go­ing through a divorce at the time, and he says the two of­ten had con­ver­sa­tions about it. De­spite their long col­lab­o­ra­tion, though, the work­ing re­la­tion­ship stayed on the phone: They never met in per­son.

Though a friendly edi­tor, Jackie could be a de­mand­ing one, says Kuhn, who re­lates ex­changes she had with Ste­wart Udall, a for­mer sec­re­tary of the in­te­rior un­der JFK. Udall was writ­ing a book on Span­ish ex­plo­ration in the south­west. In a se­ries of letters, Jackie tus­sled with him tooth and nail on cer­tain points of Span­ish his­tory, not back­ing down.

Jackie surely would have loved to con­tinue edit­ing books for decades more, but it was not to be. In Jan­uary of 1994, af­ter months of feel­ing un­well, she was di­ag­nosed with non-Hodgkins lym­phoma. She con­tin­ued to work even as she un­der­went chemo­ther­apy and be­gan los­ing ground to the dis­ease.

“One day, she came in wear­ing a wig,” says Tracy. “And I thought, wow, that’s not her usual style. She told us in Fe­bru­ary that she had this ill­ness, and it was just like she was say­ing, ‘Re­mind me to send so-andso a let­ter.’ Self-pity was just not in her play­book.”

She died on May 19. The next day, her son, John Kennedy, Jr., told the as­sem­bled me­dia that his mother had died “sur­rounded by her friends and her fam­ily and her books and the peo­ple and the things she loved.”

Lawrence, just one of the many au­thors whose ca­reers she touched, says that one of the most re­veal­ing anec­dotes he’s ever heard about Jackie came from a friend, edi­tor Joe Arm­strong, who vis­ited her in Martha’s Vine­yard less than a year be­fore she died.

“I re­mem­ber in her liv­ing room she had all these books,” Arm­strong told Lawrence.

“And she said, ‘These are my other best friends.’ ”

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