By MERYL GORDON |
It has been 20 years since Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis died at age 64 of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and yet the Jackie Industry remains robust. Earlier this year, All Hallows College in Ireland made headlines by announcing plans to auction — for an estimated $1.6 million — the former first lady’s private letters to a now deceased priest, which included critical comments about her mother-in-law, Rose (“I don’t think Jack’s mother is too bright”), and anguish over her husband’s assassination (“I am so bitter against God”).
After consulting with the Kennedy family, the college canceled the auction. But publishers continue to turn out new volumes every few years that promise to offer new insights and answer the tantalizing question: What was it like to be her?
Now comes the biographer Barbara Leaming with a new book, “Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis: The Untold Story,” a follow-up to her 2001 book “Mrs. Kennedy: The Missing History of the Kennedy Years.” Robert Caro and Taylor Branch have both written multiple biographies on one compelling subject, using each volume to cover a different chronological period. But Leaming has taken the curious approach, in the first part of her new book, of revisiting her previous volume, fleshing out anecdotes, rewriting herself and at times coming up with different conclusions or emphases.
For example, in Leaming’s 2001 book, Janet Auchincloss was depicted as a critical harpy who destroyed her daughter Jacqueline Bouvier’s confidence and advised her to turn down a coveted Vogue internship. In the new book, Jackie showed up for the first day of that internship, but Vogue’s managing editor made condescending remarks that caused the young woman to flee.
Leaming is sufficiently gifted as a storyteller that the reader of this “untold story” can quite happily sail through the familiar early material about Jackie’s family background, dating life, her courtship with and marriage to John Kennedy, and the unhappy discovery of his numerous infidelities. Then the story speeds up, and the couple’s White House years are oddly truncated — the Cuban missile crisis takes up a mere two paragraphs — as Leaming races to reach the turning point that forms the rationale for this book.
Leaming’s thesis is that Jacqueline Kennedy suffered from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder after witnessing her husband’s assassination. The American Psychiatric Association did not acknowledge PTSD as a disease until 1980. Armed with the list of symptoms associated with PTSD, Leaming uses that template to examine the former first lady’s behavior in the aftermath of the assassination in 1963 until her death in 1994. The author concludes that the disease explains everything that Jacqueline Kennedy did during the next three decades: from suing William Manchester to try to halt the publication of his book “The Death of a President,” to marrying Aristotle Onassis in the hope that he could offer her safety, to taking a job as a book editor to seize control of her daily life.
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To make her case, Leaming diligently pieces together anecdotes and quotes from archival material as well as articles and books by other authors, but she does not appear to offer much new information. Although there are many people still alive who knew Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, I counted only 21 interviews in the author’s source notes that Leaming conducted herself; eight of those with people she had already quoted and cited in her earlier book.
Leaming is heavy-handed in constantly referring to PTSD in her narrative with such sentences as “Still, the greatest fear of any traumatized individual is that the instant of horror will be reprised” and “Yet, one element necessary to any trauma survivor’s course of recovery continued to be missing: a feeling of basic safety.” She compares Jacqueline Kennedy’s demotion by the press from saintly figure to gold digger after her marriage to Onassis to the experiences of New York firefighters after 9/11 who had to fight to win medical coverage for their ailments, a jarring leap to say the least.
Of course, a woman who witnessed bullets slamming into her husband’s head and was splattered with his blood and brains suffered a horrendous trauma. As a country, we knew that to be true without an official diagnosis.
Retrospectively pinning a psychiatric label on Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis may have seemed like an intriguing framework for a reconsideration of her life. But retelling the same old stories, accompanied by a cause-and-effect PTSD analysis, does not fundamentally alter our perception or enhance our understanding of how the former first lady coped and went on to live her life.
JACQUELINE BOUVIER KENNEDY ONASSIS
The Untold Story
By Barbara Leaming
Illustrated. 358 pp. Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press. $27.99.
Meryl Gordon is the director of magazine writing at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University and the author of “The Phantom of Fifth Avenue: The Mysterious Life and Scandalous Death of Heiress Huguette Clark.” She is writing a biography of Bunny Mellon.
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