Obituary: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis
Saturday 21 May 1994
JACQUELINE ONASSIS was first tempted into the world of books in 1975 by Tom Guinzberg, at Viking Press in New York, writes Ion Trewin. But she resigned when he published (without telling her, she later insisted), a thriller by Jeffrey Archer, Shall We Tell the President? (1977), in which her brother-in-law Edward Kennedy featured. Her publishing career truly flowered when she joined another well-established New York house, Doubleday.
The Jacqueline Onassis imprint was an entirely personal list. Only books which she enthused about would carry her imprimatur. But there was nothing self-indulgent in her publishing. Books had to have a commercial raison d'etre as well.
Her greatest success was probably the most unlikely - the rockstar Michael Jackson's autobiographical book Moonwalk, which sold over a million copies in English-language editions. Then in 1991 she contracted to publish the first post-glasnost biography of the last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, by a distinguished Russian playwright, Edvard Radzinsky. As the English publisher of The Last Tsar, I collaborated with Mrs Onassis - as she preferred to be known professionally - and I remember with almost photographic recall our first meeting. I think I had expected an enormous office - with staff to match.
Instead I was led to a simple cubicle. Her assistant knocked at the open door as we entered. She looked up and the years slipped away. With glasses pushed up and back over her hair, only a few lines in her face betrayed the years that had passed since she had been the most photographed woman of her generation.
I had brought photographs from the archive of Sydney Gibbes, who had been English tutor to Alexis, the only son of Nicholas II. Glass plate negatives at Luton Hoo had yielded photographs of the last years of the Romanovs which she had not seen before. We spent a morning discussing their merits and the captions. This was trans- Atlantic publishing co-operation at its best. We provided photographs, she offered to produce a map of Tsarist Russia, and jointly we edited a script that turned into a modern classic.
Her publishing talent and enthusiasm lives on: books by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and Carly Simon and, to mark the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Paris in 1944, an account by the historians Artemis Cooper and Antony Beevor.
AUTHORS were very fortunate to have Jackie Onassis as their editor, write Antony Beevor and Artemis Cooper. Many who knew nothing of her work thought that she was just a figurehead at Doubleday. Such an assumption did her a grave injustice. Celebrity books, such as her persuading Michael Jackson to write Moonwalk, were not typical. She concentrated on what she knew and liked best, and was unafraid of controversy, as her support for the ballerina Gelsey Kirkland's book Dancing on my Grave showed.
Her interest in the production of books was fastidious, and she was always determined to get the best out of designers. Respecting their foibles, she wrote that 'doing a cover here is like the Japanese tea ceremony'.
We were particularly lucky that her love for France, stimulated there as a student in the post-war years, made her so enthusiastic about our project Paris After the Liberation. She had known a number of the characters in our story, mainly through the parties given by the writer Louise de Vilmorin at Verrieres. Her encouragement and judgement meant a great deal, especially during the last phase when all writers are at their most nervous. We finished the last chapter, in many ways the most important of the book, completely exhausted and disorientated. It was a failure, and we had no idea of how to resolve the problem. With great tact and subtlety, Jackie Onassis indicated exactly what was needed to bring the whole book together.
It is easy to understand how she became such a focus and figure of trust for the rest of her extended family, especially in the way she cared for the children of her younger half-sister, Janet Auchincloss Rutherford, after her tragic death from lung cancer in 1985 at the age of 38. Jackie Onassis provided total trust and confidence for many friends as well as her own relatives. She wrote apropos another book: 'I think that one of the finest things one can do in life is create a loved house that shelters generations and gives them memories to build on.' In the last few weeks, she made no complaint of what she was going through. She wrote to a close friend in Paris very recently. Dismissing 'one's boring little medical routine', she went on to describe with relish a party for her grandchildren.
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