Jackie and I walk the two blocks from our office at 666 Fifth Avenue to Prunelle, our go-to restaurant when it’s just the two of us. “When the restaurant is filled at lunch,” wrote The New York Times, “with expensively dressed patrons, most of them male, the noise level is high but cheerful.” Mostly male is a good description of wherever we went. When we were trying to woo big-time names to become authors with us at Doubleday, we’d walk a few more blocks east to the Four Seasons. There, the original home of the power lunch, every table was filled with brand-name male media tycoons. Not one of them didn’t swivel his head when Jackie O walked in. And Jackie did what she always did: kept her eyes straight ahead, ignoring the stares in her wake.
Funny, at Prunelle, with those expensively dressed male patrons, plain old businessmen, they didn’t take much notice. If we were there on a Monday, they might not have even recognized her. On Mondays, she often came straight in from her house in New Jersey, with her hair pulled back. Without the Kenneth blowout, she didn’t look like the Jackie O from all the photographs. Her work clothes were simple: pants and a top.
Today she was wearing a shirt that I thought was fabulous. Valentino, maybe. “It’s a Brooks Brothers boys’ shirt,” she said, “and I put in shoulder pads.” Now there was a fashion tip. What she did always wear were her Schlumberger bracelets and earrings. Trying to find the one earring she took off when she made calls at the office was always a fun hunt.
Down to Business
The first time I had any association with Jackie was an item in the New York Post that reported she’d ordered a copy of a book I’d written called How to Get Happily Published, with the snarky comment that she must need it to learn about publishing, now that she’d become an editor at Viking, after she returned from her Ari years. (Every time she said, “When Ari did this,” or, “Jack said that,” the way you or I might talk about our Jim or our Bob, it never failed to startle.)
The next time was when I became president and publisher of Doubleday, where Jackie was now an editor, and the first thing she said when she saw me was: “Thank goodness! Now I don’t have to keep doing all these coffee-table books. I can do real books now. Can’t I?” “You bet” was my answer. And we were off and running.
“It’s a Brooks Brothers boys’ shirt,” she said, “and I put in shoulder pads.”
At lunch she asked, “You’ve heard of Joseph Campbell, haven’t you?” She had just come from an editorial meeting where no one had heard of him, and she was very frustrated. I had in fact heard of Joseph Campbell because, as luck would have it, I’d read Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces in English class my senior year of high school. The book project under consideration was a series of conversations Bill Moyers was going to conduct with Campbell on PBS. I told Jackie I was in; let’s go after it.
It turned out that we weren’t the only ones who were interested in the book. There was going to be an auction, and we had to put forward our publishing plan. Here’s where it became interesting. Traditionally, a book is published as what is called a B-size book, a traditional-size hardcover. But what if … ? That night I pulled out my dog-eared copy of Man and His Symbols, by Carl Jung, a big influence on Campbell. It’s an oversize book with wide margins in which spot art appears, of mandalas and the archetypal imagery Jung referenced. I also brought in my copy of the Whole Earth Catalog.
Jackie and I sat on the floor of my office—the good news of women wearing pants. I opened the books on the floor. What if, to make Campbell’s philosophy accessible, to move it out of academia and into the mainstream, we packaged it as an oversize paperback? If it was affordable and looked more like a book you didn’t just read but you used like a handbook for living, we could maybe make it popular. And what if we dropped art in the margins, illustrating the mythology Campbell would undoubtedly refer to, so it wouldn’t appear as a heavy tome of type? The number crunchers weren’t pleased; adding pictures would increase the cost, and we’d lose money not putting it out as a hardcover. But, we argued, we’d sell more as a paperback.
Moyers was not sold on our idea, either. So we quickly made up sample pages, sent copies of the pages from Jung’s Man and His Symbols, and then Jackie went to bat trying to convince Moyers. The book became The Power of Myth, of “Follow your bliss” fame, which became a huge best-seller on the New York Times best-seller list for more than half a year. It was Jackie’s and my first best-seller together.
Yes, it’s true, Jackie had a breathy voice. More than once when Jackie and I would make a phone call to woo a prospective author, the author would think it was an impostor, doing an imitation of that trademark whispery voice of hers, and hang up. We’d call back and I’d explain it really was Jackie Onassis.
The only voice that was breathier was Michael Jackson’s. He was at the height of his fame and ready to write his autobiography, and the only editor who was fit for the King of Pop was Jackie. So, the book was hers. Things were going smoothly; the manuscript was in, we were planning a 500,000-copy print run, and then I got one of Michael’s two A.M. calls. “Wouldn’t it be nice if Jackie wrote an introduction to my book?” I said Jackie didn’t normally do that kind of thing; she liked to keep a low profile. “But it would be nice, wouldn’t it?” The next call, during office hours, was from Michael’s lawyer: either Jackie writes an intro or the book is off.
“Thank goodness! Now I don’t have to keep doing all these coffee-table books. I can do real books now. Can’t I?”
Another lunch at Prunelle. The last thing she wanted to do was to write an introduction; I already knew that. And when she didn’t want to do something—people were always trying to use her—she was firm. (When I pleaded with her to accommodate our German owners, who wanted a dinner with her, in order to be able to trot out their show horse and say, “When I had dinner with Jackie O,” the deal was that when she put her handbag on the table, we were out of there. And we were; we fled to her waiting car.)
At this lunch she was wearing a Valentino sweater. (I knew, because I had the same one; she’d sent me to her personal shopper at Bergdorf’s; “You need to look the part,” she said, when I first came on board, because I was young and probably wearing Ann Taylor.) “O.K., here’s the deal,” I told her. “The intro can be three sentences, but it has to be something. And if you write it, you can do a couple of books, books that we know won’t make a penny, any one of your dance or Russian books. Because you’ll have earned that with the money this book will make.” She submitted the shortest, most generic piece of prose—actually it was a tour de force of nothingness—that met the requirement, and not a word more. Moonwalk was our next No. 1 best-seller.
How do you give Jackie Onassis a raise? Answer: with great difficulty. Once she was on a roll, bringing in hit after hit, making big bucks for the company, I went to her office, a small office, by choice—she didn’t want anything fancy because of who she was—and I said, “I’m giving you a raise. You’re doing great, and your salary should reflect that.” And she said, “I don’t need it. Really, what I’m getting is fine.” And I said, “It’s not a matter of need; you deserve it.” I don’t think I gave her a speech about how this is how women get paid less—Oh, you don’t need it, you have a husband who works—but it’s what I thought. Her next paycheck reflected the raise.
This is Jackie, racing into my office, pitching The Frenchwoman’s Bedroom, which she was eager to publish: “The Englishwoman’s Bedroom sold really well and Englishwomen don’t even have sex. So just think what The Frenchwoman’s Bedroom will do!” She was smiling mischievously. And she was right.
Anyone who knew Jackie can tell you how funny she was. Her voice may have been small, but her laugh was big. In her box at the ballet one night, her partner, Maurice Tempelsman, leaned forward and said, “If you girls can’t quiet down, go out into the hall.” We were laughing, at what I don’t remember, but I do remember we couldn’t stop ourselves and people below were looking up with those how-dare-you, shut-up expressions, and when they saw it was Jackie, they swiveled back, and that made us laugh even more, until we did what Maurice said and went out into the hallway, holding our sides, laughing like adolescents.
We didn’t drink at lunch, though it was the era when the publishing crowd took two-hour, very liquid lunches. We did, in her beautiful library, after work, knock back a few drinks and chain-smoke, her legs curled up on the sofa, with her butler coming in periodically to empty the ashtray, leaving no evidence of this dirty little secret.
How do you give Jackie Onassis a raise? Answer: with great difficulty.
Even though she moved like a dancer and had not an ounce of fat (she did sit-ups every day and yoga every afternoon—“I’ve gained one inch in height,” she told me) and talked like a little girl, she was no faint flower. She had mastered a way of keeping her eyes on the middle distance so she could walk the city without making eye contact. Still, I felt protective when people came up to her, sometimes sticking their faces within an inch of her nose. “You’re Jackie Onassis, aren’t you?” “No,” she’d say, and we would keep on walking, with a small giggle, once we got past them. Walking up Fifth Avenue one day to her apartment, she said, “Keep your head down, keep walking, there’s a photographer up in the tree,” and—I couldn’t help looking—in fact there was a photographer planted up in the tree, and I did as she said, which she had learned to do her whole life, to keep walking like the world wasn’t watching her, like she was normal.
“After Jack died,” she told me one afternoon, “I had to look perfect when I went out; I didn’t want people feeling sorry for me.” Which may be why one of my favorite images of her was at my daughter’s birthday party, when I hadn’t gotten the memo that a Carvel ice-cream cake is supposed to be out for a couple of hours before you serve it. Twenty little heathens were beating the table with their forks, shouting, “Cake! Cake! Cake!” I pressed the microwave for all it was worth, but the cake was still hard as a rock. “Do you have a chef’s knife?” said Jackie, striding into the kitchen. She grabbed the knife and hacked that cake into chunks to serve to those little children. And when the guests were gone, Jackie and I and her granddaughter Rose and my daughter went up to my bedroom where I had those step things you use for exercise, and Jackie built a bridge off my bed and piled pillows at the end. The girls walked the gangplank, jumping into the pillows, over and over. “You know that’s the best thing about having grandchildren; I get to do all the things I didn’t do with Caroline and John.”
It was her partner, Maurice, who, one night when we were at dinner at the Russian Tea Room, said, “If Jackie could only take one thing to heaven with her, it would be a toss-up between her books and her horses.” I like to think she has both.
Nancy Evans is the host of The Confab Podcast