'America's Queen' Excerpt: Part II

Below is the continuation of the first chapter of Sarah Bradford’s America’s Queen, published by Viking Books.

Jackie’s father was a spectacularly attractive man in a flashy way. His looks were exotic, the very opposite of the all-American boy; his extremely dark complexion, inherited from his Bouvier forebears, had earned him various nicknames: “the Sheik,” after Rudolph Valentino, “the Black Orchid” or, more commonly, “Black Jack.” He sported a pencil-thin Clark Gable mustache over finely molded sensual lips and was often taken for the star. Indeed, the parting shot of Rhett Butler, played by Gable, in Gone With the Wind, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” might have been his motto. He had thick black hair, always beautifully groomed with an arrow-straight parting, and piercing blue eyes. He was extremely vain (a friend, visiting him for a weekend at the Swordfish Club in Bridgehampton, could not help noticing that Black Jack had hung no fewer than six photographs of himself on the wall) and spent a good deal of time on maintaining his looks. He had a fine, muscular physique and kept himself fit by working out in a private gym in a closet in his apartment or at the Yale Club, and kept up his tan under a sunlamp, or by sunbathing naked at the window of his Park Avenue apartment, or in the men’s cabana area of the Maidstone Club. His clothes were always perfectly tailored, his shirts by Brooks Brothers; even at East Hampton in the summer he was always to be seen in gabardine suits. He was a keen, although never superlative, sportsman, and liked attending prizefights, horse races and major football games. He was a gambler, on racing and on the stock exchange, and had been expelled for gambling from his prep school, Phillips Exeter. He was uninterested in intellectual or cultural pursuits and his academic record was abysmal: at Yale he was known principally as a giver of parties attended by bevies of pretty girls. He was a compulsive womanizer and, later, a heavy drinker.

Like his daughter Jackie he knew instinctively how to pose for the camera and, also like her, he had an instinctive sense of theater and of his own image. He was the type of male that many men dislike on sight or regard as a joke, and that women find hard to resist. He had a reputation for treating his women badly, overwhelming them with attention when he was pursuing them, dropping them quickly and without remorse when he had tired of them. Spoiled by his mother, he seemed incapable of establishing a responsible relationship with a woman. Proud though he was of his wife Janet’s looks, chic and prowess as a horse-woman, he was essentially a predatory male, a risk-taker, incapable of resisting temptation or self-gratification. He was certainly incapable of providing either his wife or his daughters with the stable husband and father figure they seem to have yearned for. He was more like a lover than a father to his daughters-flaunting, irresponsible, and fun to be with, intolerant of bores or boredom, loving and demanding. Some of his less admirable traits rubbed off on his daughters. When walking one day with Jackie and Lee in Central Park, he noticed an elderly lady showing signs of wanting to chat with them. “Go tell her to jump in the lake,” he said to Jackie, who later became famously intolerant of bores.

Despite the pain his infidelity caused her mother and the fact that the breakup of their marriage for that reason was demonstrably his fault, Jackie enjoyed his success with women. “She told me about the complicated relationship with her father, whom she admired and respected because women were crazy about him,” John “Demi” Gates, an early admirer of Jackie’s, said. “For example, if there was Parents’ Day at Farmington, she’d say to him about the mothers of some of her friends, ‘What about her?’ and he’d say, ‘Yes, I’ve had her,’ or he’d say, ‘No, but I think that’s pretty imminent!’ She thought that that was the most wonderful thing. She had all the wrong standards, all the wrong standards, and yet she became something very special in spite of this. Her mother would take the brass off a door knob.”

Black Jack’s standards were amoral and based on superficial values. The only virtues he recognized were the macho ones of physical courage, athleticism and style; the image was the message. The main game in life was to attract the opposite sex using every trick in the book, the implication being that when it comes to sex everyone is easily fooled, all being fair in love and war because-Black Jack’s constant refrain, and who should know better than he?-”All men are rats.” This last maxim certainly helped his elder daughter get through the more turbulent periods of her life and was amply borne out by her experience.

If Black Jack Bouvier’s standards were suspect, Janet’s were little better. Most people had been taken by surprise when Black Jack, already aged thirty-seven, married Janet Norton Lee at St. Philomena’s Catholic Church in East Hampton on July 7, 1928. The wedding was followed by a grand reception at the Lees’ summer home, a handsome house on Lily Pond Lane designed by the architect Harrie Lindberg for Edward Cowcroft in 1905. Janet, a friend of the Bouvier twins, Jack’s sisters Maude and Michelle, was sixteen years younger than her bridegroom and-not that Black Jack would have cared-an Episcopalian. The couple were completely unsuited; Janet, chic, petite and pretty, with great charm and a dazzling smile when she chose to exercise it, was tough, disciplined and inhibited, yet had, under her ladylike exterior, a violent temper. She came from an unhappy home. Her father, James T. Lee, the son of a New York doctor and schools superintendent, had made a fortune in real estate and banking; a tough-looking character, with steely eyes and a rattrap mouth, he liked to boast that he had made two million dollars by the time he was thirty, then lost it in the financial crisis of 1907. A remarkable businessman, he subsequently made another large fortune in banking and New York real estate. He won several awards for the designs of his buildings; it was perhaps from him that Jackie inherited her interest in architecture and the city of New York. It was probably from him also that she inherited the vein of steel in her character, which led John Kennedy’s national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, to joke that she was a woman with a “whim of iron.” Lee disliked his wife, Margaret Merritt, and never spoke to her; by the time Janet married, her parents were living separate lives although they never formally divorced.

Unsurprisingly, James Lee detested Black Jack and disapproved of his marrying Janet. As families, the Bouviers and the Lees, despite being neighbors on Park Avenue and at East Hampton, did not get along. The Bouviers, proud as they were of their ancestry, looked down on the Lees as their inferiors. Janet’s parents were second-generation Irish immigrants and the Lee fortune was of recent origin. In the Bouviers’ eyes, Janet was making a calculated climb up the society ladder in marrying Black Jack. The Lees certainly seem to have been socially insecure. James T. Lee’s obituary in the New York Times after his death, aged ninety, on January 3, 1968, makes no mention of his antecedents or those of his wife. He is described merely as being “born in New York on Oct. 2, 1877, the son of Dr. James Lee and Mary Norton Lee. His father was once superintendent of the city’s public schools.”

Despite a rumor that both James and Margaret Lee were the children of Irish immigrants (confirmed by a recent authority on Jackie, who states that both her paternal great-grandparents were immigrants from County Cork at the time of the potato famine), the National Cyclopedia of Biography glamorizes their parents with Confederate backgrounds: James Lee’s father is described as having been born in Maryland and having fought with the Confederate Army during the Civil War, while Margaret Merritt is listed as the daughter of Thomas Merritt of Savannah, Georgia, “a Confederate army veteran and an importer of New York City.” The Maryland-Lee connection was later propagated publicly by Janet, among other fantasies and half-truths, in a biographical article written about her in 1962 after Jackie had become First Lady. Indeed, several of her friends described her to the present author as “a Southern belle.”

Although James Lee was born and died a Catholic, his daughter Janet attended all the right WASP schools-Miss Spence’s in New York City, one year at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, another at Barnard College in New York-and made her debut at Sherry’s, describing her religion as Episcopalian. She also told the author of the article that she had had a hankering to be a writer and had taken courses in playwriting and short-story writing at Columbia University, but her literary career did not extend beyond ghostwriting some hunting stories for a magazine.

Given the dislike between the two families and Black Jack’s well-documented reputation as a womanizer, the omens for the marriage were inauspicious. Janet later said, as women often do whose marriages fail, that she had married Black Jack to get away from her father, and she certainly did so against James Lee’s will. But the evidence is that she was also strongly physically attracted to Black Jack, which might well have been a factor in her extreme bitterness when the marriage broke down. Even on their honeymoon sailing to Europe on the Aquitania, Black Jack could not resist a flirtation with the Newport heiress Doris Duke. Or with the gaming tables. When Jackie was in her teens and spending a vacation at the Château de Borda Berri near Biarritz with a crowd of young friends, she told Demi Gates, “‘You know, when my father and mother came here on their honeymoon, to Biarritz, he was a terrible gambler and he gambled away all the money, Mother’s, his … The night they arrived he went to the casino and came back very depressed because he had lost everything … ’ She said that her mother gathered together whatever money they had and won it all back.”

Jackie was christened three days before Christmas 1929 in the church of St. Ignatius Loyola on Park Avenue in New York City. She was given the name Jacqueline Lee, a gesture intended to placate her severe maternal grandfather, who was by far the richest of her immediate relations, and she wore the robe he had worn for his own christening. James T. Lee had been designated her godfather but Black Jack seized the opportunity afforded by the late arrival of his detested father-in-law to substitute his favorite nephew, nine-year-old Miche, in his stead (presaging, in a curious way, the manner in which Hugh D. Auchincloss II, Jackie’s stepfather, stood in for him to escort Jackie up the aisle at her wedding to John F. Kennedy).

Two months earlier, in October 1929, two events had occurred that foreshadowed the decline and fall of the Bouvier family. On October 8, Jack’s younger brother, William Sergeant “Bud” Bouvier, who had never fully recovered from being severely gassed and wounded in France in the First World War and had since become an alcoholic, died of drink, divorced and alone in California, leaving his young son Miche in the care of his brother Jack. The circumstances of his death, following a public shaming for failing to provide alimony for his ex-wife and their son, had severely dented the Major’s family pride and left the family with ineradicable feelings of guilt as well as shame. Eight days later the stock market crashed; Black Jack, sensing a collapse in the market, had sold his shares short and made $100,000 but lost as much a month later when the market plunged still further in November. The Major lost a small fortune with no means of recouping it but continued to live life as comfortably as ever on his dwindling capital.

On the surface, however, the young Bouviers’ life seemed sunny and serene. In New York and at East Hampton they were a glamorous couple on the social scene. Many years later, Jackie told Peter Duchin how she remembered her mother’s scent and the softness of her fur coat as her parents leaned over her bed to say good night before an evening out listening to Eddie Duchin perform. In New York they lived rent-free in an eleven-room duplex in the prestigious apartment building at 740 Park Avenue, built and owned by Janet’s father. Central Park, which for so many years was to be the physical focus of Jackie’s life and where Black Jack sweated around the reservoir in a special rubber suit to keep his weight down, lay two blocks to the west. In the summer at East Hampton they rented a charming cottage, Rowdy Hall, on Egypt Lane near the Maidstone Club, where the infant Jackie first made the social columns with her second birthday party and was reported that season showing her Scottie dog Hootchie at the East Hampton Show. Her parents gave lavish parties with a speakeasy atmosphere at the Devon Yacht Club, and for summer baseball games at the Maidstone, Jack invited a visiting team called, naturally, the Wall Street Stars, while Janet captained the women’s side.

Reprinted from America’s Queen by Sarah Bradford by permission of Viking Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 by Sarah Bradford. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

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