"Had she become a rather pathetic person, had she become an alcoholic or had she retreated to drugged-out genteel obscurity, I don't think anybody would be surprised," says Donald Spoto, author of the biography "Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis: A Life," on which a new CBS miniseries airing Sunday and Wednesday at 9 p.m. is based. "She felt an enormous responsibility to her children, and also to herself."
Spoto's dutiful biography came out earlier this year and examined the full span of Onassis' life: her childhood as a Bouvier; her courtship with a then-budding politician, John F. Kennedy; and her years as a first lady in Washington. Though her life as a public figure was frozen in time by an assassin's bullet for some, there were, of course, more acts in her life, including her marriage to Aristotle Onassis and her years spent as a book editor in New York.
"I cannot apologize for my high estimation and regard for her," Spoto says of the tone of his book and the CBS miniseries, which will no doubt be a tad too soft-focus for some.
Not surprisingly, the miniseries is grounded in the Washington years--and the former first lady's struggles to balance what she knew about her husband privately and what she showed publicly. Tim Matheson plays John F. Kennedy, while the cast also includes Andrew McCarthy as Bobby Kennedy and Philip Baker Hall as Aristotle Onassis.
"What the miniseries emphasizes is her desire to make the marriage work, which she did, and that Jack really prized her, which he did," says Spoto, who executive produced "Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis" with George Stelzner.
A well-known celebrity biographer whose subjects have included Alfred Hitchcock and James Dean, Spoto says Onassis not only transformed the White House aesthetically and culturally, but she also had a profound impact on the president's politics.
"First ladies were adjuncts to the president. Mrs. Truman and Mrs. Eisenhower went to ladies' lunches and cut ribbons. Jackie, even during her husband's term as [Massachusetts] senator, was tremendously important to Jack."
The task of playing Jackie fell to Joanne Whalley, the British-reared actress who appeared in a 1994 CBS miniseries playing another American icon, Scarlett O'Hara.
Whalley says she got a call in June offering her the part; that same month, shooting began in Montreal. To approximate her character's voice, Whalley says she worked with a dialect coach and viewed archival tapes and listened to audiocassettes. "It was kind of tricky because you don't want to do an out-and-out impersonation because people kind of stop there with you," says Whalley, who lives in Los Angeles. "You want to suggest the person, but not let that get in the way," she says.
And of course she read Spoto's book. "He has a great knack for not being controversial," she says. "I knew the tone of [the miniseries] would be OK. Because I'm fairly protective of [Onassis] now."