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THE JACKIE INTERVIEWS      

2 Louis Auchincloss, novelist, biographer, chronicler of the rich in New York, part I of II

 

Louis Auchincloss was the author of novels, biographies, essays, and works of history.  He wrote sixty books.  His most famous works were novels that described the world he knew best.  He grew up among WASP families whose members went to private schools and lived in privileged enclaves on the Upper East Side of New York.  His hero was Edith Wharton.  He was distantly related to the second husband of Jackie's mother, Janet.  He died in 2010.  I talked to him twice when I was writing READING JACKIE, once by telephone and once in his apartment on Park Avenue.  He was funny, camp, and sharp.  It might have been my imagination, but I thought he was flirting with me.  He was enormously indiscreet.  He used a racist epithet to describe Jackie's father, Jack Bouvier.  He was dismissive of Lee Radziwill's intelligence.  He admitted to being hurt when Jackie had failed to inivite him to Washington when she was in the White House.  When she came to New York, the two of them worked on several books together.  None of them are pathbreaking or important books, but her collaboration with him suggests to me that she was just as interested in questions of class, money, and rank as he was.  (And frankly, so am I.) 

 

This is his obituary in THE NEW YORK TIMES.

 

Part I is the transcript of a telephone call.  Part II is a prose description of an interview in his apartment several months later.

 

 
 
Louis Auchincloss Talks about Jackie Onassis
Memorandum of a Telephone Conversation
19 Nov 2008
 
 
I wrote Louis Auchincloss in the fall of 2008 to ask to speak to him about his work with Jackie Onassis on four books for Doubleday.  He telephoned me and we had a preliminary conversation before we met in New York. This Part I is an edited transcript of that telephone conversation that took place before my meeting with him described in Part II.
 
 
[…] indicates inaudible and sometimes unimportant or irrelevant]
 
LA is Louis Auchincloss material "in quotes"
 
BK is Bill Kuhn, not in quotes
 
 
 
LA  "Call me up when you're in NY and we'll set a time."
 
BK  I should be in NY in January, would that be all right?  I'll give you a call the first of the year then?
 
LA  "Yea-ah. All my letters about that [about Jackie's editing his books] I sold, because after the children sold everything I thought well if they don't care about anything, why should I?  So I kept a few letters she wrote after my wife died, but the rest I sold for a lot of money.  But I don't know where they are or who has them."
 
BK  Were they manuscripts she'd edited?
 
LA  "No. They were letters she'd written me about the books.  I don't think they were terribly significant. …  I don't know who bought them.  I was never told."
 
Did Jackie come to you with this idea of the photography of Deborah Turbeville?  Of writing a commentary on Turbeville's photographs?  She took pictures of the backrooms at Versailles.
 
"What photographs?  Oh, yes, Deborah Turb-a-ville [his pronunciation]."
 
Do you have any recollection of how that book started?
 
"I think Deborah Turbeville had the idea.  I don't know … It's conceivable … The idea was to do … the sort of parts of Versailles that are not known."
 
Yes.
 
"[I talked to Van der Kamp, a man who had some supervisory role at Versailles] He said to me
 
'I understand you're doing a book on Versailles.  What do you know about Versailles?'
 
I said 'Nothing!  I think you'll be surprised by the book.'
 
'Why?' he said.
 
'We'll go to the cellars ...'
 
'Oh, you'll do that kind of thing?'
 
'Yes!  She's [Deborah Turbeville] an artist.  She'll photograph things in Versailles you've probably never seen or noticed.' 
 
"Well of course he didn't want to let me in the place.  But with Jackie's name the doors flew open!"
 
Did you know Deborah Turbeville or did Jackie introduce you?
 
"… I knew her hardly at all.  She's very hard to know.  She came to a party we had for the book when it was ready.  It was sort of 6 to 8 pm.  She came at 8!  Which was when I left!  She was very remote."
 
Can you remember what Jackie would have said to you when she first brought you the idea for writing this commentary on the palace?
 
"Yes.  She asked me to do it.  She wanted a long text.  It is kind of a long text.  It's not particularly interesting.  She wanted it for the book, a lengthy history of Versailles.  That was about all.  Then she gave me complete liberty.  To sell the pictures, so to speak."
 
That's right.  Had you seen the pictures before you wrote the text?
 
"Oh yes.  I'd seen them all.  They have almost no relation to my text at all.  It's just a standard account of Versailles.  Jackie's idea was that the text should be something straight and literal. Tell what you what was going on in Versailles in an encyclopedic way, no particular interpretations.  And then the pictures show an artist's appreciation. Jackie liked the idea of a contrast between something that was completely literal and something that was completely imaginative."  
 
That's wonderful, what you've just said there has shone a bright light on it.
 
"She had beautiful taste."
 
You must have known her before you worked with her.
 
"I knew her always.  Because we had sort of a connection.  Her stepfather was my father's cousin.  I knew her when she was a girl, when no one had any idea that she was going to become the most famous woman in the world.  In fact, I had a kind of mystic experience, the only one I ever had in my lifetime.  I was staying with my brother, John, in Washington and he saw a great deal of Janet and Hughdie Auchincloss.  They were very close.  I was spending the weekend.  Just the 3 of us were going to have Saturday night dinner. 
 
And then John said 'I saw Hughdie.' 
 
I said 'Why don't you get them to come to dinner on Saturday night?'  He and Janet said they would. 
 
Then he [Jackie's stepfather, Hugh D. Auchincloss] called and said 'Jackie's with us.' 
 
We said 'Bring her along.'
 
Then Janet called up and said 'Jackie thinks she's engaged. She says she's engaged to this young man.'  Needless to say it was not President Kennedy.  He was a nice young man.  But Janet thought she was throwing herself away.  It was perfectly clear she thought that.  She had a very bad temper. 
 
So we all sat down to dinner.  John said 'Well, Jackie you're engaged to be married, we'll bring out the champagne.'  So he went down and brought out a couple of bottles of champagne.  It was rather nice.  We drank them.  
 
Then Jackie and I sat in a corner and chatted.  She asked me about my new novel.  I told her it was a novel called SYBIL, about this girl, Sybil, who led sort of a dull life. 
 
Jackie said, 'Like mine!'  … we said she should be Sybil Bouvier, or Sybil Husted, the name of the young man. 
 
We'd met him.  He was perfectly nice.  But he was not a person of any importance.  Later in life he drank too much.  But he was a perfectly decent young man.  But he was nothing out of the ordinary.  While we were talking I had this strange, very odd—something that had never happened before or since—I said this girl I'm talking to is talking a lot of nonsense.  She is not going to have a dull life.  She's going to be somebody very important.  It was a conviction.  Of course everybody knew she was good looking and pleasant.   But there were a thousand girls like that … She had beautiful charm and so on…
 
Then a few days later Janet called up and said 'I was right. She's not engaged at all [pron 'at Tall'].  She's sent the young man packing.'
 
Laughter.
 
That's a lovely story.  Who had the idea for MAVERICK IN MAUVE?  Was that your idea or was that Jackie's idea?
 
"That was my idea entirely.  After Adele's [Auchincloss's wife] grandmother died, we discovered this diary.  We didn't know about it.  I'd said to Jackie, 'There's so much trashwritten about the Vanderbilts, and that era and its opulence and extravagance. It's just junk. [But] this is the real thinghere [meaning the diary].'"
 
"When you read this diary, the girl talks about, 'My uncle removed to the engine to run the train…' and then you realize you're in a private car, a private train and the uncle is Dr Seward Webb and he ownsthe railroad!  As you read the thing you suddenly realize:  this is all true.  This crazy family did live that way.  Jackie was completely sold on the idea.  She lived in Newport a lot, you know?   She knew who these people were.  Of course the diary took place in the 1890s. 
 
I said to her, 'We have a great deal of information [here] that has never been used.  For example, George Vanderbilt had the tower of the Biltmore photographed every day.  The diarist who was then 19 or 20 … I can produce a photograph of the tower as it looked that day. 
 
And Jackie said 'Oh!  How wonderful.  Un document historique.  Oh how marvelous.  We'll do it that way.'
 
"Then, I went off and I made a mistake.  I let her see the family photographs …
 
'Oh look at these Louis!  They're so marvelous, marvelous.' 
 
But I said 'The photograph you're looking at was taken five years after the diary ended.'
 
'Oh,' she said, 'Do we have to be so technical?'"
 
Laughter.
 
"Then I discovered that when you have an editor who is the former First Lady of the United States, you lose those arguments."
 
Laughter.
 
"Actually she was right, because I was being too technical about the whole thing.  The photographs were great fun.  To explain my relationship with her:  why during the time she was in the White House did I never see her?  And why was I never invited to the White House?  I think I know the answer.  Jackie's was a visualmind.  And if she didn't seeyou, you didn't exist.  I talked to some other people who were very hurt, thinking she'd dropped them.  She hadn't dropped them:  she hadn't seenthem.  And I think that was it, because after the assassination, she moved to New York … and her attitude was sort of 'Where have you been?' … I think that was it.  Then I saw her quite steadily.  And I had before he was elected president.  That was the explanation... Other people had the same experience with her. I don't think she thought of you, unless you were there."
 
 "She was funny and delightful.  We did a history of Tiffany's.  Tiffany had a history and …  He just didn't produce it.  What he did produce they didn't like.  Jackie called me up and said would I do it?  I was quite expensive.  Oh yes, because I'm fast.  So I did that.  One time we were looking at photographs for it.  There was a great nephew of Louis Tiffany who used to give beauty balls in which the beauties of the season were photographed.  And I thought it was very tiresome.  I said in the manuscript, 'It is a relief to turn from the contemplation of Tiffany's balls to …'  And Jackie said 'Do you think we might use another word there?'" 
 
Laughter.
 
"She was very funny.  Very sly though.  It's not very good and it's not very interesting.  The history of Tiffany's is not very interesting."
 
What about … on her list is a man by the name of John Loring.
 
"What?  Oh, yes. He was nice.  Yeah."
 
He might have been their head of publicity or something like that.
 
"Yes.  He was definitely in charge of me when I was doing it.  I went to Tiffany every morning when they opened and  I worked up there." 
 
What about, FALSE DAWN, where you did women in the age of the Sun King?  Do you know the origins of that?
 
"Well it was entirely my idea.  Jackie had very little to contribute to that because she didn't know anything much about them.  But she read the stuff."
 
 "… The idea of the book, the importance of women of that kind:  they were important if they were bornto the job.  You had to be born to it."
 
Do you know one of Jackie's other authors had a recollection about you and that subject.  A man by the name of Olivier Bernier, maybe the son of Rosamond Bernier …
 
"He's a lecturer on the most luxurious travel, ships, 'Going with Olivier Bernier!'  All the rich women in New York, if there are any left, go on cruises with him.  They adore him.  He's not a very profound historian." 
 
Well, he had a recollection, however, of a dinner at Jackie's where you were present with Erica Jong.
 
"We did a book together.  Well, yes, I think there was a debate on women, or something, at the Metropolitan [Museum]."
 
That's it. 
 
"I did an introduction to his first book, which was called PLEASURES OF PALACES about the eighteenth century.  He does his work thoroughly.  But he's not a profound historian.  He uses well-known facts, well told. "
 
Well he was recollecting at this dinner at Jackie's that you and he and Erica Jong had been present.
 
"I do remember it very well.  It was at the Metropolitan.  It was a debate."
 
It was about the status of women.
 
"That's right." 
 
He recalled afterwards at dinner at Jackie's house where Erica Jong was talking in great detail about a recent childbirth.
 
"Who?"
 
The woman who wrote FEAR OF FLYING.  Do you remember Erica Jong?
 
"Yes I do."     
 
Well he [Bernier] remembered this dinner at Jackie's where she went into great detail about childbirth.  He said you and he were turning white.  And Jackie was nodding in affirmation the whole time.
 
Laughter
 
"I don't think Jackie was very interested in women's rights." 
 
You don't.
 
"Famous women often aren't. 
 
No.
 
"They interrupt the conversation and say 'I'm a self-made man!'"
 
Laughter.
 
That's good.  I've never heard that before.  Mr Auchincloss you've been very helpful.  What I'd like to do is write up a few notes of this conversation and submit them to you in person in the New Year.  In other words I would give you a call and perhaps call on you in January.
 
"I don't go anywhere because I broke my back and I'm supposed to be recovering.  But I think I've recovered as far as I'm going.  I get out and I go around, but I don't do any travelling. I'm rather wobbly if I walk more than a few blocks, so I don't walk more than a few blocks.  But I have a cane and I go around.  I go out for dinner. 
 
Well what I'll do is I'll write up this conversation on which I've taken a few notes, and I'll send it to you and perhaps we can reconnect in January.
 
"Sure."
 
That's very kind of you.  Thanks a lot.
 
"Ok and I'll see you in January."
 
Goodbye.
 
 
 
 
 
 

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