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From Style Icon to Book Editor: My Connection to Jackie Kennedy Onassis

I grew up in a world where stories about Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis filtered through my life like butterflies in a garden. I don’t remember where I was when US President John Kennedy was shot, being too young at the time to care much about the American political system. But I’ve seen countless photographs of that fateful day and what came after, and, over the years, I couldn’t help getting swept up in the mystique of the woman JFK left behind. I have to admit that the more I’ve learned about her, the more curious I’ve become; she became an editor, of all things. How many famous people do that?!

Jackie Kennedy Onassis was a beautifully stylish individual who led a privileged life. She was publicly silent about her first husband’s famous philandering, and she was tasked with what must have been the monumentally difficult job of raising her children in the public eye. The similarities between her and Britain’s Princess Diana are too obvious to be missed. But there was a depth about Kennedy Onassis’s story that speaks to her love of language, The Arts and history, and it’s that piece that resonates with me still today.

Mrs. Kennedy Onassis had a BA in French Literature and as a very young woman she worked briefly as an “inquiring photographer,” a position with the Washington Times-Herald newspaper that required her to interview people and write short news anecdotes about them. Many years later, following the death of her second husband, shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, she began a career as a book editor, working first for Viking Press and then for Doubleday. She was 46 years old when she began this part of her career and this is one of the things she was doing in life when she was diagnosed with cancer in 1993. She died in 1994 at the age of 64.

I often wondered what it would have been like to have Mrs. Kennedy Onassis for one’s editor. Was this a position created for the prestige of having a former First Lady of the United States on the letterhead? Or was she a master of story-telling who had an innate sense of flow? Was she brutally particular about punctuation? Did she support her authors with kindness and enthusiasm?

Reading up on these questions, and more, it turns out that Kennedy Onassis had a reputation among her co-workers and others as being a committed editor who developed a strong editorial skill set over time. She cared deeply about her authors and she had a passion for her work. I admire what Kennedy Onassis did with her life – here was a woman who was struck by tragedy more than once, and yet she was able to carve out a fulfilling role for herself doing work she loved. I think that’s a wonderful example of what’s possible for us all – keep putting one foot in front of the other and find your way to work you love. It may not sound glamorous. And it works.


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