Memorandum of a talk with Louis Auchincloss
1111 Park Ave,
11 am to 1230 pm,
Tuesday 24th March 2009.
A distinguished building on Park between 89 & 90th on a cold spring day. Bright sunshine, wintry wind. The front door opens on to a long, mirrored foyer with floor tiles in a black and white checkerboard pattern. Two doormen. One at a computer. They sent me up to the 14th floor without calling him and said "the door on the righthand side." Only two apartments per floor. I stood for quite a while in a tiny corridor outside the elevator, decorated with his wife's wall drawing of the apartment's location near Central Park. A picture of the two of them drawn in on the lower righthand side.
A boy, possibly a personal trainer, let me in and asked me if I'd rung twice. I said "Yes." He gave me a firm handshake and left, motioning toward the living room where he said Auchincloss was sitting. Another entrance hall of checkerboard tiling, but this seemed to be cheap linoleum, not marble. A black maid, not in uniform was making a racket in the kitchen and continued vacuuming during my visit.
Auchincloss was sitting in an easy chair before a big pair of windows, with old fashioned Venetian blinds, in a sitting room that faced north. Two opposing groups of seating. One peach striped sofa next to him; another rust velvet sofa across the room. There was a portrait of a Versailles interior in yellow by Nattier; he told me the authenticity was disputed. A contemporary landscape was over the fireplace with at right, badly framed, a photo of an oil portrait of him, the same one Marly Rusoff (former Doubleday executive, now a literary agent) showed me on the top floor of the Century Club.
Like Nan Talese's apartment, it felt as if it had been decorated many years ago. It seemed to be a 1960s Park Avenue.
He had on a pair of khaki trousers, decent shoes, a blue shirt and a navy vee neck sweater, with some crusts and stains of food on it. He was sharp and compos mentis. He smelled vaguely of pee. He was a vast snob, but sometimes amusing about it and self aware enough to be making fun of himself. Sometimes not. He is interested in Henry James's, Edith Wharton's and Proust's world, but he hasn't their detachment, their irony or their depth. I imagine him looking at old volumes of Debrett's, the Almanach de Gotha, and the NY Social Register with a jeweler's concentration, but without their appreciation of magic or feeing that these encyclopedias are works of fiction too.
He has the sharp look of an eagle, with a pointy feeling about his face and old tortoise-shell spectacles.
Of Jacqueline Onassis he said "She worked under certain disadvantages" as an editor who was also the world's most famous woman. People would do anything for her. Also, "she worked only 3 days a week and you can't get to be a great editor that way."
Of her marriage to Onassis, he said "She cared too much about money." He said that someone had remarked about the time of the wedding in 1968, "I knew the Bouvier girls cared about money but I didn't know they cared that much." This was a line in a play he had seen. It had gotten a great laugh from the audience.
He says in his autobiography A WRITER'S CAPITAL (1974) that he always cared about who had money and who didn't. His parents thought this was vulgar and were embarrassed about their son's interest in high society fortunes.
I said perhaps Lee's marriage to Michael Canfield, adoptive son of Cass Canfield, publisher of Harper & Row, suggested both girls were interested in writing. He said "Michael Canfield was not considered a great match a-TALL. Cass had a lot of money but was not going to give it to this adoptive son, rumored to be the bastard son of a peer. " I can't exaggerate how unimportant he was."
He also said Lee was "a dummy." Jackie was not dumb.
"Jane Canfield was best friends with my mother in law. They asked me to lunch in Paris." He ran into "old Cass" downstairs at the Plaza Athénée where they were staying. Cass was shocked, "We'll leave," because Lee was openly "shacked up with Onassis" in the hotel.
He said Jackie's marriage to Onassis had "dissolved quite early." He remembered they were "already on the outs" when he ran into Jackie in New York soon after the marriage. "Are you going to keep your name?" he asked her. He clearly thought of this as a minor insult, or tease.
He had been surprised and "felt dropped" when she was in the White House and didn't invite him. But he believed her mind was completely visual, and when she didn't see him, she didn't think of him. Others had also felt dropped. When she first ran into him in New York, she said "Louis where have you been?"
I asked whether she had changed between the young girl he had met who was about to marry Husted, and the editor at Doubleday. "She must have changed," he said, "but I'm not sure I know how or where." After a pause, "I didn't know her very well."
He observed that Jackie liked Wilmarth Lewis, "Uncle Lefty," and his magnificent Horace Walpole collection. Lewis had married an Auchincloss.
I said Nancy Tuckerman remembered Jackie going over there when they were both at Farmington.
He asked cautiously if Nancy were still around. I said yes, and living in Western Connecticut.
This led to a diatribe against her because of a remembered slight over the launch party for MAVERICK IN MAUVE.
He said he didn't think Nancy T. had "much influence" over Jackie. They had decided to have the launch party at the Museum of the City of New York and a small exhibition had been specially arranged. LA had spent $2000 to have the party. Johnny Sargent added a little so there could be proper glasses. LA had threatened to have paper cups if he didn't. There was quite an extensive guest list. Everyone accepted. Jackie was to be the hostess. Nancy called to say there would be too many photographers there. JKO will feel like "it's a fishbowl." She wasn't coming.
LA replied that he would consider it to be "an act of non-friendship" if she didn't come. He thought Nancy was a "weak reed" and hadn't spoken to her since. JKO did come. She came early and stayed late.
He concluded you had to know how to treat her and not everyone did. "If you told her she was being a shit," she responded. You had to remember that "she was the only woman on the planet to whom everyone said 'yes.'" Sometimes you had to tell her, no.
She was so used to doing exactly what she wanted. "I was outraged" that I had been talked into this party and then she proposed at the last minute not to come.
Originally, he wanted MAVERICK to have copious footnotes. JKO pointed out they were boring. He agreed to let them go. You were apt to lose arguments when your editor was a former first lady.
He remembered going over family photographs from 1890s in a cardboard box with JKO. She chose every one that went into the book. But "I think I chose the cover because that's irresistible: the dog."
The Bouviers were not really "in" anywhere. Jack Bouvier was "a great liability at any party" because he drank too much. He did come to Lee's wedding reception. He whirled Janet around the floor. "He looked like a big sexy negro." He danced Janet around when she didn't want it at
Hughdie [Hugh D. Auchincloss, Jackie's stepfather] was not glamorous at all; not attractive.
Why did JKO like the French 18th C I asked him. "Because it was the most beautiful era of decoration that's ever been." She was much criticized for what she did to the White House. He remembered someone saying "Too damned French." Sister Parrish criticized her too, saying "She hadn't a shred of taste."
She didn't have any New York social life until she was a widow.
She gave a Christmas party every year until she gave it up. A lot of the Kennedy family was there, fewer Auchinclosses, as well as friends.
He remembered once he and Lee & Jackie Bouvier were in Paris together in the 1950s. They were driving out to Chantilly. "Jackie, you're driving too fast," he told her. She nearly ran over an old woman who had to quickly step back on to the curb, crossing herself and thanking God she'd been saved. Jackie remarked coolly, "She should thank God for my brakes," and added "Don't tell cousin Hughdie." He concluded she was tough when she wanted to be.
He remembered that the American head of Versailles, a rich man who'd given a lot of money so who was put in some influential position on a board, was "bad mouthing our book about Versailles all over town."
"I don't remember discussing Newport with her. She knew Newport quite well. I used to see her there." His parents had only rented a house there late in life. "I remember staying in Hammersmith."
Of Janet he said that she had an awful temper, "She'd strike Jackie. Then she'd be cooing like a dove a few minutes later. Janet had black moods. She didn't like JFK's girlfriends."
He remembered a social event at the Metropolitan Art Museum where he'd been able to slight Philippe de Montebello. Tables were set up in the big hall. He found Jackie and they walked by de Montebello's table without acknowledging him; Jackie sat at LA's table when P de M would have preferred she sit with him.
Tom Hoving was a son of Tiffany tycoon, Walter Hoving.
Of Diana Vreeland: "She was an ass. I thought her taste was terrible." Later he softened, "She was fun."
I tried teasing him along the lines Marly Rusoff suggested, that he'd been against the admission of women to the Century Club. "I didn't. I voted for them." Jackie was briefly a member. She and Brooke Astor were among the first female members. But "It didn't interest her. She thought it was depressing."
Of Maurice Tempelsman he said "I don't think they ever slept together. I don't think he was sexy." He "was a perfectly nice man," but also "an undistinguished little man with a belly." There was no electricity in the room between them. He didn't know, but his intuition was that they hadn't. But "Pete Hamill, now hewas an attractive man. He was the sexiest man ever. And that Englishman [Lord Harlech]" was also good looking. [He may just have been telling me that he, LA, was attracted to these men, not Jackie.][Hamill and Harlech were boyfriends of Jackie before Onassis.]
He remembered that William Howard Adams, one of her other authors at Doubleday, called Jackie "Jacqueline."
"Olivier Bernier would have been very much Jackie's dish." He was forever opening up European castles so that rich ladies from the Metropolitan in NY could lunch there.
Jackie had first proposed that LA do the Duchesse d'Abrantès's memoirs. He didn't want to. In conversation he remembered saying to her, "Jackie, I'm trying to tell you something."
"Oh, you're not going to do it?"
"No. I'm not."
She wasn't used to being told no.
He had written an essay for either AVENUE MAGAZINE or QUEST on what it was like to work with Jackie as an editor. We spent 20 minutes looking for this in his cabinets. He had many of his articles and stories in plastic slipcovers and filed in 3-ring leather binders. We couldn't find it. There was a binder about his wife's funeral. One of the items showcased was a letter of condolence from Jackie. He'd told me earlier he wouldn't sell that one, though he'd sold others of his Jackie letters. It suggested to me that her snob value to him was more immense and more sentimental than he indicated in the vaguely ironic jokes at her expense he'd told me in person.
The funniest thing was when I asked him to sign MAVERICK IN MAUVE, the diary of Florence Sloane. He struggled with the black fountain pen. "This is a bad pen," he murmured. Then, "This is a Terrible Pen," out loud. "Shall I sign Louis Auchincloss or Florence Adele Sloane?" he asked. Camp.
Asked why Jackie would have felt an "outsider" in New York society, he said "Well, the Bouviers weren't important."
He talked of sex several times. He mentioned a confirmed bachelor who only got married in his 50s as if it were well-known to be a sexless match between an old maid and a homosexual.
In a back study, while we were searching for the article, he pointed out a cartoon on the wall: an office door with 3 names on it, "A Louis Auchincloss Style Law Firm." "My colleagues gave me that when I left. It was published in THE NEW YORKER!"
He also showed me a little framed print of ladies in a carriage, hanging in the hallway. "The Empress Eugénie. I meant to give it as a gift, but kept it! Gave them something else."
LA in A WRITER'S CAPITAL relates how his roommate from Yale had come to stay with him and his parents. This was many years ago while he was in New York in order to attend a wedding. The young man had committed suicide. This followed LA leaving him a curt note. The friend had left a note back wanting him to know that he was not killing himself because of LA's note, but simply because couldn't go on. "Too sentimental," was LA's verdict. He uses the word "sentimental" earlier in the book to describe suspected homosexuality in boys at Groton. It immediately struck me as too easy to say that LA was gay, that this was his problem. It was more that he'd had trouble facing up to life's problems. He'd had a friend who was one of the few men he'd allowed himself to grow close to who'd committed suicide. He had taken refuge in encyclopedic knowledge of New York's 400 first families of a hundred years ago. Now he was alone and delaying my departure, a stranger who was nothing to him, by commenting on various works of art in the hall.