Thursday, July 28, 2011

Changing Times and Past Forgetting

Central Park brooding. 2:45 PM. Photo: JH.
Thursday, July 28, 2011. Warm and sunny; a beautiful day in New York.

Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis was born on this day 82 years ago
in Southampton Hospital. She died two months before her 65th birthday in 1994.

There is now a generation of young people who know nothing about this remarkable woman and her powerful presence on the American scene. There are no serious biographies planned (that I know of) so far. Also, those who knew her well – and there were at least several, and hundreds of others peripherally – will not talk about her, as if they are protecting the Holy Grail.

I understand the “discretion” aspect of their unwillingness but it’s stupid. She was a woman, her mother’s daughter and both men she married had strong aspects of her father. History, like the tide will take it all away in time. All we have to go on is the witnesses and the evidence about A Life, just like any other, yet different like any other.

Throwing the bridal bouquet from the stairs after her wedding to Senator John F. Kennedy, at Hammersmith Farm, the Newport, Rhode Island home of her mother and stepfather, Mr. and Mrs. Hugh D. Auchincloss, September 12, 1953.
The wedding couple on the lawn. He was 36 and she was 24.
I’m sure by the time someone is able to do a biography of her (my personal choice would be biographer Amanda Vaill) a lot of doors would still be closed.

I’ve reported previously that Mrs. Onassis in her last days was said to have burned a great deal of her personal correspondence from friends and close associates, including men she was believed to have had affairs with. She sat before a fire, tossing the bundles tied in ribbons into her fireplace. I was surprised to hear this, having read many times that she claimed great reverence for history. Yet, at the end, destroying it. It’s not uncommon to mistake mortality as an unknown extension of life, hers possibly enhanced by her Roman Catholic upbringing.

Her actions were natural and indicated her humanity. She could never, with all her cleverness, comprehend a reputation beyond compare. A world watched the young mother in her widow’s weeds leading the nation in its grief and horror. Nothing else would matter more to the collective memory.

Her management of her public image was clever. Although she was physically accessible, out among the crowd any time and anywhere she wished, she received confidential treatment from those who knew her.

A New York woman from infancy, she reveled in the city and its life. She eschewed conventional social life, although she made appearances a charity functions for certain occasions including the ballet and the Municipal Arts Society. She lent her name, cast her influence in supporting her community.

The late John Galliher told me of the day he was having a cheeseburger in the ten- stool Soup Burg on 79th and Lexington (no longer there), when Jackie slipped unnoticed onto the stool next to him, and ordered the same. Seeing her, Mr. Galliher, who had known Mrs. Onassis for years, said to his cheeseburger, “Well, you meet the most interesting people at the Soup Burg,” whereupon the lady laughed quietly, confiding that she loved the place.

It was a life, conducted in the public view with finesse -- a combination of grace, courage and wit. Many who knew her and worked with her liked her. She was a modern woman who proved her mettle as a wife, and as a mother, and a representative of a nation in mourning. She went on to live a life taking care of her needs and bringing up her children.
The senator and his wife on the campaign trail as a couple.
With Aristotle Onassis. Leaving Claridge's.
The marriage to Onassis came as a shock to many who had idealized her into something resembling a fairy godmother. But that was because we didn’t know Jackie had a real life. We didn’t know about the reality of her marriage to Jack Kennedy.

There had always been rumors among the cognescenti that she had wanted to leave him not long after they married -- but had been bought off with a million dollars by papa Joe Kennedy. They needed a wife for Jack in order to run for President.

She had just turned 24 when she married him, and only 30 when he ran. Four years later he was murdered in her lap in an open car in Dallas. That moment defined her in history forever.
With Maurice Tempelsman, her longtime friend and last companion.
“The subjects of every state ought to contribute toward the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities; that is, in proportion to the revenue which they respectively enjoy under the protection of the state.” -- Adam Smith, “Wealth of Nations.”

Changing Times and Past Forgetting. When I was growing up, I had a rich uncle, married to my favorite aunt whom I wrote about a couple of days ago in the story about the unsolved murder in my hometown.

Uncle Ken wasn’t rich by today’s standards but he was very prosperous compared to everyone else in the family, and had an annual income that put him in the 70% tax bracket.

That last sentence sounds like exaggeration, but during and after the Second World War, the country needed the money and so the citizens were taxed. The richest paid the most. There were a lot of complaints about it too, but tax cheats were looked upon as just that, and the sense of patriotism in this country was not reserved for tributes to lapel pins and saluting the flag while singing the national anthem. We were a can-do nation. Everyone was expected to pitch in. We came to believe this was how we won the war.

Nevertheless, Uncle Ken enjoyed the fruits of his labors. He and my aunt lived comfortably, with three residences -- for summer by a lake in the mountains, winter in Florida, and a place in town. He was a dyed in the wool Republican. Whenever he heard anyone complaining about the taxes they had to pay, he reminded them that those taxes were a small price to pay for living in the country where opportunity was unlimited and people were free to do and go as they pleased.

I often think of Uncle Ken these days when I hear our Congressmen and Senators and President, as well as the political commentators talking about No Taxes. He would have been dumbfounded. And furious; that was his idea of un-American.

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