“She is indeed the prototype of the successful American woman: intelligent, beguiling, adept at stroking the male ego.”—From Stephen Birmingham’s Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis
“With few strong friendships and no loyalties, Jackie would strike out, making fun of everyone around her with a biting wit. Not even her husband was safe from her barbs. Once she complained to a neighbor: ‘He fills the house with people who are the ages of my mother’s friends, or else political jackals who drive me up the wall.’ ”
—From Kitty Kelley’s Jackie Oh!
Hers is an irresistible name, and it seems that neither her remoteness nor silence nor steadfast refusal to cooperate can stay the enterprising biographer from trading, if not trampling, on the fame of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
Currently Mrs. Onassis has every reason to feel not once but twice burned by a pair of “unauthorized biographies” climbing the best-seller lists. One is Kitty Kelley’s lurid Jackie Oh! (Lyle Stuart, $12), the other Stephen Birmingham’s fonder but still occasionally bitchy Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis (Grosset & Dunlap, $12.95). Birmingham, who at 49 is the same age as Mrs. Onassis, squeezes maximum mileage out of a nodding acquaintance that dates back three decades to debutante Jacqueline Bouvier’s coming-out party in Newport, R.I. (“The stag line perspired and panted for her,” he recalls.) Kelley, 36, a free-lance in Washington, D.C., claims only one face-to-face meeting with her subject. That came when Kelley was a hostess for VIP visitors at the New York World’s Fair in 1964 and ’65. “I liked her,” Kelley says, “because she got out of the car with a run in her stocking.”
Both authors profess sympathy for their subject, but neither is likely to dine at Mrs. Onassis’ soon. Kelley, especially, paints a portrait of Jackie as a woman of almost childlike petulance, egotistical, greedy and lacking in self-control. Kelley also reports (and speculates) on Jackie’s sex life while going into scandalous detail about Jack Kennedy’s. Birmingham treats the whole subject euphemistically.
Rebuffed in their attempts to obtain Jackie’s cooperation, both authors resorted to interviewing those supposedly in the know—more than 350 of them, Kelley asserts. She frequently felt “the nameless fear that comes from talking to people about the Kennedys,” she says. “A high government official said to me, ‘I could tell you a lot of things, but why risk it? Teddy Kennedy is still alive.’ ” In both books many remarks and anecdotes are unattributed. For example, Kelley quotes “a woman who knew both sisters [Jackie and Lee Radziwill] very well” as tattling about Jackie: “She used to say she liked before and after sex better than during.” The same source claims that Jackie’s first sexual experience was with the son of a famous novelist, and that young Miss Bouvier, “blunt as ever,” exclaimed afterward, “Oh! Is that all there is to this?” The woman admits the comment is “probably more apocryphal than authentic.”
Obviously, Kelley was not easily put off in her relentless rummaging through darkened closets. She ferreted out allegations that Jackie secretly underwent electroshock therapy when her husband was a senator, and that foreign dignitaries visiting the Kennedy White House often arrived bearing extravagant personal gifts—a $100,000 necklace from the president of Pakistan, a $75,000 leopard coat from Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie.
Kelley is nothing if not thorough in cataloguing JFK’s extramarital deportment. “I asked intimate questions,” she says, “and it was tough, especially on the telephone, to ask what this man was like in bed, but the women I talked to were very honest.” Was such research necessary? “It was very important,” Kelley insists, “because you have to establish what he was like, and what Jackie went through.” The author quotes Betty Spalding, a family friend, as saying about the Kennedys as a couple: “In their strangulated way they loved each other, but neither was able to relate to the other, and there was never any affection between them at any time. He was always quite diffident toward her.”
“Diffidence” is not the word to describe how Kitty Kelley’s associates in the Washington press corps feel about her. Their remarks are either complimentary or slanderous. Born in Spokane, Wash, and a graduate of that state’s university, she arrived in the capital in the mid-1960s. Her antiwar fervor promptly landed her a job in Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s office. A two-year stint at the Washington Post followed. Later she began to free-lance for magazines. Her most notable previous literary effort was The Glamour Spas, a book about America’s fat farms.
Kelley’s critics liken her interview technique to an ambush. One victim was ex-Florida Sen. George Smathers, a JFK intimate and the source of many of the steamiest passages in the book (including a rating of JFK as “a lousy lover—just in terms of the time he spent with a woman”). “She led me,” Smathers, a Washington lawyer, ruefully admits. “The right word is entrapment. It’s silly for a guy like me, a politician who should know better, but she had done a lot of homework.”
In contrast to Kelley’s zingers—one a chapter, she boasts—Birmingham writes like a man smitten with a myth. As befits a chronicler of America’s rich and powerful (“Our Crowd,” The Right People), he analyzes the private Jackie from an upper-crust perspective, rarely dwelling upon her indiscretions or peccadilloes. Birmingham finds her gracious, human, not sexy but “exceptionally female.” The two Jackies that emerge from these books bear little resemblance to each other.
Perhaps Birmingham’s portrait was inevitable, given his background. Connecticut-born and educated at Williams College, he denies being a member of the moneyed elite but certainly travels easily in that crowd (he knew Ari better than he knew Jackie). One of his complaints about the Bouvier family is that they long claimed to be descended from French aristocracy. The ancestor, says Birmingham, was concocted by Jacqueline’s status-seeking grandfather, who printed a bogus genealogy. “Jackie was brought up believing that Grampy’s book was gospel,” and that, Birmingham believes, did much to shape her regal attitudes and style.
Though he goes about it more discreetly, Birmingham concurs that neither JFK nor Aristotle Onassis, for all their power and wealth, qualified as a model husband. Of Onassis he says, “For a while he spoiled her, lavished things on her, all kinds of jewels, an enormous expense account for clothes. A lot of people say she is money grubbing. Gosh, we all like money.”
On specific points as well as on interpretation, he and Kelley often differ. Did old Joseph Kennedy offer his daughter-in-law $1 million to stay with Jack when their marriage became shaky? “Probably,” Birmingham implies. “No basis in fact,” says Kelley. Was there a formal marriage contract between Jackie and Ari? Birmingham again says “Yes.” Kelley says “No.”
Such contradictions suggest that the last word has hardly been written about Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. “It isn’t that everyone admires or envies her all that much,” Birmingham says, “but Jackie keeps us curious. That is her secret.”
Kitty Kelley: Blond, petite and feared
The phone rings incessantly now at Kitty Kelley’s Washington duplex. Many of the callers are well-wishers who have just read Jackie Oh! Some ask incredulously, “Where the hell did you get that information?” Kelley makes a face and mumbles, “Mmmmmmmmm.”
Her petite figure (she stands 5’3″) and little-girl manners notwithstanding, many important Washingtonians are quite wary of her. In the past she has gained notoriety as the source of leaks about other authors’ books, including Woodward and Bernstein’s The Final Days and Barbara Howar’s Laughing All the Way. In the latter case, Kelley claimed she found the manuscript tucked carelessly in a drawer of a $10 table at Howar’s garage sale. Some of her press colleagues mumbled, “Mmmmmmmmm.”
A lawyer’s daughter (and wife of Michael Edgley, a media director of the National Council on the Aging), Kelley admits she is a compulsive note-taker but bristles at being called a snoop. “There was lots I didn’t use which might be more interesting than what is in Jackie Oh!,” she says. “I tried to talk to everybody, but I also tried to stay away from outrageous rumors.” Whatever discomfort her book has caused some attributed sources, none to date has publicly accused her of misquoting.
Among those she talked with are Jackie’s mother and other members of her family, her first fiancée and former Kennedy staffers including Pierre Salinger. Among men who know Jackie very well today, the consensus is, as Kelley sums it up: “The will is strong, and the flesh isn’t weak.”
Once the furor over Jackie Oh! subsides, Kelley would like to write a novel. “Of course,” she laughs, “some people think I already write fiction.”
Stephen Birmingham: Part of her crowd
Stephen Birmingham first became aware of Jacqueline Bouvier when both of them attended private schools in Connecticut. She was a legend among the preppies even then. Though his ties have always been peripheral, Birmingham admits he has been smitten with Jackie ever since.
Earlier this year he was at a New York book party for Pete Hamill, the writer who is among Mrs. Onassis’ recent escorts. Her entrance at that gathering, Birmingham says, was “like the parting of the Red Sea. Cameras appeared out of nowhere, and she looked absolutely radiant with that incredible smile. She photographs even more beautiful than she actually is. Meanwhile, those sophisticated New Yorkers were making comments like ‘Her feet are too big’ and ‘It looks like she bites her fingernails.’
“What I tried to do in my book,” he says, “was not only to analyze her somewhat elusive character but to analyze the phenomenon—why she continues to fascinate us. It’s the way she handles herself. She lets us see only so much. Jack Bouvier’s advice to his daughter was, ‘Don’t throw yourself at a man. Hold back. That tantalizes, that excites.’ ”
Birmingham’s book is long on interpretation and short on new details, though he does reveal that Jackie drives a BMW and sees her therapist once a week. He says her marriage to Onassis was not happy toward the end. “He was pretty much fed up with her, I think, and she was fed up with him.”
The author moved to Cincinnati in 1974 to be writer-in-residence at the city’s university for two years and continues to live there. He is divorced and his three children are grown. In Cincinnati Birmingham shares a four-story townhouse with a practicing psychologist.
His next—and 16th—book will be on the Dakota, an elegant, historic New York City apartment house (where the movie Rosemary’s Baby was filmed). Of his 15th book, he says plaintively, “I think if Jackie reads it, she’ll like it.”