Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis: A mystery even to herself: She was caught between innocence and worldliness, writes Edna O'Brien of her friend who died on Friday
Sunday 22 May 1994
I first met her in the mid- Eighties when she telephoned the theatre where my play, Virginia, was in rehearsal, to ask to speak to me.
'It's probably a hoax,' the stage manager said, but no, there was the artlessly seductive voice, saying she would like to meet me; did I have the time?
Everything in her domain was perfect - the flowers, the food, the wine, the paintings, the shawls, the wonderful Egyptian figures - even, it seemed, the blaze of the fire. While she was mindful of one's needs, she also remained slightly distant, as if life was a never-ending play and she the high priestess.
Comedy was one of her trump cards. One evening we arranged to go to the cinema but the six o'clock performance was cancelled. While I was waiting for her in the pouring rain, an altercation took place between a driver and a taxi-driver, which soon developed into a fist fight. The passenger in the back seat came crawling out, asking me please to hide her in case she should be called upon as a witness. When Jackie arrived I pointed out these setbacks, to which she said, 'You know, it's not a bit like 'Talk of the Town' in the New Yorker where people feed the pigeons and tell one another neat things.' There were no taxis, so she suggested a bus, at which I balked, not least because the queues were miles long.
'I know,' she said, and led me to Bloomingdale's where a team of chauffeurs were waiting for their mistresses.
'Do you think you could take us to 1040 Fifth Avenue?' she asked one who, not sure whether to believe his eyes, hesitated, whereupon she pulled her headscarf right back and, as they say in that city, 'made his day.'
She was probably the best listener I have ever met and that attentiveness was as evident with women as with men. She sometimes teased me about my romantic inclinations and in one of our last conversations this spring, she said, 'You know, Edna, you always want the trumpets,' to which I said, 'There are only the trumpets, Jackie.' She conceded, perhaps out of courtesy. Sex was not the force that drove her; she left that to other women, women more vulnerable, women who had not the true measure of men. But she was not without a streak of mischief. After watching a woman fawn over Onassis for an entire evening, Jackie sent the woman flowers but signed Onassis's name to them.
She sustained a curiosity about everything - life, politics, friends, enemies and above all, literature. Books were nourishment to her. Writers, not politicians, were her gods. I once sent her over a copy of Zbiegniew Herbert's Still Life with Bridle and she telephoned the next morning to say she had read it and wondered if we could meet him, so that he might read some of it to us. She loved to be read to. So many of her qualities - that breathless enthusiasm, a certain giddiness late at night, a passionate love of clothes, revealed the perennial child, but the barriers she built around herself betray a woman who had espoused self-preservation from the start.
The 30-odd months at the White House were indeed her 'salad days' and she described the galas of that time with Proustian rapture. Proust would indeed have studied her, admired her and put her into his fictions. She barely mentioned the president's dalliances but she once said that she knew from the moment she met him that her life would be unbearable with him and unbearable without him.
Her marriage, contrary to all that is written, had very happy periods and in the month before Kennedy's assassination - when she had just lost an infant son - they grew closer than they had ever been. Of Onassis she spoke with warmth, stressing his capacity to bewitch any woman with his stories. She did not seem jealous but perhaps she learnt to confine that too to the ice zones. She never spoke of money although it mattered deeply to her.
Yes, life gave her diamonds as big as the Ritz, but she was also the butt of cruelty and envy. As she once advised me, the only weapon is to ignore it. Distance and distancing were central to her, not only from others but from huge parts of herself. It was what gave her that inexplicable aura. Her mystery was that she was a mystery to herself. She was caught in the gap between ingenue and empress, between innocence and worldliness.
During her illness she was uncomplaining, saying (and believing) that it was all going to be all right and 'that spring was on its way'. Except that it wasn't. For someone so determinedly serene it must have been unbearable to get up and go home to die. The face that will be remembered is not simply that of the beautiful and photogenic mask, but the face of emotional turmoil seen in her last few walks - the face of a woman who had indeed lived life and was about to live death. She drew sympathy as much as she inspired awe. Not many people succeed in doing that. It is what made her a legend.
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