Stephen Birmingham
October 19, 1981 12:00 PM

When you take the center of the stage, never let them know what you’re thinking. Always withhold something of yourself. Be aloof, mysterious. That way, you will always hold the spotlight.”

To paraphrase, that was the advice “Black Jack” Bouvier gave to his favorite daughter, Jacqueline, early in her life. Jack Bouvier was handsome, witty and family-proud. In fact, his genealogical claims were without foundation: His aristocratic family tree was a fiction concocted by his distinguished lawyer father. No matter that Black Jack was an alcoholic, a womanizer and a ne’er-do-well. He was utterly charming and utterly vain. He fretted about pearl cuff links to the bitter end, dying of liver cancer at 66. Yet Jackie followed her failed father’s instructions to the letter.

In ABC’s movie this week, Jaclyn Smith plays the Jackie we know—willful, stubborn, with a love of luxury in fashion and decor. But Smith also reveals Jackie’s mischievousness and playfulness, her insistence on being her own woman (and getting her own way), and the quiet glee she experienced as she realized (much to John F. Kennedy’s discomfort) that she was becoming a far more celebrated and popular public figure than her husband.

Ah, Jackie, what an extraordinary life she’s led. Her social-mountaineering mother, Janet, stressed discipline, manners and rising to large occasions, if not to little ones. Jackie’s extravagant father cried, “Charge it. Send it,” for anything his daughter wanted. With his own credit in disarray, the bills went to his ex-wife, who had married humorless, kindly and dull—but rich—Hugh Auchincloss, while the divorced parents tried to outdo each other in fighting for the affection of their children.

Jacqueline became a kind of royalty, in the small world of Northeast colleges, while still at Vassar. When her date, a fraternity brother of mine at Williams, became ill before a party weekend in 1948 or ’49, I became his stand-in. Jackie was not pleased with the substitution. And I was terrified of her, so we didn’t have a very successful weekend. We went to parties, a football game, a Lester Lanin dance, and I even took her to Mass. I remember it better than Jackie, who doesn’t.

Then there was her marriage. To John Kennedy, his wife’s role was intended to be purely ornamental—a pretty trinket who would prove that the President-to-be was, in addition to other worthy qualities, a family man. (He delayed announcing their engagement to give a national magazine time to publish a story calling him Washington’s most eligible bachelor.) A wife, needless to say, could also bear more Kennedy children. What he failed to realize was that Jackie suspected his motives all along, and only after he slipped a ring on her finger did he discover that she had got the best of him.

There are a number of details in the TV film that I thought no one but myself had ever noticed—such as the Bouvier family’s affected habit of pronouncing her name Frenchily, as Jack-leen (though Jackie herself never pronounced it that way). On the other hand, this production is frankly labeled an “affectionate portrait,” which means that warts are concealed behind blusher and lip gloss. If John Kennedy ever strayed from the marital straight and narrow, it is not suggested here. Of Jackie’s own fondness for long cruises and holidays without her husband there is no mention. And of course the Onassis marriage, which many of her public found grotesque—and the years of superspending that followed—are not dealt with.

So what we have instead is an exercise in beautiful nostalgia. Was Camelot really all that glorious? Perhaps not, but it’s certainly prettier, all these hard years later, to think that it was. It is prettier to forget Vietnam and the Bay of Pigs and to remember the glittering balls and the beautiful clothes, the exquisite White House dinners over which Jackie presided, the flair and youth and glamor, and more than a touch of class, that she supplied. All this might seem a frivolous accomplishment, but she did it well, including her $2 million renovation and redecoration of the White House. After all, decorating was in her genes: Her Bouvier ancestors had made a tidy 19th-century fortune selling marble mantelpieces and veneers. For one brief, shining moment, Jackie made things prettier for all of us.

The film also contains another, unexpected message. Somehow, back then in Camelot, it was all right for our First Lady to go through those gorgeous costume changes from dress to expensive dress, and it was all right to spend a fortune not on alleviating poverty but on interior design. Today, it just isn’t. We loved looking at Jackie’s wardrobe, but when Nancy appears in a five-figure frock from Jimmy Galanos the citizenry grumbles. It was all right for Jackie to spend $12,500 on antique wallpaper (it was hung in the Diplomatic Reception Room), but when Nancy wants to redo a couple of White House rooms she is pilloried. We seem to have lost that affectionate appreciation for style.

Our memories are short. Already the revisionists are at work erasing the memorials. Cape Kennedy has gone back to being Cape Canaveral. The John F. Kennedy School of Government may be renamed the Harvard School of Government. But although the times have changed, after two decades Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis remains an alluring figure. What is she really like? She gives no interviews. Though besieged with offers from publishers, she refuses to write her story. Instead, she follows her father’s fond, foolish, foppish dictum: Never let them know what you’re thinking. Be mysterious. Keep them guessing. That way they’ll never lose interest. They may not always like you. But at least they’ll never forget you.

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