Secular Saint

May 24, 1994|By GARRY WILLS

CHICAGO — Chicago.--The genuine grief expressed by people over the death of Jacqueline Onassis shows what a large part she played in their lives. Something will be missing now, and they lament that fact.

It is hard to define, in mere logic, what that something was. Mrs. Onassis did not do anything remarkable. She beautified the White House when she was President Kennedy's wife. That is not a cause people feel deeply about. (How many of her admirers have you met recently who live for the sacred cause of beautifying the White House?)

She quietly edited some books in her later years -- but few could name a single one of them, and even fewer among her fans feel that was a job that deeply needed doing and that only she could do.

She was not admired for doing anything in particular but for being what she was. And what was that? A woman of style, a figure of poise, beauty and culture. Some of the Kennedy glamour rubbed off on her, and some of her own glamour rubbed off on them.

People would like to forget the Aristotle Onassis interlude in her life. He did not fit the picture of cultured charm that she continued to radiate. In the fairy tales, one is supposed to kiss a frog and turn him into a prince. She reversed the temporal sequence, moving from the prince to the frog.

But even his brief intrusion on the scene could not disturb the rarefied image of perfect womanhood that Mrs. Onassis possessed. She was a kind of secular saint.

For decades, her face on the cover of a magazine was a surefire way of boosting newsstand sales. I remember participating in editorial conferences at the old Esquire magazine where people discussed the commissioning of articles in terms of the opportunity they would afford for putting her picture on the cover.

She was one of the few such icons whose appeal was high as well as low. She was on the cover of the Star and the National Enquirer as much as Cher or Madonna, but she was also on the covers of Esquire and New York magazine. Intellectuals boasted of meeting her the way groupies boast of having met Elvis.

In a way, Mrs. Onassis was the thinking person's Elvis. He, too, was less important for what he did than for what he was. His LTC singing was admired, but the adoration was not reserved for that. He became a symbol -- of lower-class energy, of Southern charm, of sexuality -- that floated free of actual achievement.

Bill Clinton's mother wrote in her recent book of the way she sought out relics of Elvis, and second-hand or third-hand forms of encounter with him (things like riding in one of his cars).

This kind of appeal looks superficial. It is the surface that matters -- Mrs. Onassis' coiffed and exquisitely gowned surface, Elvis' oiled-hair and grungy surface.

But these people present us with a paradox of a ''deep surface.'' The content of their appeal is not what matters, precisely because they become containers for other people to empty their own contents into. They are reservoirs of our dreams. Others pour into these figures their hopes, aspirations and false memories of better lives.

The less contact such people have with the ordinary, the better. That is why their power actually grows as they drift away from the circumstances that first brought them to prominence. Elvis is more powerful in death than in life -- he moved above life even while living.

It is doubtful that Mrs. Onassis will be as powerful a symbol now that she is dead. But her appeal was broader. Professors went starry-eyed around her, and weak-kneed, and reverential.

That is sheer magic.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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