JFK's infidelities, Jackie's marriage to Onassis, her post-traumatic stress. Carly Simon reveals the private side of Jackie O, as she opens up about her improbable friendship with the former first lady. Interview by Will Pavia.
If you went to the cinema with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, you couldn't just meet her by the popcorn stand. She liked popcorn, but it was impossible for her to loiter by the bins in a public place.
The singer and songwriter Carly Simon used to go with her all the time and they had a system worked out: they would rendezvous in the lavatory. "I would pick her up in the ladies' room if she was early," Simon says. "She would wait and I would see her little Gucci loafers sticking out from under the stall. We really had a girlfriend relationship. It was like we were in high school."
We're in Simon's house, talking about how she came to be mates with Kennedy. She has just written a book about it. When they first met, in 1983, she was filled with the same questions that all of us would have. What was it like to be married to JFK? How did she manage to avoid going insane after he was assassinated beside her in the back seat of a limousine before a crowd of thousands? Why did she marry that Greek shipping magnate? What was it like to see stories of JFK's alleged adulteries with Marilyn Monroe and the wives of various gangsters? Did she bear a grudge? And so on.
As they became friends, Simon thought of something her father used to say: a quote from the Greek philosopher Phaedrus, who warned that "an alliance with a powerful person is never safe". Simon was a rock star, a famous person with famous friends and lovers, but Kennedy was on another level altogether. There was a sense of mild trepidation.
"I never lost it with her," Simon says. "I never wanted to stick my foot in my mouth, and there was always the potential."
One afternoon in 1992, she met Kennedy in the lavatories of a cinema on the Upper East Side. Simon had picked this theatre because it seemed to be the only one in New York that was not showing the Oliver Stone film JFK, advertised in posters that bore an image of the motorcade and the assassination. You can see how that would be rather awkward.
Well, Simon writes, she bought two tickets for Bugsy, starring Warren Beatty, an old flame of hers whom Kennedy knew too. The former first lady emerged from the lavatory cubicle.
"I almost thought the woman who came in a minute ago was you," Kennedy told her. "It wouldn't have been the worst thing, but … Well, shall we go in? Oh, Carly, I see you got popcorn … What fun!"
They found their seats, Simon still fretting that there would be a trailer for JFK. There was not. The screen went dark, the auditorium was quiet. "There hung between us a palpable silence and for some reason I couldn't allow it," she writes in Touched by the Sun. "I turned to her, this friend, this woman whose burden it was to be poised, and whose responsibility it was to set an example for the rest of us.
"I said: 'Have you seen JFK? I mean the movie. I mean the Oliver Stone movie. I mean the one that's just out now.'
"Jackie looked as if she had been attacked. 'Oh no, Carly, no. No, no,' she said. 'It's so awful. No.' "
Gosh, what a nightmare. "Mrs Kennedy, have you seen that film about your husband being murdered not by one gunman but by a whole crew, possibly on the orders of the vice-president? Whadayathink? Three stars?" Yes, I can just imagine doing it myself.
Simon tried to dig herself out. " 'I didn't even mean to say that,' she said.
" 'No, Carly, no!' Mrs Kennedy exclaimed."
The film was beginning. Her friend slumped in her chair. "All the while I was thinking: 'I have to be so careful. She is so much more fragile than we all think. Every time a shot sounded on the screen she reacted physically, her body mimicking the victim. All I wanted to do was protect her, put my arms around her."
Simon's book is full of moments like this: nights out, drinks in the garden, long phone calls and the odd moment of screaming awkwardness – glimpses of the late Mrs Onassis you wouldn't get anywhere else.
"In the movie theatre, that was as much of a horror show as I could have imagined," Simon says. "I might as well have said, 'Have you seen Some Like It Hot with Marilyn Monroe?' I might as well have just stuck another foot in my mouth. You have to be so careful not to say it, you're thinking, 'Don't mention the elephant in the room.' "
But it's the stuff of friendship, to occasionally mention the elephant. Kennedy just happened to own larger elephants than most people. In the course of their friendship, all of them got mentioned, more or less, and all of Simon's questions were answered. "She was the combination of a younger sister and an older sister and a mother all wrapped up in one," Simon says. "She was just the ultimate wonderful friend. How graced was I?"
Simon is 74 and lives on Martha's Vineyard, the island beneath Cape Cod that is home to artists and writers and a summer spot for the American elite. Flying there from JFK airport in New York, the plane comes in over the southwestern foot of the island, over a thin white beach that runs to a rocky headland between the surging ocean and large dark pond. Kennedy bought the beach and the land beside it in 1979, building a grey shingled mansion overlooking the lagoon.
Simon's house is on a hill at the other end of the island. On the way there, a taxi driver called Wayne points out the cove where Martha Stewart has a house, and the farm where Princess Diana stayed. The Clintons are here a lot, he says. The guys on the island rather liked Bill, because of his womanising, Wayne says. "Not that we were doing that ourselves. Though I do remember during the Lewinsky affair, there was a guy up on the hill who put up a big wooden sign that said, 'Hurrah Bill!' "
We turn down an unpaved track that winds through woodland. I'm very early – I'd worried about getting stuck in traffic, but there is no traffic on Martha's Vineyard. I get out in the woods and walk onto Simon's estate. As you come over the rise, château Simon unfurls, with turrets, balconies and intricate courtyard gardens. It's hard to know where the front of it is and as I puzzle over this, a door opens and a young woman beckons me inside.
Simon is upstairs, she says. She calls up on the house phone to say that I am here.
"Has he ever done an interview with someone in bed?" Simon asks.
Oh yes, I say. I really have too. Mostly as a local reporter, with bedridden pensioners. But it feels quite appropriate for a rock star.
Her assistant leads me to what looks like a cupboard door. Through it there's a spiral staircase winding up a turret. We step out onto a grey-carpeted landing to a curtained recess: a nook decorated with drapes, like the tent of an Arabian monarch. Inside it is a bed and in the bed is Carly Simon. A small dog named Aja (pronounced Asia) lies on a pillow behind her head. It's a cavapoo, she says.
Simon is having an infusion for osteoporosis to strengthen the bones. About 50 per cent of people who have it suffer side-effects that can last a fortnight. "Well, I didn't believe I was going to be one of the 50 per cent," she says, ruefully.
She frets that it will look odd, to do an interview in bed.
Didn't John Lennon do his interviews in bed?
"But then I need Yoko with me," she replies.
That's beyond my powers to arrange. But we have Aja, the cavapoo.
"She didn't even bark at you when you came up," Simon says. "It means you belong here."
She lies sideways, her head on a pillow. She hasn't eaten for several days, and feels very tired. Sometimes, as I ask a question, her eyes narrow in thought and I worry that she has fallen asleep. Her voice is husky, but that is how it is supposed to sound, I think. She looks good. Her blond fringe is as I remember it from record sleeves, her face is tanned, with its lantern jaw and her wide flashing smile.
Simon began thinking about Kennedy after publishing a memoir in 2015 called Boys in the Trees. It told of her childhood in Riverdale, an upmarket part of the Bronx, as the somewhat neglected third daughter of Richard Simon, co-founder of the publisher Simon & Schuster. It charted her musical development and her first marriage to the musician James Taylor; it also told of her affairs with Jack Nicholson, Mick Jagger and Warren Beatty. She had kept contemporaneous notes on all these dazzling entanglements in her diaries but her memoir only took us up to 1983. "There were so many journals left [that] follow that," Simon says. "A lot were about my relationships with women. So I started writing a book about my relationships with strong women in my life." As she wrote, "I realised that people were interested in Jackie in a way that they weren't interested in the other people in my life."
A door opens and a neat-looking man emerges. It is Richard Koehler, a surgeon and Simon's boyfriend. He calls through the curtain to ask if she needs anything.
"No. I'm feeling like John Lennon and Yoko Ono," she calls back. "Wow, all right," he says and departs down the spiral staircase.
In her first meetings with Kennedy, Simon remembers stammering and trying not to stare. They got to know each other better as Kennedy, who worked at Doubleday, became the editor of some children's books Simon wrote. She knew that they were getting closer when Kennedy, organising her daughter's wedding, said, "Carly, do you know any musicians?"
Which is a bit like asking the owner of a pizza oven for advice on where to get some late-night carbs. Simon sang Nobody Does It Better, her James Bond theme, as Kennedys filled the dancefloor and Arnold Schwarzenegger stood at the edge of it, "looking as though he was wondering which of the guests he was going to crush between two fingers".
Kennedy told Simon she was intriguing "because you're a thoroughbred" – highly strung, nervy. "I'm a workhorse," Kennedy added, according to Simon. "Big feet. Flat feet. A cousin of mine used to call me Suffolk."
She was part international style icon, part draught horse.
"She didn't portray herself as being very glamorous," says Simon. "She let the world do that for her." She could obviously be quite funny too. "Jackie and Jack must have had a tremendous time," Simon says.
I hadn't quite clocked how funny President Kennedy was until I listened to one of his speeches. Recently, covering a Trump rally, quite a few Trump supporters told me their man reminded them of JFK.
Simon does not agree. She met Trump once at a lunch for Benazir Bhutto at the Plaza hotel, New York. Bhutto turned out to be a fan of Simon's music and "brought me into the suite that she was staying in … Trump saw me go into the bedroom with her and, all of a sudden, I was royalty. Trump wanted to meet me. Then he invited me down to Mar-a-Lago and …" She shudders. "It was not enticing."
He was not charming?
"No. He was revolting."
She must have seen Trump fans comparing Melania to Kennedy. Simon doesn't see the similarity. "Not in the least," she says. "Poor Melania. If she has a clue, she hides it."
She tosses this one out much in the way, according to her book at least, that Kennedy might have said it. Simon says she imagines Jackie and Jack "after a dinner party, when they would tear apart all the guests who were there. They must have had such a good time. That's always my favourite part of going to a dinner party, the ride home with your mate."
She got a lot of funny letters from Kennedy, she says. Once Kennedy and the film director Mike Nichols tagged along to a recording studio in Queens to see Simon record a duet with Plácido Domingo, a song from Miss Saigon. "I was giving him hints on how to move, because he doesn't have the sense of rhythm that Broadway songs sometimes require," she says. "And he was giving me vocal lessons, and Jackie and Mike were looking on from the control room. It was a wonderful evening, it was magical ... The next day I received a letter from Plácido saying, 'Carlita, my beautiful valentine, you are so magnificent …' And I immediately called Jackie up to tell her that I have received this letter. And she just said, 'Carly, did you really think it was from Plácido?' "
Simon reaches over the edge of her bed and pulls out some photographs and a small card from a file on the floor. The letter is partly in Italian, the handwriting is neat with expressive loops. Simon hadn't noticed it was Kennedy's. "She loved practical jokes," she says. "I just loved that part of her."
I mention Domingo now faces allegations of harassment or worse from some 20 women. Simon is dismayed – she hadn't heard. I wonder what Kennedy would have made of #MeToo?
"I think she would never have been in a situation herself where she would have run up against that," she says. "There are so many situations which I think are understandable, where men are supposed to be the aggressors, and if it doesn't go over a line I think it's perfectly permissible. On the other hand, it can so easily go over the line. And especially with men in power."
In her book, Simon describes meeting Bill Clinton, newly elected, at a party on Martha's Vineyard that ended with Simon, President Clinton and Henry Kissinger singing (Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay. The Clintons came to Simon's place for lunch the next day, Secret Service agents swarming through the house. The first couple's arrival was delayed for hours and one of the food tasters informed Simon that her soup was contaminated, because it had sat on the stove all afternoon. She kept calling Kennedy for advice until her friend said, "as only Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis could or would, 'Oh Carly, for Christ's sake, it's just another president.'"
Afterwards, she told Kennedy that Bill had something she called "the glint": "a subtle knowingness, a certainty of your effect on others". His eyes "could entice women into a dangerous neighbourhood", Simon said.
She thinks Kennedy had it too, "in a nonsexual way. She didn't have it in the, 'You and me, chum' way … I don't know how to put this, quite," Simon says. "She had it in a, 'I'm a queen, I'm above you' way."
Once, when Maurice Tempelsman, Kennedy's partner at the time, was away, Simon arranged a double date setting her up with the actor Alec Baldwin. "Alec, who had never met Jackie, was in a state of hyper-disbelief," she writes. "Jackie Kennedy wants to go on a date with me?" The foursome had dinner in Simon's flat in Manhattan, where Kennedy "doted on Alec", she writes. "In a black and white cashmere Armani sweater, her gold Cartier watch flashing like a possible UFO, Jackie was ravishing, her rapt, wide-eyed 'just for you' expression seeming to shut out everyone in the room but Alec." Baldwin, in spite of his "showbusiness poise, occasionally revealed the lightest possible slick of sweat on his brow".
Simon thinks Kennedy liked her because she was so open about her life. At the time, Simon had a lot to be open about. She fretted that her second husband, Jim Hart, was having an affair (it later turned out he was gay) and Kennedy offered the services of her own private detective. When Simon checked into rehab to try to get off a slew of medications for depression, she was allowed one phone call a day. "I would call Jackie every night," she says.
She also thinks her willingness to broach personal stories made it easier for her friend to do the same. Kennedy talked about JFK's mistresses "with no apparent discomfort or distress", Simon writes. "She told me that of course she knew about them – she just didn't mind their presence as much as she might have, because she knew he loved her more, much more, than any of his dalliances."
Simon is still a little sceptical. "I don't know how much she talked herself into that position or not. I never quite believed it," she says. "I felt as if there was something so animalistic about the feeling that you have when you're being betrayed ... And I didn't know that she could intellectualise it to the degree that she was pretending that she could."
Did she ever grant herself the same freedom to have affairs? Simon's book hints at men who caught her eye. Mike Nichols for one. Senator John Kerry, for another. "You know he has the same initials as Jack," Kennedy told her. Simon felt that she and John were very alike and describes asking her, coyly, " 'Did you ever "take a walk" ?' She changed the subject with charm and practised alacrity."
"She insinuated some things," Simon tells me. "But she never spelt it out. But I wouldn't be at all surprised if she had romance in her life. And she had flirtations, which I don't know necessarily whether they led to anything that you could call an infidelity."
Kennedy had a rather conservative take on the fight for gender equality. "It will take many generations to arrive at the kind of equality – if it ever comes – that undoes the idea that women are the smaller, weaker of the sexes, and that women have to rule with a craftiness their mates must know nothing about," she said, according to Simon. "The woman is clever and circuitous, isn't she? A man is straightforward and stupid. The hairy ape."
Simon wondered if Kennedy was referring to her second husband, Aristotle Onassis, the hairy shipping magnate. She saw him offering a safe haven, Simon says, after the assassination of her brother-in-law, Bobby Kennedy, in 1968. She now feared for her children. "It was a responsible fear," Simon says. Onassis apparently saw himself as Odysseus, conquering the world with his cunning. "I was no one to argue. I was so in need of the kind of protection he was offering," Kennedy told Simon. She felt as though she had "to make a grand left turn so as not to be reminded of my former life".
Once, Simon recalls, Kennedy asked what it was like to hear first husband James Taylor's music on the radio. "What does hearing your husband, who is no longer here, no longer in your life … What does it make you feel?"
It was a connection of sorts. Taylor "used to sit on the edge of my bed writing songs", she told Kennedy. She said Kennedy replied, "Jack would sit on the edge of my bed when he was going over his inauguration speech."
Near the end of her life, in 1993, when she had non-Hodgkin lymphoma, Simon visited Kennedy's New York flat on Fifth Avenue. She brought out an enormous leather book she made for Aristotle Onassis, in which she had copied the entire text of The Odyssey in Greek, with its English translation on each facing page. "There must have been a hundred pages of Jackie's own ink drawings of Ari as Odysseus, depicting his long, siren-filled excursion home," Simon writes.
I can think of several auctioneers who would like to get their hands on that.
"I can imagine her doing it when he was off on his tankers," Simon says. "And she was on the island of Skorpios, making her drawings."
There's something about her, in Simon's telling, that reminds me of the heroine in Middlemarch. She's not exactly one of those "that rest in unvisited tombs", but there's a modesty to her and the sense of a nature that spends itself in small channels. I wonder what Kennedy would have made of Simon's book.
"I was careful in repeating things. I did withhold things," she says. "I didn't want to betray her."
The funny thing is, Kennedy did once urge Simon to write a memoir. But she was the opposite of those men Simon sang about in her world-conquering single, You're So Vain, who probably think the song is about them.
"She said, 'You know so many interesting people, why don't you write about them?' " Simon says. "Little did she know that she would be the one – the main one."
BOOK EXTRACT: What Jackie told me about men, marriage and betrayal, by Carly Simon
How do you pinpoint the occasion when a friendship begins to take hold? Do you know it when it's happening? Did it begin with the small notes, sometimes regarding the book we were working on, that Jackie had begun sending me in the mail and that I would answer, leading to a lively written correspondence that was sometimes accentuated by a thoughtful gift? Did our shared respect for and adoration of Mike [Nichols, the film director] make us more like sisters? Did it inspire our realisation that we both were influenced by powerful fathers? Powerful in Jackie's case in that she adored her father, "Black Jack" Bouvier, and powerful in my case in that I felt pushed aside by mine – Richard Simon.
Had Jackie grown up with the confidence to be plucky or shocking and deserving of love, whereas I turned to one man after the next to find someone worthy through whose eyes I might see myself as lovely or brave and safe? (Then again, I'm fairly certain that showbusiness is overflowing with people "rejected by their father". If you can't get the love of the first man you meet, the love of a million people isn't enough.) Jackie had won the competition with her sister, Lee, whereas I grew up feeling like I ran in eternal third place behind my own two sisters, Lucy and Joey.
Sometimes we'd talk about love and relationships. I remember one evening in early 1989. I was about to go to Florida for a vacation with my husband, Jim, Jake Brackman (my collaborator and close friend), and his girlfriend, along with my children Sally and Ben [from Simon's marriage to the singer James Taylor] and their friends. From there, it would be out to LA for the Oscars. I had been nominated for my song Let the River Run in the movie Working Girl. I was terribly depressed and had no conscious reason why I was, though depression had been my frequent companion. I had wanted to ask Jackie about depression, knowing she had suffered that awful disease, probably accompanied by post-traumatic stress, but I left it alone for now. We talked about my first husband, James, and the stubborn repetition of his rebuffing me. It was as if once he'd arranged his attitude, he was damned if he wasn't going to live up to it. Rejecting me. It had to have made Sally and Ben very conflicted about how to feel, not only about their parents but also about themselves.
His detachment, I felt, had been a misery for all of us. Jackie was appalled, but her reaction was muted. After all, she'd been hit about as hard as one could be and come out alive. And then there was Ari [Onassis]. She told me about how Ari made excuses when he began to see Maria Callas in secret. He'd say he had to go to England for a conference of his tanker builders. She smiled broadly, and three syllables of laughter later had conveyed that he wore a lot of cologne when he was leaving to go see Callas. As if it would last a "stinky ride" on his plane for six hours. "If she was going to meet him at the airport, he could've reapplied it. I think he wanted me to know I wasn't everything to him. He didn't want to leave me completely – not entirely, in case I turned into the ideal mate he hoped he'd married."
Jackie told me then about the period of her life when she was her most vulnerable, when, for the sake of her children, she had decided to take refuge (if only it had turned out to be that!) with Ari, whose power and wealth seemed, at the time, like they might make life bearable. Or at least possible. Everything was for her sweet children, to keep them safe.
I could tell that Jim's presence in my life fascinated Jackie, inspiring both her genuine curiosity and her fierce protectiveness. Once I remember telling Jackie that my mother had instilled in me the belief that it was more thrilling for a woman to save and set free some poor, starving artist than it was to do the conventional thing of marrying a man for security, or status. My mother also, perhaps contradictorily, told me that men preferred "little women," ie women who were physically on the small side, as it brought out their protective instincts. (Unfortunately, I got tall – too tall – very early on in my life.) I think most of the men I got involved with saw me as a mother, someone who wasted no time in giving too much right away, with my wide smile and my body saying, "Come in and I will protect you and never let anyone hurt you, don't mind me if I lose myself along the way."
Was I at risk of making the same mistake with Jim? We had already come to an unofficial agreement: Jim would quit his job selling insurance and devote himself to writing his novel and being a good stepfather to Sally and Ben, and I would happily support both of us. Naturally, Jackie and no doubt everybody else around me took eagle-eyed note of this. Jackie in particular worried that maybe I was being taken for a ride. Based on conversations she and I had had, I knew she had an old-fashioned philosophy of love: the man takes care of and supports the woman. Jackie and I also had different ways of thinking about money or, rather, joint marital resources.
I was more share and share alike (or maybe, deep down, I felt that a man's love had to be bought). My feelings on the subject weren't exactly uncomplicated, but Jackie was adamant: "Carly, you will never respect a man who doesn't take care of you."
I can't remember Jackie's exact words to me over the years about men and women – but I do remember their heart, their meaning, their message. This was the general gist: women are passively persuasive because for centuries we had to depend on men. And of course they have to be men. Especially the short ones! (I can hear her laugh.) The short ones stand up straighter, which only ends up showing you how short they really are! And we – women, that is – think we want to get into a romance with them. We cast them, or they cast themselves, as the great ones, the ones who can rescue women. Rescuing women until they're blue in the face. Women, in turn, are forced to be the ones who get rescued – if they agree to play that part. And women want to give men what they want – to help them feel like they're playing their part even more. So you do that – and then you become more like a garden. If you're strong – and you are strong, Carly – you will want them to be strong. And you will want them to show that strength in different ways.
Men need to conquer. They're bred to. Unless you let men be the ones who bring home the food, they will resent you for not letting them play their part. And they will step on you. Jackie could hold her face as still as a marble statue for minutes on end. The only break in focus was a very slight movement in one eyebrow. It was always a giveaway of an emotion that practice and technique kept in line. When I didn't respond to the last part, at least as it related to Jim, the flinch in her brow put an end to the conversation and the subject.
Written by: Will Pavia
© The Times of London