An Enduring Fascination : Despite Her Determined Privacy and the Passing of 25 Years, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Remains the Symbol of a Dream That Died

Times Staff Writer

She is forever frozen in time: the look of anguish etched on her face; her pillbox hat slightly askew on the bouffant hairdo; her suit, a color known then as Schiaparelli pink, stained with the blood of her fallen husband.

That image from Nov. 22, 1963, said someone very close to her, "is burned in people's minds."

Twenty-five years have passed since the glamorous young First Lady became the grieving young widow. On her next birthday, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis will turn 60. She is an editor at Doubleday. She is an active presence in the battle to preserve New York's historic buildings. She is a grandmother.

She jogs regularly around the reservoir in Central Park. She works out at the Vertical Club, a tony Upper East Side fitness center. She sees a psychiatrist on Central Park West. She takes cabs, not limousines, from her Fifth Avenue apartment near the Metropolitan Museum of Art to her Fifth Avenue office near St. Patrick's Cathedral. For a number of years she has been escorted by a fabulously wealthy international industrialist who might make a suitable husband for Onassis, who is Roman Catholic, were he not Jewish and married.

She slips in for ice cream (rocky road is her favorite) at Baskin-Robbins on Madison Avenue. She stuffs her Hermes tote bag with manuscripts to edit while her hair is styled, twice weekly, in a private room at Kenneth's. She bites her nails. She smokes. She drives her BMW across the bridge to New Jersey to go riding at her estate there. She takes commercial planes to Martha's Vineyard, site of her 356-acre oceanfront compound in Massachusetts. She has been known to bake chocolate cakes for special friends.

Object of Fascination

And she endures as an object of fascination. Her pictures are splashed across tabloids and news magazines. Her activities evoke endless curiosity. One appearance by her and a so-so event becomes an important party amid a sea of flashbulbs.

Her children have grown. She has remarried and been widowed once again. She has taken a job and by all accounts prospered in it. A quiet visit to Arlington National Cemetery each Nov. 22 is her sole known concession to her previous life.

In short, she has moved on. Yet America clings to her as its living link to Camelot, the days when hope and music were in the air.

"I suppose the idea of Camelot is endlessly appealing, and that she has come to personify it," said Thomas Guinzburg, who hired Onassis to work as a $200-a-week part-time editor 15 years ago when he was president of Viking. "Whatever other things were going on in those years, there was an excitement, a zest and a call to arms that almost preceded the Camelot stage."

"Everyone was crazy about the Kennedys," said Myrna Blyth, the editor in chief of Ladies Home Journal, which regularly features articles pertaining to Onassis and the Kennedy clan. "They were so glamorous, witty, attractive and charismatic, all the things our politicians today are not."

As the legatee of that era, Blyth said, Jacqueline Onassis "is part of everyone's consciousness."

'Painfully Shy'

Yet with her majestic, distant smile, Onassis could out-frost the polar ice cap. She is certainly no recluse. But she is equally aloof, panther-like in her privacy and, a close friend said, "painfully shy."

"Give me a call if I can do anything else for you--except that," a friend from the publishing business said when asked to talk about Onassis.

"Everyone respects her privacy," said Letitia Baldrige, a social adviser when Jacqueline Kennedy was First Lady. "She doesn't like her friends to serve as her spokespersons."

Close acquaintances circle her protectively. She gives no interviews and changes her unlisted telephone number at least once every six months. It is easier to divine the mysteries of the Vatican than to probe the psyche of Jacqueline Onassis.

"She's certainly one of the most famous women in the world," said Stephen Birmingham, who wrote "Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis." "And she's also one we know very little about."

The public "has this mental picture of Jackie, but we never know very much about her," Birmingham said. In that regard, Birmingham said, she is not unlike another elusive icon of Manhattan. "Only Jackie's even cleverer than (actress Greta) Garbo," he said. "She keeps the attention riveted on herself, but she keeps her privacy, too."

Age of Camelot

Inadvertently, perhaps, it was Jacqueline Kennedy herself who bestowed the moniker of a magic, mythical kingdom on the era of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Not long after the President was assassinated, she revealed to Theodore White in an interview for Life magazine that "Camelot" had been her husband's favorite musical. Often he played the sound track in their private quarters in the White House, she told White.

The "one brief, shining moment" of Camelot soon became synonymous with Kennedy's 1,000-day presidency. The beautiful young First Lady who transformed the White House into a palace of elegance and culture became, as Norman Mailer has called her, "a historic archetype, virtually a demiurge."

"I think that image continues because she is still an enormously glamorous person, and if Camelot could be described, one of the main ingredients of the Camelot phenomenon was glamour," said George Plimpton, a novelist and journal editor who has been her friend for many years. In the difficult days that followed Kennedy's assassination when his widow had just moved to New York, it was Plimpton who often chaperoned the young Caroline Kennedy on outings in Central Park and around Manhattan.

A longtime acquaintance who often serves as a kind of de facto adviser to the younger members of the Kennedy clan put it another way. "By living a relatively normal life, raising two kids, by really making an effort not to get into the public eye, what it's done is to allow the old memories to remain and not be replaced by something different.

'Electronic Village'

"It started that way," this friend said, with the President's assassination. "In one week, the entire country, the entire world was bound together in the first example of the electronic village." Glued to television sets that carried the drama pulse beat by pulse beat, they saw "a woman who behaved with courage, dignity and grace."

Since then, said this friend, "she's done nothing to spoil it."

Curiously, Jacqueline Kennedy's seven-year marriage to Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis and even a nasty confrontation over money with his family after his death did little to mar her reputation. Wags went into overdrive when her marriage to the much older, much shorter, much-much wealthier Onassis seemed to founder. It was said that the same extravagant spending habits that riled President Kennedy were equally infuriating to Onassis. It was said that the marriage had turned into a giant shopping spree.

"She has an eye for immediately spotting the most precious and expensive object wherever she goes," Onassis once grumbled. He complained to friends in later years that she had squandered millions.

A settlement with Onassis' daughter, Christina, after his death in 1975 left Jacqueline Onassis $26 million richer. Within months she had signed on as a $10,000-a-year part-time editor at Viking. It was her first paying job since the days before her first marriage, when she served as the "inquiring camera girl" for the old Washington Times-Herald.

Guinzburg, then Viking's publisher, said he hired her in large part because "on any given day she was having lunch or dinner with some of the most celebrated, accomplished people in the world. Anybody who didn't understand that didn't understand where books originate. On any given evening, she was sitting next to more interesting people at dinner than I was."

He was immediately accused of "running a publicity number," Guinzburg said, and he watched with some bemusement as Viking staffers suddenly began turning up "in their Guccis and good pearls" after Onassis began working there. He was less amused by the overnight transformation of his corporate headquarters into a media beachhead, with "three television stations camped out there every day, messengers who were not really messengers, not to mention those crackpots who didn't like her who were doing unsavory things."

Magazine Article

In a "Why Women Work" article she wrote for Ms. magazine in 1979, Onassis opined that "if I hadn't married, I might have had a life very much like Gloria Emerson's." Emerson is a journalist who started out covering fashion shows, but made her reputation as a correspondent in Vietnam.

Onassis went on to write that "what has been sad for many women of my generation is that they weren't supposed to work if they had families."

But the woman with the 15-room, Fifth Avenue apartment contended that "of course women should work if they want to. You have to be doing something you enjoy. That is a definition of happiness: 'complete use of one's faculties along lines leading to excellence in a life affording them scope.' It applies to women as well as to men. We can't all reach it, but we can try to reach it to some degree."

The notion of Onassis, with her designer wardrobe, her four residences and a personal fortune estimated at about $50 million, as a journalist manque struck many who know her as preposterous. But Steinem, the former Ms. editor who now works in publishing herself, commended Onassis for striking out on her own path.

"She could have been a political widow, and played a substantial role in American politics," Steinem said. "She could have been an international social leader, as Onassis' widow. She chose to do neither, but to take a job, the kind of job she would have had straight out of college.

"She has chosen to do her own work. I admire that, even at the same time that I have issues that I wish she would be more active on."

But, Steinem said, "perhaps in the long run, she has done more for us by not being an appendage."

At Viking, an editor who was "assigned to her, to teach her publishing," found Onassis "very open, very eager to learn." She was a quick study, this editor said, who wrote "very funny, good reports with a delightful, prickly sense of humor." Often she made fun of her own lack of experience, proffering "cute deprecating remarks in a kind of literary way, talking about what she didn't know, or laughing at something she had put on or said that was inappropriate."

Family Comes First

From the start, what Guinzburg and other colleagues at Viking noticed about Onassis was that no matter how dedicated she seemed to be toward her new job, her family came first. To allow Onassis time with her two children, "in effect we constructed a timetable which could be almost as flexible as she wanted," Guinzburg said. This seemed in perfect accord with the priorities Onassis had always voiced for herself.

"I was reading (essayist Thomas) Carylye," she said not long after President Kennedy was killed, "and he said you should do the duty that lies nearest you. And the thing that lies nearest me is the children."

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, a Kennedy family biographer, remembered that at the bridal dinner the night before Caroline Kennedy's wedding to designer Edwin Schlossberg 2 1/2 years ago, John F. Kennedy Jr. made a poignant toast to welcome Schlossberg into the family.

"All of our lives, there has just been the three of us, my mother, Caroline and me," he said. "And now there's a fourth."

Soon afterward, Goodwin said, "I saw Jackie and said, 'You must be very proud of that.' "

Onassis looked at her, "smiled straight on and said something like, 'It's the best thing I've ever done,' " Goodwin said. " 'Being a mother is what I think has made me the person I am.' "

All at once, said Goodwin, "I was able to see that there is no question that her concern with privacy and originally with taking herself out of the Kennedy fold by marrying Onassis protected those kids and gave them an identity that allowed them to stand separate from all their cousins."

Children in Law School

Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, 30, has finished Columbia Law School, taken the New York State Bar exam, had a baby named Rose, and is said to be leaning toward a specialty in entertainment law. Her brother John, 27, a student at New York University School of Law, clerked in Los Angeles last summer. More recently was featured on the cover of People magazine as this year's "sexiest man alive."

Onassis moved from Viking to Doubleday in 1977, allegedly because of rumors that she had approved of Viking's publication of a Jeffrey Archer book called "Shall We Tell the President?," which depicted her brother-in-law, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, as the target of an assassination attempt. At Doubleday, she has been promoted to senior editor and has impressed many colleagues with a just-us-folks quality some find surprising.

"She does her own Xeroxing. She gets her own coffee. She places her own phone calls," a colleague said.

Two of the books Onassis has recently edited, "Moonwalk," by Michael Jackson, and "Dancing on My Grave," by ballerina Gelsey Kirkland, have been international best-sellers. She veers away from political topics, preferring books focusing on the arts and culture. But last year, Onassis did bring out a book by former Interior Secretary Stewart L. Udall, "To the Promised Land," about the Southwest.

'She's a Riddle'

Her life remains quintessentially private, swathed in a cocoon that is as impenetrable as her smile. Last month, she sat next to the guest of honor at the 80th birthday party of John Kenneth Galbraith, the Harvard economist who was her husband's ambassador to India. One guest said she looked "fantastic" in a yellow silk two-piece dress. But another said she looked "grotesque," as if too much cosmetic surgery had stolen away her own character.

Galbraith himself deferred to his old friend's abhorrence of publicity, saying only, when asked about the party at the Century Club here, "I think she endures (as a legend) because of her persistence in seeking a sensible life."

That sensible life includes frequent outings with Tempelsman, a Belgian-born industrialist who built his father's small diamond-trading business into a vast international operation. Tempelsman is a friend of many years who was one of 1,000 carefully chosen guests on the Robert F. Kennedy funeral train from New York to Washington. A living example of what one journalist who has observed her closely calls the fact that "after Onassis, she seems to have lost interest in flamboyant men," he is portly, bald and married. Friends say he and his wife of almost 40 years have been estranged for some time.

At dinner in small restaurants on Manhattan's East Side, Onassis and Tempelsman often converse in French. He visits her on Martha's Vineyard. After graduating from Brown University, John Jr. worked for Tempelsman in Zaire. Sometimes, to enhance their privacy, Tempelsman picks Onassis up on his yacht and they sail to a waterfront eatery.

Yet the public appetite for information about Onassis seems to equal her need to find refuge from it.

Lewis L. Gould, a political historian at the University of Texas at Austin who teaches a class each year called "First Ladies," puts Onassis in a separate category from other wives and widows of ex-Presidents.

'Free-Floating Phenomenon'

"She is sort of detached, separate from any tangible evaluation and has become, as celebrities do, a kind of free-floating phenomenon," Gould said. "That aura of mystery and fascination is part of it. How much of this is conscious manipulation and how much is innate biology, I don't know."

She has generated her own brand of iconography, Gould said, so much so that when he assigns gossipy, popular biographies of Onassis to his students, like Kitty Kelley's blistering "Jackie O!," "they come up to me, sort of ashen, and say, 'Can any of this be true?' "

In researching his own biography of her, Stephen Birmingham said he conducted a survey asking 100 to 150 people to name the most admired women in contemporary America. Onassis, to his surprise, "didn't make the list at all. People mentioned Eleanor Roosevelt, Barbara Jordan--but Onassis didn't make any of the lists.

"So I don't think it's that people admire her," said Birmingham. "It's that people are endlessly puzzled by her. She's a riddle."

Just recently, Birmingham said, "I was in a restaurant in New York, Le Madrigal, lunching with somebody else. Suddenly the captain came over and said, 'Did you see who just walked in?' " Of course it was Jacqueline Onassis, and of course, Birmingham said, "Everybody gasped."

Blyth, the editor-in-chief of Ladies Home Journal, describes Onassis as "the Lady Di of her time." Like the Princess of Wales, she is "an extraordinary personality who is not a show-business star. And most people who catch our fancy," Blyth said, "are somehow involved in show business and their fortunes go up and down."

By contrast, "Jacqueline Onassis or Princess Di, they've got the job for life. It's their exclusivity, their inapproachability. They're beyond mere publicity."

Those close to Onassis say she shudders each time a new tell-all book about her appears. She resolutely guards her life, refusing to release its inner details to a greedy public.

"Let's be honest," Blyth said. "Wouldn't you want to read the autobiography of Jacqueline Onassis more than almost any book in the world?"

There was a pause. Blyth knows as well as anyone Onassis' determination to remain outside the fray.

"But she's not going to write it," Blyth said.

"She stands for a time. She is the remaining familiar face from a time of hope in this country," Gloria Steinem said. "And we have been led by fear ever since."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World