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- July 11, 1994
- Vol. 42
- No. 2
The Man Who Loved Jackie
With Savvy, Cultivated Maurice Tempelsman, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis at Long Last Found a Safe Haven—and Serenity
On each visit Tempelsman carried a small bag containing Jackie's breakfast, which she ate after the procedure. One morning Jackie could barely wait. "I'm really hungry," she told one of the doctor's aides after her C.A.T. scan. "Would you bring Mr. Tempelsman here?"
"Gee, I hope he hasn't eaten your breakfast," the aide teased. "But I'm sure he wouldn't. He's a special person."
Jackie just smiled. "Oh, yes," she said simply. "He is."
Toward the end of a life marked by extremes—extraordinary triumphs, numbing tragedy, unwanted fame—such understatement suited Jackie just fine. No matter that the rest of the world knew Tempelsman—if it knew him at all—as a colorless businessman as unprepossessing as Jackie was captivating. No matter that Maurice Tempelsman, 64, did not have the dash of a Jack Kennedy or the flash of an Ari Onassis. With Maurice—a still-married, slightly overweight diamond merchant—Jackie seemed to have found that rarest of gems: a genuine soul mate. With him she shared her family, her home, her conversation and her laughter. "With Maurice," says attorney Samuel Pisar, an old acquaintance of the couple, "everything slowed down. She was at peace with him."
Like Jackie, Maurice Tempelsman is a deeply private person. And like Jackie, he has a wide-ranging and erudite love of the arts. But most important, according to interviews with longtime friends and business associates, for Jackie, Tempelsman may have been the right man at the right time—and the man with whom she shared her longest ongoing relationship. When Jackie, emotionally battered by the difficult final years of her marriage to Aristotle Onassis, set out to create an independent life for herself in New York City, Maurice offered essential support where it mattered most: he helped ensure her financial security, delighted in her work as a book editor and gingerly took on the role of surrogate parent—and grandparent. What Jackie needed after more than two decades in the harshest of spotlights, according to a man who knew her for many years, was "understanding, stability and serenity. Maurice was the perfect man to offer it."
Maurice Tempelsman was born in Antwerp, Belgium, on Aug. 26, 1929, the son of Leon and Helene Tempelsman, both Orthodox Jews. Maurice and his younger sister Rachel spent their early years in the Jewish quarter of this port city, where their father was in the import business. Like their neighbors, the family spoke Yiddish at home. In 1940, the Tempelsmans fled the Nazis and settled in Manhattan's Upper West Side in a close-knit refugee community. Rachel Gotlieb, a childhood friend, remembers that as a teenager Maurice was bookish and "on the timid side" but resourceful, always scrambling to do odd jobs.
It was among this group that Tempelsman met his wife, Lilly Bucholz, a woman two years his senior who had fled Antwerp with her family. Lilly, according to Gotlieb, was a more observant Jew than Maurice, but that did not prevent the couple from marrying in the late '40s. They have three children, Rena, 40, Leon, 38, and Marcy, 33.
By the time of his marriage, Tempelsman, who never graduated from college, had joined his father in a new business: Leon Tempelsman and Son, Inc., diamond merchants. "I had an inner conflict about whether I really liked business," Maurice told FORTUNE in 1982, "and part of me still wonders."
But when it comes to diamonds, Tempelsman is nothing short of a visionary. In 1950 he created a new marketing niche by persuading the U.S. government to stockpile African diamonds for industrial and military purposes—with Tempelsman as middleman—and in 1957, at the age of 27, he and his lawyer, Adlai Stevenson, traveled to Africa, where Tempelsman had begun forging ties with leaders. His contacts eventually ranged from South African revolutionary Oliver Tambo to Zaire's dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, not to mention the influential Oppenheimer diamond family.
Today Tempelsman, who has done business in Zaire and Angola, owns an interest in a diamond mine in Ghana and last year opened a diamond-polishing factory in Botswana. According to sources, the secretive Tempelsman is "a major, major player" in Africa, the kind of person who "jets in to attend a barbecue with the president of Namibia."
Now a general partner in the family business (his father died in 1955) and CEO of Lazare Kaplan International, one of the U.S.'s oldest diamond firms, Tempelsman is also one of only 160 "sightholders" in the world, which means that 10 times a year he is permitted to buy diamonds directly from the powerful De Beers cartel. A former chairman of the New York City-based African-American Institute and a consistent contributor to Democratic causes (in the past 14 years he has donated over $160,000 to Democratic candidates and the party), he also brings his influence to bear in Washington and was especially active in 1988 when a proposed embargo of South African diamonds threatened his business.
Tempelsman's business savvy may, in fact, have been part of his appeal for Jackie. "All her life she had a fascination with pirates," says author Ed Klein, who is at work on a book about the former First Lady. "In many ways she chose two pirates as husbands, and underneath his veneer of cosmopolitanism and culture, Maurice Tempelsman is a pirate as well. To negotiate in Africa requires a man of very special talents."
It was Africa that brought the couple together. In the late 1950s, then-Sen. John Kennedy wanted to meet representatives of the South African diamond business, and Tempelsman arranged the meeting. Though Jackie and Maurice became friends at the time, it was not until after Aristotle Onassis's 1975 death that the two grew close. By the late '70s the pair were regularly sighted attending the opera or charity events together.
In 1984, Tempelsman finally left Lilly, leaving her their Upper West Side apartment and moving into the ritzy Stanhope Hotel, near Jackie's Fifth Avenue apartment. By 1988 he was living with Jackie. Although Maurice and Lilly never legally divorced, about 10 years ago, Lilly, a marriage counselor with the Jewish Board of Family and Child Services in New York City, granted her husband a "get," an Orthodox Jewish divorce. To this day, according to an intimate of Maurice's, he and Lilly have stayed in touch, maintaining a relationship that is "extrenely friendly and harmonious."
Tempelsman is also reportedly very close to his children and six grandchildren. The name of Tempelsman's 70-foot yacht, Relemar, comes from his children's initials. Leon, a graduate of the Harvard Business School, works with his father as president of the company, and Marcy designs jewelry for the firm. Family is all-important to Maurice, Leon told author Jan Pottker for Born to Power, a 1992 book on family businesses. "We did not sit around the dining room table talking about 'Gee whiz, what a great deal we made today,' " Leon said. "There are things in life much more important than business." Dinner-table chat, he added, was about ethics and art.
For Jackie and Maurice living together seemed the right thing, despite what society might have thought. "They lack the piece of paper, but there's a spiritual bond," Rose Schreiber, a cousin of Maurice's, once observed. Certainly the life Maurice and Jackie shared was filled with fine wine, good food and sparkling conversation. They often spoke French together, and the small dinner parties they held in her 15-room apartment—during which Tempelsman would get up from the table to supervise the light French sauces—included such guests as Candice Bergen and Henry Kissinger. A collector of ancient and African art with an interest in politics, theater and music, Tempelsman "is at home in almost any culture he finds himself in," said Chester Crocker, former Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for African Affairs.
His worldliness is reportedly matched by his charm. "He always has a twinkle in his eye and a wonderful smile," says one woman. "He makes you feel you were the most important person in the world." Acquaintances talk about how he always remembers to ask after their children. Former congressman Tony Coelho, a Tempelsman friend, says, "The more you talk to him, the more you like him. He is a person who can be a natural confidant."
For Jackie, of course, he was that and much more. During a vacation in Provence, France, in June 1993, Jackie "was radiant" in Tempelsman's presence, according to a friend, Yolande Clergue, who organized the trip. "They were truly affectionate. When they looked at each other you could see they were terribly in love. But it was a love also offering great serenity." Although they were not physically affectionate in public, according to Coelho, "they were natural together. Most people put her up on a pedestal, but with Maurice it was different. He didn't regard her as a trophy."
In fact, in some ways Jackie looked up to Tempelsman. He has a "close relationship" with Caroline and John Jr., according to former Jack Kennedy aide Ted Sorensen, who is also a good friend of Tempelsman's, and he helped John get summer internships in .Africa, India and at the Center for National Policy in Washington. Tempelsman's children also became close to Jackie and her family, visiting them summers on Martha's Vineyard. Tempelsman's daughter Rena once told a friend that Jackie "was like a grandmother to my children."
Jackie also turned to Maurice for financial advice. He helped build her $26 million settlement from the Onassis estate into a fortune estimated at between $100 and $200 million. He is now an executor of her estate (for which he stands to collect large fees, should he choose to accept them), which she left largely in trust to her children's heirs. When Yolande Clergue learned that Jackie was ill, she says, "I wrote to Maurice because in the couple it was Maurice who took everything in hand."
During Jackie's final days, Tempelsman rarely left her side. According to Sorensen, he set up an office in her Fifth Avenue apartment. One of Jackie's doctors says, "The level of love and respect was amazing to see. He was always holding her hand or caressing her cheek, and when they sat their heads were always close together, like a sweet older couple. You had to smile when you looked at them." But if Tempelsman was stalwart in her presence, occasionally he would let his guard down among close friends. "He'd say, 'She's suffering. You don't know how she's suffering,' " says one.
When Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was laid to rest on May 23 the public at last had an opportunity to glimpse the man Jackie loved so well. As he took his place of honor among the mourners, his bearing was dignified, the depth of his grief unmistakable. When he rose to deliver a eulogy, he chose "Ithaka," a poem by the Greek poet C.R Cavafy that allowed his audience to understand some of the delights the couple had tasted. "May there be many a summer morning," he recited, "when, with what pleasure, what joy, you come into harbors seen for the first time." Now, of course, Tempelsman must continue that voyage alone. This, according to a friend, will be difficult. "He is devastated," the friend says. "They planned on growing old together."
MARIA EFTIMIADES and ALLISON LYNN in New York City, SANDRA McELWAINE and ROCHELLE JONES in Washington, JOANNE FOWLER in Antwerp, PETER MIKELBANK in Paris, DRUSILA MENAKER in Johannesburg
- Maria Eftimiades,
- Allison Lynn,
- Sandra McElwaine,
- Rochelle Jones,
- Joanne Fowler,
- Peter Mikelbank,
- Drusila Menaker.
February 15, 2016
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