As the curtain falls, Jackie's silence still rings with dignity

May 20, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

It seems to me what people most admire about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis is that she was never of our age.

If you think about it, that is a rare and wonderful thing, given that we live in the age of Geraldo, when little is private and even less is sacred.

We live in a time of bimbo explosions and tabloid TV and presidential underwear and People magazine and the trivialization of anything that can possibly be made smaller.

Jackie O would seem to fit perfectly in that time. But Jackie Onassis was never really Jackie O.

The most scandalous thing she ever did was to refuse to play forever the grieving widow. Did she remarry for the money? Or, as a rich man's widow already, did she marry Onassis to escape the burden of our expectations and live happily ever after, far from view, on a yacht in the Adriatic?

I can remember how my mother's heart was broken at the time. And she told me how it was broken again when the family rushed to Jackie's side as she received her last rites. The memories of all the Kennedy tragedies are summoned up.

Jackie O was a neat tabloid invention. It was a convenient tag with which to label the pictures that the magazines -- and the magazine readers -- never seem to tire of. The pictures are always the same. The pictures of a year ago were of the same Jackie who was in the limo, the same Jackie who was at the funeral, the same Jackie who has never left our view. She never seemed to change, even as we did.

But, the real Jackie Onassis?

That's the strange thing. Although she has been as visible as any woman of her age, few of us have any idea of who the real Jackie Onassis might be.

Because she never wanted us to know.

She never tried to exploit her celebrity. If you ask people today what they admire about her, you can expect to hear the words "quiet and dignified."

That doesn't sound like much -- quiet and dignified. But maybe, today, that's a genuine achievement, to have lived your life on the pages of countless magazines and to come away still considered dignified.

It is also generally said that she was a good mother. No one can really take the measure of another's parent. But what it means to be a good mother in this case is how fiercely she protected her children's privacy.

Now, they're grown, and JFK Jr. is the First Hunk, and he's living with a Hollywood star. Lately, he makes the covers of the magazines more often than his mother.

If People had existed when the original JFK was a young lawyer and congressman and son of a famous father and just as hunky as his son, he'd have gotten the same treatment. How do you go on to be president from there?

Jackie Onassis resisted any participation in that life. A book editor herself, she might be the most famous person in modern times never to have written her story. Not only didn't she tell all, she didn't tell anything. I can't even remember the last time I heard her voice.

Of course, there was much she could have told. In the 30 years since John-John saluted his father at the funeral, the stories of either Jack Kennedy's womanizing or of Jack Kennedy's assassination have been a constant topic of speculation and sensation.

There were the family deaths, the family scandals, the Kennedy children. You know all the stories. You don't know them from her.

She could have played the role of victim, so popular today: women who love womanizers who grow up to be president. She didn't. We're thankful to her for that.

We may have little idea of who she is. We have some idea of what she's not. She has never been tawdry. More often, she has been almost regal.

That's how we discovered her, in the days of Camelot. Remember, there was no Camelot without her. It was Jack and Jackie. She played the role of young royalty as if she were born to it, just as he did. America fell in love with her.

We never quite fell out of love, either, even when she went off with Onassis. Eventually, the more bad things we heard about Jack, the more we liked Jackie.

Through it all, she stayed quiet and dignified and, just as important, mysterious, which may explain, in part, our endless fascination with her.

Celebrity, especially that much celebrity, is a monster that takes everything in its path. But somehow, Jackie Onassis played the monster on her own terms.

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