Most people remember Jacqueline Kennedy Onasis for her glamorous role as First Lady and for her memorable fashions. Though she was constantly followed by the paparazzi and was closely scrutinized whenever she went out in public, she was an intensely private woman who divulged little about herself, even among her closest friends and colleagues. She burned some of her most private letters before her death and did as much as she could to ensure that her remaining papers would not be released for public consumption after her death. Anyone who suggested that she publish her memoirs was politely shot down. Yet, as William Kuhn alleges in Reading Jackie, her “autobiography” has been right in front of everyone this whole time if you knew where to look.
Following the death of her second husband, Aristotle Onasis, Jackie (as she was known by her coworkers) surprised a lot of people by getting a job as an editor at Viking, and later Doubleday. As the widow of a former president, and later of a filthy rich man, one wouldn’t expect a woman of her position to go out and get a job. But for Jackie, the experience was liberating, and she would spend the last two decades of her life editing close to 100 books, though she refused to allow her name be printed in the majority of them. Overseeing everything from high-end photography books with niche markets to bestsellers, the books she chose to cultivate reveal more about her values, interests, and beliefs than most people realize.
This was a really interesting book for me to delve into. I knew almost nothing about Jacqueline Kennedy Onasis’s life outside of her role as First Lady–I wasn’t even aware that she worked as an editor after her marriages! Getting to read about this aspect of her life was fascinating, especially since during this time, a woman of her position choosing to get a job was still uncommon at the time. This book provided revealing insight as to why getting a job was so important to her, even analyzing the depression and rage she experienced after JFK was assassinated, and at her troubled marriage to Onasis. She had always been a serious reader and had once been an aspiring writer, so becoming an editor turned out to be a perfect fit.
The books she chose to edit revealed a lot about her interests: she loved books about ballet and European monarchies, and had a deep interest in producing books about interesting women whose lives she admired. She adored books that were visually pleasing, and she didn’t shy away from controversial subjects. Sometimes she had to take on projects she did not want (namely, Michael Jackson’s Moonwalk), but was practical about the business end of publishing–she got away with quirkier labors of love by balancing them out with more profitable projects. But the real story is about the messages she sent through these books. Kuhn writes:
In Jackie’s books she commented in the most public way possible about what she thought of the institution of marriage, about presidential mistresses, about what it was like to have a career in order to circumvent unhappiness in a marriage, about Marilyn Monroe’s sex appeal and Maria Callas’s eyes, and about how a woman might guard her privacy in the midst of a marriage the world regards as public business.
And sure enough, I think Kuhn proved these points rather well. His book is engaging and provocative, and it left me wanting to know more about Jackie. When I began the book I didn’t have a firm concept of who she was beyond what the media portrayed, but she was a fiercely intelligent woman who knew how to manipulate her image, and this side of her served her well throughout her career. I’d love to read some of the books she edited (a complete list is provided at the end of the book). Though her life was one of tradition and preserving an image — especially when it came to JFK — she was a woman ahead of her time.
Reading Jackie: Her Autobiography in Books was initially released by Nan A. Talese on December 7, 2010. It was released on paperback on November 29, 2011 by Anchor, an imprint of Random House.