i’ve recently been writing about mary barrelli gallagher’s 1969 memoir, entitled my life with jacqueline kennedy. really, that could be the subtitle of every biographer’s life, non?
my life with X.
write more than one book and it could be a whole boxed set: the biographer’s life as told through the books about the lives she spent hers with.
because that’s what it is. we are our spending lives with these people. in her keynote at the BIO conference in boston this past weekend (where my bookshelf comes to life every year), stacy schiff observed that only a lover or biographer or the NSA cares about someone so much.
today’s the 20th anniversary of jackie’s death.
it is also the 20th anniversary of my life with jackie.
20 years since i got the first glimpse of the story i’m still working to tell.
20 years. would that there were gems to commemorate the time spent with a biographical subject.
we’re at platinum, jackie and i. so far, she has yielded a paucity of jewels.
put it this way: the story of telling this story is the story of over half my life. her story is all jumbled up in mine and so she’s why i went to prague. how i wound up in warsaw for 12 hours. why i always go to paris, always try on pillbox hats (aways, they look awful), flew a plane, did the trapeze, lived in chicago, performed at mortified, went to newport and cornell and junior prom, discovered whoopee pies, have a podcast and a business card and red hair.
why i’m always always trying (and failing) to learn french and accessorize with necklaces, and why i routinely speak to 90 year old strangers on the phone.
jackie’s the reason that i’ve published anything and the reason behind most everything i read and everywhere where i go and every letter i write. she’s why i’m living in london now and will live in debtor’s prison after.
she is absolutely the only reason i’m getting a PhD.
seriously, my flicker could just be called “my life with jackie” because it all comes back to her.
every remotely interesting thing i’ve done comes back to her.
(like in titanic, how- after jack died- rose did all those amazing things, as told through photographs on her bedside table. a ridiculous comparison, yes, and i realize jackie is not jack dawson and i’m not rose dewitt bukater and, together, we are not aboard titanic. still, there’s been many a moment it felt we were.
for, what is writing if not a series of shipwrecks narrowly missed? a seemingly sturdy enterprise fraught with unknown vulnerabilities as it blazes forward- outwardly bold, inwardly astonishingly, embarrassingly, shamefully compromised- against the ever-present threat that the whole thing, the project you’ve chosen, the boat you’re on, is slowly [always so slowly!], in fact, barreling towards its doom in the dark night…)
i was probably always going to write, but- because i couldn’t find the book i wanted to read- she forced me to be a writer.
that is what this day means to me. may 19: it is the beginning of my life with her- which is, at this point, the same as saying my adulthood.
(1) i’ve a theory that everything fundamental that you’ll be interested in later- the things that are really really going to grip you forever and ever during the whole rest of your existence- take root when you’re 12 or 13.
(2) for me, everything comes back to expectations and choices.
(3) time is like an accordion… sometimes it’s extended and stretches out so that the past feels the furthest point from where you are now. but then, other times, it squeezes in, so near there’s the sense that if the eyes could just close tighter, if you could just breathe more deeply, if you could just still yourself, you could almost get at it, almost touch it, almost feel it so that the words would come differently, better- they’d be a better fit. i’d be more dexterous with them.
so often the words lie just ahead, darting away with each movement towards them. the shadow come unsewn from the heel.
and it’s not that i want to sew the shadow back. just that the key to writing well, the key to the story i’m telling, seems to be in drawing as close as possible to it, to be in that place where the accordion’s contracted and let time fold in and try to see what that 12 year old version of myself saw when she sat in mrs. watson’s 7th grade science class watching anderson cooper’s channel one report on the death of mrs. onassis. when her greek life- which already seemed to me in danger of being erased- beckoned, little beguiling hints of it slipping through the cracks.
the c.p. cavafy poem.
the name onassis.
the glaring gap between her first husband’s death and her editorial career. a gap so provocative that, even then- knowing so little of biography, of writing, of life, of her- i wanted it filled.
my life with jackie began then. it’s had its complications, yes. sitting in london, staring down the 1960s through a consciously 21st century post-modern feminist american lens with 12-year-old 1994 eyes.
it’s no wonder i wound up in therapy, no wonder my astigmatism is worse.
worth it? WORTH IT.
reading her life, i wanted an adventure.
writing about her is one. always. a surprise beyond all imagining.