Correction to This Article
This review incorrectly said that the publication date of "Jackie as Editor: The Literary Life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis" by Greg Lawrence was moved up to compete with "Reading Jackie: Her Autobiography in Books" by William Kuhn. "Jackie as Editor" will be officially published Jan. 4, as planned, but may be available at some locations earlier.

Dueling books on the editing career of Jackie O, a woman of many titles

WORK FORCE: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis started at Viking Press but moved to Doubleday, where she rose to senior editor.
WORK FORCE: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis started at Viking Press but moved to Doubleday, where she rose to senior editor. (Washington Post Illustration; Photo By Alfred Eisenstaedt/time & Life Pictures/getty Images)

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By Joseph Kanon
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, December 20, 2010; 11:14 PM

JACKIE AS EDITOR

The Literary Life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

By Greg Lawrence

Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press. 322 pp. $25.99

READING JACKIE

Her Autobiography in Books

By William Kuhn

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. 350 pp. 27.95

Competing books always bring out the best in everybody. These two accounts of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis's 19 years as a book editor are hitting bookstores within days of each other, and the fur has already started flying. (The launch of "Jackie as Editor" was accelerated to early January to go head-to-head with "Reading Jackie.") In a recent newspaper article, William Kuhn, author of "Reading Jackie," characterized Greg Lawrence, author of "Jackie as Editor," as "difficult." And that's just a preview of what he prints about Lawrence in his book: "high maintenance," "he's the problem," etc., according to people who worked with Lawrence at Doubleday (which is, perhaps not coincidentally, publishing Kuhn's book). Some of these same people appear - surprise - in a less flattering light in Lawrence's version.

This was probably inevitable. Lawrence was one of Jackie's authors - he wrote three books for her with his former wife, ballerina Gelsey Kirkland, so he is fair game for his rival biographer. And like Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold in "Gigi," they remember things, well, differently. How did reviewers take to Kirkland's first book? In Lawrence's view, they were "pretty much evenly divided." From Kuhn's perspective, they were "almost universally hostile." Kuhn has a Doubleday veteran saying Jackie had little personal contact with Lawrence and Kirkland. Lawrence remembers her as "our special friend and ally - our own fairy godmother and prodding mother hen." And so on. This kind of literary food fight over an American icon can be a lot of fun to watch (though, perhaps, not for the authors), but what about the books themselves?

Kuhn, a historian, tries to take the high ground and present himself as more authoritative, but Lawrence is just as knowledgeable (for one thing, he interviewed more people than Kuhn), and, in fact, they rarely disagree about anything (except Lawrence). The Jackie who appears in both books is (as she was) a well-liked, respected colleague, often slyly funny and not given to showboating, unless just walking down the hall as the most famous woman on Earth can be called showboating. I worked in publishing during the same time Jackie did, and given the musical-chairs nature of jobs in that industry, I knew, or came to know, many of the people who worked with her and most of the people quoted here, so I can attest that both books have gone to the right sources for an inside look. Between them, the authors seem to have talked to everybody who's still around, followed every one of her titles (nearly 100) to press, and collected the usual sprinkling of personal anecdotes (often the same ones). And the story they tell is essentially the same.

Jackie went to work, they agree, because after the death of her husband Aristotle Onassis in 1975, with her children no longer small, she found herself at loose ends. As Jimmy Breslin (a friend) said, "What do you think you're going to do, attend openings for the rest of your life?" A lunch was arranged with another friend, Tom Guinzburg, publisher (and then owner) of Viking Press, and Jackie was hired as a consulting editor, four days a week at $200 per. Since she brought no experience to the job (besides an impressive Rolodex), a few eyebrows were raised, but not many - it was an easy landing. Jackie was not expected to do much heavy lifting, but she proved eager to learn the ropes, the staff was friendly and protective, and Viking was then still a classy independent publisher staffed with powerful (now legendary) editors, exactly the sort of bookish and collegial house that would suit her best.


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