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'How Remarkable . . . to Have Lived Such a Life' : Remembering Jackie: Elegance, stoicism and courage.

May 23, 1994|STEVE WASSERMAN | Steve Wasserman is editorial director of Times Books, a division of Random House; he was formerly a Los Angeles Times articles editor

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis will be remembered by most Americans as the remarkable First Lady she was: elegant, beautiful, stoic. By any measure she

was a heroic woman, and the trajectory of her life compels our respect. I shall remember her, however, less for her public persona than for her private accomplishments, first and foremost as an editor for many years for Doubleday. For it was in that rather invisible capacity that the republic of letters had a most passionate tribune.

I first met Jackie, as she insisted I call her, four years ago, soon after I became, briefly, executive editor of Doubleday. One fall day, she asked me to meet with her in her office. She wanted to know what books I was reading and what books I might suggest she read. Her voice was a beguiling rush of breath as we spoke of favorite authors, the sorry state of literacy in America, the decline of generosity in the country's political culture.

I was charmed. The most famous woman in the world was utterly without pretension, her commitment to ideas and culture serious and sincere. This was a side unknown to most people, despite the best efforts of the tabloid press to pruriently expose every aspect of this very private woman. But, as ever, Jackie--as she had so indelibly demonstrated in the aftermath of John F. Kennedy's assassination 31 years ago--conducted herself with consummate grace and dignity. Except for a brief interview given to the editor of Publisher's Weekly, she never spoke to the press. But for authors and the book-besotted, she had all the time in the world.

Her interests were eclectic. I envied her range. Among the books she edited were Michael Jackson's enormously successful "Moonwalk"; "The Empire of the Czar: A Journey Through Eternal Russia" by the 19th-Century French aristocrat, the Marquis de Custine; "The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier" by Jakob Walter ("the only account," she wrote me, "of a common soldier in the Napoleonic wars"), and "I Remember Balanchine," a biography of one of the surpassing artists of the 20th Century.

Her taste, dedication and commercial savvy commanded respect from her colleagues. One day at lunch, over scallop salads, we talked shop. But, as was usually the case with any conversation with Jackie, one thing inevitably led to another and we found ourselves plunged deeply into a dissection of the country's propensity toward violence, the fracturing of the social consensus, the erosion of citizenship. Suddenly, she turned to me, and putting a slender hand upon my arm, she said, "Tell me, Steve, where did it all go wrong?" She was silent for a moment and then answered her own question. "It was Vietnam, wasn't it?" I didn't disagree. And then we traced the slippery slope that somehow had led from Vietnam to the films of Arnold Schwarzenegger--movies she refused to see. "I loathe," she said, "everything he stands for."

In our most recent conversation, she asked what I was publishing. I mentioned a collection of the best of Murray Kempton ("Jack had loved reading him in the New Republic," she said), and a wonderfully inspiring biography of Nellie Bly, the turn-of-the-century daredevil, reporter and feminist. Like many people, Jackie dimly recalled the name as part of a popular ditty, nothing more. She was surprised to learn that, at one time, Nellie Bly was perhaps the most celebrated woman in America. Her feats of personal courage and social conscience were peerless. She was an extraordinary inventor of her own life.

Jackie sighed and said, "How remarkable, don't you think, to have lived such a life. It is how I would have liked to live my own."

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