Is this book ever actually going to become available at the library?
I am so glad Barbara Leaming wrote this book. I am pleased as well to be the first CPL reader to recommend it; an in-depth examination of the inner life of the former First Lady of "Camelot," Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. (Wonderful cover photo, too btw... a young Jackie Kennedy warily regarding us from over her shoulder seems quite fitting given the tone of the book.)
Some years ago I read an engrossing biography about another famous beauty, "If This Was Happiness," Leaming's analysis of the turbulent and troubled off-screen life of the glamorous film siren Rita Hayworth. Like that book, this one pulls back the curtain to reveal the all-too vulnerable flesh and blood woman behind the dazzling, iconic face.
Everyone knows--and those of us old enough to remember know in a particularly visceral way--what happened to President John F. Kennedy on that sunny, dreadful day in Dallas in November 1963. But damned few of us understood (or truly wanted to know) what happened to the woman sitting next to him in that car when the bullets struck and the world changed.
Barbara Leaming examines with precision and compassion the horror that overwhelmed and enveloped JFK's young widow, a trauma that dogged her every waking moment and even invaded her dreams, causing her to question her sanity and bringing her close to suicide. The American people, and people all over the world, admired Jacqueline Kennedy's calm stoicism in the dark days and weeks following her husband's murder. They depended upon it, and she became an instant icon of grace and dignity in the face of unimaginable tragedy.
But few people, even those within Jacqueline's protective circle of family and friends--even her grief-struck Kennedy in-laws--really understood what she was going through, although she tried repeatedly, compulsively, to tell them. (Bobby, seeking Jacqueline's help first in the '64 Senate race and again in the '68 Presidential elections, became impatient with her inability to shake off her depression; in his frustration he began privately referring to her as "my crazy sister-in-law.")
Only former Prime Minister of Britain Harold Macmillan, who had been wounded three times in World War I, grasped the depths of her suffering and sense of isolation. (For a time, the thought of ending her life actually comforted Jacqueline, convinced as she was that her pain made her useless to her children, John and Caroline.)
Though in middle age she would finally seek the therapy she'd always needed--an undertaking which, combined with an independent new life as a working woman, would help her regain some sense of safety and control--to some degree the trauma remained with Jacqueline Onassis to the very end of her life. We learn here that, like many survivors of extreme and shocking violence, from battered wives to war veterans, Jacqueline was struggling with a condition that would only later be recognized as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a categorization of mental and emotional illness unknown back in 1963.
Jacqueline Onassis was the Princess Diana of her day. I was a teenager (about the same age as Jacqueline's daughter Caroline) when I became aware of a phenomenon called "Jackie watching," in which she was hounded and pursued by photographers now known as paparazzi. The most famous and relentless of these was Ron Galella, whose daily flashbulb ambushes exacerbated Jacqueline's anxieties and heightened her feelings of ever-present danger.
But because the public face captured in these photos seemed so regally cool and collected behind the ubiquitous sunglasses, I was convinced she was unfazed by the attention, perhaps even enjoying it, in that resigned, world-weary way of the Very, Very Famous.
I was wrong. Barbara Leaming's important and heart-wrenching book has given me a new sympathy, respect and yes, admiration for the woman once known, sometimes derisively, as Jackie O.
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