8 questions for Greg Lawrence, author of "Jackie as Editor"

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis spent longer working as an editor than she did married to either President Kennedy or millionaire Aristotle Onassis.

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What do Michael Jackson, Bill Moyers, Louis Auchincloss, Carly Simon, and Nobel Prizewinner Naguib Mahfouz have in common?

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was their editor.

In fact, as Greg Lawrence points out in his new book, Jackie as Editor, Onassis spent longer as an editor than she did married to either President Kennedy or millionaire Aristotle Onassis. However, in most of the many biographies written about the iconic former first lady, her professional life is frequently reduced to a paragraph or two.

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To give a fuller picture of her as a working woman, Lawrence interviewed more than 125 writers and editors who worked with Onassis during her 19 years at first Viking Press – which she left after a contretemps over a Jeffrey Archer novel featuring an assassination of a fictional Ted Kennedy – and Doubleday, where she remained until her death in 1994. (In some cases, the people interviewed in the book spoke on the record about her for the first time.)

While another book examining Onassis's editing career also came out this month, Lawrence provides an insider's view: In addition to being her biographer, he also belongs on the list of Jackie's writers.

He spoke with the Monitor by phone earlier this month.

1. What was the genesis for your project? What made you want to examine Onassis through the books she edited? And how much can you learn about a person from those choices?

I began the project when I ran across letters and manuscripts which [his coauthor, ballerina] Gelsey Kirkland and I had received back from Jackie, since she was our editor for three books over 10 years.

And in rereading these letters, I realized, “Oh my God, she was so brilliant.” She was so able to put together praise and criticism, and her praise could be quite effusive. There was such an eloquence in her writing. I realized that this was a very special editor, and someone who could be exemplary for people still working in publishing today.

After interviewing many of her authors … I realized the experience I had with Jackie was in no way unique. She really knew how to cultivate authors and nurture them, support them.

There was a kind of conspiracy, if you will: You felt like she was taking you under wing and that she was on your side against the corporate hierarchy.

She would call at night, sometimes, when we were running low on money, and say with that whispery voice of hers, “Don't worry, Greg. I'm going to get you more money. Just don't tell anyone!”

That's the way she made you feel.

And her notes of praise: We would turn in our books one chapter at a time, and she would always write a note on her powder-blue stationary. And she had this beautiful calligraphy handwriting. And she would just make you feel like what you were doing was really important, might even be historically important.

I think that was her motivation over the years.... She loved the idea that these books were part of a cultural discourse. She was able to invest her ideas and her ideals that traced all the way back to Camelot days, and she was able to instill that in the books she edited, because she chose very carefully who the authors were going to be and what the subject was going to be.

With her, there was always a commitment to the author, it didn't matter if your first or second book was commercially successful, she was going to continue to work with this particular stable of authors that she had recruited.

2. Would that even be possible today?

Probably not. It's interesting. The world of publishing changed so much during her 19 years.... When Gelsey and I started in 1984 at Doubleday, it was Nelson Doubleday's company. … Even though it was a very large company, there was a familial atmosphere, a collegial atmosphere.

Just when our book, “Dancing on my Grave,” was published in 1986, the big German octopus Bertelsmann bought Doubleday out. Everything changed after that. It became much more focused on the bottom line. The marketing department sort of took over and the editors were sort of on the bottom rung. So that change in atmosphere was something that Jackie had to adjust to. And she still managed to get a lot of projects off the ground, but she was turned down a lot, too.

There were a number of projects during the last couple of years of her life –especially '93, '94 – where she just didn't have the ability to prevail on the powers that be at Doubleday. She even considered going to another house or starting her own imprint, and finally decided against it, probably because she realized it would be such a disruption in her life. I think she was also afraid of the publicity that would be generated if she left Doubleday in a stink.

She was in that tradition of editors from earlier in the century, like Maxwell Perkins, where they established a certain kind of relationship with their authors that went beyond the commerce. They developed lifelong friendships.

Jackie was always interested, not just in the book and the work that was under way, she was interested in what was going on in your life. There were a number of authors who went through crises in their lives – divorces and challenges like that -- and Jackie would spend hours on the phone with them, consoling them, advising them.

It was a different kind of relationship than, for instance, the relationships I've had with editors since. There is not that kind of rapport. And these are very good editors. I'm not complaining. I'm just pointing out that the world of publishing changed.

3. Now, you talk about her praise. But she made you cut that first book in half.

Right. That's what I mean. She knew how to lead you along. As we turned in each chapter, there was all of this praise. She would quibble with this and that, but it was all very positive.

By the time we had this 600-page manuscript, it came back to us and it was really cut almost in half. There were all these suggestions, and she emphasized that these were only suggestions.

I knew she was going to return a phone call after we had gone over all this and were traumatized. And I was all ready to argue with her, and say, “Oh no, we have to keep that scene in and that scene in!”

But when you heard that voice, it was so disarming. I just said, “Good, we'll do it your way, Jackie.”

One of her writers – he was also her step-cousin – Louis Auchincloss, when I told him that story, said, “Yes, we all learned very early that you don't argue with a former first lady.”

4. From Michael Jackson to Louis Auchincloss is quite a wide spectrum. Which books most interested her?

Her favorite projects were the very lavish illustrated books. They were very expensive. But she managed to do quite a few of them. She did five of those books with Tiffany's ... Peter Sis did a very elaborate illustrated children's book called “The Three Golden Keys,” that was enormously successful.

She did her share of novels. Some of them are quite noteworthy. After Naguib Mafouz won the Nobel Prize, she immediately got on the track of having him published in English.

She kept up with everything being published in France, because she spoke so fluently. That's how she found Edvard Radzinsky, “The Last Tsar.” That was in Russian, translated into French. That book became an enormous bestseller.

Michael Jackson, I think, was a project she undertook to please the people at Doubleday – even though a number of them didn't know who Michael Jackson was, including Sam Vaughan, who was editor-in-chief at the time. He said he was fortunate he wasn't fired.

5. You point out that she was an editor far longer than she was first lady, or longer than she was married to Aristotle Onassis, but it's not something that gets much attention in other biographies.

One reason – Bill Moyers pointed it out to me – she was very private, not only about her personal life, but about her professional life, her editing. After her initiation at Viking Press in 1975, '76, she was never photographed in her office. She didn't give interviews. So her work life, her professional life, was something that most people didn't know about. Most of her books, her name doesn't appear. So, it was kind of a sanctuary for her, that, I think, that enabled her to balance her personal life, somehow survive the incredible public scrutiny that was always ongoing with her.

6. The people working with her were very protective of her. In fact, some won't talk about her even today.

There are a handful, like Shaye Areheart is one. She started as Jackie's assistant and became a real colleague and partner. She took a vow of silence. I think there were several others who did that.

Most everyone now, because we're this many years later, were willing to talk and some talked for the first time. Like Vartan Gregorian, the former head of the New York Public Library. He was very emotional about it. He just adored her. She would spend hours in the stacks of the New York Public Library looking for ideas. He and Jackie became very close. He never spoke until just this past year.

7. How do you think she inspired that loyalty?

Well, you know, in part, she was that iconic figure. Everyone fell in love with her after the assassination and the great dignity with which she comported herself. Upon meeting her the first time, everybody was stunned by, you know, you're meeting this historical figure. She developed a talent for putting people at ease and making them realize she's here in a professional capacity and a creative capacity. She was all about the work. That, in itself, was very disarming.

With editorial colleagues, she got it across to them very early: Everything with her was to be held in confidence. If you betrayed her confidence, you were going to be thrown out of the castle. I think people were somewhat intimidated, too. She was not like any other editor, because of the history she brought with her.

8. Is there anything you'd like to add?

I think one of the most telling anecdotes in the book was given to me by Joe Armstrong, founder of Rolling Stone. Over the last five, six years, he really was one of Jackie's closest friends.… He says, “I remember being with her at the Vineyard the last summer she was there, and she had just turned 64. I remember being in her living room. She had all these books and she said, 'These are my other best friends.' ”

That's the way she felt about books and language and literature. She would like nothing more than being in her library reading a new manuscript and plotting how to get it accepted. That was a part of her life that was very precious to her.…

Here's a quote that's not in the book: I initially had entitled the book, “Under That Pillbox Hat.” The reason was, in 1993, Carl Anthony did a book on first ladies. His editor showed Jackie the book, and she said, “Oh, great. Now maybe people will know there WAS something under that pillbox hat.”

I think she wanted to be recognized for the intellectual qualities that she possessed and not just that historical persona and the first lady persona or the wife of a Greek tycoon.… As a working mother, this was all very important to her.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews books for the Monitor.

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