For most Americans Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis stood for class. We could hardly have had a better cultural ambassador than when she visited India on our behalf in the early 1960s. She looked beautiful. She was ready to engage meaningfully with non-Western culture. She had courage and a sense of humor.
But what is class? It's not only the possession of money, or the current American president would be more widely looked up to than he is. Nor does buying a beautiful outfit necessarily teach you how to behave when you're wearing it. Nor is it only bravery or manners. If it were, emergency services personnel who conceal what they're required to do under pressure would rank higher in American society than they do.
One of the attractions of writing a book on Jackie was the opportunity of interviewing people in her circle. One of these was my own editor, Nan Talese, Jackie's colleague at Doubleday. Nan told me I couldn't use the word "class" in the book. She didn't say why, but I assumed it wasn't classy to take any notice of class.
That's an unspoken rule of good manners that I'm ready to break.
Someone who taught me even more about how to behave was Francis Mason. When I met him he was in his late eighties. He'd been a friend of Jackie, who'd also edited one of his books.
Mason was a soldier during the Second World War. He participated in the D-day landings in France. Afterwards he was a cultural attaché at American embassies in Britain and in Belgrade. He was also one of the directors of the Morgan Library in New York and broadcast dance reviews on the radio in New York City starting in the late 1940s. He made friends with two essential figures of twentieth-century American dance. He knew and collaborated with the choreographer, George Balanchine. Mason was also close to the dancer Martha Graham and chaired the board that ran her company after her death.
Here's what I learned from him.
1 It's okay to use four-letter words when you cause someone inconvenience
I was due to meet Mason at 2 p.m. on a November afternoon. I waited an hour. He didn't show up. He called me that evening. "I fucked up. I'm sorry. Let me take you to lunch." He asked me to meet him at his club the next day. He coughed on the phone. I had the feeling that he was unwell and didn't want to burden me with the knowledge. He was protecting me. He didn't want to bore me with talk about his health.
2 If you belong to a club, it should be shabby
His club from the outside was imposing. It was on a narrow side street in midtown Manhattan. There were no signs outside telling you what it was. It looked like an American version of an Italian palazzo. Inside it felt a bit down-at-heel. Many of the walls were lined with burlap. It was founded in the middle of the nineteenth century as a place for artists and writers. The artwork of members was still on the walls, some of it famous and old. Other paintings looked amateurish and recent.
When Mason arrived at the appointed hour, I was in an alcove reading a newspaper. I didn't notice him. He made no fanfare. He didn't slap my shoulder or make a fuss. He just showed up wordlessly at my side. He was a small man in a brown suit. He had this quietness about all his manners.
The central staircase at the Century is grand. "I don't do steps anymore," he said as he led me away from the staircase and took me up the elevator. We emerged and went into a dining room that was not particularly plush. The far walls were lined with books. The dining area overflowed into the library. Leather-bound volumes were the main decoration. People were eating plates of cube steak with sides of coleslaw.
3 You may insult your guest if you do it with a twinkle in your eye
Mason had direct dealings with Jacqueline Onassis when he was an assistant director of the Morgan Library. His immediate boss was the director, Charles Ryskamp. Here's a bit of our dialogue that I recorded.
Francis Mason: "Whom [Ryskamp] you should talk to by the way, (also a member here), he was director of the Morgan from something like 1975 to 85, a very agreeable, intellectual Midwesterner, if you can say that.
Bill Kuhn: "I think I count as one myself."
Francis Mason: "He comes from Michigan!"
Bill Kuhn: "Well, I'm from Ohio."
Francis Mason: "Yes, that is worse."
His eyes sparkled. His insult was a little mark of intimacy between us, a flirtation that wasn't going anywhere or doing anything except to put me at ease. He combined candor about himself with taking me more seriously than I was worth.
4 You may be critical of an American icon at your own expense
Mason was familiar with some of the smaller publishers downtown. Jackie had just left Viking and wanted to meet some of these publishers. Could Mason introduce her?
She'd bring her car down to the Morgan, pick him up and they'd drive to visit several publishers. They went and met a dozen of his contacts in the world of art and boutique publishing. They invested several weeks in this.
Then, later that year, she joined not one of the places where he'd introduced her, but another mammoth publishing concern, Doubleday. Mason made it seem as if the joke was on him. He was foolish for not having realized it all along. "I suppose they paid her more money." He was repeating in a more elliptical way what a number of her colleagues said about her. She cared too much about money. Mason grew up with some privilege himself, and it may've been that he could afford not to think about money. He made the fault seem more like his than hers.
5 It's okay to break rules as a way of removing social barriers
Mason didn't resent Jackie after she went to Doubleday. Nor was he surprised that she was more willing to help the Morgan Library, and later the Martha Graham Company, with her presence rather than with her cash. He was himself president of the Century Association about the time that the club began admitting female members. Brooke Astor and Jackie were the first who joined after women were allowed in.
Mason used a funny English expression, one so pretentious that it again sounded as if he were making fun of himself. He said of Jackie what's sometimes said approvingly of English gentlemen in the nineteenth century. "She had no side!" He meant that she was informal, not standoffish, the reverse of stuffy. "She was calm, cool, collected, and fun. It's a hard act to follow. She had it all. It was really glorious." Then he dispensed with Lee Radziwill in a single sentence. "Her sister's a bore."
One of the first things Jackie did on becoming a new member was to break an unwritten rule. "I remember one day coming in and she was sitting on the steps. Sitting on the steps! A lady sitting on the steps. It was charming. Mrs. Astor wouldn't do it. Brooke's been a member for many years. Jackie could do anything." She wasn't going to be the former first lady people expected her to be, she was going to sit on the steps like a schoolgirl.
6 Denounce opponents in language so exaggerated that it's comic
Mason served twice on the board of directors that raised funds for Martha Graham's dance company. After Martha Graham died, she left all her personal belongings to a younger man, Ron Protas, who interpreted her will to mean that Graham had left him the rights to her dances. The Martha Graham Company should compensate him for performing her classic works. The company, led by Mason, fought Protas in the courts.
Nevertheless, Mason advised me to talk to Protas. "Before I forget, there's somebody else you ought to talk to about Jackie. He's a loathsome, ghastly creature, and he'll probably lie to you all the time." He thought because Martha Graham liked Jackie, Protas might have some insight. Though Mason personally and the company lost money in the lawsuit, Mason could still be amusing about Protas's view of Graham's legacy. "He construed her will to mean that he owned all her works. He owned her personal property. Her jewelry. Her dresses. Her sideboard. Her sofa." He couldn't distinguish big things (the dances) from small ones (the sideboard).
7 Pay more attention to art than to parties
Following George Balanchine's death, Mason asked Jackie whether he could do a book interviewing everyone who'd danced for him. When the book came in, Jackie told him he had to cut it. Even with edits, I Remember Balanchine came to more than 600 pages.
Mason wanted everyone who'd ever known Balanchine to put their memories on record so that the art wouldn't be lost. Dance is evanescent. Mason was trying to recapture it on the page. He didn't want to go to parties or big society fundraisers. He told me he didn't care about "the social shit." He wanted to be transported by what he saw on stage. Though never a dancer or a musician himself, he devoted his whole life to allowing great dancers to perform.
We said goodbye at the door after lunch. I tried to think of some original way of thanking him. He pretended as if Jackie were still alive. "Well," he said in response to my fumbled words, "she's lucky to have you." I walked out the door half wishing I were writing about him instead of her.
When I was young I thought class was something that could protect me from bullies. A high-powered university degree, I thought then, would also remove the insignificance I'd acquired through growing up in Ohio. Mason taught me, instead, that having class was a way of breaking down barriers between people. It was about looking out for other people's anxiousness and knocking down obstacles between you.
He made me feel as if it would be wonderful to have lunch with him again, even if I weren't writing a book about someone he knew. He had a terrible coughing fit toward the end of our lunch. Before I could express concern, he called over the waiter. He ordered chocolate cake with strawberries. It was his way of dimpling boyishly at me and saying, now, isn't dessert what we were both waiting for? He died the next year at eighty-eight. Though I never actually met his friend Jackie Onassis, this is how I remember Francis Mason. I believe that in their manners they were a pair.