Who Got It Right as a Woman II: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

Femininity is something very controversial in the discussion of feminism, as are traditional gender roles. Being ladylike–even the use of the word “lady”–can draw a lot of ire from many women. Being a woman who appeals to men is also often a taboo topic, as women are often told to be strong in themselves and never to need a man. Taking an interest in one’s appearance is also regarded as frivolous. But Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was feminine, somewhat traditional in her gender roles (at least earlier in her life), ladylike (she was, after all, the First Lady), a woman who appealed to many men and was thought quite desirable, and a global icon of style and elegance even decades after her death. She always seemed to have a suitable man on her arm to escort her to the American Ballet Theater, and made it classy to go to Studio 54. Jackie never quite defined herself as a feminist, though she supported Ms. Magazine and Gloria Steinem, went back to work later in life, and did not marry her third “husband,” her beloved companion Maurice Tempelsman. And we can consider her a role model for women, someone who really “got it right” and was not bitter about her gender. Let us examine why.

Jackie had conviction. From the time she was small, she knew what she liked and what her tastes were. She read Chekhov as a child, had a passion for the arts, and a longing to go to Paris. She carried her passions with her when she went to the White House: she restored that historic mansion, she brought the fine arts to great visibility, making it fashionable to be cultured, and thanks to her efforts, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts was founded. After a level of a few years, she eventually found her way back to her love of books, becoming a well-respected editor in New York. She fought for causes she believed in, like the preservation of Grand Central Terminal. Despite that infamous whispering voice, she was no shrinking violet, and she knew herself and her mind. That is why Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Jackie was so poor, for she conveyed none of the strength of Mrs. Kennedy.

She was emotionally intelligent. Jack Kennedy’s presidency would not have been the same without her. As recently released audiotapes reveal, she was a shrewd observer of politics and politicians, seeing through people’s façades and offering her own opinions. She raised two children well, putting their well-being as her priority, knowing that extensive contact with the Kennedy clan would possibly lead them into a downward spiral like Ethel Kennedy’s kids. But she did not shelter her children, sending them out on their own as teens and young adults to spend time in Appalachia or India. Jackie wanted her children to toughen up and not to be pampered, to get out there and see the world and people from all walks of life.

She was highly cultured. Though she gave the appearance of being a mere clothes horse, Jackie was very well read in the classics, history, and spoke other languages like French. She appreciated great art, classical music, and clothing design. It was not enough to be an American first lady; she was global, show the world how enjoyable it was to visit other countries, make it admirable to be more than just a socialite. Thanks to her, high culture in America experienced a renaissance, something that was so necessary after the war and America’s revival. Later in life, after being widowed twice, she became a book editor and finally was able to use her intellect that she had had to hide away as the first lady and as the wife of powerful men.

She moved with the times. The beribboned 1930’s girl with her horses at shows, the elegant debutante of the 40s, the prim and proper young socialite of the 50s, Jackie Kennedy reflected the zeitgeist of America. Through the 60s, she went from graceful First Lady observing protocol in her manner and her dress to jet setter in minidresses without stockings who enjoyed dancing late night on a yacht or walking barefoot in Capri. And when she was widowed again in the 70s, she showed us how to adapt: she put on pants and a sweater, went downtown to a high-rise office, and became a single working mother. She enjoyed the company of men, but she also came into her own at this time, befriending Andy Warhol and enjoying New York City and her career. And then as relationship conventions changed, her companion Maurice moved in with her and lived with her for the rest of her life. They never married, despite Jackie being a devout Catholic. And yet it always remained acceptable, for Jackie was always dignified.

She promoted diversity decades before it was fashionable. She brought African-American opera singer Grace Bumbry to the White House, was a friend of gay Jewish composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, and adored Nehru, just as he adored her. She had a lifelong love of India and Russia and traveled there multiple times. 

She maintained a sense of mystery. That Sphinx-like smile the lack of interviews, the low voice–it all added up to create a personality whom we wanted to get to know, but who did not want us to get to know her past a certain point. Tabloids speculated on every aspect of her life, and yet she remained silent. In an era where everything is on Instagram and celebrities make candles named after body parts, Jackie remains a paragon of how to keep to oneself and let only those who are close into one’s confidences.

She enjoyed being a woman. Jackie loved fashion, decorating, motherhood, and marriage. She loved presenting herself elegantly, be it in Oleg Cassini or jodhpurs. She loved it when men took an interest in her, offered her courtesies, drove her places. In short, she loved men. Even as she always did as she wanted, being her own kind of feminist, she still always loved men. Various writers have described her as “seductive” or “a geisha”–there is nothing wrong with that. She often used her feminine wiles to get what she wanted, and even charmed Nikita Khrushchev.

American feminism can often be very prescriptive as to what is correct or not regarding how we present ourselves as a woman. If we dress too nicely, we might not be taken seriously enough. We are forced to work in a work culture that is really set up for men, and that often penalizes us for wanting to be who we are, be it a tomboy or a princess or anything in between. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis showed us that we can embrace our womanhood and it does not mean any compromise of strength or independence. She showed us how to have a will of steel wrapped in a velvet glove. The fact that we still admire her decades later shows us that she was a timeless role model as a woman.

The Family Saga: A Universal Theme

In my younger, greener, salad days, I used to be less enthused about books, shows, or movies that were a long family saga, with the complications that come with long drawn-out relationships. I was an only child who grew up far away from relatives, and so it wasn’t as interesting to me. Wasn’t it more fascinating to have different characters who were unrelated? And yet, like so many book-loving girls, I had adored Little Women and the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, and earlier, children’s books like the Frances series about a little badger with quite an attitude. Now, my current writing project is a retelling of a classic novel which is–though usually considered to be a romance–truly a family saga. What makes family dramas universal?

A large ensemble of characters that we follow overtime is key to this format. While the author or camera might focus primarily on one or two of them, having a variety of characters to choose from helps keep things interesting. “Everybody Loves Raymond” was a show, as the title suggests, about Ray Barone, but we also followed the ups and downs of the other characters, such as his brother Robert and his love life. Once married to Amy, we got another family added into the mix that made things even more funny–the combination of Fred Willard and Georgia Engel as Amy’s parents was a stroke of genius on the part of the casting director. In literature, I don’t think anyone could neglect mentioning Tolstoy, who juggled an encyclopedic cast of characters so skillfully in his epics War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Take that to another level with the current global favorite, My Brilliant Friend (which I’m currently enjoying): it is a saga of multiple families whose lives intertwined in postwar Naples. It is not, however, just one novel–it is the first in a tetralogy, which goes to show how much richness can be mined from this theme. In opera, we have The Marriage of Figaro with its high-low social class reversals and romantic intrigue in the members of the Count’s household. And this is all before we find out who Figaro’s mother is!

Family sagas also give us a longitudinal study, so to speak, of a character or characters over time. How do their relationships change and grow or dissolve? What kinds of sibling alliances form? Or do they not get along at all? Is there an uncle who usurps the family power, much to the chagrin of the nephew (hint: Shakespeare)? Is there a missing parent whose absence is equally an important piece of the equation? The brilliant, understated Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge (and its slightly-weaker sequel, Mr. Bridge) captures the trajectory of a suburban woman in St. Louis between the wars and her relationships with her children. For those of us who grew up with “The Cosby Show,” we got to see Sondra marry Elvin and have twins, Denise go off to college and then to Africa, and even little Rudy grow up. “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is not only about Midge Maisel’s standup career, but also her highly educated Jewish family and fractured relationship with her ex-husband and his family.

Family sagas also give us a degree of relatability. We can identify with one or more of the characters, see that we are being treated unjustly or how we are treating someone who is irritating us. The power of literature always helps us understand our world and other people, giving us a bird’s-eye view that we cannot see ourselves.

That I should have neglected this genre is especially foolish in light of the fact that the most holy Hindu book is a family saga: The Mahabharata. Tolstoyan in its scope, it is the story in the form of an epic poem of two families of cousins who are fighting over the throne. Naturally, this has been filmed in different versions for television as well as the cinema; all of Hindu India was engrossed in it in the late 80s, and it has been shown again during the lockdown. British director and playwright Peter Brook co-authored a play on The Mahabharata that was itself made into a movie. But Hinduism is not the only religion to feature family stories as part of its mythology or teachings: it is almost needless to say the Old Testament is full of them. Great mythologies of the world often feature families and nobility. Even today, we are intrigued by these types of stories–consider the success of “Downton Abbey” and our obsession with the British royal family.

The word family is fraught with so much emotion that it cannot help but be an ideal subject for literature. We all have family stories we tell, be they funny, frustrated, or infuriating. Family stories can be comic or tragic, or anything in between. Perhaps the late Erma Bombeck said it best in the title of a book: Family–The Ties that Bind…and Gag!

In/On Character

One phrase or oft-repeated concept that a writer might see on agents’ websites is that they are looking for character-driven fiction or strong characters. We might comment on someone we know who has a lot of quirks and a colorful personality as “a real character.” Children (both old and young!) love fantasy and mythological novels and media such as Harry Potter or The Game of Thrones because they delight in the archetypes and gods and goddesses and wizards and mythical figures that we do not see today in our very prosaic, pragmatic world. Someone might dismiss a novel as boring because of flat characters, or find a Hollywood blockbuster dull because the characters are nothing unique. In the opera world, we have to play a character and draw upon a number of conventions, as well as what the music indicates. Actors have to create a character without the tool of music, generate an entire human being who is separate from oneself, but that still draws upon him or herself. An icebreaker question at parties or literary events might often be, “Who is your favorite character from a book or movie?”

Why are we obsessed with characters, and take them so seriously? Why do some people hate a novel because the protagonist is “not nice” or unlikable? Why is there a whole industry of costumes and paraphernalia for us to purchase to dress up in for Halloween or other events? Why do some irrational fans detest an actor or actress personally, when he/she is merely playing a role? Why do virtually all religious traditions have sacred stories With characters of great religious figures that we refer to even thousands of years later? What does all of this mean?

Character gives us a starting point, someone to identify with and therefore we can launch the narrative. Many literary theorists would say that characters drive plot, or that plot really is just characters and what happens to them. We become attached to a character and go on a journey with them. I think roundness of character relates a lot to specificity. Nobody is one-dimensional, and what endears us to people is their quirks and various facets. How do they react in different situations? Because no two people will react in the same way to the same stimulus.

On the page, someone who is unique will grip our attention rather than “someone we have heard of before.” In highly plot-driven fiction, there is the danger of characters being flat, because they are there to serve the story’s (and therefore, the author’s) mission. Conversely, in literary fiction, plots can lag because nothing really happens, but we get a sense of real, rounded people. The best writers accomplish both. This is not an easy task, because creating complex characters is in itself an art, and then creating a strong narrative arc is also a challenge. In my work on literary retellings in the last semester of my MFA program at Warren Wilson, I found that the most successful retellings drew upon characters and themes from the original Urtext, so to speak, but fleshed them out or were able to take on a new life of their own in the retelling. John Updike and Jean Rhys were both successful in this regard with their novels Gertrude and Claudius and Wide Sargasso Sea, respectively.

In opera, as an emerging professional soprano, I am learning the importance of committing to character. This is a greater challenge than it is in straight acting, for we have the additional layer of music. To create the music ourselves, from our body, takes a tremendous amount of technical mastery and attention. The integration of character and music takes time. The majority of opera performed today, the arias we learn, are from much earlier historic times and from Europe. Therefore as American singers, we have arguably extra work with imagination and understanding the literary conceptions from earlier times. And, just as in straight acting, we are often playing or inhabiting characters that are very different from ourselves, And we must make that leap to completely immerse herself in character and lose all self-consciousness, which is the enemy of creating character in performance.

Literature and acting are two of our oldest creative impulses as human beings. We observe and we re-create. We like to tell stories, and any individual who jumps out at us as unique makes for an interesting character. We also like to observe and have the innate faculty of seeing and reflecting. As long as there are human beings, as long as we are social beings who interact with each other, there will be the phenomenon of character. And we wouldn’t want it any other way.

The Primordial Pleasure of Books

In our devalued era of Facebook and social media and everything electronic, there is something to be said about the pure, simple pleasure of reading a book.  From the moment you crack the spine until the very last word and period, a book is soothing and fulfilling to the soul.  What does the cover say?  A good cover lures you in – something agents and editors and publishing houses know very well.  Sometimes the covers have praise inside and/or outside, something that is controversial; should a book not stand on its own merit?  But how else can a new writer be taken seriously without an endorsement from a seasoned one?  The font and layout and spacing inside are also up for debate.  Some fonts are easier to read than others, and we have all struggled through cheap paperbacks with no space to breathe between the lines.  And what about chapters?  Line breaks?  The space between sections is equally as important as the words.  And what of the heft of the paper?  Do the pages turn easily, or do they fly up as soon as you let go?  And – my favorite – what about the smell?  That sensual pleasure of putting your nose to the page to inhale the ink and paper, more pleasurable in new books than old?

Finally, what could be more gratifying than turning the pages, holding the weight in your hands, enjoying that primordial pleasure of connecting deeply with words in a most singular way?  Either in a cozy chair in broad daylight, propped up on one hand in bed under a dim light where it feels like the book was written just for you, feeling that continuity with the author even if the book was written months, years, decades, even millennia before.  Reading is a solitary event, though another great pleasure in life is discussing books with others.  So is visiting a bookstore, with rows and rows of tomes that you want to to read but know you will never get to, charming places that make an avid reader feel like a kid in a candy shop.  There is nothing quite like reading a book, and there never will be.  And thank God for that.