Heroic Jackie, Tacky Jackie

What does the Jackie Onassis auction tell us? some things that we already knew, and some that we didn’t. We knew that there were always two Jackies, really. One was moving and heroic and cultivated, the possessor of a detached dignity that kept us fascinated. The other was a girl who was just a little too interested in money, which was not moving or heroic at all, and certainly not cultivated.

The first Jackie has, and deserves, a place in the history of American heroism. For on a dark, cold weekend of a November long ago, when everyone felt stunned and saddened, she redeemed a tragedy, gave it a kind of meaning, by the sheer force of her presence and the size of her will. And she did it at age 34, after her husband’s head had been exploded on her lap.

But the other Jackie, Tacky Jackie, was not so inspiring. I remember reading one of the early “Jackie, Oh!”-type biographies and being struck by the story of First Lady Jackie receiving, as a gift from a head of state, a ceremonial gold sword. She held it in her hands as it gleamed in the lights of the East Room—and noticed that embedded in the surface were a host of beautiful jewels. First Lady Jackie became Tacky Jackie, and tried to find out how to get the jewels out, to make herself some earrings.

As soon as I read it, I believed it. By the 1970s we knew that for all her splendor she was a woman who would buy 10 pairs of the same Pappagallo flats, all in different colors. You have to really like things to shop like that. You have to want goods in stores to give you pleasures you’re not getting in real life to be like that. You have to be a little sad. Or a total greedhead. I think she was a little sad.

Tacky Jackie is not a noble picture, and it is not how we choose to remember her. And we are right.

So she wasn’t perfect. And now we know her taste wasn’t either. In fact, some of the items sold last week reflect an amazing and heartening level of vulgarity. The big Onassis diamond that went for $2,587,500 is a truly gross piece of work, and I am not saying that only because I can’t have it.

Jackie had a brilliant marketing sense if she was involved with the idea of an estate sale, and I suspect she had a few thoughts on it before she died. It was brilliant to set the prices so low on everything. That way, everybody felt he or she could afford something. No one could accuse the Kennedy kids of greed, as it seemed rather generous of them to offer Dad’s humidor for only a couple of thousand dollars. Then when it went for $574,500, it was like an enormous compliment to the Kennedy family: “We like you! We really like you!” And the kids could shyly say, “Thanks, we’re so surprised. We never dreamed people would pay $1.5 million dollars for a set of coasters Gore Vidal once threw at Bobby Kennedy at Merrywood . . .”

Yes, brilliant. And it gave us the last Jackie we will ever have: Canny Jackie, the girl who really knew her public.