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Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis: Jackie O - gilded icon and the last real Kennedy: Reggie Nadelson looks back to what lay behind the Manhattan myth

'GRANNY O', they called her in the later years. People would see her, strolling in Central Park, escorted by Maurice Tempelsman. Or playing with the grandkids. Someone said there was a sense that, with those children - Caroline's three children - she could relax. They had no claim on her past.

She had become the dowager first lady, the last American Queen, editing books, escorting the Clintons on a cruise off Cape Cod last summer, dispensing advice to Hillary on how to raise children in the White House. Jackie O had become Mrs Onassis: she would have been a sensational grande dame, the Queen Mum but with style.

She had become as much a part of New York life as Brooke Astor or Woody Allen, and Jackie sightings were reported with increasing awe and affection - a quintessential New Yorker. I once reported seeing her at a New York benefit. She shimmered, gilded like an icon, graceful, an instinctive public relations genius. People had long since stopped gossiping about whether she knew of Jack's infidelities, if Warren Beatty had once been a beau. It didn't matter. She was a survivor.

It is almost impossible to separate her from the myth of Camelot. After all, she actually invented it. After JFK's assassination, it was Jackie who told Theodore White, then writing about the President, how he liked the show and identified with it. 'Only bitter men write history,' she said. 'Jack's life had more to do with myth, legend, saga and story than with political theory or political science.' She could have been writing her own.

After Bobby Kennedy was murdered in 1968, she fled, terrified for her children, angry at America, obsessed maybe with liberating herself from the Kennedys and from her job as the sainted widow of the national martyr. Aristotle Onassis was ugly, dark and Greek. He was 30 years older, a very, very rich man who owned islands. Jackie was mercenary, it was alleged. She had betrayed everything sacred, headlines announced, and even the Vatican hinted she might be sinning in some blurry way due to some obscure peculiarity in Onassis's own divorce.

If she had married, as everyone assumed she would, some minor British aristocrat, some wealthy American businessman, she would have become just another society matron. Instead, Saint Jackie became the Scarlet Woman everybody loved to hate and wanted to see.

When it came to the children, she knew what she was doing: with cast-iron determination and the privacy Onassis's money bought, she kept them safe; everyone agrees she was a sensational mother. When JFK was assassinated, Caroline and John Jr were babies. Jackie got them through school and college. Unlike many of the 'Cousins', as the enormous brood of this generation of Kennedys are known, there has been no scandal, no rumour of drug abuse. Caroline is a lawyer, so is John Jr.

In 1975, Onassis died and Jackie went home to New York. She was extremely rich - and private.

She began a career in publishing, earning around dollars 50,000 ( pounds 33,000) a year at Doubleday. She edited books by Michael Jackson, Joseph Campbell, Andre Previn, Carly Simon, Martha Graham. There were books about India and Egypt. 'I'm drawn to books that are out of our regular experience . . . other cultures, ancient histories,' she was quoted recently in Publishers Weekly - the only interview she ever gave. She was respected as an editor who cared about the way her books looked, and for her contacts.

Mrs Onassis worked in a crowded office, ate yogurt for lunch and chatted amiably with colleagues who eventually got over their awe. She went to the ballet and opera, she rode at her country house in New Jersey's hunt country, kept horses in Virginia and spent the summer in Martha's Vineyard and Hyannis. At 64, she looked sensational; she did good works.

In the end, she liberated herself from the Kennedys and became the last real Kennedy - glamorous, desirable, mythic.