Jacqueline Onassis' quiet helpmate

May 23, 1994|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

Friends said they were like an old married couple, comfortable and serene as they strolled through snowy Central Park or lolled by the shores of Martha's Vineyard on long summer weekends.

In fact, when Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis died late Thursday night of cancer, the official statement named three "family members" who were by her bedside: her two children, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg and John F. Kennedy Jr., and Maurice Tempelsman, the man who has been like a husband to her for the last decade and a half in all but name.

Mr. Tempelsman, a 65-year-old financier and diamond importer, was one of the people closest to the former first lady in the last years of her life, and among those who will mourn her passing in private ceremonies today.

Although Mr. Tempelsman, a reserved, urbane, mild-mannered millionaire, was generally described, in the scant newspaper references to him through the years, as Mrs. Onassis' "longtime friend" or "frequent escort," he was, in fact, much more.

A man who covets his privacy perhaps as much as Mrs. Onassis did, he was a companion and protector. He fended off the paparazzi that relentlessly hounded the two-time widow, helped manage her finances, accompanied her to dinners and concerts and eventually shared her 15-room Fifth Avenue apartment.

Mrs. Onassis knew Mr. Tempelsman, a family friend since the late '50s, longer than she knew either President Kennedy or her second husband, Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis, whose death in 1975 ended their seven-year marriage.

At first glance, Mrs. Onassis, a woman often defined by the men in her life, and Mr. Tempelsman made a profoundly unlikely couple: she, the glamorous and stately living legend, a Roman Catholic who grew up amid debutante balls and the exclusive social swirl of the Hamptons; he, a portly, balding, self-made man born in Antwerp, Belgium, into an Orthodox Jewish family that fled from the growing Nazi threat in 1940.

What's more, Mr. Tempelsman never obtained a divorce from his wife of more than 40 years, Lily, a deeply religious Orthodox Jew -- whose father was also in the diamond business -- and mother to the couple's three grown children.

New York society observers said that, even though it was well-known Mr. Tempelsman was merely separated from his wife, there was never any whiff of disapproval or scandal attached to his relationship with Mrs. Onassis.

And many who know Mr. Tempelsman say that, for all the differences in background with Mrs. Onassis, the two had much in common.

A worldly man often seen with a Dunhill cigar in hand ("my sole vice," he said in a 1982 interview), Mr. Tempelsman has advised U.S. presidents as well as leaders in Africa, where he does much business. He is a figure in Jewish philanthropic and national Democratic circles and shares an interest in the arts, antiques, foreign languages and history with the former first lady.

Dining in small restaurants on New York's East Side, the two were sometimes spotted speaking to each other in French.

"What's interesting about him is he's not so much a diamond man as he is a Renaissance man," says Martin Rapaport, a New York diamond broker. "He's more like an elder statesman, sort of a Kissingery kind of guy."

"Very cultivated, cultured, personable, erudite," says Phil Baum, director of the American Jewish Congress' Commission on International Affairs which Mr. Tempelsman chaired until last month.

Lending tranquillity

Five years ago, lawyer Samuel Pisar, a friend of Mrs. Onassis, told a reporter, "This thoughtful, unlikely Jewish gentleman has put an aura of tranquillity around [Mrs. Onassis]. Maurice doesn't show her off like Onassis, who considered Jackie another jewel in his crown. Maurice, the diamond merchant, knows better; he protects her, understands her position and respects her privacy."

For her part, Mrs. Onassis once told friends, "I admire Maurice's strength and his success."

Young Jackie Kennedy first met Maurice Tempelsman in the late '50s when he arranged for John F. Kennedy, then a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, to meet a South African diamond magnate. Mr. Tempelsman was already making himself a player in liberal Democratic circles, befriending and hiring as his lawyer Adlai Stevenson, who, after his second presidential bid, traveled with him to meet African leaders in 1957.

The Kennedy-Tempelsman paths continued to cross through the years. Former Kennedy speech writer Theodore Sorenson, for instance, later became Mr. Tempelsman's lawyer.

Few took note of the deep friendship that started developing between the Kennedy widow and the diamond importer in the late '70s. But by the early '80s, after Mrs. Onassis had been linked in gossip columns with such men as architect I. M. Pei, the late CBS founder William Paley and Prince Rainier, friends and society watchers noted that Mrs. Onassis was turning up more )) and more on the arm of Mr. Tempelsman.

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