Today, Hartford Books Examiner welcomes Greg Lawrence.
The author of Jackie as Editor: The Literary Life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (Thomas Dunne Books, $25.99), Lawrence has also written or co-written seven previous books. Those titles include the New York Times bestseller Dancing on My Grave (with Gelsey Kirkland), The Shape of Love and The Little Ballerina and her Dancing Horse—all of which were edited by Onassis.
Released in January, Jackie as Editor sheds light on a much shrouded aspect of the Onassis’s life. Kirkus Reviews offered, “One of Jacqueline Onassis’s authors dishes kindly on her impressive editorial record … [and] fleshes out the editorial career of the enigmatic icon who was the subject of inflated tabloid coverage throughout much of her life yet who proved in her later years to be a surprisingly humble, hardworking team player…” Further, Publishers Weekly praised Lawrence for his “perceptive, impressively researched” book.
History remembers Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis as the consummate first lady, the nation’s tragic widow, the millionaire’s wife, and, of course, the quintessential embodiment of elegance. Her biographers, however, skip over an equally important stage in her life: her nearly twenty year long career as a book editor. Jackie as Editor is the first book to focus exclusively on this remarkable woman’s editorial career.
At the age of forty-six, one of the most famous women in the world went to work for the first time in twenty-two years. Greg Lawrence, who had three of his books edited by Jackie, draws from interviews with more than 125 of her former collaborators and acquaintances in the publishing world to examine one of the twentieth century’s most enduring subjects of fascination through a new angle: her previously untouted skill in the career she chose. Over the last third of her life, Jackie would master a new industry, weather a very public professional scandal, and shepherd more than a hundred books through the increasingly corporate halls of Viking and Doubleday, publishing authors as diverse as Diana Vreeland, Louis Auchincloss, George Plimpton, Bill Moyers, Dorothy West, Naguib Mahfouz, and even Michael Jackson. Jackie as Editor gives intimate new insights into the life of a complex and enigmatic woman who found fulfillment through her creative career during book publishing’s legendary Golden Age, and, away from the public eye, quietly defined life on her own terms.
Now, Greg Lawrence takes us between the lines of an icon’s literary legacy…
1) Why do you think that the majority of JKO’s biographers have overlooked (or dismissed) her nearly two-decade-long career as a book editor?
Not only was Jackie extremely private about her personal life, she was also very discreet and modest about her professional life and her work as an editor. So most people were unaware that she was a very serious book editor and unaware of many of the books that she edited. Of the more than 100 titles that she acquired and shepherded, her name appears on just a scant few.
What inspired you to explore this phase of her life, and why now?
Thanks to Jackie, my ex-wife, the ballerina Gelsey Kirkland, and I signed a contract with Doubleday to write Gelsey’s autobiography, Dancing on My Grave, during the summer of 1984. We continued to work with Jackie over the next ten years and wrote two more books. During that time, Jackie wrote us many beautiful letters along with incisive editorial notes on our books. When I ran across these letters and critical notes during 2007, the idea occurred to that most people really had no idea what a marvelously talented editor she was and what a gifted writer she was. That was when I decided to undertake the project. Along the way I interviewed many of her authors and editorial colleagues, and they agreed with me that this was a part of Jackie’s life and legacy that had been neglected by her biographers. This was in many ways the unknown Jackie.
2) How did you approach researching JACKIE AS EDITOR? What challenges did the preservation of her privacy pose in approaching JKO’s former collaborators and acquaintances for source material?
Any biographer necessarily has to do detective work. Part of that for me meant tracking down her authors and colleagues, a process that was made easier for me with the resources of the Internet. There were several of her former colleagues who chose not to discuss Jackie, wishing to respect her privacy. But many other former colleagues and authors decided to speak about her for the first time, believing that she should be credited for the editorial work she had done and her achievements in the publishing world.
3) You obviously familiarized yourself with JKO’s extensive list of book projects. What do you feel that those works reveal about her personality and interests?
I think her books and her personal writings provide the best window we will ever have into her heart and endlessly inquiring mind. She was a polymath and the range of her interests was extraordinary. She was passionate about literature and language. A dear friend of Jackie’s during her later years, publisher Joe Armstrong, visited her at her estate on Martha’s Vineyard just after her 64th birthday. She took him into her living room and pointed to the books on her shelves, saying, “These are my other best friends.” In a letter to Joe Armstrong, Jackie expressed her feelings about the friendships she cultivated, many with her authors. She wrote, “I think it is the greatest treasure in life to find a friend, a new friend, and that is what you are….I want you to know that I would always do as much for you as I feel you would do for me. So if you land in jail and are allowed one call, it should be to me.” An image that many authors and colleagues shared of Jackie was when she would sit on her office floor with her sleeves rolled up, surrounded photographs and manuscript pages, utterly absorbed in the work process. When she felt that she had brought a project to fruition, she would sometimes clap her hands and say, “Hot spit!”
4) JKO edited three of your own manuscripts. What was that collaborative process like? How did your working relationship influence your opinion of JKO, if at all?
As an editor, Jackie was ‘old school’ in the tradition of the legendary editor Maxwell Perkins. That meant that she nurtured and established relationships with her authors that went beyond the formalities of collaboration and commerce. Like Perkins, Jackie believed there could be nothing more important than books, and she revered their creators, in many cases establishing lifelong friendships with her writers. As one of her authors, novelist Elizabeth Crook, suggested to me that she felt she had been recruited by Jackie as one of her “guardians of Camelot.” Collaborating on a manuscript, Jackie was especially adept at eliminating anything superfluous, any scene or exposition that got in the way of the dramatic action and focus of the story. More than anything else, I think Jackie taught me how to cut to the chase with my writing. When Gelsey and I turned in our first book, the manuscript was about 600 pages, and Jackie cut it almost in half, and she was right to do so, although we didn’t think so at first. Our relationship with her at times seemed almost conspiratorial. She often took the side of her authors against the hierarchy of the publishing house, and this continued as the publishing world changed during her career and came to be dominated by mega publishers and the marketing bottom line. Jackie had to fight to have many of her books accepted by Doubleday, and many of the projects she proposed were ultimately rejected by the powers that be. But even with those changes in the corporate culture, she remained loyal to her authors. I remember she once called late at night and said with her whispery soft voice, “Greg, don’t worry, I’m going to get you more money. Just don’t tell anyone!”
5) What do you feel that JKO’s literary career adds to her legacy and how has the passage of time enhanced her contributions to the industry?
Jackie’s literary bequest has been all but hidden in plain sight since her death, even with a sensational Sotheby’s auction that included much of her enormous personal library and many books that had been inscribed by her authors. As I’ve mentioned, Jackie’s range of interests was breathtaking, and she excelled at both fiction and nonfiction. She did books on French, Russian, Indian, and American history, architecture, interior design, mythology, biography and photography, to name but a few of the subjects with which she was enamored. She was sensitive to the women’s movement and the emergence of women as a force in the marketplace for books. She did many books that were commercial successes like ours and Michael Jackson’s Moonwalk memoir, several books with journalist Bill Moyers that were also bestsellers like Joseph Campbell’s collaboration with Moyers on The Power of Myth, along with Nobel prize winner Naguib Mahfouz’s The Cairo Trilogy. Those commercially successful books enabled Jackie to take on other projects that were especially dear to her heart, including a number of lavish illustrated books, coffee table books by photographers like Deborah Turbeville and Marc Riboud, that were not as commercial but were nonetheless stunning literary achievements for which, I believe, Jackie deserves to be remembered. This was a part of her life above and beyond the iconic and glamorous image of the former First Lady that the public still reveres.
With thanks to Greg Lawrence for sharing his memories of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.