Book review: Jackie, Janet & Lee, by J. Randy Taraborrelli
I’m not sure why I wanted to read this so intensely, as I’ve never read anything Kennedy or Bouvier-related before and I’m not generally interested in them. (I like Bobby though, he seemed like a good egg.) I’m more interested in the weird, Grey Gardens-y stories that surround them and their family histories.
This new biography frames the childhoods and rise to their high profile marriages and subsequent very public lives of Jackie Kennedy and Lee Radziwill through their relationship with each other and their domineering mother, Janet Auchincloss. Plus the influence of their charismatic, philandering father, Black Jack Bouvier. It’s an interesting lens for figures that are already well known. But none of the Bouviers come across particularly sympathetically (I mean, they were real people, not characters, so they don’t have to) but as a warning – be prepared, if you decide to read it, to lose some respect for Jackie.
I knew biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli as being connected to the more unauthorized, salacious biography types. But I was just interested in learning something about the Kennedys and their extended family circle, and something new on the topic seemed like it might be more accurate or up-to-date. It’s hard for me to say, not having a barometer, but I think gossip outweighs truth here.
After reading some background on its sources and Taraborrelli, I’m not sure how accurate it is. I would say that there’s enough consistency to corroborate behavior patterns. But most of the direct quotes and anecdotes come from the same sources, primary among them Jamie Auchincloss, Jackie and Lee’s half brother from their mother’s second marriage to Hugh D. Auchincloss.
Jamie fell out with Jackie over speaking to biographer Kitty Kelley. Apparently Jackie was in a big snit because he revealed where her blood-stained pink dress was. It seems there’s more to why he and Jackie were estranged by the time of her death, beyond the Kelley biography, which she seemed to have gotten over. Jackie didn’t even mention his name in her will. With so much contributed by Jamie, this partially almost feels more like his memoir – he’s the only figure here who can say exactly what he thought or felt. The rest is speculative, sometimes wildly so.
Although Jamie’s recollections do lead to some utterly hilarious scenes:
“I was a chubby, somewhat snobby six-year-old in black velvet shorts, silk shirt, lace cuffs, and black patent-leather shoes with brass buckles,” recalled Jamie Auchincloss of his appearance when JFK first came to call. “The day Jackie brought him home, I already had an opinion of him. A Catholic, Democrat, perhaps liberal, Irish, and a politician, he was, in every way I had heard anyway, definitely an outsider. I stood at the top of the long staircase, glaring down the flight of red carpet at him as he entered the house. I coughed loudly to draw attention to myself and then snorted in my haughtiest voice, ‘Hello, Kennedy.’ Jack looked up at me and retorted in exactly the same tone, ‘Hello…Auchincloss.’
Thank you for that imagery, I will cherish it forever.
Through this lens of their relationships, the book reads almost like a how-to manual describing the ways the Bouvier women used men and and made decisions regarding them in order to increase their wealth or secure their futures. Early on, Janet stresses what’s important in life to her older daughters:
“Do you know what the secret to happily-ever-after is?” Janet asked Jackie and Lee during their teatime, according to what she later confided in her socialite friend, Oatsie Charles [this Oatsie (my God) person is a frequent cited source]. “Money and power,” she said, answering her own question. Janet was raised to believe that the two often went hand in hand, money acting as a means to power if only just for its ability to finance a life well lived. Years later, when recounting this particular anecdote, Janet would say of her daughters, “They looked at me as if I was the devil, especially poor Lee.”
Lee’s more romantic; Jackie’s pragmatic, colder. Lee’s also completely nuts: her poor, long-suffering maid drops a gardenia in the toilet bowl after she uses it. THESE PEOPLE.
Sometimes Janet’s advice is actually helpful though: “Never have anyone in your home that you can’t trust with your good china.” That’s sound.
Unfortunately (and maybe it’s sadly the truth of their lives) the book reads like a laundry list of gross behavior. All three treat each other reprehensibly, competing massively (and stupidly), lying by omission, maneuvering, plotting, and complaining. Their little tiffs are very dumb.
Jackie’s legendary strength and grace are frequent mentions, but they dim in light of her alleged behavior here. For example, Aristotle Onassis was originally Lee’s extramarital affair, but since she never expressly admitted as much to Jackie, when Jackie saw the opportunity of his interest and decided to take it for financial reasons (ugh) she justified it by playing dumb.
I was interested in Jackie’s feelings after JFK’s assassination, forced as she was to grieve and mourn under intense national scrutiny. We learn of her drinking, pill-popping and depression/PTSD behind the scenes. I respect her for holding her head up, but her methodology is sad: bottling emotions up, never expressing them or feeling your feelings, so to say. Just that stereotype of New England-style icy, emotionless resolve.
But, considering her chilly upbringing:
“Trust is for the weak,” Janet said brusquely…She seemed a little leery of where the conversation was headed; she wasn’t good with these sorts of emotional moments, and she must have felt one in the offing.
Jamie attributes Lee’s failed foray into acting to being unable to get past concealing her emotions, that classic family pastime. Bouvier bad relationships seem genetic, too. Janet’s mother told her, “The only thing I know about relationships is that they don’t work.” Despite their disdain for infidelity, all the women come to accept it from their partners, or they willingly enter sexless marriages for financial security, and engage in infidelity themselves (this one is bigtime Lee.)
The more I read, the more I thought the book was unfair. The perspectives here are one-sided, even if they do come from multiple sources. Previous few words come directly from Jackie, Janet or Lee, even when they’re quoted. The sources are suspicious and their outside perspectives on the women’s motivations even more so. Taraborrelli writes, one example of many: “Lee had to have wondered what she’d ever done to deserve a guy like this one.” He doesn’t know that! Even if she was insecure, always in Jackie’s shadow (big theme here) there’s no evidence she wasn’t confident in her relationships, even if they were usually ill-chosen.
I’m left feeling they’re shallow, mean-spirited, selfish, and unaware of or willfully blind to the massive amounts of privilege heaped on them since birth. But is there more to it? I want to believe there is, but the gossipy tone and repeated instances of very bad, insensitive behavior don’t leave a lot of wiggle room.
For instance, my heart skipped beats when we got to a chapter opening with the Beales, Big and Little Edie. It turns out the Maysle brothers documentary came about after Lee introduced them as part of her own documentary project about her and Jackie’s childhood summers in East Hampton. They went to see Grey Gardens, discovered it was a hoarders’ rundown mess, and the Maysles were far more interested in that than Lee’s narrative. The women refused to support the project since they felt Lee got stiffed in favor of the more compelling Beales.
But it led to Jackie seeing the house’s dilapidation and sanitary issue. She told Onassis and he paid for cleanup. Which pissed off Janet, because she’d asked Jackie to prod Onassis to buy Hammersmith Farm, the family mansion in Newport, Rhode Island, when the Auchinclosses were struggling to afford it. Jackie didn’t come through, but she did for the Beales, who ruined Lee’s chance at documentary stardom with their weirdness (the documentary being the latest in a string of failed vanity projects as Lee struggled to find something to do with herself). It’s like typical dumb family disagreements and squabbles only magnified by decorum and massive amounts of money.
Another problem is also in the Grey Gardens example: Lee wanted to make the film about their experiences there, but there was nothing about it included in the book’s childhood chapters. For all its length, this still feels like a skim on the surface sometimes. RFK’s assassination was another part that seemed oddly brief.
I guess because the focus remains on the interplay of these three women and the changing tides of their relationships. For its flaws, it’s an interesting tool to show their personalities and choices. Their psychology becomes clear, and even Janet seems less of a shallow nightmare by the end.
She’d been old-fashioned in her youth and came from a different time, raising daughters in the 1940s alone before she married Hugh. I’m sure it was difficult for her. I’ll bet she had good reason to be tough. To be strong, powerful, and assertive. But what I saw during her older years was a gracious, elegant, and generous woman.
That’s Joyce Faria Brennan, a daughter of Mannie Faria, Hammersmith caretaker. The Farias were one source I found more reputable, as they not only lived so close to the family for so long, but they didn’t have axes to grind.
[Janet] noted that though Lee had always thought she was too hard on her, she’d just been worried about her. “She’s so desperate to be someone she’s not,” Janet told Oatsie [her again], “whereas Jacqueline is so desperate not to be someone she is.” It was an astute observation on Janet’s part, one that perfectly encapsulated the lifelong dilemma of both of her daughters.
Jackie and Lee’s dynamic is somewhat fascinating. They were nearly estranged at the time of Jackie’s death (I wasn’t clear why) and their competitiveness and pettiness with each other was unrivaled, yet they had a deep, sometimes beautiful bond too. It’s sweetl when it appears, a little saving grace amidst the rivalries, shallowness and jealousies. Like after JFK’s death:
Jackie had also asked Lee to sleep with her in her bedroom so that she wouldn’t have to be alone. Lee did as Jackie asked, and would rise before Jackie. When Jackie woke up, she found a note from Lee under her pillow: “Good night, my darling Jacks—the bravest and noblest of all. L.”
The writing isn’t great – I lost count of how many times “pretty much” was used – how is that acceptable outside of blogging? But it does have a page-turning quality, and despite frequent eye-rolling over content or style I usually struggled to put it down. I think interest in it would depend on if you’re like me – coming to it with precious little background knowledge. You could do much worse for a distracting beach or vacation read that still imparts a little historical knowledge amidst the gossip.
Jackie, Janet & Lee:
The Secret Lives of Janet Auchincloss and Her Daughters,
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Lee Radziwill
by J. Randy Taraborrelli
published January 30, 2018 by St. Martin’s Press
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