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People Top 5
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- June 18, 1984
- Vol. 21
- No. 24
A Working Woman
No Longer a Wife or One of the Frivolous Unemployed, Jackie Onassis Has Settled into Life as a Book Editor
Nevertheless, most Doubleday employees reacted as if a star had fallen into their midst. "Everyone was twittering and fluttering about," says a writer. Soon after she arrived, Onassis strolled into Doubleday's employee snack bar. Heads turned like pages in a book as she approached the counter. Everyone stopped eating and talking until the cashier, an older woman who has worked at Doubleday for years, broke the spell. She looked directly at the new editor and said calmly, "Well, Jackie, what'll it be?"
That was six years ago. "Now no one stares at her, even when she rides up in a crowded elevator after lunch," says former Doubleday editor in chief Sandy Richardson. At 54, Jacqueline Onassis has done the seemingly impossible: She has remained one of the world's most famous and intriguing women, while keeping her privacy as a working woman.
Three days a week—Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays—Jackie takes a taxicab from her 15-room apartment on Fifth Avenue at 85th Street to Doubleday's offices at Park Avenue and 46th Street. She regularly attends editorial meetings on Wednesday mornings at 9:30 a.m., goes out to lunch and meets with writers. In the evenings she attends little dinner parties as well as immense charity galas, sometimes escorted by diamond mogul Maurice Tempelsman, 54, her frequent companion for the past four years. She jogs the 1.6-mile track around the reservoir in Central Park, visits her analyst and gets involved in civic issues like landmark preservation.
Recently she also has begun an aggressive pursuit of celebrity autobiographies. Last January she scored a major publishing coup by signing up Michael Jackson to write his memoirs. Onassis, who has yet to have a best-seller, is also said to be talking to Barbra Streisand and ballet star Gelsey Kirkland about publishing their life stories. Previously Jackie had concentrated on the kind of upscale art and photography books that look fine on coffee tables but sell poorly. Her new focus could reflect a desire to impress her employers. "Doubleday brought her in because they thought she could go to the Queen and get a book," explains one literary agent. "But Jackie thought celebrities would come to her. Finally she realized she was a heavy piece of furniture and she had to start moving."
On the Jackson deal, Onassis worked as fast as Michael's footwork. Last fall, when several publishers were vying for the 25-year-old's autobiography, Jackie and an assistant flew to L.A. to woo the singer in person. Three months later Onassis signed Jackson to a $300,000-plus contract to write what is sure to be one of the hottest books of the season. Her colleagues sent her a huge congratulatory bouquet of flowers. Michael's book, due out next spring, follows a string of unauthorized Jackson quickies, a couple of which were best-sellers. It reportedly will be ghostwritten by Los Angeles Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn. Doubleday vehemently insists that Hilburn is only helping Michael organize the material. "Jackie impressed me with her quick, immediate warmth," says Hilburn, who was Michael's choice. "She called after she read my clips, and she said she liked them a lot. She was so easy to talk to, like someone you'd known for years."
Around the office, too, Onassis is known for her exquisite manners and down-to-earth attitude. She works with her door open, stands in line at the copying machine and gets her own coffee. To keep out the crazies who won't forgive her for marrying a Greek with a 325-foot yacht, all of her incoming calls are screened by a secretary. Onassis makes outgoing calls herself, and many astounded writers have answered their phones to hear her breathy, little girl soprano: "Hello, this is Jacqueline Onassis."
She eschews bodyguards and entourages and sometimes travels alone on Doubleday business. "I walk fast," Jackie explained. On a trip to Paris, she registered at the Hotel Crillon as "Mrs. Lancaster." She met photographer Deborah Turbeville for a tour of the dusty back rooms at Versailles, which Turbeville later photographed for the 1981 book Unseen Versailles. "One time she leaned out of the limo window to ask directions," says Turbeville. "She didn't cringe in the car, making a big deal about it, like 'No one should see me, I'm Jacqueline Onassis.' "
To her friends her career symbolizes a farewell to an era and an image. "Jackie wants to do something that gives her an identity and relationships very different from her past," says one of her writers, Eugene Kennedy (no relation). In an in-house publication profiling Doubleday editors, her marriages are not even mentioned. "The text on Jackie explains that she went to Miss Porter's, and that she worked as an inquiring photographer after graduation," says one editor. "Then it jumps to 1975, when she joined Viking. There's nothing in-between."
Several years ago Onassis told Gloria Steinem, "What I like about being an editor is that it expands your knowledge and heightens your discrimination. Each book takes you down another path. Some of them move people and some of them do some good." Still, people find it hard to believe that Jackie, who negotiated a $20 million settlement with stepdaughter Christina Onassis after Ari's death, is serious about work. "Even a lot of people in the industry laugh at her. They think she's ridiculous," says Sarah Lazin, the former head of Rolling Stone Press who worked with Onassis on The Ballad of John and Yoko, a collection of essays and interviews with the Beatle and his wife. "Editors I know at other houses would say, 'Oh, how's your Jackie book?' as if it didn't really exist. But she's a good editor. She has good insights."
She also works hard; she takes manuscripts to the hairdresser, Kenneth's, and home with her at night. Occasionally, visitors to her apartment find her sitting on the living-room floor, her fluffy auburn head bent over book layouts. Two years ago Onassis was promoted from associate editor to senior editor and given a raise (editors at her level receive salaries ranging from $20,000 to $30,000 for a five-day week). Recently she moved to a new office with a window. The spartan space, in a long row of editors' offices on the 43rd floor, has room for a desk and two chairs. Her bulletin board is filled with postcards and notes. There is no artwork on the walls and no pictures of Caroline and John Jr.
Her office attire is equally simple. As Onassis' wife, she reportedly spent up to $1 million a year on clothes and jewelry. Now she dresses in tailored pants and shirts with perhaps an elegant piece of gold jewelry. Observes a writer: "She looks her age—little makeup, no facelifts—but she looks fine."
Like many editors, Onassis conducts much of her business in restaurants. Two of her favorite spots are the Stanhope hotel on Fifth Avenue for breakfast meetings and the Carlyle hotel at 76th Street and Madison for cocktails after work. When she lunches alone, she often just grabs a quick salad at a local hangout. Says Tom Guinzburg, who hired Jackie for her first editing job in 1975 when he was president of Viking Press, "Many books arrive at a publishing house as a consequence of the lives that editors live. And it seemed to me that on any given day, Mrs. Onassis might well be having more interesting lunches and dinners than anyone else in the world."
In fact, some of Onassis' books wouldn't be books if it weren't for her clout. Unseen Versailles is an example. "We needed permission to photograph models in some of the rooms, so Jackie flew to Paris to speak to the curator personally. It was only because of her charm and diplomacy that we were allowed to-do it at all," recalls Turbeville.
But does Onassis really edit? Yes, say her authors. She insisted that Jann Wenner, publisher of Rolling Stone, rewrite his introduction to The Ballad of John and Yoko to make it more impassioned. And she selected the photographs for Louis Auchincloss' 1983 book, Maverick in Mauve, the diary of a 19th-century woman. But on many of her books, the actual text editing is done by another editor, or not at all.
"I got no requests for line changes," says Don Cook, author of Ten Men and History, profiles of Charles de Gaulle, Willy Brandt and other European statesmen. "Jackie sent me lots of flowery, handwritten notes on how much she liked the book. And I got two lunches with her, one at '21' and another in her apartment."
"Jackie is a showpiece. It's unfair to say that's all she is, but she lends Doubleday a sexiness and classiness that in recent times it's lacked," says one New York editor. The 87-year-old house publishes about 600 books annually, but in recent years it has gotten a reputation for poor management and shoddy quality. So why didn't Jackie join a better house? One reason is that her boss, Doubleday chairman John Sargent, is an old friend.
Though Onassis, like most of the Kennedys, avoids reading stories that are printed about her and shies from publicity, an irony of her job is that she often is called on to publicize her authors' books. In 1979 photographers forced their way into a party Double-day was giving for Nancy Zaroulis, author of Call the Darkness Light, a novel about life in Massachusetts mills in the 19th century. The book was Jackie's first fiction acquisition. The photographers agreed to leave, but only if they could have five minutes to take pictures. At first Onassis balked, then someone reminded her, "It'll help the book, Jackie. After all, that's what these parties are for."
When she isn't working, Onassis unwinds at her secluded 356-acre Martha's Vineyard spread or at her woodsy estate in Bernardsville, N.J. She sails, rides to the hounds and reads voraciously. (Colette, Jean Rhys and Isak Dinesen are among her favorite writers.) Recently, she visited India, where son John Jr., 23, has been studying. She also dines and goes to parties with daughter Caroline, 26, who is a researcher-producer in the film department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They are often accompanied by Caroline's steady boyfriend, designer-artist Edwin Schlossberg.
"Be mysterious," Jack Bouvier once advised his daughter, and indeed she is. No one really knows Jackie's motives, because she never lets anyone close enough to find out. Currently, it is fashionable for wealthy women to work, and Onassis' detractors observe that she has always had a tendency to be trendy. "She may be good at her job, but she's not a force around town," snips one editor. That could change. As literary agent Arthur Klebanoff muses, "If Jackie can sign up five big names like Michael Jackson to do books for Doubleday, that would be a major event in the publishing world." That would be especially true—although she insists it'll never happen—if one of those books turns out to be her own memoirs.
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