On Never Having Met Mrs. Onassis

My father idolized her father. I grew up hearing his name. He was always referred to either as Bouvier or Black Jack Bouvier. Whenever my father said it, there was romance and adventure, a stature and dash in the sound of his voice. It resonates in my mind’s ears to this day because it was like an oasis in the otherwise bleak and angry landscape that was my father’s life and household.

Back in the late 1920s when he was a young man and long before I was born, he had been Black Jack Bouvier’s driver. From his descriptions of the man, my childhood sensibilities forever picture a handsome figure who loved the grand, fast life. They’d race Bouvier’s Stutz Bearcat with my father at the wheel going 90 and 100 miles an hour, out to East Hampton. That’s fast today but it was a lot faster 65 years ago. To me, it was a passage out of Fitzgerald.

My father didn’t think much of the missus. He referred to her derisively, in his typically Irish way, by pronouncing her second husband’s name Ark-in-clarse. More than once he recounted that because of her there had been a fistfight, way back then, between the two men—Bouvier and Auchincloss—one night in the parking lot of the Bathing Corporation in Southampton. Bouvier won, of course. Our hero. At least in my father’s version of the story, ignoring the fact that Auchincloss got the girl. He never said “boo” about Black Jack’s peccadillos, let alone their effect on the Bouvier marriage.

I was a young man before I heard the first name of either Bouvier daughter. Jacqueline was world famous before I knew that it was her father, and not her mother, who had made a mess of the happy home she never grew up in. Coincidentally, it was at this time that I also learned that my own father had long before brought a new meaning to the word adultery. It was only natural that he would cover for the memory of his former boss.

I never knew Mrs. Onassis. I never met her, nor was I ever in the same room with her. I know a number of people who did know her, and a few who knew her well, or as well it would seem, as one could. I often heard many of these friends and acquaintances talk about her, particularly her foibles and personality, which is what almost all people like to talk about anyway. It was always interesting. The little girl voice, they said, was for the world. There was another voice, no matter how quotidian, that seemed somehow remarkable in the retelling by those who had been in her company. She was a historical person to me, rather than a real person. Therefore, I had no expectations of whom she should be or how she should act. I accepted her on her terms. I felt she was owed this considering what she’d been through. I never thought of her as saintly, as many quickly and absurdly did after John Kennedy’s death.

She was a woman who had to make sharp, tough choices in her life. Most women do, it is true, although most women don’t have to do it with the world staring at them. However, it turned out that she had a talent for publicly putting a good face on things. It was to everyone’s advantage, including the American people. It may well have been honed in that childhood of sharp dissension between her mother and father. She bore the burden, as children do, of cherishing a father who had lost control of his life and never regained it. But she was irrepressible and she had grace.

Her life had developed into a large and fascinating canvas. Her choice of Onassis as a second husband clearly articulated a certain aspect of her. As did her choice of Jack Kennedy. With Kennedy she was beautiful, and enchanting, and the world’s princess. However, with Onassis she suddenly seemed frivolous, tabloidal, the ultimate shopper. After Onassis, she transformed again. She went to work. She was a serious single parent who reared her children well. The public resumed their reverence—this time for keeps.

Unlike a lot of New Yorkers who’d seen her dozens, maybe hundreds, of times—because she was so out there despite the privacy she serenely commanded—I saw her on only three different occasions.

The first was more than 20 years ago, on Madison Avenue in the 80s on a still snowless but gray early winter’s afternoon. I was walking north when I spotted up ahead on the other side of the street a brunette woman moving quickly south through the crowd. As we reached parallel spots on the sidewalk, I recognized whom I was watching.

She was wearing Burberry belted at the waist, dark stockings and low-heeled shoes. Her gait was strong, wide, and quick. Her calves were muscular but slender and her arms swung decisively. I stopped to watch this dynamic figure who moved with such precise determination. She made a dash across the avenue to beat a changing traffic light. She darted eastward between cars with an athlete’s agility, then disappeared lickety-split down East 83rd Street towards Park. It was a powerful, astonishing presence—a pleasure to see.

The second time, about six years later, I happened to be walking by 1040 Fifth Avenue about 11:30 one morning in the springtime. A limousine was waiting next to the canopy. Traffic jammed the avenue. Everything was stopped for the light. In the lane next to the limousine, the Fifth Avenue bus was waiting to move. The billboard on the side of it had an ad for a local newspaper serial. It was a picture of JFK and the words in the big white print against a black background: “Who Really Killed JFK?” Then, as if it were a surreal scene out of a movie, his widow suddenly emerged from her building, a doorman escorting her to the waiting car with the billboard directly in her line of sight. Whether she saw it was impossible to determine. I would hope that she didn’t. But to this passerby it was a shocking reminder of her past and the memories that she had to live with.

Several years later a friend told me about going with Jackie to interview a famous singer in the hope of signing her up to write her autobiography. The singer had not given a public concert in years and Jackie asked her why. The singer started to explain that the last concert she had given many years before was outdoors in Central Park and at the time she found herself on the open-air stage fearing a sniper’s bullet from a skyline rooftop.

Suddenly she realized whom she was telling this story to. She stopped and apologized. She then recalled for the slain president’s widow what we all recall about ourselves—where she was at that moment on November 22, 1963, when the world heard the news.
Jackie said nothing and the subject passed. The conversation continued unmarred by any more awkwardness. After the meeting, the friend asked Jackie how she felt about the singer’s gaffe. Jackie confided that it was a common occurrence in her life, that strangers often would come up to her on the street to offer sympathy, always recalling where they were at that fatal moment.

“What they don’t realize,” she told her friend, “is that I also remember where I was on that day.”

Then how, the friend asked, did Jackie handle such an unconsciously insensitive assault?

“A steel door comes down before my eyes,” she replied, “and I shut it out.”

The only other time I saw her was that September. I happened to be crossing 58th Street by the Plaza Fountain; when turning to watch for oncoming cars, I noticed her coming out of the side door of Bergdorf’s, carrying shopping bags to a waiting dark emerald green Buick sedan. A driver in a light gray suit and cap was holding the car door for her. It was a private moment. He was speaking to her with a smile on his face, as if chiding her. She got into the back seat with her packages, smiling with an expression of mock guilt. There was a kindness and a sweetness in the way she looked up at him. There was none of that stony hauteur or grim self-importance that often marks the countenance of so many of her social peers when they are being served. Again, it was that natural grace.

The night of her passing someone told me a story, perhaps apocryphal, but nevertheless appropriate for the sad moment, about Nixon’s visit to China and his meeting with Mao. The two men sat next to one another in those big chairs with the big arms surrounded by their lieutenants and interpreters. The Chairman, old and infirm, stared straight ahead, still and silent. Nixon, no champion of casual conversation himself, was hard put to engage the dying dictator. He brought up the assassination of Kennedy and the effect it had on this country. Then he inquired of Chairman Mao as to how he thought things would have turned out for the world if, instead of Kennedy, Nikita Khrushchev had been killed. The sphinx-like Chinese leader sat there unblinking for several moments. Then, without turning to his guest to answer the question, he admitted that he didn’t know what the outcome might have been. But, he added, he did know one thing for sure: Mr. Onassis wouldn’t have married Mrs. Khrushchev.

It was a life like no other in this century. Millions and millions admired and related to her. Her adulthood was marked by prominent relationships that made her famous and made her rich. But neither, ironically, could have made her happy. However, she had pluck and seemed to have found happiness in her children, her work, and, eventually, in a less than traditional but very happy relationship with Maurice Tempelsman. The public could speculate, as they did, that she found a successful way to get beyond the horrors of her destiny. Perhaps that is why so many of us strangers felt the grief one feels only for a loved one. It was as if everybody had been robbed by fate—us, her family, her loved ones, and especially Jackie herself.