There was a moment aboard the Christina O that felt almost mystical. A moment wherein time collapsed, and my hand lay on the blue lapis fireplace in what I would call a den but which I’m sure they have far fancier names for on yachts. And I thought to myself, Jackie surely once put her hand here.
I don’t know if that’s true, but that was the story I told myself then. That’s what I wanted to believe. That in that moment, I stood where she once was.
When people hear I spent time aboard Aristotle Onassis’s yacht, the Christina O, I assume they assume it was terrifically glamorous. When I spoke to a tabloid-magazine reporter about this experience a few years ago, they kept asking about opulence. Would you say it was opulent? … Tell me about the opulence … What was the most opulent thing you saw?
I wouldn’t say it was opulent. I would say it was dumpy. Ari Onassis knew this. In the early 1970s, he confided to James Ross Mellon that the ship was on its last legs. Mellon recorded in his diary at the time that Ari told him the yacht was “beginning to fall apart all over the place.”
“Dumpy” might have been Jackie’s word of choice, too. Underwhelmed by the swimming pool on board, she reportedly derided it as “the bathtub” and, whenever the ship was docked, dashed ashore to avail herself of the more spacious pools of her friends.
I’d not spent much time on yachts—in fact, I’d spent none. I came to be aboard this spectacularly famous yacht because, eight months earlier, I’d boldly e-mailed the estate agent, telling him I was a doctoral student living in London and working on a book on Jackie Onassis. And I asked if there was any way I could see Onassis’s yacht while it was docked in the U.K.
The agent said he’d be in touch when he was next out at the ship. He was on the ship on this random day in the middle of a random week in February because there was an interested buyer and he had flown in to show them the boat.
That is how I came to spend two hours casually drifting around the Christina O, entirely alone, peeking in the bathrooms and bedrooms and closets, while the serious buyers put on hazmat suits and went down to inspect the engines.
I first became interested in Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis when she died, and her time abroad fascinated me in part because it was what the media at the time seemed to be collaborating to cover up. For years, I read every book, watched every TV movie, taped every documentary on A&E.
Underwhelmed by the swimming pool on board, Jackie Onassis reportedly derided it as “the bathtub” and, whenever the ship was docked, dashed ashore to avail herself of the more spacious pools of her friends.
And that’s what I remember remembering when walking circles through the Christina O’s rooms. The descriptions of the yacht as heard in an episode of A&E’s Biography on Aristotle Onassis. The lavishness, the decadence, the barstools upholstered with whale foreskin.
The stools were there for sure. As I wandered aimlessly in the eerie quiet, I had the once-in-a-lifetime experience of seeing them multiple times.
By the time I was there, the yacht was severely corporatized. The people who’d inhabited this space were gone, but their images were all over. Photos of Jackie and Ari and Maria Callas lined the walls alongside framed telegrams and letters and memorabilia. A constant reminder they had once been here (though clearly they did not decorate like this), but also a selling point. An acknowledgement that we were here because they once were, and now they were no longer.
Without them, the boat would be just another decommissioned Canadian anti-submarine frigate that you could charter for your corporation’s next party. Hell, it probably wouldn’t even be that, so much does its allure depend upon the Onassis history.
The Christina O’s allure depends upon an image: of wealth, luxury, opulence—there’s that word again!—and privilege. The Christina O promises, if not the actual experience of those things, proximity to the memory of them. And yet that’s maybe a false memory, too.
Photos of Jackie and Ari and Maria Callas lined the walls alongside framed telegrams and letters and memorabilia.
Ari told James Mellon the yacht was falling apart. Later, after Ari’s death, Dorothy Schiff—a quasi-friend/acquaintance who also happened to be the publisher of the New York Post—had lunch with Jackie, in a futile effort to convince her to run for the Senate. In her notes from that lunch, Schiff records that Jackie talked about having dogs on a yacht, and how there was no place for them to go to the bathroom:
“She said before Ari got up in the morning, she sprayed the entire living room carpet with soda water, which is supposed to be good for that. He never knew it. She loves dogs.”
The thing obscured by all the talk of grandeur is that the Christina O was a place where people lived. A vehicle by which they traveled and conducted business and held parties and entertained guests, yes, but also a place where the most famous woman in the world woke up early to clean soiled carpets so her husband wouldn’t harangue her about her dogs.
Aboard the Christina O, I wasn’t in awe of the boat. Because big as yachts may be, if you’re accustomed to land and open spaces and tiny London apartments, even a yacht can feel cramped. But I was awed by being there, in that space, where they once were, where they once lived, where Jackie once cleaned dog shit and dog pee out of carpets.
When the writing is rough, such moments are what you live for—the moments where, outside of the writing, you gain admission to a part of the story you’re trying to tell. The people are no longer here and the spaces are sanitized of their humanity, but, in such spaces, you can still almost feel their presence.
The people are gone and the spaces have changed, but stories hold them together. Stories shift ceaselessly, but still they carry the memory forward, not trapped in amber but rather like a perfume, haunting the wind.
Oline Eaton is a lecturer at Howard University. Her book, Finding Jackie: A Life Reinvented, is out now from Diversion