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. Read More