Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis is one of those iconic women that we can’t help but be curious about. From watching the film JFK and numerous documentaries about the death of President Kennedy with my mother, I started to be curious about the woman in the blood-stained pink suit. I think people are drawn to women who remain silent. As far as I’m aware she has never spoken directly about the horrific, life changing events of that day. She has almost seemed stoic. The perfect widow, in her lace mantilla at the funeral, still seeming numb and shell-shocked. When she surprised everyone by marrying Aristotle Onassis, the millionaire shipping magnate, I think it was driven by a need to hide. She needed a place to be without cameras following her every move and on his yacht she was definitely away from prying eyes. Perhaps his protection allowed her to grieve and come to terms with her trauma. I wanted to read this book, because I was fascinated to meet this version of Jackie – the Jacqueline before she was Jackie in. I always had the impression that she could have been a woman in her own right, more than the political wife she became.
Ann Mah has set her book in one particular year. In 1949 Jacqueline Bouvier travelled abroad for her junior year at college. It was to be her last year of freedom. She was aware that despite being poised and ready for society, her family were on the edge financially and she felt pressure from her mother to make a good match on her return. She met Jack Kennedy in 1952. Jacqueline lives in an apartment with a widowed French countess and her daughters. She finds a world of champagne, avant-garde theatre and jazz clubs and socialises with people she would never have met in her home town or the social circles at Vassar. There’s even romance with a man who loves literature like she does, but who would be totally unsuitable back home. Yet Paris isn’t all fun and glamour, because this is the aftermath of WW2 and its clear that the city’s people have suffered. The countess and her daughters have suffered too, as part of the resistance. The whole city is haunted by events during the Occupation and it will take many years for them to recover from the lies, betrayals and suspicion that lurk round every corner.
I love that Mah has written this novel in the first person, so we have Jacqui’s unguarded thoughts and emotions from the start. Even though it is a fictionalised self we’re getting to know, it still feels like a rare window into the innermost thoughts of a very private woman. It may sound strange to regard her as private when she was later married to the most powerful leader in America and arguably the world. Jacqui is private though. From this part of her life when she has the most freedom she’s ever known she’s testing people out for herself, but there’s still a natural reserve. She gets to decide who to spend time with and who to trust. On her return to the US and her subsequent relationship with John Kennedy, she is private by design. It’s part of the mystique of being a powerful politician’s wife who should show loyalty, discretion and control of her emotions. Once she’s in those circles, who can she trust to be a true friend? Where many might have seen her as the archetypal political spouse, this was the ambition of her mother rather than Jacqui’s own desire. Here we see her when she was naive and idealistic. Her love of art and for the city of Paris is evident. She’s also keen to make friends and experience real French life, but that reserve can make it hard for others to feel they know the real her.
She finds that one of the biggest differences between the US and Europe is a political one. During the war, Parisian people did what they had to in order to survive and there are still grudges against those forced to collaborate. She learns which subjects to avoid. Madame de Renty is a lively and colourfully dressed woman during the day, but she was imprisoned at Ravensbrück concentration camp during the war and Jacqui hears her crying in the night. Some truths can never be spoken. Aside from the post-war adjustments and the effects of trauma that will last for generations, Jacqui is most shocked by the Parisian’s politics. There is a lean towards communism here, something that’s unthinkable in the US where it’s considered in the same breath as Nazism. Her mind is broadened by friends who explain it’s underlying principles – an equal, fair society. This has huge resonance for us, because we understand she will be First Lady during the Cuban missile crisis, and the 1950’s saw a wave of suspicion about communism that fuelled the McCarthy era.
Despite these darker undercurrents there’s also the joy of seeing Paris through her eyes, for the very first time. The beautiful language, the smells of incredible food and early morning croissants. There’s also Jacqui’s love of learning and through this I could see glimmers or the different life she could have had, if her family had valued her as more than a marriage commodity. This is a well-researched account that held some of the answers I’d pondered about her life: that pull between the security of marriage and the more precarious life of her own; the love of Europe that would see her return there after Kennedy’s death; the education from a really great college versus the education of how to be a wife provided by her mother. I thought the author found a great balance between fleshing out a story and what we know of Jacqui’s year abroad through historical research. I understood this Jacqui and felt I’d met her before in my own reading. Now I have to give this straight to my mum so we can talk about it.
Meet the Author
Ann Mah is an American food and travel writer. She is the author of the USA
Today and Wall Street Journal bestseller The Lost Vintage, as well as three other books. She contributes regularly to the New York Times Travel section, and her articles have appeared in the Washington Post, Condé Nast Traveler, The Best American Travel Writing, The New York Times Footsteps, Washingtonian magazine, Vogue.com, BonAppetit.com, Food52.com, TheKitchn. com, and other publications