Who was this woman, this It Girl to end all It Girls? And why should it matter?
Take it from someone who never really “got” Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis: she will always matter for the same mysterious reasons that Cleopatra will forever shine in our pantheon of glam girls or, going back even further, Helen of Troy, and how about Eve?
Something about these femmes fascinantes, including Marie Antoinette, Anne Boleyn and Marilyn Monroe (oh my! those gals all stubbed up on tragic endings; does this tell us something about James Dean’s sage advice to “die young and leave a beautiful corpse”?) grabs hold of our imagination and never lets it go.
This endless interest has its obsessive side: Do we believe, perhaps, at our most superstitious core, that if we peer into the personal realm of these immortals, we’ll be given the magical gift of perfecting ourselves? Is it as simple as desperately wishing to become as irresistible as they were?
Yes, of course it is!
So here we have an opportunity, as residents of Martha’s Vineyard, to better understand the legendary Jackie O who summered on our island from the early 80’s until her death in 1994, splendidly isolated on her 375 acres in Gay Head, thus boosting her mystique, and yet who ventured out enough for us to grasp, possibly, who this iconic lady really was; giving us a chance to borrow whatever we could use of her personality, her persnickety tastes, quirks, and even flaws?
Yet what do we know?
She’s been dead for eighteen years. Everyone near and dear to her, from kith and kin to her carpet guy, has been protecting her “secrets”, i.e. any little factoid pertaining to her life, as if to blab that she loved mocha lattes with extra whipped cream will get you whacked by hired thugs from Locust Valley, Long Island.
Try asking anyone who dealt with the Divine Ms. BKO on a regular basis, from her local grocer to her hair-cutter. These keepers of the holy relic will look both ways as if listening devices are even now being discretely lowered over their shoulders.
But nonetheless, your Gossip Girl has picked up some clues to the real Jay-O along the way. Spoiler Alert: Mrs. Onassis is not only the icon in the pink Chanel suit for whom priceless Matisses were hung in her hotel suite on her first presidential visit to France. If you can bear to hear this, she was real, she was human, she was funny, and she knew how to have a good time.
First, from the get-go, she had an unquenchable New Yawk accent. Chapin School, Vassar, and embellished aristocratic lineage aside, somewhere along the line she picked up the dialect of her family’s favorite maid who herself must have grown up in Poughkeepsie. The earliest tapes of the tres elegant first lady will knock you sideways with how much “cawfy” she consumed. I submit that one of the reasons she stammered and spoke in that sexy Betsy Boop voice is that she knew that if she failed to tread carefully over each syllable, she would come off like Adelaide in Guys and Dolls, belting out “Take back your mink / Take back your poils! What made you think / That I was one of those goils?!”
Just as George VI received voice coaching for his mortifying stutter, The Supreme Jackie must have secretly and determinedly worked with a dialectician to hammer out some of those “toidy-toid” street inflections. But even listening to her later speeches (and they were rare, for obvious reasons), preserved nowadays on YouTube, you’ll hear a continuing tendency to pronounce “all” as “awl”, and somewhere a voice coach, if still living, is tearing out his or her hair – whatever is left of it.
Another Vineyard visitor recently confided to me that she’d stood behind La Onassis in line for ice cream in Menemsha. “She was beautiful and spoke softly, but she walked like a truck driver, stomp, clomp! clomp!” (Hmm, that would have been harder to carry off back in the pink-Chanel-suit-and-pillbox-hat days . . . )
Like so many other summer folks on the Island, Jackie found pleasure and relief in dressing down and acting natural. One Vineyarder spotted the doubly-widowed diva at the airport clad in “rumpled painter’s pants, plain T shirt, sandals, shades, her hair tied up in a top-knot, tendrils down.”
What?! No do-rag?!
Mostly we recognized her by her public garb: Jeans, T shirt, blue-and-white head kerchief, and movie-star black sunglasses.
Oh, a few amusing items dribbled into public domain after Jackie died, although they kept her impenetrable mystique alive: She favored pink Irish-linen sheets, her bedroom fireplace had to be lit by her butler every morning, come hell or high humidity, linen nightgowns must be ironed and set out on her counterpane each evening. The Mass RMV granted her immunity from itemizing her weight on her driver’s license, although it was universally known that she was 5’7.5 inches, and topped the scale at 122 pounds.
Jackie and her long-term boyfriend, the short, bald, pleasant-looking, unprepossing businessman Maurice Tempelsman, had been glimpsed on several occasions playing kissy face behind trees in parking lots.
The take-away from the “real” Jackie? Be who you are. Have fun at all times, whenever it’s humanly possible (not, obviously, on Air Force One, in a blood-spattered pink Chanel suit, standing beside a solemn statesman taking office). Enjoy life! Do a bunch of outdoor sports daily until the endorphins flood your brain, then kick back and read like the egg head you are!
And keep working on that hometown dialect.