Take the Kennedy wedding. On the one hand, there was the shimmering glamor and idealized Camelot of it all. On the other, the well-known and highly public affairs of the president. What explains it? And how did Jackie, a woman of such dignity and poise, come to tolerate this reality?
The ingenuity of Louis Bayard’s new novel, “Jackie & Me,” is that it does not seek to penetrate the black box of the Kennedy marriage by writing directly about it. Instead, Bayard seeks an answer by focusing on the before: the years when Jack and Jackie were still two separate individuals, a young man and a young woman sailing through Washington.
The story begins in 1952, when Jacqueline Lee Bouvier was invited to a friend’s cocktail party in Northwest DC. The star of the evening is the handsome congressman from Massachusetts, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who immediately impresses the women present. “The room was conquered in advance,” writes Bayard. “The hands were stretched out, the lips were parted.” Jackie stays behind, appalled at the assumption that she, too, is meant to rush and sneak. A graduate of Vassar, the Sorbonne and George Washington, Jackie may only be 22, but she knows herself, and she has no desire to be one of many.
Review: “Courting Mr. Lincoln”, by Louis Bayard
And yet: sparks of romance fly! Or, at least, a version of romance. The future president perceives the assets of Jackie: not only her beauty but also her good family name, her complementary Catholicism. Jack wants to keep her interested – and keep her out of the market for other men – but he’s too busy (with Congress, with other women) to do it on his own. And that’s how we meet Lem Billings.
Lem, Jack de Choate’s oldest friend and accomplice in court, is the narrator of “Jackie & Me”. With the melancholic setting of the retrospective, Lem describes escorting Jackie around town on Jack’s behalf, taking her to museums, movies and restaurants in the spring and summer of 1952. Lem and Jackie share a natural affection, but that’s purely platonic: Lem is gay, which is a big (albeit unspoken) part of why Jack trusts him with Jackie.
“Jackie & Me” is a poignant late summer afternoon novel. There’s a sweet, timeless joy to Lem and Jackie’s shared scenes — riding the Ferris wheel, cracking silly jokes — and the pages turn easily, even if the tension never reaches more than a low simmer. They are two central characters who are, for the most part, stuck in a pattern of expectation, subject to each other’s whims.
Bayard thoughtfully explores the question of what it means to repress one’s own desires, to shape one’s life and identity around another person. Lem has always been in love with his friend Jack, although his loyalty doesn’t necessarily mean naivety. When asked to keep an eye on Jackie, Lem told Jack bluntly, “If you’re going to send me on a secret mission, I need to know who my spymaster is.” Jack himself? Or is it “the boss of Hyannis?” Who am I working for? To what end?”
To what end? Jack is just as blunt: “Dad thinks I can’t get elected if I don’t have a wife.
Bayard captures her characters with deft economy (Jackie, on her first visit to Hyannis Port: “To make sense of her three days and two nights with the Kennedys, she had to come at them like Margaret Mead in a pith helmet” ). We see how much Lem admires Jackie, admires her culture and her refinement. We also see how, as he strings it up in Jack’s name, he feels increasingly guilty. Lem is acutely aware of his friend’s sexual appetites and how those appetites are destined to endure, even after marriage. He is torn. He wants to serve Jack, but he also wants to protect Jackie.
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A quibble: Lem’s pervasive guilt could imply that he is responsible for Jackie’s post, that he manipulated it into a certain outcome. But is Jackie, in fact, that malleable? Jackie, it seems to me, is far too intelligent not to see precisely what is going on. She is cultured and refined, yes, but a woman who loves art and literature can too to be a woman with concrete ambitions, ready to make pragmatic arrangements. There’s a way that “Jackie & Me” denies the future first lady these darker possibilities and, in doing so, negates her true complexity.
None of this, however, ultimately takes away from the pure enjoyment of this novel. “Jackie & Me” is a story perfectly suited to our continued fascination with the Kennedy marriage – and a romance, like Jackie herself, with charm to spare.
Anna Pitoniak is the author of “The Futures”, “Necessary People” and “Our American Friend”.
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