Going once, going twice ... Essay: The Jackie O auction is over. What are we and the millionaire buyers to take away from it? Many things, indeed.

April 27, 1996|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN STAFF

And then there were none.

With a final, merciful rap of the auctioneer's gavel, the tiresomely dubbed sale of the century ended yesterday with $453,000 being paid for one of JFK's rocking chairs and $79,500 paid for Jackie's last car, a green BMW.

Can Jackie be left in peace now?

It's not, as some believe, that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis would have been aghast to see her private possessions on public display and sold to just anybody -- anybody with more money than sense or taste, that is. This was a savvy, pragmatic woman who made sure she and later her children would have the wherewithal to live as they chose. The idea that she would have been offended by this grubby exchange of money is misplaced sensitivity on our part.

It's that there was an unseemly, train-wreck quality about the scenes from Sotheby's as they played out on our TV sets all week. The harshly lit auction room -- were they using police crime-scene lights? -- was impossible to turn away from. We rubbernecked to see if the toll would rise higher and higher: The Tiffany tape measure went for $48,875! Caroline's rocking horse went for $85,000! The fake pearls for $211,500! Final tally: $30 million! Film at 11!

To those who managed to get their piece of Jackie -- one couple spent their honeymoon money on fake diamond earrings -- congratulations. Now what are you going to do with it, or her?

Some items are undeniably poignant evocations of Jackie: You could hang them on your wall, wear them around your neck, treasure their personal meaning. It actually would have been nice to see more regular people walking away with mementos -- a stray golf club, the French verb book -- instead of corporations and millionaires snatching up all the good stuff. The Franklin Mint, purveyor of all things middle-brow, getting the necklace that John John tugged at as his pretty mommy tipped back her head in a big laugh? Horrors!

But so many of the auction items -- the little footstool, the nondescript baskets, the dusty magazines -- taken out of context, are nothing. And will command about that much, no doubt, if their buyers ever try to resell them. So if there's no reason to pack them away as investments for a future killing, what do you do: display them in your home, encased in Plexiglas, with a little sign?

The stuff will never look as good as it did at Sotheby's, all in one place: the artwork hung in logical groupings, the jewels in clear cases, the furnishings logically arrayed in scenarios. And, most importantly, huge, blow-up photos of Jackie at her most Jackie hovering overhead: In grainy black-and-white, caught and captured in the blink of a camera as the lovely young queen of Camelot, in her crisp equestrian gear or in her pearls with an out-of-focus Jack in the background. This is how not just Sotheby's but the rest of us have chosen to fix her in time.

Tellingly, the one item in one Thursday session that sold for its actual estimate was perhaps among the most intrinsically valuable: a 15th-century illustration of the Mughal emperor Akbar as a child, done by his court artists. Perhaps if Sotheby's could have found a photograph in which John John was seen splashing Kool Aid on it, the illustration would have commanded the 30-times-their estimate that other household items fetched.

Nor, of course, were there poster-sized photos of the later Jackie: the sunglassed and headscarfed New Yorker, just trying to get on with a real rather than iconic life.

She apparently succeeded: She became a respected editor and a true rather than titular figure in important arts and preservation causes. Jackie got over Camelot; perhaps it was us, the townspeople of the kingdom, who didn't.

Jackie, of course, was the architect of Camelot. She planted the bug, in the wake of President Kennedy's assassination, by saying how he used to enjoy listening to the score of the popular Broadway show at night in the White House. You wonder, though, if even she knew how powerful the metaphor would become.

And we shouldn't let it go, entirely. For all the revisionist thinking since then, the subsequent revelations, the cracks in the facades, the myth of the Kennedy era is worth keeping. There was a sense of promise and purpose back then, however unfulfilled, a sense of what might have been. And if Jackie is the symbol of that mistily recalled era, so be it.

But if you weren't around then, is this all you'll know of Jackie -- that her stuff was sold for outrageous prices and all the TV cameras were there to record it? Like, are they going to open Planet Camelot restaurants everywhere and hang her husband's rocking chairs from the ceiling or display her cigarette lighter in the smoking section? Was she, you know, as cool back then as Jennifer Aniston is now?

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