Jackie as Editor: The Literary Life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis
Below are reviews from the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, and praise from one of Jackie's former Doubleday colleagues, author Harriet Rubin.
"For Jackie Kennedy Onassis, the role of editor was just another version of her role as America's muse. She created the Camelot story in the JFK histories, and years later she wrought the same magic upon the books she edited. I kept wondering as I read Greg Lawrence's book what Mrs. O would have made of this delicious biography. This is a great story about a woman who had everything--men, money, power--and all she wanted was more to read. I bet she would have loved Jackie as Editor. Every book lover and fan of Jackie will be caught in its magic.
--Harriet Rubin, author, The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women and Dante in Love
WALL STREET JOURNAL
DECEMBER 18, 2010
Rewriting Her Legacy
It's hard to imagine that there's more to say about the extraordinary life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, but it turns out that there is: Two dueling books tell the story of the last third of her life spent as a literary editor in New York, with JFK and Ari just ghostly presences in the background.
William Kuhn's "Reading Jackie" and Greg Lawrence's "Jackie as Editor" are seemingly the same book—chronological accounts of her 19-year career at the publishers Viking and Doubleday—but they are actually very different. Mr. Kuhn's is heavy on hagiography and analysis, Mr. Lawrence's is an energetically reported and crisply written story of a whip-smart, middle-age working woman who marshaled wits, charm, steely will and, of course, unmatched connections to make a new life for herself.
In 1975, Jackie (as both authors choose to call her) found herself stranded in a 15-room Fifth Avenue apartment overlooking the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York after the death of her second husband, the coarse billionaire Aristotle Onassis. Two debonair godfathers rescued her from idleness and depression. The first was Tom Guinzburg, an old friend who had inherited Viking from his father and who invited Jackie to be a consulting editor for $10,000 a year. When that job ended badly, John Sargent, another charmer, brought her to Doubleday, where she had a long and productive run.
The question about Mrs. Onassis's career has always been whether she was a serious editor or just an ethereal beauty wafting around town from authors' lunches in the Grill Room of the Four Seasons (where she liked to sit in the Siberian balcony) to chic book parties. Mr. Kuhn and Mr. Lawrence make it clear that she was a tireless and imaginative acquirer of compelling if sometimes esoteric books, an editor who nurtured her writers and fought like a lioness for her projects with the suits on the business side.
Over the years, her lists reflected a taste for aristocracy. She published exquisitely illustrated books about Versailles and stylish accounts of Louis XIV and life in the French courts. She did the same for the Romanovs, Mughal India, Stanford White's New York architecture and George Catlin's drawings of North American Indians. There was expensive fluff, too: Six coffee-table books glorifying Tiffany (Fifth Avenue, not Louis Comfort).
She had her best sellers, although neither Mr. Lawrence nor Mr. Kuhn manages to give many sales figures for her titles. She inspired Barbara Chase-Riboud to write a smash novel about Thomas Jefferson's slave consort, SallyHemings. The tell-all memoir by the drug-addicted ballerina Gelsey Kirkland, "Dancing on My Grave," was a winner, too, as was Bill Moyers's transcribed TV conversations with mythologist Joseph Campbell. She could be commercial, lavishing years (and several ghosts) on "Moonwalk," a Michael Jackson extravaganza with a feeble text. "Do you think he likes girls?" she archly asked a colleague after yet another weird visit to the King of Pop.
By William Kuhn
Doubleday, 350 pages, $27.95
Mr. Kuhn's conceit in "Reading Jackie" is that the opaque story of the last part of her life can be revealed by glossing her publishing output. This is valid enough, but the result can be ponderous. Discussing a Jackie book about presidential wives, Mr. Kuhn reflects that colonial women were often involved in printing and news paper work and adds: "[So] to have joined Viking was less a new departure than a return to an earlier tradition. That must have appealed to a woman as history-minded as Jackie." Still, he does provide a priceless glimpse of Mrs. Onassis exclaiming "Oy vey!" as she wrestles with files on the floor of her tiny Viking office.
Mr. Lawrence's book is full of vivid anecdotes evoking what it was like to be one of Jackie's colleagues or authors—or her boss. He gives a detailed account of the worst moment in her publishing life: when she quit Viking after Tom Guinzburg put out a potboiler by Jeffrey Archer in which President Ted Kennedy is the target of an assassination attempt. Mr. Kuhn kisses off this episode in a page. Mr. Lawrence shows convincingly that it was only after the Kennedy family erupted and she was rebuked in a snarky New York Times review that Mrs. Onassis claimed to be victimized by Mr. Guinzburg and quit the house.
Jackie rarely line-edited her titles, but Mr. Lawrence has got hold of original manuscripts and editor's letters documenting her close reading and perceptive questions and observations. She directed several authors to cut their books in half and had no trouble telling a master like Louis Auchincloss, the blue-blooded chronicler of New York and 18th-century French society, to liven things up. "Could you get a little more air flowing through it in places where information is more tightly packed?" she gently prods. "Could we have some lovely stories, some waspish stories?" She chastised another author: "You know, you remind me of those little terrier dogs at fox hunts. . . . They're just so nervous and anxious to please."
Jackie as Editor
By Greg Lawrence
St. Martins, 320 pages, $25.99
Even so, both books are full of testimonials by writers of all sorts to her solicitousness and dedication, her mania for the quality production of her books and her faultless manners. Time and again, her calls to incredulous writers to solicit material ("This is Jacqueline Onassis. and I'd like to talk to you about . . . ") would be met by "And I'm the Queen of Sheba" or hang-ups. She'd cheerfully call back and breezily accept their apologies. "It happens all the time," she'd say with a giggle.
She certainly understood journalism. She once told Gelsey Kirkland: "When Jack and I were in the White House, it was Camelot to everyone. . . . After I married Ari, I was the traitor. . . . And now, suddenly, I'm the world's greatest mother!"
Mrs. Onassis was in full stride as a $100,000-a-year productive editor but was feeling rotten in early 1994 when she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Keeping the dire nature of her illness as secret as she could, she worked through four courses of chemotherapy in a matter of months. When she died in May, her career as an editor had lasted longer than either of the marriages that had made her a legend.
—Mr. Kosner is the author of "It's News to Me," a memoir of his career as the editor of Newsweek, New York magazine, Esquire, and the Daily News.
Copyright 2010 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved
Writing in the Washington Post's Book World on December 20, 2010, publishing industry veteran and author Joseph Kanon compared Jackie as Editor with Reading Jackie, suggesting that William Kuhn "finds, for instance, that by encouraging Barbara Chase-Riboud to write her novel about Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson's mistress, Jackie might have been revealing that 'she was more sympathetic to the dependent position of the [Kennedy] mistresses than to the supposed injury done to her marriage.' Really? Or how about, 'If her books of photography were about exploring beauty, her books on ballet were about exploring her body.' Come again?..."
"Lawrence, who has worked with show business figures other than Kirkland (Donna McKechnie, Kander and Ebb), at least has a better grasp of what's needed here - not overreaching theory, but the high gossip of the celebrity profile. What did she wear to work? What did she eat? What did she really think of Michael Jackson? He is particularly good on the early Viking years because he talked to the junior staff (as Kuhn did not), who always notice everything. Though both books draw on many of the same sources, Lawrence gives us a more detailed (and interesting) look at Jackie's day-to-day office life. He takes us to lunch with her."
From Kirkus Reviews, October 15, 2010:
One of Jacqueline Onassis’s authors dishes kindly on her impressive editorial record....this book fleshes out the editorial career of the enigmatic icon who was the subject of inflated tabloid coverage throughout much of her life yet who proved in her later years to be a surprisingly humble, hardworking team player, first at Viking, then Doubleday. Lawrence co-authored three titles for Onassis during her era at Doubleday, including her first bestseller, Dancing on My Grave (1986), written with his then-wife, ballet dancer Gelsey Kirkland. As one of her authors, Lawrence had unique access to Onassis, and he depicts how determined, tenacious and loyal she could be—especially as the book was criticized for its “salacious material,” yet “generated a heartfelt response from dancers.” Onassis proudly “felt she got it right.”
....Lawrence lets rip the first-person reminiscences from those who knew and worked with her, such as Viking publisher Thomas Guinzburg, who first hired her in 1975 and fell out with her over the acquisition of Jeffrey Archer’s controversial thriller Shall We Tell the President? (1977); her various assistants, who shielded her from the hounding of importunate callers and who gush about her work style; and various collaborators of her books (e.g., Louis Auchincloss, also her distant cousin) who were disarmed by her low-key, politely inquiring manner and ready wit. Indeed, nobody says a mean word about this former First Lady who did her job well, holding on at Doubleday despite the seismic corporate changes. Lawrence demonstrates how Onassis grew in confidence and professional stature in promoting books and authors she truly cared about...a deeply admiring portrait of a lady the world is just now getting to know.
8-page black-and-white insert. Agent: Peter Sawyer/Fifi Oscard Agency
From Publishers Weekly:
Charting J acquel ine Kennedy Onassis's impressive legacy as an editor at Viking and Doubleday, Lawrence draws on a wealth ofsources, including interviews with more than 125 of her form er publishing collaborators, and hundreds of notes left to the author by Onassis. He was also one of her authors, co-writing three books wirh his former wife, ballerina Gelsey Kirkland (including the controversial bestseller Dancing on My Grave). Onassis learned the hard lessons ofed it ing early on: from Barbara Chase-Riboud, author of the novel Sally Hemings, that the best authors are those will ing to be edited, and from Michael Jackson, the frustration ofworking with an enigmatic celebrity. This Onassis appreciation appears almost simul taneously with William Kuhn's mislead ingly titled Reading Jackie: Her Autobiography in Books, and while both will appeal primarily to publishing and media insiders, Lawrence's perceptive, impressively researched, book is the better of the two, presenting a woman wirh "a g rand spirit of adventure and...a sense of irony about life that served as a kind of armor" for this courageous, gifted woman.