A letter for Jackie

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A single-cell thunderstorm passing through Park Avenue. Sunday, 4PM.

I spent the better part of the weekend going through an ample collection of letters that I had written to my eldest sister Helen and her husband Raymond Mellen back in the late ’80s and into the ’90s. It was a time, here in New York, when everything was changing faster and faster.

My eldest sister Helen checking up on her little brother about 25 years ago.

In today’s Diary we are running my coverage (in the form of a letter to my sister) about the sale at Sotheby’s in 1996 for the estate of the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Reading about it all these decades later, provokes many feelings and provides a good memory amidst the rest also.

My father, when he was a young man, growing up in New York at the beginning of the 20th century, was a chauffeur. Although he never talked about it — unless my mother brought up the subject (of his employers) — her curiosity was enough to pique my interest naturally.  His work as a chauffeur fascinated because I loved “cars” when I was old enough to get it.  Cars in his day were made for the rich. They were all prizes, like gems. Henry Ford changed all that but the rich gems were still attractive.

My father’s favorite boss had been a man named John Vernou Bouvier III who owned a Stutz Bearcat which he would drive “at 90 miles an hour along dirt roads with ‘Black Jack’”as he was known publicly amongst friends.  It was the time of my father’s “now” — long before I came along.

“Black Jack” was the only boss my father had whom he liked to recall with pleasure. As history played it out, “Black Jack” became famous because of his daughters, Lee and especially, Jacqueline, neither of whom did he ever refer to as children.

The Estate of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, April 23-26, 1996 Sotheby’s New York.

April 20, 1996 —

Last night. Went with Heather to see the exhibition of the Jacqueline Onassis auction which begins this coming Tuesday at Sotheby’s. I wore a blue blazer, blue oxford cloth shirt, bright yellow tie with small dark polka dots, grey flannel slacks and freshly shined (with black polish) dark brown lace shoes and grey socks. Many men wore the uniform, a dark grey or navy suit, occasionally a sports jacket and flannels. There was an enclosed white marquee set up around the front and side of the building to form the line and protect them from the possible rainy weather.

There were several heavyset security men standing at the entrance. The line was long and slow because everyone had to go through a metal detector which was hooting non-stop because of all the metal this crowd was loaded down with. Precious metal, that is. No one minded the wait, however, so unlike New Yorkers hungry to see something to satisfy the curiosity. Everyone behaved him-and-herself as if minding the manners publicly displayed by the late Mrs. Onassis. This very visually accessible American icon for the last thirty-odd years, the passed from this life, was nonetheless present. Very present.

First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy with her son, John F. Kennedy, Jr., as he plays with her simulated-pearl necklace in John’s nursery at The White House. American Photo Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

Heather had to check her camera. No pictures. The goods were laid out like a museum installation. Walls of pictures, prints, watercolors, antique engravings, little oils, little conversation pieces, walls of books in lots of five and six. Books on the JFK, books books books on JFK. Silver trophies from horseshoes, won sixty-three years ago by Mrs. J.V. Bouvier III in East Hampton. Early American stuff, English stuff, American stuff, French stuff. The desk on which JFK signed the nuclear test ban treaty, French, long narrow delicate. Or the pair of fauteuils owned by Thomas Jefferson. Painted that delicate pale green/blue that has been popular in the homes of the very Wasps for more than a century. China, silver, books, a humidor with engraved plaque marking that it was given to President John F. Kennedy by Milton Berlin January 20, 1961. There are the plastic encasements of the jewels, some of them remarkably gaudy for someone with the serenity she emanated publicly. Were these the things Ari had given her and which she didn’t like? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe her taste slipped when it came to gemstones.

Photographs of Jackie’s apartment at 1040 Fifth Avenue, which graced the auction catalog.

Throughout the rooms were large blow-ups of famous Jackie (and JFK) pictures. If this were a wing in the Met, it would probably double the museum’s attendance for years. Because, after all, she was the most famous woman in the world, and because it is an interesting experience to go through. The personal association that one has with this woman, so aware as one is of all the major events of her life, so aware of her special plight, her beauty her grace, the likelihood of another side, a less than celestial side, one of Machiavellian proportions, one that leads one back to the century and period she loved, the one of Marie Antoinette, whose leather box is also up for auction; the personal association one has with all that makes going through this exhibition like re-visiting the past after the pain has gone.

She had taste. But the taste was one for atmosphere and self-explanation. She liked austerity beauty, restraint and surprise. Her personal environment was for looking and living. She lived there. You can tell. The stuff is worn, used, scratched. It looks like it came out of a real house and not a photograph for a shelter magazine. She knew that the real thing looks better looking like the real thing and not some highly polished-to-a-spit-shine piece of woodworking.

The place was filled with well-known New Yorkers. This was the night, this and another night when the special water and champagne in tulip-bulb long-stemmed glasses, and pass each other by with greetings and moments about the whole thing. Many think her children should have wanted to hold on to so many of the things. The Shikler portraits which are compellingly lovely of Jackie and the children. The idea of the money over the possessions stirs emotion. And judgment. Indeed, there is emotion in the room anyway, at the heart of the matter.

There were a couple of moments when one’s throat might lump up at an image placed tellingly beside a memento. The encased plastic model of Air For One given to JFK by the crew beneath a black and white blow-up of the young Mrs. Kennedy kneeling on a lawn with young child clasped to her, the breeze lightly blowing the curls and waves in their hair, looking off toward the distance as if posed and waiting for the plane’s return with daddy. Youth and vigor, beauty and power: lost.

I’m making this up, but this is what it felt like. There was an emotional twist to the display.  Some said it was a brilliant marketing. I don’t agree. It is the brilliance of this person, now persona, the magnitude of her personality that was reflected by fate in her public image. She was and remains in memory, magnetic; we want to know everything about her.

She loved stuff. She loved things, possessions. And when you look at them, you can almost see why she loved them. There’s whimsicality, a lightness about so many of these things. These’s also the self important sentimentality — engraved inscriptions on silver and gold, an expression of nostalgia for the innocence of one’s own past. The only big difference is many of her things had historical significance. And now they have double historical significance.

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