What is left to say about Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis? After the biographies and the TV miniseries, the written tributes and the documentary footage, the funeral coverage and the collector’s-edition magazine issues, you would think that even the most tireless admirer would have taken the measure of the woman right down to her size-10 feet. In the intriguing, antic, self-indulgent, erudite, campy, hothouse personal rumination he calls Jackie Under My Skin, Wayne Koestenbaum suggests that that’s where we’re completely, utterly wrong: Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis may have departed this earth, but the woman called Jackie — the celebrity, the personality, the puzzle, the inviolable representation of a certain mid-20th-century American breeding and style whose image we can call to mind quicker than we can remember the face of our own grandmother — cannot be contained or solved.
It’s not for nothing that Koestenbaum, the author of the 1993 National Book Critics Circle Award nominee The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire and a Yale English professor (whose classes must be to die for), subtitles his study Interpreting an Icon. Clinging passionately to the late widow of John F. Kennedy and Aristotle Onassis as his cultural magnetic north, Koestenbaum charts a world of exquisite sensibilities — so very, very de trop! On his Planet Jackie, everything from the sunglasses the woman wore (”because she’d been wounded by JFK’s assassination: she’d seen the sun implode, and, blinded, traumatized, could never again face light. Maybe she had no eyes!”) to the O of her breezy nickname (”priapic, Dionysian Jack departed, and Jackie symbolically inherited his priapism, his ‘jack’ nature…Onassis even shares a prefix with onanism”) reverberates with meaning and offers the clever professor a chance to strut his wit.
I call the woman Jackie because the author insists on it. ”Posthumous sycophants,” he declares, ”to this day, call Jackie ‘Mrs. Onassis.”’ Anchoring his rococo observations in what he admits — boasts — is a very personal obsession (Jackie has appeared in his dreams over two dozen times in the last 15 years), Koestenbaum reveals as much about Koestenbaum as he does about the object of his devotion. He, after all, is the one smitten with her wealth, with her facial expressions, with comparisons to Elizabeth Taylor and the tempestuous opera star Maria Callas. ”Writing about Jackie, I enter a terrain of embarrassment, error, and excess,” he confesses with a fan-club member’s unchecked eagerness. ”I risk sacrilege.” He is the one poring over old issues of Life and Photoplay, studying the photographs as if they were sacred texts — ”each hairdo a Station of the Cross,” he decides. He is the one frolicking on a mountain of free associations, some of them interestingly exotic, others giddily fey.
What you make of his aria, then, depends on the depth of your own fascination with Mrs. Ona… I mean with Jackie, your interest in the workings of the author’s keen mind, and your tolerance for having the professor in your house, monologizing like a madman. And, honey, that interest can change from chapter to chapter in this alternately enticing and exasperating book. The sensibility of Jackie Under My Skin is intrinsically gay — that of a man who understands this: ”Those of us who spend our lives straddling the fence between identities look for personalities — planets — who seem to represent the opposite of me; and to these others, these enigmas, we affix ourselves, hoping to dissolve the line between self and star.” At his most convincing, Koestenbaum dissolves that line for everyone at the party. At his most exhausting, he’s a noisy man wearing a pillbox hat in a corner all by himself. B-