How Jackie Kennedy Became a Powerful Book Editor After Leaving the White House
Early one September morning in 1975, a 46-year-old woman busied herself preparing to go in for the first day of a brand-new job. She boiled an egg, saw her teenage son out the door to Collegiate School, donned a conservative gray shirt dress, and caught a taxi outside her 1040 Fifth Avenue apartment for
Jacqueline Bouvier worked for the Washington
Times-Herald as an "inquiring camera girl" prior to being First Lady.
When that cab pulled up outside 625 Madison Avenue, it looked like a riot was erupting. Every reporter and photographer in town
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was reporting for her first day of paying work since 1953, when she was an unmarried “inquiring camera girl” for the Washington Times-Herald, dating a tousled-hair congressman from Massachusetts.
Jackie Kennedy Onassis
“It was a circus, of course, because of who she was,” said Thomas Guinzburg, president of Viking, of Jackie’s first day, according to Sarah Bradford’s biography America’s Queen: The Life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. “There were bomb threats, security people, press people dressed up as messengers.”
There was an unwritten law among all of us at Doubleday—that we would never publicly discuss Jackie.
Although today many of us are aware that Jackie worked as a book editor in the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s, the extent of her commitment—and her devotion to the world of books—is not as well known. She acquired nearly 100 works of fiction and nonfiction over 19 years, working as an editor continuously until her death, nurturing many authors and even reading their manuscripts and sending notes while receiving treatment for cancer in the advanced stages.
Steve Rubin, the head of Doubleday, the second publishing house Jackie worked for, wrote, “There was an unwritten law among all of us at Doubleday—that we would never publicly discuss Jackie. The genesis of this posture was nothing more than a desire to shield her, but the flip side of this protective gesture was the fact that few people understood how committed and talented she was at the work she chose to do.”
It was not a career easily chosen, and in the
Jackie’s life after the White House has received much attention in the last year, with Jackie, in which she was portrayed by Natalie Portman coping with her first years of widowhood, followed by Katie Holmes’ turn in the TV miniseries The Kennedys after Camelot. Her actual experiences as a book editor would make for less dramatic scenes—and she would no doubt have liked it that way.
Jackie and her husband Aristotle Onassis, September 1970
Jackie found herself in Manhattan with her two children, John Jr. and Caroline Kennedy, after the death of her second husband, Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis. The marriage was controversial from the day that news broke.
“America has lost its saint,” mourned one newspaper. Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston, a mentor to Jackie, felt it necessary to go public, saying that those who wrote him pleading with him to stop the wedding from taking place were misguided.
Rumors flew that inflicted lasting damage to Jackie's reputation. The main one was that her brother-in-law Ted Kennedy negotiated with Onassis, worth some $500 million, for a huge amount of money to be settled on Jackie, both during her husband’s life and afterward. This was not true.
Jackie Kennedy Onassis at the funeral of her second husband.
“As it happened, Ted Kennedy made no financial requests or deals with Ari at all,” wrote Donald Spoto in Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis: A Life. The marriage was not a great success, by many accounts. The two lacked common interests, and Onassis was devastated by the death of his son in an airplane crash in 1973. When Onassis died of respiratory failure in Paris, Jackie was in New York City, which also raised eyebrows. Christina Onassis, his daughter by his first marriage, inherited Onassis’s fortune and worked out a settlement for Jackie of at least $10 million.
Jackie with her son, John F. Kennedy Jr. leaving the Metropolitan Museum of Art
In her new permanent home on Fifth Avenue, Jackie’s focus was on her two children. With Caroline, 18, studying for a term in London and John established at Collegiate, friends noticed that she was forlorn and restless. It wasn’t easy to cope with the public’s continued obsession.
“Her fame, which she neither understood nor encouraged, was a constant annoyance, while the public saw her as something of a social artifact,” wrote Spoto.
Jackie believed that the author was the star of the book, and she insisted on staying in the background.
While having tea with friend Letitia Baldridge, her onetime social secretary at the White House, Jackie talked about her lack of direction. Baldridge suggested publishing, urging her to use her energy and “good brain,” according to the Greg Lawrence book Jackie as Editor: The Literary Life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. When Jackie said she was unsure how to approach the book world, Baldridge said, “Look, you know [Viking Press president] Tommy Guinzburg, why don’t you talk to him?”
Jackie Onassis and Thomas Guizburg, 1975
Jackie did know Guinzburg socially—he was a Yale classmate of her stepbrother Hugh D. Auchincloss—but she hesitated to broach the topic of employment. Her longtime friend, writer Jimmy Breslin, urged her to do it, saying, “You should work as an editor. What do you think you’re going to do, attend openings for the rest of your life?”
So Jackie reached out to Guinzburg, who was enthusiastic about bringing Jacqueline Kennedy to Viking, but unsure of her role precisely, according to Lawrence’s book. Guinzburg said to her: “You’re not really equipped to be an editor. It’s not that you don’t have the talent for it, the ability for it, but you don’t have the background and the training and you, I think, would suffer in a publishing house because that would set up some kind of competitive atmosphere with the other editors. But what you can do is be a consulting editor.”
She agreed. Her starting salary: $200 a week.
Jackie Onassis, July 1976
Jackie, a passionate reader since early childhood (she was perusing Chekhov at age six), did have some relevant background. She was a talented writer, and in fact, her mother had expected her to write a novel someday. In college, she wrote a series of essays that won Vogue magazine’s Prix de Paris contest. While she was at the White House, she was deeply involved in the production of a book on its restoration, even selecting its typeface. Later, when Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorensen asked her to read in early stages a book he’d written on the president, she not only made suggestions and clarified sentences but corrected typos.
Once Jackie had safely made it into the Viking headquarters, she happily settled into her small office, containing a desk and filing cabinet, and a single window. She made no pretense
Many of her new colleagues were intimidated by the queen of Camelot landing on their floor and there was some “eye rolling,” but one, Barbara Burn, asked if she’d like to have lunch. After their meal at the Carlyle Hotel, discussing typical editor duties, Jackie paid for both their lunches. As they got ready to go, Burn advised her to keep the receipt. Jackie, puzzled, said she’d already paid for it in cash. Burn told her, “No, no, you’re supposed to charge it and keep the receipt.”
Jackie dove into the job. Her new co-workers soon got used to seeing her answer her phone, wait in line at the copying machine, make her own coffee, and smoke a cigarette while going through her
Jackie Kennedy at the Metropolitan Museum Of Art in New York City, 1979; Kennedy looking at photos with a designer for the book "In The Russian Style," which she wrote and edited for Viking Press in 1977.
The books she acquired for Viking reflected her interests in history, art, and culture. Her first title was Remember the Ladies, a companion volume to an American Bicentennial traveling exhibition on the role of women in 18th century America. She followed it with In the Russian Style, an illustrated volume
Following a controversy over Viking’s decision to publish the Jeffrey Archer novel Shall We Tell the
To meet Doubleday’s more commercial mandate, Jackie spent four years wrangling an ambivalent Michael Jackson. The resulting book, Moonwalk, sold 500,000 copies and snagged the top spot on the New York Times best-seller list in 1988. She had an equally successful experience with ballet dancer Gelsey Kirkland, shepherding her critically-acclaimed memoir Dancing on My Grave through to publication, and onto the bestseller list.
Some of her other Doubleday books included False Dawn: Women in the Age of the Sun King by Louis Auchincloss, The Last Tsar by Edvard Radzinsky, and To the Inland Empire: Coronado and Our Spanish Legacy. She acquired the rights to the novels of the Egyptian writer and Nobel Prize winner
Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis on her 60th birthday in July 1989.
Jackie believed that the author was the star of the book, and she insisted on staying in the background. Often a reader enjoying a book she edited had no idea that the former First Lady was the one who acquired and shaped it. Her authors loved Jackie’s supportive role throughout, cherishing her elegant, enthusiastic editorial letters suggesting revisions and her ideas on cover design.
She rarely gave interviews, but in one she revealed her pleasure in her career with a telling anecdote:
“I remember a taxi driver who said, ‘Lady, you work and you don’t have to?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He turned around and said, ‘I think that’s great!’”
Photo Editor: Jenny Newman