It’s 1975, and a 45-year-old widow whose estranged second husband is dying gets a job as a book editor while working in her spare time to save a new York City landmark. If this were the entire story, author Tina Cassidy, AS’92, might have had a hard time writing a page turner.
But the widow in question is Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, one of the most famous and admired people on the planet. So Cassidy’s difficulty comes in giving her subject context, clarity, and heart in a deftly written 253 pages. She accomplishes the task by interweaving history, much of it well known, with the little-known challenges Jackie faced in creating a new life for herself and her family as her world once again turned upside down.
With apologies to F. Scott Fitzgerald, the rich and famous are different from us. Cassidy’s skill lies in presenting a sympathetic narrative of this wealthy, fashionable, still-young woman (well, mostly sympathetic).
Born to privilege, Jackie nonetheless suffered from teenage uncertainty about her looks and her place in the world. And what a place it became. By 1975, the men in her life had been philanderers; her first husband and brother-in-law had been shockingly murdered; her daughter had nearly been killed in an IRA bombing; and her son was struggling under the weight of just being John F. Kennedy Jr.
Under these circumstances, Jackie might have become a recluse, like her dotty cousins on their Grey Gardens estate. Instead, she went looking for a job, as Cassidy writes, “not to pay the bills, but to save her soul.”
It wasn’t as if she’d never worked before. Still, when Jacqueline Bouvier was born, some months before the start of the Great Depression, women of her class weren’t expected to work outside the home, and if they had brains, they weren’t encouraged to display them, according to Cassidy.
But Jackie was a precocious reader who became a talented writer. In college, she spent a year at the Sorbonne, mastering the French language. She eventually earning a degree in French literature from George Washington University. Jackie failed only by not getting “a ring by spring” of her senior year, perhaps because her brainpower was on full display, and she had a job—which, by midcentury standards, Cassidy says, were barriers to marriage.
After quitting a job at Vogue magazine, she pulled some strings to become “the Inquiring Photographer” at the Washington Times-Herald newspaper (the position was quickly changed to “the Inquiring Camera Girl”). While the column was meant to be lighthearted, her questions reveal a young woman not content with the status quo. Among them: “Do you think a wife should let her husband think that he is smarter than she is?” and “When did you discover that women are not the weaker sex?” It was during her work on the newspaper that she met Congressman John Kennedy, 12 years her senior and the most eligible bachelor in Washington.
That the rest is not history, or not all of it anyway, is what makes Cassidy’s book compelling. Once on her own in 1975, Jackie went looking for a job. For a strong writer with a journalism background and an understanding of what makes a good book, the publishing world seemed like a natural fit.
Jackie invited the editorial director of Random House to lunch (that a top publishing executive would accept her invitation is one of those pesky nonsympathetic details Cassidy can’t avoid). Despite the fact that Jackie was smart and had connections—vital attributes in the book-publishing business—the executive couldn’t bring himself to give her preferential treatment over loyal staff already on the payroll. He would never forgive himself for that mistake.
Instead, she went to work for Viking and Doubleday, editing close to 100 books, and led the initiative to save Grand Central Station. That effort resulted in a Supreme Court decision on landmark preservation that stands to this day—just one of the many facets of a fascinating life that people might not associate with the woman whose beauty still radiates from the covers of magazines.
Joan Lynch is managing editor.
Jackie After O: One Remarkable Year When Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Defied Expectations and Rediscovered Her Dreams (HarperCollins; 2012), by Tina Cassidy. Cassidy, who is also the author of Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born, received a journalism degree from Northeastern in 1992.