fight club


(miss PART ONE? go HERE)

First Ladies aren’t supposed to raise hell. Especially not widows. But Jacqueline Kennedy was no ordinary First Lady. When she beckoned William Manchester, her obstinate author, to the Cape that August of 1966, she greeted him with steely determination and in hot pink pants.

She had summoned Manchester in the hope of winning him to her side. She knew her charms and was adept at the soft sell. In Jacqueline’s view, if Manchester would agree that there was no genuine Kennedy-approved manuscript, Look magazine would be forced to cancel the serialization. The Kennedy camp, in turn, promised to compensate Manchester with a higher percentage of the royalties. Manchester just didn’t get it. He could not grasp that Jacqueline had wanted a book no one would see.

When Richard Goodwin, who was present, promised Death of a President would be published “with dignity,” Jacqueline amended that it would be published without “magazine hoopla and promotion.” Manchester was unmoved.

The talks rapidly devolved into a heated argument. Unable to dissuade the author from proceeding, Jacqueline fell into what Manchester later described as a “completely unrealistic” frame of mind, railing against Look, its publisher, and other books on President Kennedy: “She was going to fight, she said savagely, and she was going to win.”

In Jacqueline’s eyes, Manchester had failed. To make matters worse, he had betrayed her trust by including elements of the “frightfully emotional interview[s]” she had given and then denied her the cuts she requested. Suddenly, she had no control of a project that had initially been her’s.

Unable to garner Manchester’s cooperation, she invoked her last avenue of hope— the press— and flippantly boasted: “Anyone who is against me will look like a rat– unless I run off with Eddie Fisher.”

By mid-December, Jacqueline decided to sue. “I have to try,” she told a friend. “I can’t lose all that I’ve tried to protect for these years.” Thus, she set in motion what Time declared “the biggest brouhaha over a book that the nation has ever known.” Ultimately, Look capitulated and deleted 1,600 words. As Editor-in-Chief William Attwood boasted to the New York Post, “We gave up some slush; a little gingerbread’s off the top, but the structure’s intact.”

Jacqueline openly admitted that the deletions she requested were of no historic value, but that was precisely the motivating factor. She was taking pains to erase any detail that could be exploited by the popular press. Richard Goodwin made a note in the margins of the Manchester manuscript’s galley proofs that made this point. Around a passage in which the President and First Lady embraced before going to their separate bedrooms, Goodwin wrote: “Mrs. J.F.K. feels very strongly about this. Their sleeping arrangements, embracing, etc., will all be taken by Modern Screen, etc., sensationalized, cheapened. Asks if you will please take this out.”

The lawsuit was a hollow victory for Jacqueline. The passages she most violently objected to had long since filtered into the press. In December, Time published a bulleted list detailing half the passages that had been removed. As Cleveland Amory pointed out in Status and Diplomat: “Mrs. Kennedy . . . succeeded in publicizing the very things she did not want publicized, far beyond any publicity they would ever have had if she had not sued.”

The excerpts’ appearance in Look not only extended the book’s exposure to a much broader audience but also grievously commercialized the President’s death. The excerpts were printed on a high-quality paper to differentiate them from the rest of the publication, but advertisements were still included at the beginning and end of the passages, which, in the words of one commentator, created a sense that “This assassination has been brought to you by Goodyear Tires.”

Mrs. Kennedy strove to prevent the cheapening of her husband’s death, but she had inevitably become a participant in the very sensationalism she abhorred. Jacqueline later told Professor Joe B. Frantz, who interviewed her for the Lyndon Johnson Library’s oral history project, that the fight over the Manchester book was

the worst thing in my life . . . I’ve never read the book. I did my oral history with him in an evening and alone, and it’s rather hard to stop when the floodgates open. I just talked about private things. Then the man went away, and I think he was very upset during the writing of the book . . . Now, in hindsight, it seems wrong to have ever done the book at that time.

Publicly though, she treated William Manchester with extreme graciousness. Following the legal settlement, Jacqueline Kennedy released a laudatory statement to the press: “I think it is so beautiful what Mr. Manchester did . . . all the pain of the book and now this noble gesture of such generosity, makes the circle come around and close with healing.” A rosy view that wasn’t quite realized. Rather than closing the circle with healing, the Manchester controversy had, in fact, blown it wide open.

Just as Robert Kennedy’s attempts to stop the serialization had opened him up to accusations of censorship, so the lawsuit brought the former First Lady under attack in the press, particularly among the tabloids. In assessing the Manchester melodrama, the movie magazines were all over the board in their opinions. If this was to be the press’ first peek at the character “Jackie” was becoming—one who beneath the velvety surface was alarmingly avaricious—the press were not entirely sure what to do with her yet. And they were having a devil of a time assigning blame.

Some said “Jackie” was wronged by Manchester, by Look, by the press, while other publications dismissed her as “The big loser,” a selfish woman who’d pitched a public fit because she hadn’t gotten her way.

Perhaps the most fascinating article from this period is Screenland’s piece entitled “How JFK Would Have Stopped The Vicious Attacks,” wherein writer Judi R. Kesselman approaches the Death of a President controversy almost exclusively from the context of gender. Since it “was always the feminine hurts in the book that [“Jackie”] objected to,” “Jackie” “reacted purely femininely.” And, if anything, “Jackie’s” girlish impulse to protect her privacy only further endeared her to her female public: “We women understood why Jackie didn’t want a book to reveal whether they slept together or separately that last night [ . . . ] We women still love her, and feel she was right in wanting to keep her privacy.”

After a series of quotes that describe “Jackie’s hysteria” and her “unbalanced” behavior, we reach the conclusion that if John Kennedy were still alive, he would have deflected the attacks against his wife by reminding people that “Jackie acted like a typical woman [ . . . and] that it’s a fit and proper thing.” After all, “Only a husband can wink to the mass of men about him and say, ‘She’s my wife, poor, weak woman, and isn’t she a honey?”

To the 21st century reader, this is appalling. It’s hard to hold back, to resist the urge to launch into an academic discourse about how, by couching the argument in gender terms, Kesselman perpetuates stereotypes of feminine hysteria and reduces “Jackie’s” violated privacy to a feminine irrationality that would been prevented had a husband been present to calm her down, an assertion that strips “Jackie” of intelligence and reduces her actions to hormonal impulses.

But to readers of the time, this was nothing. In fact, it seems to have been, by and large, what they were looking for. In my correspondence with Judi Kesselman thirty-five years later, she still believed the article gave a realistic view of the prevailing attitudes: “Women who read the movie magazines liked to hear about hysteria and imbalance. It made them feel that their lives were better than they are, less hysterical and imbalanced. Believe me, a lot of women back then, stuck in unhappy marriages and consigned to drudge, felt they’d go crazy if they didn’t have the entertainment of reading a magazine whose women sometimes, for all their fame or wealth, were as unhappy as they.”

And what the women wanted, they got. In the coming years, this is who “Jackie” would become—a hysterical, imbalanced star. She would be put in an unlikely marriage and she would be unhappy. She would fight with her daughter and her husband and his mistress. She would become an insecure shopaholic. She would almost, almost become one of us. If the Manchester dramedy did anything, it was this—it shook up the tabloid formula and steered publishers down an editorial path in which their portrayals would become less positive, in which “Jackie,” the housewifely goddess divine, would be given clay feet.

Throughout “Vicious Attacks,” it is the men who are attacking our “Jackie,” but the great irony is that it was predominantly women who read the movie magazines and it was with the movie magazines in mind that Mrs. Kennedy had requested the deletions. As Manchester himself had noted, by May 1965 Jacqueline “couldn’t even take her daughter into a drug store, because every issue of every movie magazine carried her photograph.”

© faith e.


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