The honorific "first lady of the United States" was first accorded to Dolly Madison, the erudite, charming and popular wife of our fourth president, though she earlier had acted as official White House hostess for his great friend, the widower Thomas Jefferson. Other first ladies since are recalled as embodying various permutations of their position, which is not an official office: Edith Wilson is remembered for her dubious overreaching during her husband's last, debilitating illness; Eleanor Roosevelt for her outspokenness and vigorous embrace of progressive causes; Nancy Reagan for her fierce loyalty and fashion; Laura Bush for her intelligence and dignity. Michelle Obama seems sure to leave her mark, as well.
FOR THE RECORD:
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis: In the Dec. 30 Calendar section, a review of three books about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis misspelled the name of the first woman known as first lady of the United States. She was Dolley, not Dolly, Madison, wife of President James Madison. —
Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy — later Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis — remains, however, the iconic first lady. No president's wife before or since has so dominated the public imagination, set examples for the worlds of taste and style or left such a mark on both high and popular culture. None has been so popular nor remained such a preoccupation of the press and the common imagination. So it's interesting to recall that more than a third of her life was spent as a highly productive, well-respected book editor at leading New York publishing houses.
Three new books happen to coincide with a resonant moment in the national life: When the new Congress convenes after the first of the year, it will be the first time in more than 60 years that no member of the Kennedy family has held federal office. "Dear Mrs. Kennedy: The World Shares Its Grief, Letters November 1963" by Jay Mulvaney and Paul De Angelis mines more than 800,000 condolence notes Jackie received after her husband's assassination, now archived at his presidential library. They amount to an odd, rather sentimental period piece of interest mainly to the nostalgically inclined.
William Kuhn's "Reading Jackie: Her Autobiography in Books" and Greg Lawrence's "Jackie as Editor: The Literary Life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis" are another matter because they shed new — in the latter's case, often entertaining — light on the part of this remarkable woman's life that she most clearly chose for herself. Books, writing and reading always were her private passions. She assembled several notable private libraries over the course of her life and, as Kuhn says in his introduction, her favorite works were Isak Dinesen's "Out of Africa," Colette's "Cheri" and Jean Rhys' "Wide Sargasso Sea."
Jackie also was, according to Kuhn, a talented writer who, as a college student, won Vogue's prestigious, highly competitive Prix de Paris, but was forced to decline by her mother because "[i]t was not cool for an American girl to be smart." The prize, which awarded coveted internships in the magazine's New York and Paris offices, might have rendered her less marriageable.
Still, Jackie briefly flirted with a reporter's career — she called it a "ticket to a wider world" — before marrying the then-rising young Massachusetts congressman John F. Kennedy. Kuhn and Lawrence take up the story of her life after her full-time return to New York after the death of her second husband, Greek magnate Aristotle Onassis. A longtime friend, Tom Guinzburg, offered her a consulting editorship at Viking Press, his literary publishing house. She took up the offer and quickly became a full-time editor, actively acquiring new manuscripts and fully participating in their editing and production.
A scandal involving a pot-boiling novel by British author-politician Jeffrey Archer, which envisioned an assassination plot against her former brother-in-law, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, forced her to resign, and she moved to the far more commercial Doubleday house, where her projects included numerous notable illustrated works on décor, design and fashion, as well as celebrity biographies by popular figures John Lennon and Michael Jackson. (Both Kuhn and Lawrence agree that, despite her denials to the outraged Kennedy family at that time, Jackie was aware of Archer's book before publication.)
Kuhn and Lawrence take a chronological approach to Jackie's career as an editor and agree on its significance to the overall story of her life. Kuhn is a historian, and his rather earnest account of those 19 years is burdened with the conceit that the books she published amount to the only real autobiography she ever left, apart from minor sketches from girlhood. It's a dubious proposition, given her clearly enthusiastic embrace of publishing as commerce. She was a woman who enjoyed success — her own, as well as that of those who surrounded her.