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If ever there was a symbol of American aristocracy, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was, for certain generations, it. Many biographies have been written about her, and for years in the 1960s and ’70s, her actions consistently made front-page news. Part of the cause of her stupendous celebrity was her privileged upbringing, though she was glad to have “escaped” that. As she told a friend once, on a beach: “Do you realize how lucky we are? To have gotten out of that world we came from. That narrow world of Newport … you and I have taken such a big bite out of life.”
This quote appears in a new biography, Finding Jackie, by Oline Eaton. The book covers everything, though most meticulously her two marriages. There’s less about her Manhattan life, working at Viking Press after the death of her second husband, Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. And yet, perhaps because it’s glossed over, that period beckons as somehow the most interesting, the period in which she became her own woman, not merely the wife of an internationally powerful man. Nonetheless, it was Jackie the wife and widow of John F. Kennedy and Onassis who transfixed the world.
Her celebrity grew to such fantastic proportions by the 1970s, with Jackie constantly on the covers of magazines, that it became a national fixation. When married to Onassis, she sued photographer Ron Galella, who pursued her like a madman, and she managed, partially, to bring him to heel. Galella was only the most aggressive of the pack of Jackie watchers, of whom Truman Capote said: “There was always, underneath all that adulation, a tremendous resentment and envy.” How else to explain the obsession with everything she did, said, or bought, from designer ensembles to toothbrushes.
But there was a reason for the envy: Jackie lived like nobility. For this, columnist Jack Anderson criticized her “for shirking her responsibility—‘the staggering opportunity to serve mankind’ that fate bestowed on her—and ‘pursuing instead a life of luxury, languor, gowns, jewels and the wheedling of unearned wealth.’”
That changed slightly after Onassis’ death, when she started working at Viking. As one writer observed, Jackie was everything: “socialite, working girl, bride, grieving mother, wronged wife, widow, expatriate, proud mother, fashion plate, career woman, grandmother.” This period after the death of her second husband was also one of financial security—she inherited millions from him. But though Jackie was everything, what originally hooked Americans was her being Kennedy’s widow, the first lady who sat next to the president when he was shot, whose world collapsed so publicly, on film even. Though Finding Jackie does not emphasize this point, anyone who lived through the Jackie years, even as a child, knew that deep down, the public’s attachment to her stemmed from the horror of the assassination, of feeling like they went through it with her.
When the book does focus on her time as first lady, it does not delve much into the Kennedy administration, the president’s policies, or what might have caused something many cannot shake as a conviction—that some part of the government conspired to kill him. He wanted to dismantle the CIA. He negotiated closely with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev at a time when many in the Pentagon were gearing up for the Cold War to become a hot one and thus regarded such unorthodox diplomacy dyspeptically, at best, and as treason at worst. The flimsy case against Lee Harvey Oswald, his all-too-convenient murder by Jack Ruby rivaling the so-called suicide of Jeffrey Epstein for suspiciousness and unbelievability—none of this was ever satisfactorily dealt with, and uncertainty persisted. Surely it must have affected the president’s widow, but just as surely, if it did, she kept quiet about it, making it all but impossible for a biographer to record her views.
Instead we get a portrait of an incredibly pampered aristocrat, a member of the glitterati, busy looking out for herself. Many might ask why she shouldn’t do that. After all, she went through hell in Dallas during her husband’s last moments. And yet, as Anderson indicated, she fell short. In the end, like most people, Jackie took care of herself and did very little else. That just makes her rather ordinary. This may not be what Eaton intended to discover, but this is the Jackie her new book finds.
Finding Jackie: A Life Reinvented by Oline Eaton was published by Diversion Books on Jan. 31. Hardcover, 349 pages.