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Friday, January 20, 2012

Characters: The Jackie O Factor

I'm fascinated by other people's lives. I read a lot of biographies and autobiographies. Of course these books cannot give a full, accurate picture of someone's life. We're only getting a filtered view. Still, with that said, I can't help but form opinions on the people I read about.

Jackie O by Andy Warhol
Photo by raxiii

This January I read several books about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and I just read Slim Keith's autobiography. You're probably familiar with Jackie O, but many of you may never have heard of Slim Keith. Both women intrigued me, but after reading about them, I drew my own conclusions.

Jackie O was known for several things--her style, her grace as first lady while John F. Kennedy was in office, her loyalty to her children, her dedication to her privacy, and her love of good literature--she was an editor for many years. She also used her celebrity to champion historical preservation.

Slim Keith, born Nancy Gross, was also held up as a style icon in the forties, fifties, and beyond. Born into a wealthy family, she married Hollywood showbiz producer Howard Hawks, after he divorced his first wife, of course. She later cheated on him with Leland Hayward, top Hollywood agent, and remarried, enjoying a happy union for roughly ten years before he left her for another woman. She briefly remarried a third time, and lived the remainder of her life on her own. She was good friends with many influential stars and authors, including Truman Capote and Ernest Hemingway.

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis married John F. Kennedy, soon to be President of the United States. Five years after his untimely death by assassination, Jackie married Aristotle Onassis, Greek shipping billionaire. They enjoyed an easy companionship at first, but later their relationship strained to the point of non-existence until his death. She spent the later years of her life with a live-in companion, still-married Maurice Templesman, a diamond merchant.

Slim and Jackie took the same route to fame. Both married high-powered men who were in the spotlight. These two women shared a keen intelligence, an eye for style, and an unwavering sense of self. The world focused on them because they were glamorous, interesting--worth focusing on.

So many similarities. While still single, these gals hung out with elite, wealthy men. They had their choice in suitors, and they chose--for first husbands--men who lacked the means to share emotional depth. Both of their first husbands cheated on them extensively. It must have been a shock for these young women to realize their picture-perfect marriages were plagued with infidelity. Jackie and Slim suffered miscarriages and still births. Slim had one daughter; Jackie had a daughter and a son (another son lived only a few days). I feel terrible for their difficult pregnancies. As a mother, I deeply sympathize with the heartache they experienced.

But, also as a mother, I found this fact enlightening: both women took multiple, extensive trips while their young babies stayed home, and they continued to travel sans kids their entire lives. Both employed nannies and governesses and later sent their kids to boarding schools. Jackie even went on record as saying (I'm paraphrasing) if you bungle raising your children, nothing else you do matters much.

I'm sure they did love their children. But in my mid-western, middle class, late-century upbringing, I can't imagine having my mother jet-setting around the world while I'm home being raised by a nanny and later being sent off to boarding schools. How much mothering is going on if you're never around? Hmm...

Yes, I'm judging. And, yes, I'm thinking of the non-stop, exhausting job motherhood is to most of us moms. Have I fantasized about two weeks in Paris with no kids, my sister, and unlimited funds? Oh, yeah!

These women hung out with top entertainers, artists, and diplomats. Flirting was going on--you only need eyes. I can see it in the pictures. When you're admired by the world, you're not going to be content withering away unnoticed while your hubby is cheating on you with every showgirl who walks his way. Playing with fire? You betcha.

Then there were the odd choices in marriage. Slim flat out admits she married her third husband for financial security. Jackie never did admit it with Aristotle Onassis, but let's face it, she wasn't marrying a billionaire old enough to be her father for anything other than security.

Do I have a point?

Sure.

If the character in your novel grew up in a wealthy, high profile environment, she's likely going to have very different views about parenting, education, and security than the average person. She might have been raised primarily by nannies. She might think traveling to Paris for the weekend quite normal. She may have a deep-seated need for financial security, and if she isn't prepared or equipped to earn it herself, she may be willing to marry for it.

Even if your heroine is more enlightened, her mother may have experienced all these things. This affects the heroine's attitude, her values, and her desires. Or maybe her father still has a bit of that old sixties swing in him--the good ol' boy club where you marry a classy woman but cheat on her every chance you get?

And think twice before having this type of character naturally fall for Joe Blow, the mid-level accountant for a tax firm. She's used to being around entitled, rich, plenty-of-time-on-their-hands men. Yes, she may find Joe's integrity appealing. She might long for a man who will honor his commitments and pour his heart into making her happy--but will she trust him? Will she even notice him? And will her expectations be dashed when their first date isn't a jaunt to Paris? When he presents her with a smallish diamond ring instead of the Hope diamond?

I'm not saying all high profile, wealthy people live like this, but read enough biographies of women and men from the forties to present day, and you'll see how common it really is. Hey, I subscribe to UsWeekly. The infidelity hasn't changed at all. Neither has marrying for celebrity, money, or security.

Do you enjoy reading biographies? Who has fascinated you recently?

Have a terrific weekend!

15 comments:

  1. Normally I don't read biographies--although there is an Abe Lincoln one I'd like to read...
    My mom on the other hand LOVES them. She reads them more than fiction.

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  2. I'm not a huge fan of biographies in general, unless the individual is one who fascinates me, but I love reading letters and journal entries from long-ago people. A Bully Father (letters between Theodore Roosevelt and his children) was one of the first types of these memoirs I ever read, as a kid, and it hooked me. Whenever I'm in the mood to cry, I re-read the letters between Empress Alexandra and Tsar Nicholas II. Heartbreaking when you know how their lives ended!

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  3. I read biographies for research or if I've always loved/obsessed over that person. I did read one of Michael J. Fox's book only b/c I had a huge crush on him when he was on Family Ties. :)

    Interesting that times change but basic human nature doesn't!

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  4. Jennifer: The Abe Lincoln biography sounds fantastic! Let me know if you ever get to it. :)

    Louise: Ooo, I had a thing for the Russian family a few years ago, but I never read the letters you mentioned. I'm checking to see if my library has it--thanks!

    Laura: Oh, yeah! Gotta love Family Ties! I had a crush on Jason Batemen (the brother of Justine "Malory" from Family Ties). Good stuff!

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

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  5. I'm not a biography fan. But I'm sure they are a great lesson in characterization. I'm also willing to bet they spark ideas.

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  6. good points, Jill. It's all in the world-view of the characters...and that world view isn't (necessarily) going to mesh with the world view of the author. But it sure is fun living vicariously, isn't it? :)

    I love biographies...haven't read either of these so thanks for sharing!

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  7. I don't read a lot of biographies, but this is a great character analysis. A lot of people like to write (and read) about the wealthy, high society person falling for the average, but it's not as realistic and not without specific issues to be addressed.

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  8. I've always loved reading biographies and autobiographies.

    Sometimes the truth is so much stranger than fiction.

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  9. I like to read biographies of people I admire. Since I'm conservative, they tend to be that way or I probably wouldn't enjoy reading about them. None of them are ever perfect, but I like to read about people who inspire me to do more with my life.

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  10. Katie: That they do, Katie, that they do!

    Kristi: Yes! And, let's face it, many, many romances feature the wealthy hero falling for Jane Doe--the above article doesn't apply! :)

    Stacy: Very true. I think the genre helps too. Romance readers like to suspend disbelief and are likely to ignore the realities of wealthy class issues to dig into a deep love. :)

    Loree: I do too! And you are right. I couldn't make some of this stuff up!

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

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  11. I'll usually read a biography only after something about that person intrigued me somewhere else...like a movie or TV documentary. Love your new look by the way.

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  12. Jill:
    The last Biography-type book I read was "Three Weeks with my Brother" by Nicholas Sparks. He and his siblings had a hard life growing up. There was a lot of sadness in their lives.

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  13. I enjoy biographies, but rarely have time to read them. I loved the story of Corrie Ten Boom, David Wilkerson, and other great men and women of faith.

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  14. Em: Same here. Or someone will recommend a good one and I'll have to get it!

    QuietSpirit: Sounds like a good one. I feel more connected when biographies share the good times AND the bad.

    Susan: I'll have to check those out! I'm not familiar with them. :)

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

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  15. I didn't use to read biograhpies (Outside what I was FORCED to in school)), so for those statistics that say boys and men mostly read nonficition, I'm the 0.5% who prefers fiction, and I make no apology for it. That said, since my pre-college school day I've read more nonfiction, because I finally found (nonfiction) books that appealed to ME, as opposed to what was shoved down my throat in school.

    A recent audiobook I listened to (October 2012) was a biography about Charles Schulz (You know, the "Peanuts" guy?) titled "Schulz and Peanuts A Biography" by David Michaelis.

    I cried at the end. Not just choked up, but "End of Old Yeller" waterworks.

    For me, this is a BIG DEAL. I'm an easy cry anyway, but NEVER before now had I felt such an emotional payoff from a biography, this is from a kid who was raised on the un-fun nonfiction of his youth, and this wasn't even a kid-centric biography (I primarily writer children's books, but read more broadly)but an adult bio that was gripping, honest, and informative.

    My next (Audiobook) biography journey is Hemmingway's "A Movable Feast." While I'm NOT ready for his novels yet (Emotionally and Level of patience for his narrative), this biography piqued my interest, and ANYTHING with food has the potential to hook me, and hearing this mentioned on many of food show I watch finally convinced me to experience it. I'll let you know how it pans out.

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