What most people don’t know about Jackie O is that she had an impossibly high, almost breathless voice. We’re talking Minnie Mouse on a helium high. I only heard it a few times, saying things like “44, please” when we were in the elevator that took us to work at Doubleday & Co or when I had to run an errand to her assistant who sat sentry outside the office she occupied from 1978 until her death in 1994. In-house, Mrs Onassis (as she was called by everyone, even the elusive Mr Doubleday) was renowned for her thank you notes- any and every favour was marked almost instantaneously with a hand-written line or two hand-delivered on the heaviest card money could buy. A friend once received one for thanking her for being invited to a fabulous literary soiree. She was literally the antithesis of Miranda Priestly.
What she was best known for in the office was also something she is not best known for publicly. Her professionalism. She was, by all accounts, an amazing editor. Not only did she commission and see to publication an amazing breadth of books from erudite art history numbers to relatively risky new fiction, she scrutinized every word with an unerring eye for detail and inaccurate grammar. She was also one of the first pioneers of celebrity autobiography- in my day the building palpitated with excitement when Diana Vreeland and Michael Jackson came in to see their editor. Herding them and their stories into shape was no easy task and she was well able for it.
Once, I was lucky enough to go to a party in her apartment. The elevator opened directly inside the front hall- she occupied the entire floor of the building, which faced on to Central Park just up from the Met. The sitting room just beyond was filled with priceless art and ancient Greek statuary, presumably from the Ari years. A pair of caryatids oversaw proceedings. Even the hall bathrooms had Old Masters in them. A cozy library sported a grand piano, the top of which was covered with family photos- private moments from a most public life. Many of us had to resist the urge to look closer lest we be caught- one thing you did not do around her or hers was gawk. The good thing was this was the preferred hang out so as you lounged you couldn’t help but take in a few Presidents in repose.
Like any wise mother, Mrs Onassis had graciously vacated her home for the younger generation that night – it was basically like being at a free gaff, with staff, in a particularly well-endowed museum. Ugly Betty here couldn’t believe when midnight rolled around, which was our cue to relocate to a nightclub downtown so she could come home. And no doubt read herself to sleep in peace.
“ If you produce one book in your life, you will have done something wonderful in your life.” Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis
[email protected] had to feign a broken thumb to avoid taking the obligatory speed-typing test for her first job after college- see above.