Jackie Under My Skin: Interpreting an Icon

Jackie Under My Skin: Interpreting an Icon

by Wayne Koestenbaum

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Jackie Under My Skin is a nuanced description of how Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis transformed our definitions of personal identity and style. As Wayne Koestenbaum follows her into America's dreamwork, far from pious "family values," he dares to see her as a pleasure principle, a figure of Circean extravagance, and liberates her from the propagandistic uses to which her image if often harnessed.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466852822
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 09/17/2013
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 274,332
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Wayne Koestenbaum is an American poet and cultural critic. He received a BA from Harvard University, an MA from Johns Hopkins University, and a PhD from Princeton University. He lives in New York City, where he is Distinguished Professor of English at the City University of New York Graduate Center. His books include Jackie Under My Skin, My 1980s and Other Essays, and the critically acclaimed Humiliation.
Wayne Koestenbaum is an American poet and cultural critic. He received a BA from Harvard University, an MA from Johns Hopkins University, and a PhD from Princeton University. He lives in New York City, where he is Distinguished Professor of English at the City University of New York Graduate Center. His books include Humiliation and My 1980s and Other Essays.

Read an Excerpt



I BEGAN TO WRITE about the allure of icon Jackie in May 1993, while the real Jacqueline Onassis was alive and well. I addressed my sentences toward her, in tranced apostrophe: Dear Jackie, for a long time I have wanted to tell you about your frequent appearances in my dreams. I had a mad notion that she would read my book and understand my desire; that she would acknowledge the legitimacy of public curiosity; that we might become friends. It was a hopeless quest, doomed to fail. Brashly, I wanted to effect a truce between Jacqueline Onassis and icon Jackie. I wanted to find — to liberate — my "inner Jackie"; somewhere in my body was trapped a mimic Jackie O, and I wanted to afford her some room to breathe. But my plans to scale Mount Jackie — to give voice to Jackie's charisma — were foiled. Her cancer was announced; with sad suddenness, she died. I can't address Jacqueline Onassis anymore. But icon Jackie remains, a baffling array of images still requiring interpretation — not because interpretation is a panacea for loss, but because Jackie darkly captivates, and captivation fumbles for a foothold in speech. Dare I find words for why Jackie mesmerizes? Even while Jacqueline Onassis was alive, icon Jackie had a life of her own, obeying comic-book laws; we could no more explain the icon than we could avert war, bewitch our neighbors, or reverse time.

The real Jackie may have been impatient with her icon; she may have wished her icon, her troublesome twin, would go away. But the icon refused to vanish. Millions felt that the icon was virtually part of their own flesh, indispensable as an artery. Millions felt warmly toward Jackie, not because they'd met her, but because her face and story had become part of mass consciousness, and had shed illumination helter-skelter across the globe.

We called Jackie an icon because she glowed, because she seemed ceaseless, because she resided in a worshipped, aura-filled niche. We called Jackie an icon because her image was frequently and influentially reproduced, and because, even when she was alive, she seemed more mythic than real. We called Jackie an icon because her story provided a foundation for our own stories, and because her face, and the sometimes glamorous, sometimes tragic turns her life took, were lodged in our systems of thought and reference, as if she were a concept, a numeral, a virtue, or a universal tendency, like rainfall or drought.

It is easy, and tempting, to forget that an icon is an idea, not a person. Sometimes the two — icon, person — converged; most often they diverged. Say, once, that the real Jackie smiled, and that someone took a picture of Jackie smiling. The real smile, and the photo of the smile, occupy two separate spheres. The photo contributes to the formation of the icon, the colossus; the photo gives us a paper smile, a likeness, a representation, which necessarily deviates from its source. To those of us who never met Jackie, she remains mostly a figment; we may have wished that Jackie would grow more substantial, that she would step out of the photograph and intervene in our quotidian lives — but even to daydream about "the real Jackie" meant that we were deep in the throes of the icon.

When I began to dream about Jackie, years ago, she seemed public property, a shared figure, everyone's: a universal entity. What a safe celebrity to contemplate! She'd never contradict me. She'd never materialize, to prove my fantasy invalid. Then, with her death, the space of Jackie contemplation — which had seemed large as a carnival — shrank again to the size of a single, mortified body. Where I had previously felt great freedom contemplating Jackie — where, previously, "Jackie" had represented a zone of prairie space and unchecked rumination — suddenly Jackie was once again real, dying, dead, personal, absolute, her own. Thus I felt ejected from the premises on which I'd tried to build a dreamer's shaky home: the grounds of icon Jackie, which had seemed the most anonymous and grand of any public space I'd known, were suddenly, once again, off-limits. I write these sentences from an ambiguous moment in the history of Jackie: her size always changes, and it's difficult to know what size she is right now. Soon she may expand again. I cannot control the ebb and swell of Jackie's spectral media body, even though it is a body in which I have a considerable investment.

Despite the intense media coverage of Jackie's death, the fulsome tributes, the commemorative issues, she resists language. To speak about her has always seemed either tasteless or trivial. During her life, Jacqueline Onassis enforced silence: friends and family never spoke about her to the press, for they knew the consequence would be banishment. The night after her death, however, Brooke Astor and George Plimpton, among others, appeared on TV, offering reminiscences, braving the disapproval of Jackie's shade. About Jackie, all speech is unauthorized — including, of course, these words.

Jackie's funeral in St. Ignatius Loyola, the church where she'd been baptized sixty-four years before, was private, so with other fans I stood across the street on the corner of Park Avenue and Eighty-fourth Street in Manhattan, behind a police cordon. We Jackie lovers were pressed together behind sawhorses; police presence made us seem like revolutionaries or radicals, needing containment. I thought, "What do I want to see? Jackie is dead." But I needed to be present, to glimpse, at least, the casket; to experience an atmosphere that was, though generically sepulchral, also Jackie-specific.

We were many and restless, a crowd stirred by vague emotions. Next to me a black woman my age sipped a Coke while she listened to the funeral on a Walkman. Another black woman, middle-aged, addled, but with the charming gregariousness of New Yorkers unafraid to display their eccentricities, said to her, "Can't drink while you hold a radio. You'll be electrocuted." "Lay off," the Coke-sipping woman barked. This altercation might have been going on for some time.

As if on a crowded subway, I couldn't help but lean into the Coke-sipping woman. The older woman said to me, "You're touching her! You'll get electrocuted!" When a maid or mother emerged from a Park Avenue apartment house, wheeling a baby in a stroller (she tried to make her way through our throng, without success), a gay man with a fashionable goatee said, "Choose another morning to take a walk, lady." How easily we mourners expressed pique! An argument ensued between two pale women with stiff hair and an ineffable air of wealth. One of them — the more elegant — said, "Fuck you," or "Move the fuck out of my way," to the other, and attempted to enlist the intervention of a nearby policeman. In response to the obscenity, the electricity-fearing woman scolded, "Jackie O wouldn't approve of your mouth!" Meanwhile I heard a crazy derelict wandering through the crowd, yelling, "Jackie was a slut! She slept her way to the top!" For the first time I comprehended Jackie's dread of the public; I understood the not so latent hostility of fans.

Why were we angry? Because we were crowded; because we couldn't see the famous mourners gathering on the steps of St. Ignatius. Those with press passes, stationed on the traffic island in the middle of Park Avenue, obscured our view. Jackie watchers shouted, "Down with the press!" We weren't making a moral or political judgment; we just wanted to see. Someone said, "There's John-John. John-John is so handsome." The anti-electricity woman said, "He's a grown man! He's too old to be called John-John. I hate when people call him John-John." A limo drove past us; though our crowd shouted with delight, I couldn't see who was inside. Then, through the glass, Lee Radziwill smiled and waved. I thought, "Lee is all we have left."

When Jackie's casket appeared, carried up the church steps, our motley congregation applauded. I applauded, too, though later I read a disapproving editorial about how crass we were to clap. I clapped instinctively; I wished to exclaim, to shout, to turn grief into noise. For we were a long street away from the casket; applause was homage, but it was also protest against our distance from the proceedings, and against our inability to show evanescent Jackie our complicated, serious regard. About these feelings there was nothing to do, nothing to say. Through no rituals — except reading the paper and saying "Poor Jackie" — could we build a sympathetic bridge between our condition and hers. And so we applauded, as if the funeral were a performance, and Jackie's casket were a final, astounding coup de théâtre.

A man in a business suit stood near me; he held a rose. Had he intended to leave it on the church steps? Or perhaps he'd meant to stop by 1040 Fifth Avenue, Jackie's apartment building, and deposit it there. Later I saw him on the subway; he was still holding the rose, drooped now. I knew the gift's futility — the uselessness of tribute to a dead woman who, even in life, refused her public.

When a star dies, a person with whom one had no relation, a person one never had the luck to meet, one feels a disembodied variety of grief, allied to dehydration. About lost friends, one may justifiably feel bereft; one has not quite the right to mourn Jackie as if she were kin, so one experiences, instead, foreclosure. One was never the appropriate proprietor of love for Jackie; it was always an illegitimate alliance, without grounding in law or ceremony. Lacking arenas in which to celebrate or acknowledge affection for Jackie, one was left stranded, after her death, with unspeakable nostalgias. Despite the pretense of communal mourning for Jackie, icon shared by millions, there returned the contemplative solitude in which we who harbor relationships with imaginary figures must dwell. The solitude deepened, after Jackie died; Fifth Avenue seemed deprived of its preeminent resident, Grand Central Station of its savior patron, Central Park of its sprite, Manhattan of its motivation. For me, Gotham had become a marionette collapsed on the ground, its secret puppeteer having abdicated her serene position behind the screen.

It is difficult, writing about Jackie's death, to avoid sentimentality; I hear in my voice the suspect, maudlin tones that journalists summoned to describe the ambiguous power of Jackie's passing. She dominated the media at the moment of her death more than ever before in her starry career. But the coverage was bland, conformist. Indeed, the press collaborated on a revision — rehabilitation — of Jacqueline Onassis, restoring her to sainthood. Her role as model mother was emphasized; her marriage to Onassis was erased with the absoluteness of Soviet regimes banishing dissidents from the historical record. Many TV anchors referred to her as "Mrs. Kennedy." Such stalwart barometers of public emotion as Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, New York, and Life put on their covers, as memorial image, photographs of Jackie in the early years of the Kennedy administration — photos not of Jackie in strapless gown and brioche hairdo beside the Shah, nor of Jackie with memorably opulent and royalist hairdo in Paris, a coif so elaborate it had a special name ("Fontanges 1961"), but of Jackie in such outfits as simple pearls and day dress with bateau neckline. In these photos, she did not display the signature Jackie O smile — wide beam, glazed eyes — but looked ordinary and untraumatized, as if fame had not yet caused her to suffer. Only Vanity Fair, among the major periodicals, featured a photo of Jackie Onassis; here, Jackie in shoulderless black dress, baroque diamond earrings, her open mouth seeming to say, "Oh!" or "I dare you to stop me!" or "I've caught you!," was swiveled around in her seat (outrageous Jackie O is often photographed in the moment of turning around). Smiling archly and wickedly, eyebrows angled, pupils swerved to the far leftmost corner of her eyes, she seems a woman not only unusually photogenic but unusually rapacious. Because it's a candid, she has not composed her face to be commensurate with a public image (the Time and Newsweek cover shots, in contrast, were taken while she was a professional political wife). In the candid, she seems frozen in the middle of an indiscreet aside, and the words "VANITY FAIR" above her head seem the photo's caption, a description of her nature. Only Vanity Fair's photo documented the Jackie O whose spirit I adored — a pleasure principle; a woman who migrated from sanctity to scandal, and who demonstrated the secrets of extravagant living; a woman who turned away from one conversation (the proper, obedient colloquy in which she was supposed to be immersed) to deliver, on her other side, an unpredictable and unsanctioned exclamation. In this cover photo, Jackie seems to have dropped one mode of conduct, and to have, on an instant's whim, picked up another, a course that would surely earn public disapproval and envy.

The media's canonization of Saint Jackie, after her death, produced a time warp. All over newsstands were photographs of Jackie Kennedy in 1960, 1961, 1962 — but they were brightly recolored, retouched, so the yellow of her checked dress as she sat on her Cape Cod porch's chintz chaise longue (People), or the magenta of her lipstick and her wool dress (Time), seemed present hues, not past; like black-and-white classics colorized to seduce contemporary tastes, or like expensive live-action remakes of vintage comix (Dick Tracy, Batman, The Shadow), these photos of Jackie gave the illusion of being sprucer than their originals. These commemorative images of Jackie weren't nostalgic glimpses of a vanished era and of the woman who, at thirty-one, had symbolized promise, or the hype of promise; these photos presented a woman who was realer now than she had ever been before. If Jackie, after her death, preoccupied the media with unprecedented force, and if her pictures seemed not vestiges of a securely remote past, but fragments of present time, this in itself was a familiar sensation. We are accustomed to seeing wars, and personalities, replayed.

In the images of Jackie that circulated after her death she looked relaxed and unselfconscious. On the cover of Life's memorial issue, she slouches in an easy chair, smiling, her head resting on her upheld hand; one can even see faint blond hair along her arm. In this picture we are closer to Jackie than ever before; and she has abandoned good posture, assuming, instead, a rare position of unpremeditated repose. The impression this picture gives the mourning reader is that only now, after Jackie's death, has her real self emerged. Now her duties as icon are over, and she can unwind. This bizarre emphasis on "casual" Jackie reversed the tenor of her public image; if we thought we could never get close enough to her, if we felt that she was glacial, never submitting to interviews, never exposing her true feelings, that impression was posthumously revealed to have been a ruse. Here, before the deluge, was the anterior Jackie, an easier Jackie. And though these glimpses of supine, reposing Jackie, Jackie off her guard, might have been intended to comfort the bereft public — to convince us that Jackie was pleased with her lot — the photos had the opposite effect on me; they made me uncomfortable, uneasy. They persuaded me that another person — a wilder Jackie — had been erased. Alternately, they accused me of having misjudged Jackie; by having refused to notice her lightheartedness, I had betrayed her.

I find myself resorting to hyperbole — to grandiosity. Betrayal? How could I betray Jackie? Note that I can't speak about Jackie without falling into lavish unwise exaggeration — for only photos, and the uncaged fantasies they inspire, ground my sense of her.

Part of the uncanniness surrounding Jackie's death was the clear evidence of her hand in the funeral proceedings; she had, after all, chosen to be buried beside JFK at Arlington, even though for over two decades she'd gone by the name of Mrs. Onassis. To be buried near the eternal flame that she herself had lit in 1963 was a posthumous public relations coup; clearly she cared about her preservation as symbol and wished for immortality as a Kennedy. Prime architect of the Camelot myth, she consummated the process of legend-making by choosing Arlington for her own grave. That gesture made her seem more aware of the effects of her actions on public consciousness — more interested in how she would be perceived by history — than she had professed, in life, to be.


Excerpted from "Jackie Under My Skin"
by .
Copyright © 1995 Wayne Koestenbaum.
Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Jackie's Death,
Jackie Watchers, Jackie Lovers,
Dream Jackie,
Jackie and Transportation,
Astonished Jackie,
Silent Jackie,
Jackie's Wealth,
Jackie's Hairdos,
Jackie's Humiliation,
Jackie's Sunglasses and Scarf,
Jackie versus Liz,
Jackie and Origins,
Jackie and Ordinary Objects,
Exotic Jackie,
Jackie as Housewife,
The Jackie Look,
Jackie's Madness,
Jackie and Repetition,
Passé Jackie,
Jackie's Perversity, Jackie's Sanctity,
Jackie as a Fictional Character,
Jackie versus Maria Callas,
Jackie and Water, Jackie and Wind,
Jackie's Family Values,
Jackie as Dandy,
Jackie and Drugs,
Jackie and Synesthesia,
White Jackie,
Jackie's "I",
Jackie and the Media,
Jackie and Apocalypse,
Jackie and Duration,
Jackie and Space,
Jackie's Sublimity,
Jackie's Inferno,
Jackie as Diva,
What If Jackie,
Bringing Up Jackie,
Jackie's Replaceability,
Manhattan and Other Jackie Memorials,
Select Bibliography,
Additional Praise for Jackie Under My Skin,
Also by Wayne Koestenbaum,
About the Author,

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Jackie under My Skin: Interpreting an Icon 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I love the categories that the author picked out for this book. It is definitly a more personal insight into Jackie Onassis. Congradulations to the author for this entertaining book! PLEASE E-MAIL ME ABOUT JACKIE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!