The elusive and ever-private Jackie Kennedy Onassis, a woman who achieved iconic fame largely through her marriages to two powerful men, never wanted to write her memoirs. When pressed by a friend to do so, she unequivocally stated that she had already “paid her debt to history.” So though we are without an autobiography of Mrs. Onassis, historian and biographer William Kuhn has cleverly contrived a book that comes fairly close in Reading Jackie: Her Autobiography in Books.
The conceit of this “autobiography,” which yields a surprisingly insightful and intriguing look at the woman behind the glamorous façade, turns upon her lifelong love affair with books and words. A voracious reader from childhood, Jackie (as Kuhn affectionately calls her) also was an accomplished writer who, during her last year in college, won Vogue magazine’s Prix de Paris essay competition. She eventually made her own independent way in the world as a book editor, first in 1975 for Viking, then later for Doubleday, where she worked until her death in 1994. In the books she acquired and edited, and through the authors she championed, Jackie left stunningly clear impressions of the force of her intellect and acuity, her tastes and preferences, and her inner emotional landscape.
This is not a startling exposé, but a graceful, perceptive and respectful look (with a bit of behind-the-scenes eavesdropping) at a most unlikely working girl. Kuhn teases out clues to the former First Lady’s inner workings through the often controversial book projects that she chose, such as books on Russian culture, the power of myth, the life of Martha Graham and a book of erotic and alluring women (which included images, ironically, of Marilyn Monroe and Maria Callas).
Through the book topics she chose and the literary relationships she cultivated, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, while never an open book, is strikingly revealed—at least in elegant cameo relief.