x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The final chapter for Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

Focusing on her career as a respected literary editor, Greg Lawrence reveals a little-known side to the story of America's best-loved first lady.

When F Scott Fitzgerald quipped that there are no second acts in American lives, he didn't mean it; his own life had already had two and might have gone on to a third if alcohol and tobacco hadn't killed him before he could write the screenplay to Gone with the Wind, win an Oscar, and become Hollywood's screenwriting tastemaker for the next 30 years. No, he made that quip for the same reason he made all his quips: so we'd quote him 80 years later, and it worked. In reality, American lives, especially public lives, tend to have three acts: the brash beginning, the apex in the middle, and the closing clarity. Americans usually ignore that third act mainly because so many of their 20th-century public figures - Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Plath among the writers, but also RFK, Martin Luther King and Elvis - died before they could reach it.

The most famous example, of course, is President Kennedy, and the zeitgeist almost demanded that his beautiful young wife Jackie forego her own second act: she received a great deal of hate mail for her marriage to Aristotle Onassis. And most of the general public has entirely forgotten - if it ever knew - that Jackie's life had a third phase. The story of that third act - the 20 years that Mrs Onassis spent in New York working as an editor, first at Viking, then Doubleday - is the subject of Greg Lawrence's fascinating, fizzy new book, an unabashed and enthralling celebration of one woman's unlikely reinvention.

Onassis's decision to enter the workforce in 1975 had not been reached lightly; "Who me - work?" was her initial reaction to the idea when her longtime friend Letitia Baldridge suggested it. She couldn't hold a job while First Lady of the United States, and her second husband often growled (he comes across as rather an ogre in Lawrence's book) that "Greek wives don't work." She found herself back in New York with many passions, financial security (Kennedy money and Onassis money kept her Manhattan apartment running smoothly), but no direction. Books had always been a staple of her life, yet when Thomas Guinzburg of the Viking Press hired her as a consulting editor in 1975 the move was met with derision in many publishing circles, seen as a debasing gimmick designed to grab the spotlight by putting the world's most famous woman in a showboating sinecure. "She can go to book launch parties, fine," groused one Boston editor "but give that Viking office to a real, working editor."

Lawrence has interviewed over 125 people - friends, colleagues, bosses, authors, acquaintances - from this period of Jackie Onassis's life. He has chosen a slightly unconventional form in which to bring it all together: he keeps his narrative line to a minimum and lets those interviewees speak. The result is a pleasing cacophony of a book in which the reader must often flip back a few pages to recall who's spinning which anecdote. This has at least one benefit: if you're reading story after story about the same person, all told by different people and from different perspectives, you start to notice common threads, and those common threads seem more true than a flat declaration could ever be.

The picture that emerges most strongly from these many voices is that Jackie Onassis, contrary to expectations, was indeed a real, working editor, especially once terms are properly defined. The publisher Robert Giroux is quoted here pointing out that "the truth is that editing lines is not necessarily the same as editing a book. A book is a much more complicated entity and totality than the sum of its lines alone." Jackie as Editor gives us a snapshot of the "conceptual editor" Jackie Onassis came to embody, someone far more concerned with that totality than with with fact-checking and word-counting. More than a few of Lawrence's sources refer to her as an inspiration, a great literary encourager. She was a fierce advocate of the 100-plus titles she oversaw in her publishing career, their authors' first fan, the first to show up at their launch parties and the last to leave.

Those authors in their separate accounts tell one similar story: here, where they least expected it, they found what President Kennedy's speechwriter Ted Sorensen once described as a "natural born editor". Elizabeth Smith Brownstein, author of If This House Could Talk, says: "It was fascinating because she was so literate. She knew film, she knew literature..." The Russian journalist Valery Peskov, author of Lost in the Taiga recalls: "we had like a 20-minute conversation about Asia Minor… It was just very interesting because I never expected her to bother to talk to me. I was floored. And she said, 'Did you go to Halicarnassus?' And I had to think because she used all the ancient names..." In a clash over the illustrations to a family memoir, her stepcousin Louis Auchincloss confides: "Then I realized that when you have an editor who's a former First Lady of the United States, you lose those arguments." A moment later, he adds: "In retrospect, I think she was dead right."

That's another thread that runs through these reminiscences: over and over, authors of all different temperaments and accomplishments tell Lawrence some variation of "I hate to admit it, but she was right and I was wrong." It's hardly a tribute every editor gets, even the famous ones.

The list of Jackie's authors - and the tally of books she encouraged them to produce - has its share of failures and obscurities, but the high points are distinctly high. Nancy Zaroulis' bestselling novel Call the Darkness Light, the Harlem Renaissance fixture Dorothy West's gemlike final work The Wedding, Joseph Campbell's The Power of Myth, Larry Gonick's phenomenally popular Cartoon History of the Universe volumes, Edvard Radzinsky's critically acclaimed The Last Tsar, and most famously the Cairo Trilogy of Naguib Mahfouz - all were beneficiaries of her instincts and zeal. Her assistant editor Scott Moyers refers to her acquisition of Mahfouz as "classic Jackie": she'd become a fan of the Nobel laureate through reading his books in French translations before he was readily available in English. She was an eager, adventurous reader in her private life, and that guided her in her editorial choices.

That spirit of adventure was draining away from the major New York publishing houses during the period covered by Jackie's career. One of the sub-themes of Lawrence's book is its episodic account of an industry in upheaval, which he refers to as "the last century's golden age of publishing as it gave way ... to megaconglomerates and rampant commercialism." When the German corporation Bertelsmann bought Doubleday and all its imprints, it changed the nature of the industry, fostering an obsession with short-term profits and indifference to the strong backlists that had traditionally been the heart of any publishing concern. Bestsellers, which had once been happy accidents, now became intensely leveraged budget-items on which an entire season's revenues could depend. This change was already firmly in place by the time Jackie's tenure at Doubleday came to an end.

She was already ill during the final days of that tenure - the last chapters of Lawrence's book are overshadowed by her cancer - but it's doubtful whether she would have stayed in the cut-throat culture that publishing was becoming. Several of the writers and editors interviewed in Jackie as Editor describe the same paradox: that one of the world's foremost celebrities should espouse editorial invisibility as her guiding principle ("the book belongs to the author," as Maxwell Perkins used to say). Yet her authors certainly felt her presence - in arguments she gently won, in private moments she allowed, and in personal connections that didn't stop with a mention on the Acknowledgments page. "Above all, she brought a minute attention to the affectionate reassurances that keep friendship alive," said the art critic John Russell. "Though capable of a holy rage when it was called for - for instance, when a famous figure of the day weaseled out of a book he had promised her for Doubleday - it gave her enormous pleasure to keep friendships in repair."

Lawrence's book forms a touching tribute to a publishing world of handshake deals and three-martini lunches, a world in which a jailed writer's one phone call would be to his editor, not his lawyer, a world in which such editors carried around dozens of manuscripts in their bags and fought for every one of them. It was a world in which, in the end, Jackie Onassis earned a place, by dint of skill, instinct and hard work.

Steve Donoghue is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly