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

LIKE many legendary people Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was a creature of paradoxes. While being private and immured she also had a hunger for intimacy - it was as if the barriers she had put up needed at times to be battered down. Likewise, the frail and glamorous creature loved riding and her favourite horse, Frank, was wild and often threw her. She also had wildness, but she mastered it.

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.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
tv
Sport
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Voices
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
music
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvName confirmed for third series
Sport
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
art
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine