CAMERA GIRL – THE COMING OF AGE OF JACKIE BOUVIER KENNEDY

By Carl Sferrazza Anthony

Gallery Books 2023

ISBN: 978 1 9821 4187 5

RRP: $49.99 (HB)

Reviewed by Anne Henderson

 

It’s hard to imagine there would still be much to reveal about Jackie Bouvier Kennedy that has not been written and made public over the decades. Having taken to the world stage as the wife of a US president, the charismatic Jack Kennedy, Jackie Bouvier Kennedy brought to the White House a flair and attention it had never known.

Much of who that woman was, what had moulded her character, tastes and personality is readily to be found in the many write ups and videos of Jackie as president’s wife and how she handled the tragic and untimely death of her husband by an assassin. It is Carl Sferrazza Anthony’s achievement, however, to reveal intimately in Camera Girl – The Coming of Age of Jackie Bouvier Kennedy how the real Jackie Kennedy was formed well before she took charge of the White House or met Jack Kennedy.

Jackie Bouvier, the child of wealthy parents, was both a product of her time and a person ahead of her time. On her mother Janet Lee’s side, the insecurity of upward social mobility with the Lees’ new wealth, barely a generation or two removed from lower east end Manhattan struggles, ensured a maternal dominance and control of Jackie’s social behaviour. Even in her late teens, Janet would hit Jackie for non-compliance. This had, over years, both encouraged Jackie in rebellious attitudes to school and college, along with small deceits to play off her parents when seeking to avoid complying or needing money. An early example of Jackie securing an expensive Leica IIc camera, which both parents had refused to fully finance and then both separately contributed thanks to Jackie’s pleading, sets the stage. Jackie Bouvier could manage around obstacles to get what she wanted.

“Black” Jack Bouvier had settled on marrying the much younger and pretty Janet Lee only after upsetting his father for years with his indifference to settling down. He had been born into money and was what Sferrazza Anthony describes as “an entitled, arrogant rogue”. But the fortune the Bouviers had inherited was dwindling. Black Jack engaged in an indulgent life with mistresses and illegal gambling. Janet and Black Jack’s separation in 1936 and divorce in 1940 occurred as the Bouvier money from his family was drying up for Black Jack. Then, after a stint earning from modelling at Macy’s, Janet landed the wealthy Hugh D Auchincloss as a husband and resurfaced on the social scene.

From where Jackie saw it, Mummy could do very well for herself. And Mummy was an example of the pragmatic views of her social class that marriage was a woman’s meal ticket and should be arranged in as hard-headed a way as any financial deal. Not surprising then that it would be through Jackie’s adoring father that Jackie learned a certain tolerance for unfaithful husbands. She accepted an old fashioned attitude that allowed for male adultery so that, as Sferrazza Anthony writes, “she seemed to consider Mummy’s unwillingness to sublimate her resulting humiliation as a weakness that caused the divorce”.

Jackie Bouvier left numerous letters to close friends and family. Sferrazza Anthony  makes stirring use of these to produce a story with cinematic appeal. Jackie’s step-brother Yusha – the son of Hugh D Auchincloss from a previous marriage – was a soul mate over years. In many of her letters, Jackie revealed a complex young woman. While an intellectually gifted student, she preferred learning outside the classroom. Her letters to Yusha while they were still teenagers at boarding schools exchanged ideas and feelings well beyond the personal and Yusha came to recognise that his step-sister “wanted a life that left an impact”.

Jackie’s first photo in the press was at five months of age – she clearly mixed in a class that was used to being noticed. On board the SS De Grasse when heading to Paris in August 1949 to further her studies and experience the continent, Sferrazza Anthony writes that while travelling with a group of young women students from “families in which higher education was valued” – even though Jackie had been chosen “Deb of the Year” just two years before – she was “among her tribe”. Jackie could be a society princess and a serious scholar at the same time. A new sort of woman for her age and class.

From August 1949 till January 1950, Jackie Bouvier soaked up Europe, and Paris in particular. Beginning her time away with six weeks of intensive language study in Grenoble, Jackie combined this with absorbing and visiting as much of the surrounding French regions as she could. She was also determined to master French perfectly. Alongside her formal learning while away, Jackie made the best of contacts in her socialising, on one occasion dashing to Vienna, including the Soviet zone, where she found herself detained by the Soviet police for photographing their building.

Sferrazza Anthony blends the narrative seamlessly with small and large examples of Jackie’s ability to set a goal and pursue it relentlessly in these coming-out years. In particular, back in the US, there was Jackie’s weeks of work for Vogue’s 16th Prix de Paris which she won. In Europe, Jackie had stretched her life experiences alongside her talents, both artistic and literary, her camera keeping records. Returning from her time in Europe she wrote, “I don’t want to just live for pleasure, I want the satisfaction of being creative and some larger purpose.” But also, hers was a personality that was never ready to sacrifice social activity for her love of art or literature. As she told Gore Vidal, connected to her through family, “I’d never be willing to starve and tramp the streets day and night for the sake of art.”

Yet Jackie did want to earn a living and have an interesting job. Which, in time, saw her land a “base grade position with Washington’s Times Herald which, with persistence, endurance and hard work, saw her score a column where she wandered the city with her camera asking questions in a vox pop sort of fashion and filing what she found interesting along with illustrations. It suited her personality and she was imaginative in the topics she chose. Her parents were not easily pleased with her independence. Sferrazza Anthony draws an absorbing cameo of the Bovier’s vital and somewhat evasive elder daughter. She was able to take from her experiences just what she wanted, even as she often despaired of her end game. Jackie Bouvier could manage her life choices with exceptional skill, all the while appeasing her parents. This applied also to her romantic life as she dated widely. Even as she joined the Times Herald, she was something of a novelty with a colleague opining: “I never imagined the daughter of a millionaire would be so cock-a-hoop getting a lowly paid job like this.”

As she hopped in and out of experiences, pushing forward as an independent – albeit privileged – young woman, Jackie acquired new and well connected friends. Her romantic life was varied, and Sferrazza Anthony succeeds in capturing her spontaneous choices which ended in one broken engagement while keeping company with an ambitious Jack Kennedy, who took a long time to declare his hand. The book follows Jackie’s gradual entrance into the Kennedy clan, even before she is really aware of the possibility Jack might be especially interested in her. It is Sferrazza Anthony’s achievement to leave his readers in no doubt that Kennedy’s decision to make Jackie Bouvier his wife was very much pushed, and even quietly orchestrated, by old Joe Kennedy and a few members of the Kennedy clan. They realised Jackie would prove a great political commodity, especially with Kennedy’s aspirations to win the presidency.

Jack Kennedy was certainly interested in Jackie Bouvier but his instinct was to continue playing the eligible bachelor and attracting female voters. He also – as we now know – enjoyed the company of a range of beautiful women. The picture drawn of Jackie absorbed in writing a study of contemporary politics in French controlled Vietnam (for Jack of course), waiting for him to call and being ignored while he travelled the country in his campaign for election can only be seen as a foreshadowing of their life to come. Jackie was well warned before she accepted Jack’s proposal of marriage that he was not the sort of man to be a faithful husband.

And so, the wedding went ahead, with Sferrazza Anthony’s intimate portrait making credible the strange mixture of feelings behind Jackie’s preference for a marriage that would deliver her more than an adoring husband. She had said she wanted a man with imagination; Jack Kennedy would certainly offer that. As Sferrazza Anthony writes:

… she was divesting herself of a traditional concept of marriage. A monogamous husband could not be expected in the partnership she was pursuing, but the relationship would grant her the status and stability of a financially flourishing husband and household. That was the scenario Jack Kennedy seemed to offer Jackie with the approach of spring in 1953.

Carl Sferrazza Anthony’s Camera Girl – The Coming of Age of Jackie Bouvier Kennedy is not only an absorbing account of the life and personality of Jackie Bouvier Kennedy, he has in so many ways also explained much of why history has recorded the Kennedys as one of the most exciting couples to live in America’s White House. Jack Kennedy would, in time, offer the scandals but Jackie would go on to create the legend.

Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History.