In 1979, an issue of Gloria Steinem’s Ms. Magazine featured Jackie Onassis on the cover with the headline: “Why Does This Woman Work?”
At the time, it was a question that had confounded much of the country. Jackie’s starting salary was just $200 a week, so the former first lady, now in her late 40s, clearly wasn’t doing it for the money. (She’d inherited $26 million from her late second husband, Aristotle Onassis, so paying the bills wasn’t a concern.)
Even though she could have been whiling away her time on a yacht, she spent almost two decades as a book editor, first at Viking (from 1975 to 1977) and then at Doubleday (from 1978 until her death in 1994), leaving behind a legacy that still isn’t especially well-known.
A new novel, “The Editor” by Steven Rowley, brings to life this time, imagining Jackie in the title role in early 1990s New York. Yet even Rowley was only vaguely aware of her publishing career before he started writing his book.
“But the more I learned about it, the more it seemed like the most interesting part of her life,” he told The Post. “It’s the only part where she’s not defined by her relationship with a man.”
Her desire to work was, in fact, rooted in something very simple.
“She was bored,” said historian William Kuhn, author of “Reading Jackie: Her Autobiography in Books.”
“Especially during her marriage to Onassis. He was a very traditional Mediterranean male who forbade his wife from working. When he died, she realized she needed something more.”
In 1975, Jackie told Newsweek that she was perplexed by the public’s fascination over her new career. “It’s not as if I’ve never done anything interesting,” she said. “I’ve been a reporter myself, and I’ve lived through important parts of American history. I’m not the worst choice for this position.”
She’d nursed a passion for books since childhood and was such a ravenous reader that she was poring over Chekhov short stories at just 6 years old. At 21, she was hired as a junior editor at Vogue magazine — although she quit on her first day, concerned that the female-heavy staff would hinder her dating prospects — and shortly after became a columnist for the Washington Times-Herald.
In 1962, she wrote and edited her first book, “The White House: An Historic Guide,” a room-by-room photographic tour of the historic residence.
The book sold for $1 each to tourists, which helped fund her White House restoration project.
When she joined Viking as a consulting editor in 1975, she was adamant that she receive no special treatment. As the fictionalized Jackie in “The Editor” explains, her office was “a regular size and stacked high with manuscripts. I get my own coffee and wait in line to use the copier, same as anyone else.”
Rowley got it exactly right in his novel, Kuhn says. “She tried hard to blend in. Her office was small, with just one window. She answered her own phone. She didn’t want to be seen as a grande dame.”
But she wasn’t a complete workhorse. “She was only at the office three or four days a week and didn’t often stay beyond lunch,” he says. “And then she disappeared for three months during the summer. I don’t think that’s typical for most people’s first jobs.”
She may have kept irregular hours, but she was more productive than editors half her age. From her brief two years at Viking — she quit after learning that they were publishing a novel about the assassination of her brother-in-law Robert Kennedy — to her tenure at Doubleday as an associate editor, where her annual salary ballooned to $100,000, she acquired and brought to publication over a hundred books.
Her tastes ranged from Egyptian author and Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz to “Cartoon History of the Universe” illustrator Larry Gonick. She coaxed best-sellers out of Harlem Renaissance writer Dorothy West and recovering drug addict and ballerina Gelsey Kirkland and novelist Barbara Chase-Riboud, who wrote about Thomas Jefferson’s affair with slave Sally Hemings.
One of her biggest successes was Michael Jackson’s 1988 memoir “Moonwalk,” which sold half a million copies. It was a hard-won victory for Jackie, who only closed the deal after begrudgingly agreeing to write the book’s forward. (She penned a three-paragraph intro that reads like jury duty.)
Stephen Davis, a career rock biographer, signed on to ghostwrite “Moonwalk” before realizing who was editing it. “I called the publisher and Jackie picks up,” he told The Post. “I’m stuttering like an idiot, and she’s like, ‘I’m really excited about this book.’ How do you make small talk with a woman like that?”
When Davis submitted a draft, which he says was a mess, he expected to be fired. But he never received editing notes and only learned months later, when the book was finally published, that Jackie loved his draft. “I have no idea what happened,” he says. “I thought it’d be the end of my career, but I guess Jackie saw something.”
She lost as many big names as she landed. Diana Ross and Frank Sinatra never returned her calls. Oliver Stone declined to let her read his unpublished novels, and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf took his memoir elsewhere.
Though she once claimed she would “give up food to publish Hunter Thompson,” she never had the chance to work with the “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas ” author.
Author Elizabeth Crook sold her debut novel, “The Raven’s Bride,” to Jackie in 1991, and she remembers dreading her first meeting with the larger-than-life American icon. “But she was thoughtful and put me at ease right away,” Crook told The Post. “I was thrilled when she turned out to be a roll-up-your-sleeves kind of person.”
Jackie’s notes were unsparing — she had no patience for melodrama or unnecessary exposition — and even her constructive criticism could be hilariously ruthless. Crook remembers one note that read, “Baby Samuel is so over-described it could turn one off babies.”
One of her more infamous notes to a young author, written on the margins of a manuscript: “You know, you remind me of those little terrier dogs at fox hunts … They’re just so nervous and anxious to please.”
Though Jackie could be “motherly” (Crook’s word), not all of her authors had personal relationships with her.
Davis says he met her only once, years after “Moonwalk” was published, at a party hosted by Carly Simon on Martha’s Vineyard. “I introduced myself to her as the guy who wrote the Michael Jackson book,” Davis remembers. “She gave me a look and then turned to her boyfriend Maurice (Tempelsman) and said, ‘ “Moonwalk.” Oy.’ That was it. That was the end of our conversation. Then I slunk back to my table.”
Jackie continued to edit after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1994. She was marking up manuscripts in her Fifth Avenue apartment through chemotherapy and even up to her death that same year. When her son John Jr. informed reporters of her passing, he said that in Jackie’s final moments she was surrounded by friends and family “and her books, the people and the things that she loved.”
What makes her editing career so remarkable — besides that it lasted longer than her two famous marriages combined — was how it shed new light on a woman whose name is synonymous with 20th-century glamour.
“It’s not only counter to how we remember her, but it’s also counter-intuitive to our own instincts,” says Rowley. “We all stare out the office window, daydreaming about floating away on a yacht. But Jackie was on the yacht, daydreaming about the office. The very things that we find so oppressive about working in an office, those were the experiences that finally set her free.”
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