Monday, August 20, 2018

A timeless timepiece

Looking south across the Great Lawn in Central Park, Sunday, 1:00 PM. Photo: JH.
Monday, August 20, 2018.  It was a rainy-ish weekend in New York. Just to torrentially wash the streets, drop the temperature and move on.

Today we are re-running a piece we first published nine and half years ago by our late friend Peter Evans, the popular British journalist who wrote one of the best (meaning: interestingly sensational) books of the era, “Nemesis; Aristotle Onassis, Jackie O and the Love Triangle That Brought Down the Kennedys” published by Judith Regan Books in 2004. It is about the relationship and marriage of Aristotle Onassis and Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy and their world. The book deals with all kinds of relationships among the Jet Set/Beautiful People (as they used to be referred by Charlotte Curtis in the New York Times.

Sensational is one word for it. “Truthful” is up for grabs.  You can’t get away from it once you start. Although I knew Peter Evans – which is how he happened to publish in the NYSD – and he had a very credible manner and reputation, the book gets further into the man’s life (rather than the woman’s) and his activity in the world of high living, high times, high sums and international politics and business.

Peter had originally been hired by Mr. Onassis to write a “memoir” for him. The man had lifetimes of adventure in the first 25 years of his life. As it happened, Mrs. Kennedy came into Onassis’ personal life after Peter had started researching and interviewing for the book. Shortly after the marriage, Jackie invited Peter to lunch to discuss the book. Whatever the conversation between Peter and her,  shortly thereafter Onassis canceled the project.

I read it when it first came out and I do not recall the details of the relationship between Mr. Onassis and his wife or with her family, and mutual friends from international society. What I came away with was the story of Sirhan Sirhan and the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. The book infers that Mr. Onassis, who previously had a hostile relationship with Bobby Kennedy, gave his financial support to some intelligence organization basically paid to assassinate RFK, and set up Sirhan Sirhan. 

Now: that is what I gleaned from the book for memory. Whether it is true or not, I have no idea, although there are many still out there who believe it was some kind of conspiracy. Ironically, the term “conspiracy theory” was introduced to the American parlance after the assassination of Jack Kennedy, and it has served to decimate the meaning of the word conspiracy, if nothing else, and instead implies falsehood rather than truth.

Today’s piece by Peter Evans is about a watch, one that belonged to the late President and was later given by Mrs. Kennedy to her new husband, Mr. Onassis.
Peter Evans in 2008.
by Peter Evans

If the world is divided between those who get pleasure out of giving gifts and those who enjoy receiving them, Jackie Onassis was firmly in the latter category. For reasons wholly in keeping with his nature, and usually in the interest of advancing his career, Aristotle Onassis was a giver.

Presents, he liked to say, seduce men, gods, and women – but especially women. And Jackie, he once told me slyly, was all woman. It was an arrangement that satisfied them both, but especially Jackie, who had brought the art of gracious acceptance to perfection.
Mr. and Mrs. Onassis at a private party in the new El Morocco, New York, 1971. He's wearing his "JFK watch."
But that is not to say that she never gave, although her choice of gift could sometimes be a little ... inappropriate, shall we say?

For their third wedding anniversary, on October 20, 1971, she gave Ari a gold Nastrix wristwatch that had belonged to her first husband, President John F. Kennedy.

For their third wedding anniversary, on October 20, 1971, Jackie gave Ari a gold Nastrix wristwatch that had belonged to her first husband, President John F. Kennedy.
The watch – waterproof, 14K, 57 jewels – had been a gift to the President from the Washington socialites Evangeline and David Bruce, and inscribed, somewhat inscrutably, ‘To President John F. Kennedy from the Evangelines, 1963.’

Adding the inscription FALJ (‘For Ari Love Jackie’) between the lugs, Jackie left the watch on Onassis’s breakfast plate, with a card that read: ‘Our costliest expenditure is time.’ It was a quote from Theophrastus, a pupil of Aristotle, and one of Onassis’s favourite Greek philosophers.

The inscription I suspect was one of Jackie’s droll digs at her husband, who frequently told her that she was his ‘costliest expenditure’ – although he usually put it more bluntly than that.

Onassis’s daughter, Christina, who never had much time for her stepmother, it has to be said, was appalled that Jackie should give her father a watch that had belonged to her first husband, even if he were the 35th President of the United States.

‘Is that a proper wedding anniversary gift, I ask you?’ she sniffed when she heard about the watch. ‘What will she give him next year? A pair of JFK’s monogrammed pyjamas?’

Christina eventually became convinced that the watch was a deliberate but subtle demeaning of her father. Jackie’s spiritual home, she believed, was in the 18th century amid the cunning, cold-blooded sexual calculations of the pre-revolutionary French aristocracy. ‘Her maiden name was Bouvier, you know,’ she once hissed in my ear when Jackie had said something clever in French.

Nevertheless, Jackie had a talent for finding the right quote for a particular moment. The Theophrastus quote was apt, even if the watch wasn’t.

She had started digging up quotes in the 1950s that JFK could drop into his speeches – ideas on positions he might take, poetry he might recite, historical references that would bring home a point he wanted to make to an audience.
The watch – waterproof, 14K, 57 jewels – had been a gift to the President from the Washington socialites Evangeline and David Bruce, and inscribed, somewhat inscrutably, ‘To President John F. Kennedy from the Evangelines, 1963.’
She had also provided the same service for Bobby Kennedy, finding him the quote, from Romeo and Juliet, that Bobby movingly read at JFK’s funeral: ‘When he shall die/Take him and cut him out in little stars/And he will make the face of heaven so fine/That all the world will be in love with night/And pay no worship to the garish sun.’
It was a talent Jackie would often employ to impress Onassis with her erudition, and sometimes simply to flatter him.

I remember the line I reported in my book, Nemesis: Aristotle Onassis, Jackie O, and the Love Triangle That Brought Down the Kennedys (HarperCollins), that Jackie uttered when she set foot aboard Onassis’s yacht, Christina, and embarked on the fateful cruise – in defiance of the President’s and, more importantly, Bobby Kennedy’s, wishes – in October 1963.

‘So this it seems is what it is to be a king,’ she said to her host, offering him her white-gloved hand and Mona Lisa smile. It was what Alexander the Great had said when he entered the tent of Darius, the Persian king he had just defeated.
Adding the inscription FALJ (‘For Ari Love Jackie’) between the lugs, Jackie left the watch on Onassis’s breakfast plate, with a card that read: ‘Our costliest expenditure is time.’ It was a quote from Theophrastus, a pupil of Aristotle, and one of Onassis’s favourite Greek philosophers.
With hindsight, you may make of that what you will.

But Onassis was smart enough to know that it was unlikely to have been a spur-of-the-moment observation.

‘She was smitten with the yacht, I never met a woman who wasn’t, the Christina does that to women, and a few men, too – that is its purpose,’ Onassis told me when I was working on his official biography, Ari: The Life & Times of Aristotle Onassis (Summit Books, 1986).

But when Jackie uttered that Alexander the Great line, he knew she was smitten with him, too.

‘She was ripe for seduction. She had prepared herself for it. Why else would she have bothered?’ he told me.
We may smile at his conceit, the ego of the man was colossal, but it is hard to deny his shrewdness about human nature – or perhaps it was the minds and needs of women like Jackie, who inhabited his world, which he knew so much about.

He knew that Jackie loved money more than almost – you may strike ‘almost’ – anything and her life, as Gore Vidal once observed, and was dedicated to acquiring it through marriage.

I know that Onassis often wore the watch – but never when his daughter was around. The Nastrix is probably the only known item connecting JFK, his widow Jackie and her second husband, Aristotle Onassis.

One knows that there will never be a final epilogue for these characters, but whoever acquires this watch on Thursday will own a unique piece of their extraordinary history.

Antiquorum Auctioneers sold the Nastrix timepiece – with all its history – for $120,000 in New York on Thursday, March 5, 2009.
 

Contact DPC here.