There has been libraries of trashy biographies written about Jacqueline Onassis, most of them concerned about her tumultuous life and her high-profile marriages to slain president, John F. Kennedy and Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis. Very little attention is given to her work – most notably her time as an editor for Viking and later, Doubleday. This focus on her life is the focus of Greg Lawrence’s Jackie as Editor: The Literary Life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, an engaging and thoughtful insight to a side of Onassis few in the public had a chance to glance.
For readers interested in getting dishy gossip, for the most part, they’ll be disappointed in Lawrences’ effort. While there are some juicy tidbits of Onassis’ dealing with some of her writers, none of it will be terribly salatious – instead the book is a witty, dignified look at arguably the most famous woman in the world trying to carve out a niche and identity of her own.
The story of Onassis becoming an editor is somewhat familiar. After her second husband died, she made Manhattan her base (though she had other homes), and faced with the prospect of not having anything to to do with her life, decided to enter the world of publishing. Viking was her first home, but after a decidedly disastrous publication of a potboiler that was a thinly-veiled hypothesis of what would happen if Ted Kennedy was assassinated, Onassis jumped over to Doubleday and worked with that house until her death from cancer in 1993.
Even though the most cast of supporting characters in Lawrence’s book won’t fill the pages if People magazine, there are still some interesting anecdotes and stories of how Onassis worked with various writers of various temperments. Her most high-profile acquistion was pop star, Michael Jackson. And while Jackson had since waxed rhapsodically about their friendship, Lawrence writes of a polite, but prickly exchange between the superstar and the former first lady. Also interesting are the passages that detail Onassis’ work with Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers on their tomes about myth. With those stories, the reader gets an insight to a woman who not only is good at her job, but is intellectually curious about different subjects.
In fact, after reading Lawrence’s book, it’s Onassis’ bookishness and smarts that shine through. Her projects were often terribly esoteric and high-brow, but from the accounts of her colleagues, Onassis’ work was sincere and genuine, and not the playing of a dilettente.
As with any pop culture icon, Jackie Onassis (or Jackie O) has been rebranded and recast in many roles: fashion plate, perfect first lady, America’s widow, gold digger, socialite celebrity (Paris Hilton owes her a huge debt) and in what appears to be the most accurate role, that of a hard-working, appealing eccentric.