September 26, 2020
Interview by Steven Louis Brawley with William Kuhn, author of Reading Jackie: Her Autobiography in Books.
We met through my work at www.pinkpillbox.com. A few years ago, I visited Boston and you kindly gave me a tour of one of your favorite locations - The Boston Athenaeum. We then walked over to JFK's apartment on Bowdoin Street. We discussed your research and overall journey with the book. In retrospect, what are your thoughts about tackling the book?
It felt like a treat rather than a job I had to do. I used to walk with friends up Michigan Avenue in Chicago. I'd go into a high-end hotel, pick up the house phone, and ask to speak to Jacqueline Onassis. She wasn't there of course. It was just a party joke to mock my obsession. Doing this book meant that I could take my obsession more seriously. I also settled down and discovered that she was a more complex figure than I realized at first. I may have landed too hard on the things I admired about her, and air-brushed out some of the less positive things.
What new revelations about Jackie's publishing career have you discovered since your book came out? Have people come forward with additional stories for you?
I've learned that Doubleday cancelled the majority of Jackie's book contracts after she died. This included a book one man had been working on about Martha Graham. He'd been working on it for years. It was brutal. This also suggests that she'd been allowed to work on a wide variety of projects that the company didn't think were going to make them money. Several people have come forward with new, franker stories about her, yes. It's something to do with the passage of time.
Through the book you became acquainted with Nancy Tuckerman. Your article about Nancy in Vanity Fair gave intimate detail of their truly lifelong friendship. How did Nancy's unprecedented assistance with your research inform your work?
I was in touch with Nancy for about nine years. She was unhappy with some of the things in my first draft, and wanted stories omitted, even when they hadn't come from her. I had to negotiate to keep things in that I assured her were harmless. She was still being Jackie's guardian long after Jackie died. Our relationship improved after the book came out. She came and took questions at two of my book events. We had lunches and dinners together, often with friends of hers in western Connecticut.
You had so much material for the book, you have recently been publishing a series of articles that provide greater detail from your interview subjects. How do these articles help you continue to tell Jackie's unique story?
If you can know a woman by her bookshelf, you can know her even better by her friends. The interviews I've been writing about recently move beyond the publishing stories to the relationships Jackie had with people in her circle. Most of them did write one or more books with her, but they were often also in touch with her over a long period of time. For example, she met Ruth Ansel, an art director and graphic designer, via Peter Beard. They knew each other for decades. Their relationship went beyond the books they discussed doing together.
How many do you have in cue?
I did about 75 interviews. Of those, I'd say there are about a dozen of unusual interest from the relationship standpoint. There are about 6 or 7 more waiting for me to write them up.
Do you have any new books on the horizon?
I'm writing a chapter by chapter comparison of Lord Byron's life with mine. So far these are posted on Medium.com. I'm not a great sexy poet with a knack for comic verse, but knowing Byron's great sexy moments helps me recapture glimmers of mine. Working title: Byron Dared Me to Be Me.
Image courtesy Anchor.