I prayed and I mourned and I watched, and these are the thoughts that drifted in and out of my mind in a sad stream of consciousness as I sat in St. Ignatius Loyola Church at a funeral I never thought I would be attending — ever. Jackie Kennedy Onassis was not supposed to die. She was not meant to leave us behind to grieve, we who loved and admired and respected her. She was supposed to live forever, luminous and immortal, eternally smiling that angel smile, somehow making us all feel better about ourselves, whether we knew her or not. She was an inspiration to every woman, this extraordinary lady who had endured enough agony and ecstasy to last a dozen lifetimes, who had scaled the peaks joyously and shown us all how to suffer in grace the deep valleys that are the fate of us all.
The burnished mahogany casket in which she lies is the same color as her hair. The white flowers and green leaves that covered it as it left her Fifth Avenue apartment have been removed in the vestibule of the church and, in their place, a dark red and gold brocade coverlet has been laid, completely covering the coffin. It is made of the sort of exquisite fabric that would have appealed to her love of all things beautiful. She might have made a cloak of it to wear on one of the thousands of nights when she entered a room in radiance, a born star, eclipsing all others.
I hate the reason I am here, but I am glad that I am here. Because the memory of these two hours in this magnificent holy place where Jackie was baptized and confirmed a Catholic and where she has returned at the end of her life, will remain with me until the end of mine. She not only taught us how to live, but didn’t she also teach us how to die? How many will show her brand of courage on their final journey?
The priest, every word clear as a bell, is calling her Jacque-leen, giving her name the French pronunciation she is said to have preferred in the days when she first met John Fitzgerald Kennedy and they fell in love. Jacque-leen didn’t last long. It was soon Jackie to the world. A world in her thrall.
Those were the days when Sen. and Mrs. John Fitzgerald Kennedy lived a block away from me in Georgetown, and Ethel and Bobby Kennedy and their fast-growing brood lived right across the street. Remembering this, I turn to watch Ethel as she walked up the aisle, bent, pale-faced and heavy-hearted, surrounded by her sons and daughters. How many times has she taken these devastating steps before? Too many.
On the podium, Jackie’s beautiful children, Caroline and John, who planned the glorious service, have spoken lovingly of their mother; Jackie’s friend, Jayne Hitchcock, has recited the 23rd Psalm; Mike Nichols has told of Jackie’s spirit of adventure. Maurice Tempelsman, the financier who was her loving companion for the last decade or more, his voice trembling, has read the poem “Ithaka,” and made his poignant farewells. And in his eulogy, Sen. Edward Kennedy, Jackie’s brother-in-law, has made the most eloquent speech of his life. He has caught the essence of Jackie perfectly and almost made her come alive again for the rapt crowd in the church.
How wonderful to look around and see that the enormous room is filled with people who loved this most fascinating of First Ladies. But then I wonder — how many men in her life loved her the way a man in love really loves a woman? Perhaps Jack Kennedy at first, intrigued by the combination of class and beauty, her bearing and sense of style, her effortless ability to beguile and charm. But whatever it was he felt, it didn’t last long, and her humiliation began. She took it with her head held high. God alone knows what was going on inside.
To Aristotle Onassis, the Greek tycoon, the beautiful young widow who married him in a move to leave the past behind and move on to a secure present, she was a trophy, the biggest prize of all. He crowed at his capture, showered her with jewels and quickly tired of her, leaving her in the lurch, while he tried to rekindle his romance with Maria Callas, whom he had cast aside for Jackie.
When they separated, she said not a word against him even though, in my presence, I had heard him lash out at her, criticizing her hair and the scarves she wore, wondering why she always spoke in that little girl voice, perhaps missing Callas’s wild Tosca-notes.
But Jackie was never born to be a spineless victim or anybody’s fool. She had tried to be a good wife to Ari and when she was spurned she sent Teddy Kennedy to meet Ari’s daughter, Christina, on the Onassis private island, Skorpios, to talk business. Christina told me she kicked and screamed and hated Teddy, but they settled for $25 million or more, and Jackie, rejected, was now rich and rejected.
I was remembering that Jackie helped make Skorpios, neglected until her arrival, an Eden, and that Ari, a fun-loving, life-loving bear of a man whom I liked despite his being self-centered and spoiled, strangely resented her for it. Love had flown, and nothing she could do was right.
The master may have had his fill of her, but the little people who worked for him thought she was heaven-sent. After Ari died, I went to Skorpios to stay with Christina, and the maid who looked after me — the island was staffed upon staffed from one end to the other — asked, “Do you know Mrs. Onassis?” When I said that I did, she said, “When you see her will you please tell her that all of us here on Skorpios love her very much and miss her? We wished that she could be here with us forever.”
So, finally, enter Maurice Tempelsman, the erudite, charming, worldly man who had the brains and the taste and the insight to appreciate the wondrous creature Jackie was. He gave her the love, the support, the refuge and the strength that other men had denied her. “She was so wonderfully lucky to have had you for those years,” one of Jackie’s friends said to Maurice at Jackie’s wake. “No,” he said, “I was so wonderfully lucky to have had her.”
And weren’t we all? I was lucky to be her friend, to have her encourage me and flatter me and never stop asking me through the years to write a book. She would call me and write me little notes (I’ve saved them all) and sit in my apartment and talk. “You know these people like no one else,” she would say. “Write about them, their lives, their ambitions, their lies. Write how nothing really is the way it seems. How these women who seem to have it all, are really desperate and trapped.” Then she would smile and say, “But if one has to be trapped and unhappy, maybe it’s better in sables after all.”
At the altar, Jessye Norman was singing “Ave Maria,” — Jackie’s confirmation name was Mary — and outside the sun was shining on the sort of beautiful late-spring day Jackie might have ordered for herself. I was glad. I was sad. I didn’t know what I was. I only knew that I thought she was wonderful — and I always will.