Jody Linscott wrote and Claudia Porges Holland, now Claudia Porges Beyer, illustrated two children's books that Jacqueline Onassis acquired and edited. The first was ONCE UPON A TO Z: AN ALPHABETICAL ODYSSEY (Doubleday, 1991), and the second, THE WORTHY WONDERS LOST AT SEA: A WHIMSICAL WORD SEARCH ADVENTURE (Doubleday, 1993).
Claudia Beyer (abbreviated CB below)
28 May 2009
Memorandum of a telephone conversation
"I met her in the late 1970s, I believe. I had been working at ROLLING STONE for a couple of years on and off. I went every year at Christmas with my family to St Martin. One year I decided just to stay on in St Martin. I used to work for Joe Armstrong, the publisher of ROLLING STONE before the magazine moved to New York. I was 19 or something. I then had an interim job working for Annie Leibovitz when the magazine was moving from SF to NY. I was helping get her situated, and finding her an apartment. Shortly after that I was an assistant to Jann Wenner's assistant, Iris Brown. Those were wild and crazy days. I abandoned my job to go down and live in St Martin. I was living in a little shed in St Martin. I had a little hammock. I used to hitchhike around because I didn't drive. I used to collect my mail at a boutique."
"One day there was a handwritten letter from Jann Wenner. 'Hi, how are you? I've got a little favor to ask of you. I told JKO you were down there and said you might show her around when she comes down in a few weeks. Could you go to La Samanna and meet her?'"
"'I was barefoot and dirty," CB said laughing and exaggerating how unused she was to entertaining celebrities on the island. "I went to the front desk in my little sarong. 'Could you ring Mrs Onassis?' They weren't going to do it. I showed them Jann's letter too. 'Ok ok' the woman behind the front desk said. I could watch her face as she talked to JKO on the phone: it looked funny. 'She says she'll meet you at the bar in 10 minutes.' My friend Tommy and I met her at the bar. I showed them around. I chartered some boats. She wanted to see my little hut. It was so primitive: a little concrete bunker. She thought it was really funny. I showed her a little tiny book of miniature drawings I'd done. 'You should do a book of your life here someday. You remind me of THE WIDE SARGASSO SEA.' [Jean Rhys's 1966 novel about the life of an heiress living in the Caribbean conceived as a prequel to Charlotte Brontë's 1847 JANE EYRE] I had some pearls that I'd inherited. I used to wear them into the ocean."
"We saw her one more time in St Martin, but then she started to go somewhere else."
CB ended up leaving St Martin and getting married. She was not often in touch with JKO but she did send her a birth announcement for her first son. It was probably 10 years later. "Meanwhile I had met Jody. She's a rock and roll musician who has played with all the top bands. I met her via ROLLING STONE. She was involved with the No Nukes concerts. Jody and I stayed friendly over the years. We were in NY together in 1986 or 87. We started to do this little book just to entertain our own kids on the train to Boston. It began with a little alliteration. Jody turned the alliteration into a continuous story. We thought it was a good story and our kids liked it. I did a few collages just to see what would happen. We didn't have a plan. Then I read somewhere, maybe in PEOPLE MAGAZINE, that Carly Simon was doing children's books with JKO."
"I didn't want to just call [JKO] out of the blue. I thought I'd just a write a little note. 'Hi, it's been so long. I've got a little book project and I'd love to show it to you just to see what you think about it.' It wasn't 3 days later that there was a message on my machine. One of her assistants called and said can you come in to meet Mrs Onassis? There I go with my 3 little collages and the whole of Jody's text. 'This is adorable,' she said. She looked at Shaye Areheart, her colleague at Doubleday, and said 'Let's do it!'"
She recalled one designer at Doubleday who "wasn't crazy about our project. There was one point where we had a photo of the two of us (ie CB and Jody Linscott). It had been taken in my kitchen in NY. I had a friend who took it. When we showed it to JKO, she said, 'Oh that's great. Let's put it on the back of the book. Let's keep it in color.' But the designer didn't like it. 'Oh, no, that's a great picture,' JKO said, 'Let's do it.'" It was a larger-size photo than the small one that usually goes on the inside back cover. The designer later warmed up to them and to their books.
CB remarked that she never knew anyone else in the art or media or publishing world who could accomplish so much with just her say-so. CB recalled taking her project in to show JKO and not expecting to accomplish very much. On the contrary, JKO wanted to go ahead right away. She looked at Shaye and said "Oh let's do it."
"I thought it was just going to be a preliminary thing. I hadn't seen her in years when I showed her the book idea." After JKO agreed to do it, CB remembered that she went straight downstairs, out on to Fifth Avenue, and spent $13 in quarters at a pay phone to call Jody in London. She wanted to tell her the good news right away.
"We worked on the book and did it pretty quickly. I worked on it at home. There was very little done to change it. My illustrations are kind of crooked and a little goofy. Doubleday's designer was shocked that I worked with fingernail scissors and not with an exacto knife. Jackie would say 'You're like a little lacemaker.' She was wonderful to work with. Everything was easy. Sometimes we'd show up with all 3 of our kids. I seem to remember changing diapers in the bathroom at Doubleday. We used to dress in this very bright hippy dippy way. It rubbed off from Jody's rock n roll sensibility. She loved the way we dressed and took our picture in the office. Whenever we'd leave she'd walk us to the elevator. She'd be standing there. And someone would be standing inside the elevator when it opened and see her, then look at us, open-mouthed."
"We got to do a second book with her. I was working on two books when she died but they never happened. The only negative thing that happened with our books was that they weren't handled by the children's book division. There was zero promotion. 'Why no book signings?' we asked Doubleday. 'Who would show up?' they said. I recall meeting children's book store owners who said they'd never seen our book in the catalogue. That was kind of a drag. I also wish we'd had a chance to go forward with our other books."
"JKO and I talked about doing a book of cake paintings. After JKO died Doubleday wasn't interested."
"Jody had written some music that went along with the second book. I do remember she wrote some wonderful stuff. Jackie heard it and said, 'It will be the next PUFF THE MAGIC DRAGON.'" "We looked at each other and thought, 'Is that good?' We thought it was funny. She looked into it. We found out it was too expensive to present a CD with the hardcover. We would have to sell that out, and then combine the CD with the soft cover if we wanted to go ahead with the idea of combining the book with the music."
"She did things she was passionate about. It seemed so obscure to do a book on the FRENCHWOMAN'S BEDROOM, but it was beautiful. She was crazy about Peter Sís. She was so proud of him. What other editor has such beautiful, diverse tastes? Her selection of books wasn't limited to one or two things."
The launch for the first book was at the Sindin Gallery, then at 79thand Madison. "It was our party, not Doubleday's, but they did end up buying us a case of champagne. The gallery came to us via what I called 'the Mommy network.' One of my son's classmate's mothers was connected to the gallery. We had all the originals framed and sold many of them through the gallery. Jackie bought one. She came to the opening."
"Years later when we did the second book, we had the party at a store called Portico Kids. It was a very nice space upstairs. I don't know how we wound up there. It was close to her apartment. They were playing the Worthy Wonders soundtrack over and over again. Jackie was there. Since she was there, there was no press. She stayed a good while."
"She took us to the book fair in NY one year. It was impressive that our little book was featured there."
"We never left her office without an armful of books. One book was Larry Gonick's CARTOON HISTORY OF THE UNIVERSE. She was crazy about that. My elder son loved that book. I think he learned more from it about world history than he did in school. She pressed these books into our hands."
"I remember one time that was near the start of the first Gulf War. Jody was in NY and we had a meeting with Jackie. It was this odd time when all the media was saying 'The war will start tomorrow.' We all knew about it. Jody was nervous because her children were in London. Would it be hard for her to fly back? She was kind of nervous. We said to JKO that Jody is a little uptight about her kids. 'Oh don't worry,' she said. 'This will all be over by April.' Does she know something we don't know, we both wondered. 'Why I could fly a package to Cairo.' It was just a flippant comment. It was just really ridiculous. We laughed."
[JKO was acquiring the works of the Egyptian Nobel Prize winnner, Naguib Mahfouz about then, so she may have been thinking of sending him something.]
CB mentioned having worked for Joe Armstrong, when he was the publisher at ROLLING STONE. "Somehow his name came up when I was talking to her. She wanted to know about him. He would do wacky things. He'd have me answer his phone with a French accent. Our offices were right across the street from the Drake Hotel. He used to set up his stereo speakers on to the street and blast a country and western song out the window on to 56thStreet: 'Dropkick Me Jesus through the Goalpost of Life.' JKO thought that was very funny."
CB had very warm memories of doing the two books with JKO and was only sorry that they hadn't had time to do more together.