Jackie Under My Skin

October 8, 2007

I have never really been drawn to Jackie Kennedy. She’s a parade who ended and all I can see is the leftover confetti and litter fading in the sun. That’s probably not what the reader wants to hear, but I was never able to access her as anything other than a cliché of gay camp. My “in” is after the fact, more from Warhol than Life magazine. She is a link to JFK, but even he is remote as we never shared overlapped time on this planet. My only memory of him is other people’s memories of where they were the day he was assassinated. Rather I don’t even have those. Nobody has ever actually told me where they were when the president died. I just know that it is something they are supposed to remember. Jackie was there, and she transformed. She survived. She was a style icon, with looks like a sedated cat who ate a canary.

I’m trying to recall my first memory of her, probably on a magazine, old, before retro. Jackie was always too prim for my taste; she looked incapable of fun. She might think something was pleasant, or do a swinging dance step, but was she capable of fun? She’s refinement, worldly refinement. People gush about her beauty. As a child I thought there was something odd with the way she looked. Her eyes were too far apart, like the horrifying manifestation of animated Snow White come to life, mirror opposite of how Barbie would supposedly snap under her own weight if she miraculously became a to-scale living woman. Jackie with her face so large, her eyes so far set, like a flounder whose life starts with eyes on opposite sides of the head. Over time eyes migrate until both are on the same side. We have caught Jackie Kennedy’s eyes mid-migration. Someday they will be sitting on the same side of her head, but for now they must be content to stare off in different directions from the arc of her head. As Koestenbaum put it, “Her gaze was 180 degrees—like theater in the round, available to all spectators. If the photo is taken frontally, she looks walleyed (split personality, eyes going in opposite directions)” (120).

All this couching and description implies that I have a hostility towards the icon, but through Koestenbaum she is sublimely rendered. He is a tour of what makes her sublime, elements that I probably hadn’t noticed or understood before. He dances the reader through meditations on her phenomena. Accurate and contagious, I think my lack of previous connection to Jackie has more to do with what Koestenbaum refers to as Jackie’s shininess. As he says, “Think of numb fingertips, their prints are gone: that is shiny skin. Such skin slides across whatever surface it touches, unable to establish traction” (38). This smooth glossy ability that allowed Jackie to slide from photo to photo never appearing fully present or sticking, may be the same reason I never fully connected to her as an icon. I didn’t participate in the historical moment that produced these photo objects. I had no context for them, so I fall victim to the side effects with nothing to really grab or anchor the woman into my mind. I only half-heartedly approached these slippery remnants, never fully engaged. All I saw was the vacancy. I had focused on the shadow side of Jackie’s shininess.

My most immediate connections to Jackie are: The House of Yes, What Would Jackie Do?, my cousin/aunt, and now Jackie Under My Skin by Wayne Koestenbaum. The House of Yes was entertaining. I like Parker Posey. I like movies that come from plays. They have a quickness to the dialogue like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe? that is witty and wry like people don’t talk in real time. What Would Jackie Do? is a dippy little book my boyfriend bought that is a hypothetical guide to how one should approach life to be more like Jackie. See, even my boyfriend likes Jackie. I like her glasses: Jackie O’s, or as they’re sometimes called “battered wives.”

My other connection is through my cousin, I forgot about my cousin. I’m sure Jackie absolutely hated her. Usually my cousin is referred to as my aunt, but she’s actually a second cousin. That makes her my mom’s cousin. She and my mom grew up together and spent summers at the same farm. Her dad is my mother’s uncle. The farm is the one that I will someday inherit a portion of. It is now a large commercial wheat farm, but at one point it was the family home of my grandfather and his brothers before they moved off and became successful lawyers in the 30s. They all became lawyers, every last one of them. Anyway, this cousin/aunt of mine made a name for herself early on by writing about Jackie. My mom reminded me of this the other day when I was reading Jackie Under My Skin. “You should call aunt Kitty, maybe she’ll have some insight for you,” never mind that I’ve only met aunt Kitty a handful of times at occasions centering around funerals, or that Kitty Kelley’s biographies share little sympathy with a cultural meditation of a person’s identity and cultural significance like Koestenbaum’s Jackie Under My Skin. My mom was taking an interest in me taking an interest in Jackie. Her tone surprised me and she seemed sad and confused by my relative blandness towards the former First Lady. Koestenbaum refers to Kitty Kelley numerous times in this piece, but in less than admiring tones. Needless to say, I didn’t take Mom’s advice to call cousin/second cousin/aunt Kitty, but I did take my mother’s reverence to heart when diving into Jackie Under My Skin. “There really was such optimism surrounding them,” she said. “It was a different time.”

What Koestenbaum and my mother understand is this cultural reverence surrounding a person. There’s a sanctity to Jackie’s larger than life identity, like entering a sacred space. I wasn’t born a believer, to participate I must convert. Jackie Under My Skin is a conversion point. It offers space to share in Koestenbaum’s meditations on Jackie O as idealized deity in contrast to Jackie as flesh and blood human, exploring the intersection between the idealized supernal and the mundane terrestrial individual. It is also an elegant examination of our cultural relationship to celebrity, which dovetails nicely with thoughts I’d like to explore further in my work.

The beauty of Koestenbaum’s book is his ability to zero in on the patterns that make up Jackie’s life and transport them into lyrical pathways that give insight into her as icon. He breaks these patters down, isolating them into movements like music: Jackie and Ordinary Objects, Silent Jackie, Dream Jackie, Jackie and Transportation. They situate these elements or ideas of Jackie in relation to us the public, or to other ideas of Jackie. In Jackie and Transportation he explores Jackie as an entity always in transition.

“From a distance, in pictures, she appears motionless, always smiling, groomed, rich. But readers of gossip scoops know that she was, at least in myth, always on the verge of a potentially disastrous transformation: about to lose her husband; about to lose her money. Just as she was transported from one mode of existence to another, she filled her fans with semireligious transports” (24).

This idea is beautifully underscored by the author’s use of allegorical close readings from photos of Jackie highlighting details like the space between JFK and Jackie as she glides out of frame, or her emotionlessly intent expression mimicking that of a cold war spy.

Much of the writing in this book reminds me of cloistered archeologists working only from photographic records. They must be insightful and delicate in their discoveries, but must rely just as much on what they can make up or surmise, as to what they can painstakingly uncover. How else does one discover, “Talking about her clothes was a way of talking about her body without seeming to. Indecorous to speak about the First Lady’s body. But not out of line to speak about her clothes, which were the body’s map, speaking unseen hills and dales” (119). What can they unveil in the semiotics of hand position and hat fashion? Images of Jackie are like a script to be read, interpreted by Koestenbaum. Where else might one discern, “…the relation of Jackie’s head to her body resembles the relation of a baby’s head to its body. Thus Jackie’s head is a needy and center of attention head” (122). The elegance of this almost medieval sliding logic equates like with like while transforming one idea into another, to reveal a truth.

I guess it is interesting that I’m writing about Jackie O. Indirectly I am connected to her through my cousin Kitty. Jackie almost seems like a cottage industry for my family. What is strongest about Koestenbaum’s work is that it says more about culture and the relationship between icons and the general public. Jackie is almost secondary. It is important to again note that I’m not particularly a Jackie fan, but the insight in this book bridges that gap, allowing me to buy into Koestenbaum’s vision of a Jackie world, while coming away with my own insights about fame. The quality of the writing takes one through the path of his thoughts, indoctrinating through a process of exploration, helping us to culturally understand Jackie as a reservoir. Through her we connect to shared societal dreams while mapping out our personal connections to the constellations of culture.


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