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People Top 5
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- February 28, 1994
- Vol. 41
- No. 8
Portrait of a Lady
Jackie Onassis Faces Down a Diagnosis of Cancer with Her Usual Style and Composure
Which is why the news last week that Onassis, 64, is battling cancer forced many Americans into an unwelcome realization: Like everyone else, Jackie O is mortal. According to her friend and spokeswoman Nancy Tuckerman, 65, Onassis visited a doctor in January complaining of flulike symptoms that turned out to be non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph nodes (see box, page 58). The disease was reportedly discovered in an early stage, and Onassis is now undergoing chemotherapy. "There is an excellent prognosis," says Tuckerman. "The doctors are very, very optimistic."
The announcement caught many of Onassis's friends and relatives by surprise. "I feel so badly that this has happened," says Sen. Ted Kennedy's former wife, Joan, who now lives in Boston. "I didn't know until I heard it on the radio. I suspect that is how a lot of family members heard about it." Mindful of Jackie's intense wish for privacy, the senator said, "All of us are very hopeful. We love her very much."
No doubt Onassis is grateful for the sympathy, but, says a woman who knows her well, do not even think of calling FTD. "Send her flowers?" says this acquaintance. "Her real friends wouldn't dare. It's not her style, darling." According to intimates, that style is an artful arrangement of her public and private selves, perfected after more than three decades of unsought attention. And it is not likely to change because of her illness. "People say Jackie is like Greta Garbo, but she is absolutely nothing like her," says one longtime acquaintance. "Jackie hasn't resigned from the world."
For the moment, in fact, Onassis is sticking to her customary routine of working three days a week in Manhattan as a book editor at Doubleday. On the Friday that The New York Times confirmed news of Jackie's illness, she was entertaining her daughter Caroline's three children, Rose, 5, Tatiana, 3, and John (who is called Jack), 13 months, in her Fifth Avenue apartment. On the following weekend, Jackie, looking Ivory-girl healthy, braved the elements to take a snowy walk through Central Park with her companion of some 17 years, financier and diamond importer Maurice Tempelsman, 64.
In recent years, friends say, Onassis's life has reached a new level of tranquillity, comfort and quiet accomplishment. Financially well-fixed, with a post-Ari Onassis fortune estimated at some $200 million, and decidedly independent from the bumptious Kennedy clan, Onassis has never lost sight of what is most important to her: her family. "She doesn't talk about the past, she talks about today—about her grandchildren and her children," says a good friend. "She's always there for them." Onassis frequently sees John, 33, who last year-left his job as an assistant district attorney, and Caroline, 35, a lawyer and author who is married to public designer Edwin Schlossberg, 48, and she has plunged enthusiastically into grandmothering. According to a friend, Jackie baby-sits for Caroline's children once a week, taking them on Central Park outings or to Serendipity, a New York City restaurant famous for its elaborate ice-cream treats.
The still slender and vibrant Onassis seems to have found a secure relationship with Tempelsman. Belgian-born and raised in an Orthodox Jewish family, he is a generous contributor to Democratic causes whom she first met when JFK was running for President. A millionaire in the industrial diamond trade, Tempelsman is long separated from Lily, his wife of more than 40 years and the mother of their three grown children, lie now shares Jackie's airy, 15-room apartment overlooking Central Park. "Nobody criticizes her for living with a man who is married to another woman," says one social observer. "It's like a special dispensation has been made for them." Tempelsman is said to be smart and cultivated in his own right—and extremely protective of Jackie. "He's been very successful at keeping their lives private," says a friend. "It matters to them that they be left alone."
Besides her loved ones, Jackie's life in New York City revolves around her cultural and philanthropic interests and her work. Up early each morning, she does yoga daily, often steps out (swathed in a Hermes scarf and dark glasses) for a brisk walk and shows up at Doubleday, where she has been employed since 1978. (She left her first editing job, at Viking, after the company published a fictional account of an assassination attempt on Ted Kennedy.) There she acquires and edits about a dozen books a year—mostly arts-related nonfiction works—for a salary in the vicinity of $50,000. Among her best-sellers: Michael Jackson's Moonwalk, ballerina Gelsey Kirkland's Dancing on My Grave and Joseph Campbell's The Power of Myth. Each Christmas she sends friends a copy of one of her favorite books.
Publishing colleagues describe Jackie as unpretentious and dedicated. Like them, she toils in cramped, book-filled quarters. She often has a yogurt at her desk for lunch and will slop by other editors' offices to seek their opinions on her projects. "Initially we were all in awe," says one Doubleday employee. "We'd say, 'Gosh, she's come to our floor, and she's in stretch pants.' "
And though her extraordinary range of contacts—"she has the biggest Rolodex in the office," a coworker once said—helps her land the projects she wants, Onassis is no dilettante. "She selects her books very well," says a fellow editor, "and she brings a lot of muscle to bear on their publications." Bill Movers has said that he would never have thought to transform his popular television series Healing and the Mind into a best-selling book had it not been for Onassis's intense interest in the subject. "To me," Onassis said last year in a rare interview with Publisher's Weekly, "a wonderful book is one that lakes me on a journey into something I didn't know before."
Though publishing seems ideally suited to Onassis's desire to lead an intellectually stimulating private life, she has not entirely removed herself from the public eye. She attended two JFK commemorations at Boston's Kennedy Library last winter, and she presents her impeccably dressed self (she now favors designer Carolina Herrera) at the occasional book party or benefit for the New York Public Library or Municipal Art Society.
Onassis also remains passionate about riding to the hounds. She has a 10-acre house in Bernardsville, N.J. (recently sold to her children for a nominal fee), and keeps two gray geldings at the Upperville, Va., farm owned by close friends Paul and Bunny Mellon (of banking fortune fame) so that she can ride with a nearby hunt club. "Hunting is not a social thing for her," says a riding companion. "She is right up front where she can watch the hounds."
Each summer Onassis and Tempelsman fly by chartered plane to spend long weekends at her 464-acre beachfront estate on Martha's Vine-yard. They generally keep to themselves, boating and spending evenings in the warmly furnished 19-room house.
Despite her long-standing tradition of not meeting with Presidents or their wives, Jackie lunched with Hillary Rodham Clinton in her Manhattan apartment after the 1992 election and last summer invited the vacationing Clintons for a cruise aboard Maurice's 70-foot yacht, the Relemar.
On these rare social outings, the deeply private Onassis copes by deflecting attention from herself and turning the full force of her concentration on her companions. "There is a gentleness about her," says a friend. "She's funny and unselfconscious. She gives the impression that she's interested in you and your concerns."
This graceful serenity she projects is a remarkable accomplishment, given the public tragedy and turmoil she has endured. By turning within, and gathering her loved ones a little closer about her, she knows how to preserve herself—and her strength. And that, friends say, is how she will get through her battle with lymphoma. For, as one friend puts it, "she wants to put all this to rest and gel on with her life."
MARIA EFTIMIADES in New York City, PETER MEYER and JANE SIMS PODESTA in Washington, and bureau reports
- Maria Eftimiades,
- Peter Meyer,
- Jane Sims Podesta.
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