By Patrick Anderson,
whose e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Monday, October 30, 2006
By Eve Pollard
Morrow. 278 pp. $24.95
The first sign of trouble in this novel about Jackie Kennedy arrives early, soon after the president's assassination, when the widow reflects on his "three and three-quarter years" in the White House. In fact, John Kennedy was president for 2 3/4 years -- Jan. 20, 1961, to Nov. 22, 1963 -- and we might at first attribute this error simply to the inability of the author and her editors to count. But if we glance at the "Legal Disclaimer" at the start of the book, we find ourselves clearly warned that with regard to the "dates of events, time frame, and incidents" in the book we are at the mercy of the writer's imagination, which soon proves to be both lurid and sublimely indifferent to the line between fact and fiction.
In the novel's first big scene, President Johnson invites the Kennedy family and inner circle to the White House on Nov. 22, 1964, for a ceremony marking the first anniversary of the assassination. This event is pure fiction. As Jackie enters the White House, Johnson breaks the news that Marilyn Monroe died in Los Angeles that morning. Actually, Monroe died in August 1962, but the author has extended her life by two years so the actress could kill herself out of grief on the Nov. 22 anniversary, thus setting off a media frenzy and sending the fictional Jackie into an emotional tailspin.
The author devotes more than 50 pages to rehashing Jack Kennedy's sex life, Jackie's heartbreak ("how he must have been laughing behind her back"), how his friends and staff lied for him and the like. A picture of Marilyn in the Lincoln bedroom surfaces in the tabloids; shown it, Jackie throws up. She enlists the help of a friendly CIA agent, who most improbably obtains FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's secret file on Kennedy's affairs. The revelations therein (a prostitute, a princess, a policewoman, a "stunningly curvaceous Italian") lead to a bizarre scene at Kennedy's grave when his widow hurls invective, along the lines of "You bastard. You liar. . . . The sordid secrets you have left have destroyed my life." But this outburst gives her no relief because "Who could be angry with an eternal flame?"
When Eve Pollard, an English journalist, has milked all the melodrama she can out of 40-year-old gossip, she launches a new story line that features Jackie as a Nancy Drew-style secret agent. Her handsome CIA friend, Guy Steavenson, visiting her New York apartment and, learning that foreign diplomats often drop in for drinks, suggests that she could be helpful by asking them certain questions and letting an agent, lurking in the bedroom, search their coats and briefcases while they chitchat. Jackie agrees, of course, because she has a girlish love of adventure, is a patriotic American and is also smitten with this guy named Guy.
The drama intensifies when the CIA learns that Jackie is seeing the Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis. We are privy to preposterous scenes in which Lyndon Johnson and CIA officials scheme to marry Jackie off to Onassis so that, with her connivance, and without his knowledge, they can use his island, Skorpios, as a base for electronic eavesdropping on the Russians. In other words, she married the diminutive and aging Greek not just for his money but to join in the battle against communism.
I won't linger on Pollard's uncertain grasp of history (in her hands Kennedy's famous "Ask not what your country can do for you" exhortation becomes "Think not . . .") because it's time to relate what she does with the tasty subject of the former first lady's sex life. We learn that Jackie's first post-White House lover was her therapist, one David Goadshem, who was "handsome, black haired, and six foot three." One day, in a "whirlwind of lust and passion," it just by golly happens, and she cannot but reflect "how much better the sex was than with Jack," but she also knows that it is wrong: "I can't keep seeing you for therapy if, well, if other stuff is going to happen." This is typical of the inane dialogue that Pollard inflicts on a woman who actually chose her words with care.
During Kennedy's courtship with Onassis, she keeps the goatish Greek at arm's length for months, which may be improbable but is in the great chick-lit tradition of heroines who do not easily yield up their alabaster bodies. When the two finally marry, we are told that their sex life is "exciting," but when their marriage begins to curdle, he punishes her with "angry bouts of sex" that leave her feeling like a "highly paid prostitute." We also digress into the Greek's renewed affair with Maria Callas and the sexual skills "the songbird" (as she is called) uses to win the tycoon back.
Still, the nadir, sex-wise, comes after Jackie gives a dinner party in her New York apartment. A surly waiter hides in the stairwell, sneaks in during the night and rapes her -- repeatedly and in unpleasant ways the author is pleased to detail. With this ugly and entirely gratuitous scene, "Jack's Widow" moves from being merely ludicrous to being beneath contempt.
Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis was one of the most interesting American women of the 20th century. Born in 1929, she was a product of her time and class, raised to be beautiful, to marry a rich man and to ignore his infidelities. Her marriages cannot have been easy, but the first one made her world-famous and the second one made her seriously rich. For the rest of her life, free to do as she pleased, she toiled honorably as an editor at Doubleday, avoided the media as the faithful avoid Satan and raised two fine children. Upon her death in 1994, at the age of 64, she was universally mourned. Perhaps a worthwhile novel could be written about her life, perhaps not, but she surely deserves better than this ghoulish piece of trash.