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.

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)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Joseph Kanon
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, December 21, 2010


The Literary Life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

By Greg Lawrence.

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


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.

Two years later, she moved to Doubleday after a public dust-up with Guinzburg over a Jeffrey Archer novel in which a Ted Kennedy-like politician is an assassination target. She claimed Guinzburg never told her that Viking was doing the book, he claimed he had, but in any case, after a scathing review attacked her for being associated with it and the Kennedy family applied pressure, she resigned. (Both books believe she probably was told but never anticipated the embarrassing uproar.)

Doubleday was an unlikely choice, a blatantly commercial house with little interest in the highbrow illustrated books she had begun to specialize in, but it became a haven and she never left, rising finally to a senior editor position with a six-figure salary. She attended editorial meetings, had projects turned down, complained about bureaucratic forms, learned to woo the sales staff, published books that sold and books that didn't, took on commercial projects to justify the books she really loved, coped with temperamental authors - in short, a typical publishing career like anyone else's.

Except, of course, she wasn't anyone else, and the operating conceit here is that her books, as Lawrence says, "are perhaps the best window we will ever have into her heart and endlessly inquiring mind." Well, perhaps. Kuhn takes the same dubious starting point - surely just a sales pitch ("Her books are the autobiography she never wrote.") - and then keeps running with it: "her most revealing testimony," "her self-portrait," etc. He believes her books "tend to cluster around the roles she herself had played," so that, by analyzing her list, we can come to know her.

And look where that leads. He finds, for instance, that by encouraging Barbara Chase-Riboud to write her novel about Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson's mistress, Jackie might have been revealing that "she was more sympathetic to the dependent position of the [Kennedy] mistresses than to the supposed injury done to her marriage." Really? Or how about, "If her books of photography were about exploring beauty, her books on ballet were about exploring her body." Come again?

Lost in all this is the reality of the publishing acquisition process, which indeed reflects personal taste but is above all opportunistic, frequently random and usually compromised - you publish the best things you can get. Even Jackie, in her unique position, had to play publishing soldier from time to time. Not all of Jackie's books were Jackie books.

Lawrence, who has worked with show business figures other than Kirkland (Donna McKechnie, Kander and Ebb), at least has a better grasp of what's needed here - not overreaching theory, but the high gossip of the celebrity profile. What did she wear to work? What did she eat? What did she really think of Michael Jackson? He is particularly good on the early Viking years because he talked to the junior staff (as Kuhn did not), who always notice everything. Though both books draw on many of the same sources, Lawrence gives us a more detailed (and interesting) look at Jackie's day-to-day office life. He takes us to lunch with her. But even he finds it necessary to slog through Jackie's list book by book. Does anyone really need to be reminded of "The New Tiffany Table Settings" (1981)?

Why then were these books written? The easy answer - to exploit her fame, like the paparazzi photographer Ron Galella - is unfair. Something else has superceded paparazzi-created fame anyway - it's what Kuhn calls "America's most powerful myth." Seeing Jackie kneeling on her office floor going through page layouts (as both books have her) gives us a new image to keep that myth alive. And why not? How many have we got left, still untarnished? It's not such a bad thing to be reminded that this woman of national myth read, genuinely loved books and spent nearly two decades of her life working with them. Both these books want Jackie to be remembered for more than her clothes, her glamour and the tragic charisma that held a nation enthralled. They want us to know that she was smart, that she had an intellectual life. Whatever their own faults, they take her seriously. Shouldn't we all? If we're going to have a myth, why not one with her nose in a book?

Kanon spent 30 years working in book publishing before becoming a full-time writer. His most recent novel is "Stardust."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company