It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Kennedy author in possession of unused material must be in want of a new book deal. And yet, almost three decades have passed between Carl Sferrazza Anthony’s “As We Remember Her,” a 1997 oral history of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and his new book, “Camera Girl: The Coming of Age of Jackie Bouvier Kennedy.”
While Anthony tended to other first ladies and their families — including biographies of Florence Harding and Nellie Taft — a spate of new books on Jackie arrived. They plodded along a predictable timeline, beginning with her parents’ bitter divorce after the Great Depression, followed by Jackie excelling and rebelling at Miss Porter’s boarding school, perfecting her French at the Sorbonne, feeling uninspired at Vassar and a little less so at George Washington University. She abandoned her hard-won guest editor job at Vogue, wrote a column in Washington and was briefly engaged to a man whose greatest aspiration was making a perfect martini. All the while, Jackie was being driven toward her real destination.
“Camera Girl” offers one of the most detailed, nuanced portraits of Jackie to date. Anthony covers much of her early life, but the heart of the book, as the title suggests, was her time as an “inquiring photographer,” later renamed “inquiring camera girl,” at the Washington Times-Herald. From the fall of 1951 until the summer of 1953, Jackie was a gumshoe journalist who published, in addition to other works, a column six days a week. She left the job to marry Jack — a name Anthony withholds to good narrative effect until the congressman actually appears. Before he does, we see how Jackie was working on becoming, as she once wrote, “a sort of Overall Art Director of the Twentieth Century, watching everything from a chair hanging in space.”
It’s delightful to see her pursue such a lofty goal. “Someday I’ll send him a literary masterpiece,” she wrote about a boy who had wronged her, “that will make him swallow his braces.”
Jackie was a voracious reader who took hours to wonder at ideas, often processing her thoughts in letters to friends and family. “Write — or I will kill you,” she warned her beloved stepbrother Yusha, in a long letter from Paris in 1949. She described dropping a pencil and hearing it roll, roll, roll, after a professor at the Sorbonne explained that, “once oppressed people have experienced freedom, they can never again be truly controlled.” She was fun and smart, even in adolescent defiance. In high school, the music teacher who caught her playing “strip polka” demanded to know, in Jackie’s retelling, “What would Chopin think?”
Some part of her was always in perpetual motion. “Once classwork is done,” she needed “stimulation.” Jackie danced, rode horses and excelled at the arts; she painted, drew, designed sets. She wrote short stories, poems and holiday plays for her siblings to perform, and illustrated books to commemorate milestones.
The 1947 Debutante of the Year wanted to chart her own path, not be “a schoolgirl among schoolgirls.” But it was more complicated than that. “Maybe because I’m Catholic and my parents were divorced when I was young,” she wrote, “I’ve always felt an outsider in that world.” She was rarely so vulnerable. Jackie’s happiness depended on maintaining the facade of a privileged boarding-school student with many homes: her stepfather’s grand estates in Fairfax, Va., and Newport, R.I., and her father’s high-rise apartment in Manhattan and family home in East Hampton.
In reality, her parents, Janet and Black Jack, made “Kramer vs. Kramer” look tepid. Allowance was delayed or withheld for such high crimes as loving both parents. When Jackie disappointed them, they retaliated: Janet, an unrelenting critic, hit her. Black Jack, a reckless bon vivant, blamed his wet, depressive episodes on her. Nothing was ever really hers, except her imagination.
Jackie, from an early age, showed great promise as a writer. Grampy Lee, Janet’s father, submitted her poetry to the East Hampton Star. “I honestly think you could write a book on your travels,” praised her father, predicting a “best-seller.” But that kind of success could ruin a girl’s prospects. Every author quotes Jackie’s intention, memorialized in a 1947 high school yearbook, “not to be a housewife,” but Anthony does well to show what being “distinct” — her advice to lovelorn friends — meant in the real world. John Husted, her erstwhile fiance, deemed her career “insipid” and her column “stupid.” She wanted to “marry a man with imagination,” but “that’s not easy to find.”
Careful what you wish for. As her engagement waned, she met John F. Kennedy. “I was rather frightened of him — because I knew if he came towards me, I wouldn’t have the power to run away — though it would probably be better if I did.” If it worked out, Kennedy’s dreams would clearly eclipse hers, but at 35, Jack had never gotten close to proposing to anyone. “He didn’t look like someone who wanted to get married, and I pictured heartbreak,” but still, it “seemed worth it.” In theory. After they met, he didn’t call for months.
“He hurt me terribly when he was campaigning,” she admitted to her priest, “and never called up for weeks.” Today, we’d call it ghosting, and the rest — a couple of short telegrams, a couple of books as gifts in lieu of flowers and last-minute invites — breadcrumbing. And she allowed it. When he disappeared, she didn’t chase him, and when he reemerged, she accepted his overtures. Jack’s insouciance was painful, but his whereabouts could be accounted for in the papers: He was running for senator in Massachusetts, where women accounted for 51 percent of the vote. They flocked to see the rich, eligible bachelor on the campaign trail, and the eligibility wasn’t an act. “He was as much in love with me as he could be with anyone,” Jackie said, aware that he was publicly dating other women.
Was she buying time before becoming a senator’s wife and, as it was clear even then, the first lady — or building a future on her own terms? An attractive, unmarried woman of little personal wealth — she was a guest at her stepfather’s estates, and her father’s wealth had been greatly reduced by the Great Depression — had, at 24 years old, little time to waste. But Jackie, mired in courtship limbo, was determined to make her own luck. She shopped around a screenplay about the Octagon House, where James and Dolley Madison moved after the British burned the White House in 1812. She wore down her boss, who assigned her features and published her illustrations alongside stories. She kept up the column, too, posing questions to subjects that reveal an otherwise quiet pining: “Can you give me any reason why a contented bachelor should get married?” “What is the food of romance?” “The Irish author Sean O’Faolain claims that the Irish are deficient in the art of love. Do you agree?”
Anthony lingers on her ambition, critical to her sense of self, but his approach has a fundamental flaw: He prioritizes her photography over her writing. She didn’t. The Leica camera she’s wrangling for when the book opens, which Anthony emphasizes as a Rosebud-like object, isn’t the one she used at work. Few of the new photos in the book were taken with it. The title, “Camera Girl,” sounds unserious, but more important, it omits a key word, and function, of her column: “Inquiring Camera Girl” featured photos and interviews. She identified as a writer. Kennedy described her as a journalist. But Anthony sees her as a photographer, and his tunnel vision, which sometimes thwarts his narrative, leaves future scholars with gaps to fill.
Anthony has written a good book. With a bit more vision, diligence and energy, he could have written a great one.
Alexis Coe is the author of “You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington,” and she is at work on a biography of John F. Kennedy.
The Coming of Age of Jackie Bouvier Kennedy
By Carl Sferrazza Anthony
Gallery. 379 pp. $29.99
A note to our readers
We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.