Culture Street

Jackie Kenney Onassis is best known as the widow of John F Kennedy. She became the darling of America for her poise and dignity in the face of tragedy. Widowed at 34, with two young children, Jackie went on to escape the spotlight of America by marrying Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis. After his death, she was in her early 40s; her friend, Thomas Guinzburg at Viking, offered Jackie a job as an editor.

Onassis is less known for her literary life, although it gave her much pleasure. She stayed with Viking until they purchased Shall We Tell the President? by Jeffrey Archer.  The central theme of the book featured an assassination attempt on the President, played by Ted Kennedy. The book angered the Kennedy family and put Onassis in a difficult position. She resigned from Viking after just two years, later joining her colleague Lisa Drew at Doubleday.

Onassis rarely allowed her name to be included in any of the titles she edited. Many of them reflected her love of French and Russian history. Her books were well known for their quality. Onassis preferred to have her books printed in Italy rather than in Asia, the cheaper alternative. Most of the books were illustrated coffee table books. 

Onassis worked part time. She drifted between her New York apartment and the offices at Doubleday. The initial press interest that occurred at the beginning of her tenure as editor died down over the years, but she was never able to completely escape it.

Onassis brought many authors to Doubleday through her own connections including  Carly Simon and Michael Jackson. At first colleagues were ambivalent about her talent, but Jackie soon made a name for herself as an editor. She started out on a salary of $10,000 and finished on a salary of $100,000.

She was adored by her authors and worked hard on their behalf securing them further advances where possible. Despite her connections she was still not able to get all her projects up and running. The Doubleday board rejected many of her proposals. Later in her career she was given more power and finally an office with a window.

Her literary career began at the age of 44 and ended with her death. It lasted 19 years. Those who visited her in her apartment observed that books always surrounded her. The day after her death her son John Kennedy Jr announced "My mother died surrounded by her friends and her family and her books and the people and the things she loved."

Jackie Kennedy Onassis was so much more than a style icon. She was a devoted mother and a lover of words. She did not need to work, but dedicated the last twenty years of her life to creating books.

Greg Lawrence has written a moving book about the intricacies of a literary life. A life Jackie Kennedy Onassis forged for herself away from the limelight.

           

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