Memories are made of this

A glamour queen, a fabulously rich tycoon many years older, holidays on a luxury yacht in the Med. Sound familiar? Reggie Nadelson recalls when Jackie Kennedy went sailing with Aristotle Onassis
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The Independent Online
Consider a modern fairy-tale: Once upon a time a beautiful woman, still young, still vibrant, a woman once married to the leader of her country, is spotted on a huge yacht off the southern coast of France in the company of the man who will be her second husband. It is his yacht. He is rich and powerful and foreign. He is decades older than she is; he is also shorter. Her in-laws purse their lips and lift their eyebrows. The press pursues her with ruthless ferocity; she tries to keep them away from her two children who are also with her on this yacht in the Med where she is sometimes spotted.

There is no respite for our glamour queen, though, and it's not clear that she really wants it as she toys with the press: now angry, her privacy invaded; now a coquette, promising revelations. This is not just some society beauty, either, not just a Jet Set Superstar. She is the most photographed woman in the world. She is a national icon. An international totem. Her possessions sell at auction for millions. Diana, Princess of Wales? Or Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis?

I look at the pictures of the Princess of Wales and Mohamed Al Fayed on his yacht, and I can't help it, I'm reminded of Jackie Kennedy and Aristotle Onassis. I know, of course, that Al Fayed is happily married, and Diana is a guest of his wife's; but there are visual echoes. In October 1968, Jackie Kennedy, the widowed Queen of Camelot married, depending how you saw it, a prince or a toad. Aristotle Onassis was rich and powerful and foreign, and the world of big boats seemed his natural habitat. If you glimpsed Jackie and Ari, even before they married, they were always on his yacht somewhere in the blue Mediterranean.

Remember the yacht, the Christina? The El Grecos? The amphibious plane? The bar-stools made of, was it whale testicles? Onassis had the kind of money Jackie needed, not just to maintain her 30 grand a year habit in undies, but to make her safe and, as she saw it, free. And Onassis, at first, at least, was solicitous. He was fun.

You see the pictures of Diana on the yacht, laughing, swimming, posing, hiding, the older man hovering nearby, helpful, smiling. Like Jackie, Diana is the most photographed woman alive, the most famous, the most desired. Like her, she has two children she adores.

Diana is roughly the same age Jackie Kennedy was when she was widowed. Like Jackie, Diana is the child of divorce and the orphan of a miserable marriage. Jackie Kennedy was well educated and well travelled, it's true. But she grew up in the Thirties and Forties and, like other upper-class girls, like Diana 30 years later, in fact, she was raised to marry and breed.

Both women found that, having won first prize, they had husbands who wandered. Worse, they'd bought into vast political dynasties, each with its own complicated rituals; Jackie hated the Kennedy passion for competitive sports, the touch football at Hyannis, the culture which preferred sport to art. Like the British Royals, it was a clan ruled by a requiring matriarch: Rose was queen of the Kennedys. Like the British Royals she deeply admired from the time her husband, Joe Kennedy, was ambassador to Britain, Rose was obsessed with family and form.

Jackie's marriage to JFK "was made miserable by his obsessive womanising," wrote Godfrey Hodgson in an obituary. "Even more difficult was the way she found herself emotionally excluded by the clannish rituals of the Kennedy family."

Jackie stayed with JFK because, as much as anything, she had her own ambitions, her own agenda. Being First Lady made her famous. Gave her a canvas to develop her style. Being widowed made her a myth. By the late Sixties, Jackie was all things to all people: mommy to the presidential children; style saint; charity dame; chatelaine of the nation's emotional centre.

Marry Onassis? Break faith with the martyred president? Show a crack in the iconic facade? Would our queen betray Camelot for mammon, we wondered? The thing that pushed her to do it, to leave her country, though, and this is perhaps the real difference to a Diana, is that she was frightened. When Jack Kennedy was murdered in 1963, she was scared. When Bobby Kennedy was murdered in 1968, she was scared to death.

"They're killing Kennedys," she said. "I hate this country," she exclaimed the day after Bobby's funeral. "I despise America and I don't want my children to live here any more. If they're killing Kennedys, my kids are number one targets ... I want to get out of this country."

The bride wore Valentino. The groom wore elevator shoes, although he still only came up to her nose. When Onassis married Jackie Kennedy, he was 62 (or possibly 68, the birthdate was never really clear). He was very, very rich. Very foreign. Some people said he bought and sold politicians and by-passed both the conventions and the laws of a dozen countries.

Back in those relatively innocent times, the world didn't just raise its communal eyebrows at the marriage, the planet spun off its axis, and even in space, astronauts shook their orbital heads in disbelief. How could she?!

"The Reaction Here is Anger, Shock and Dismay", cried The New York Times, and there was worse: "America Has Lost a Saint. Jack Kennedy Dies Today for a Second Time".

Looking back, though, it was the only possible marriage she could make unless she wanted to freeze to death on her pedestal.

"Jackie you're going to fall off your pedestal if you marry him," a friend said. She replied: "That's better than freezing there."

I see Diana and think of Jackie. It seems like deja vu.

And what about the guys? What about these rich, beguiling foreign men? Have we a clue here to the kind of man Diana might eventually choose? Like Aristotle Onassis, Mohamed Al Fayed is very rich. Onassis grew up in Smyrna, an ancient, thriving port town; Al Fayed comes from Alexandria, in the commercial centre. The Onassis family lost its money when the Turks captured Smyrna and murdered most of his clan and, at 16, he set off for Argentina where he made a fortune first in tobacco, then in supertankers. From the Fifties on, there were various allegations about improprieties in business, but Onassis was too rich, too well connected. Another snapshot from his yacht was of Kennedys and kings and the hulk that was Winston Churchill, by then, parked on deck.

Onassis built his fortune and his legend. Mohamed Al Fayed's father was a schoolteacher and he, too, much in the way of presidents and royals, perhaps embellished his myth; part of its dazzle is in the legendary hospitality of the man who owns the Ritz in Paris and Harrods in London, who hangs out with the Queen at the Royal Windsor Horse Show. He gives tons of money to charity. In private, it's said he can be very funny.

Al Fayed, as everyone knows, has been linked to recent political scandal, one way and another, but all he ever wanted, it seems, was a British passport. Wants its legitimacy, as he sees it. And why not? Even Onassis was taken with the British Idea.

"The person Onassis wanted to marry," said one source, "was Queen Elizabeth. She would have been the top, but he couldn't have her. So he settled for Jackie."

And it made her. She fought her in-laws - the Kennedys begged her not to marry Onassis - and won, the way Diana would win her battles with her husband's relatives decades later. Asked his opinion of Jackie Kennedy not long before they married, Onassis said, "She is a totally misunderstood woman. Perhaps she even misunderstands herself. She's being held up as a model of propriety, constancy and so many of those boring American female virtues ... She needs a small scandal to bring her alive. A peccadillo, an indiscretion. Something should happen to her to win our fresh compassion. The world loves to pity fallen grandeur."

If Jackie Kennedy had remained the national widow, she would have withered. If she had married an approved suitor - Lord Harlech, for instance, as was rumoured, or an American banker - she would have become merely another upper-class society hausfrau.

Jackie wanted more. She had dazzling style. She wanted freedom and privacy, wanted to control her publicity, and that took money. She liked money. Liked lots of it. The Kennedys kept her on a short leash and short of cash. Onassis pampered her. Onassis took her dancing at New York nightspots with Nureyev and Fonteyn. He paid attention to her kids. He gave her big jewellery and probably some big laughs.

Marrying Onassis, most of all, kept the myth of Jackie alive, and Jackie always believed in myth. After all, it was Jackie who re-invented JFK's presidency as Camelot. (After his death, she mentioned to a reporter that it was his favourite musical and made the connection with the Kennedy years at the White House.)

Marrying Onassis made Jackie Kennedy, widow, into Jackie O. She became the Beautiful People's Beautiful Person. She could breathe out and be a bad girl, the "American Geisha" as Truman Capote called her. "Everyone knew she was not cut out for dignity," said Coco Chanel. "You mustn't ask a woman with a touch of vulgarity to spend the rest of her life with a corpse."

Remember the image? The headscarf and dark glasses, the capri pants and Hermes bag? Jackie O was always stepping on to a yacht or off a private plane. We hated her. She became the bad Queen. We hated her for a while, but we thought about her all the time.