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It was ten years ago that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis succumbed to non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a form of cancer. In his new book, “Farewell, Jackie,” Edward Klein, a friend of the former first lady, details the last six months of her life — from the devastating fall that led to the discovery of her illness to her brave final days. Klein talked about the book on the “Today” show. Here is an excerpt.
November 1993: JBKO at the Piedmont Hunt
It was Saturday, November 20, just before daybreak in the hunt country of Virginia. A solemn darkness enveloped the rolling countryside between historic Llangollen Farm and Ayrshire, north of the village of Upperville. All at once, the gloom was pierced by the sound and lights of a caravan of trucks and SUVs towing big, six-horse vans and smaller two-horse tagalongs. The headlights made a circuit of the surrounding fields, then fell upon a barn, silhouetting it against the sapphire sky. There, a tall, slim woman leaned against the side of the barn, one booted leg casually crossed over the other. She was puffing on a cigarette and exhaling streams of thick smoke into the frigid morning air.
This was Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. She was sixty-four years old, but the years had done nothing to extinguish her incandescent beauty. She was dressed in a handsomely cut black frock coat with a canary yellow collar denoting a member in full standing of the Piedmont Foxhounds. She wore buff-colored breeches with a mild flare at the thigh; a snowy-white stock tied at her throat (to be used as a sling or tourniquet in case of emergency); a black velvet hunt cap; and a pair of white gloves.
Waiting in the dark by the barn, Jackie lit a fresh Pall Mall from the glowing end of the one she had just finished. Few people knew that she chain-smoked when she thought no one was looking. Yet despite all the years of smoking, Jackie’s teeth remained sparkling white and her face was radiant with color. Tendrils of thick, dark hair peeked out from her black hunt cap, clinging to her face and accentuating its ethereal, wide-eyed loveliness.
She looked like a woman who cared deeply about her appearance. And, in fact, she swam, rode horses, water-skied, jogged around New York’s Central Park Reservoir, and practiced yoga. She kept herself Bouvier-thin on a strict low-calorie diet. Four and a half years before, in the spring of 1989, she had had a face-lift performed by Dr. Michael Hogan, a Park Avenue plastic surgeon.
In addition to smoking, Jackie had another habit of which few people were aware. When she was stressed out, she bit her nails. In the past few years, as she had grown more contented with her life, the compulsive bouts of finger-gnawing became rarer and rarer. But on the weekend before Thanksgiving — which usually coincided with the weekend before the anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination — Jackie bit her fingernails to the quick.
This year, her anxiety level seemed higher than ever, for 1993 marked a major milestone; it was the thirtieth anniversary of the assassination. The event filled Jackie with dread, not only because of the gruesome images that were engraved in her memory of that bloody Friday in Dallas, but also because all the media hoopla stirred up painful recollections of her difficult marriage to Jack Kennedy.
While others celebrated JFK’s virtues, Jackie could not help but be reminded of the humiliations she endured at the hands of her philandering husband. Even worse, the anger and rage she had felt toward Jack Kennedy while he was still alive surfaced at assassination-anniversary time, threatening to overwhelm her.
Invariably, Jackie would experience terrible pangs of guilt because of these spiteful feelings toward her now-dead husband. And the guilt would sometimes become almost unbearable when she thought back, as she did every November, to the final months leading up to Jack’s death, when their relationship was undergoing a profound change.
By the fall of 1963, a strong new bond had developed between Jack and Jackie as a result of their shared experiences in the White House and their grief over the death of their two-day-old son Patrick Bouvier. Jack was far more considerate of Jackie’s feelings; for the first time anyone could remember, he held Jackie’s hand in public when they disembarked from Air Force One at Love Field in Dallas. For her part, Jackie was more in love with Jack than at any time since he had become president.
This new tenderness explained why Jackie, who hated campaigning, agreed to go with Jack on a political fence-mending trip to Texas in November 1963. It also explained why, each year at this time, Jackie would have given anything to erase the crushing guilt she bore for having once harbored such hostile feelings toward Jack.
In the gathering dawn of the Virginia countryside, members of the Piedmont Foxhounds arrived at the meet site and greeted Jackie. (She was called JBKO by her hunt friends, but never to her face.) The women were dressed in black like Jackie, but the men were turned out in a more spectacular fashion. They wore scarlet frock coats, well-polished black boots with brown tops, loosely cut white breeches, white gloves, and black velvet helmets. Some had on spurs and carried long-thonged whips.
Jackie’s friends in Virginia did not fawn over her the way people tended to do elsewhere. Here in the hunt country, she was not treated as a celebrity. Her fellow equestrians admired her for her horsemanship. That Jackie hunted with Piedmont — a club famous for its speed, big fences, tough hunters, and daring — was testimony to her personal devotion to the sport.
“She was a serious, serious rider,” said one of Jackie’s hunting friends, Barbara Graham, who was an heir to the Johnson & Johnson wax fortune. “Jackie was forever quizzing me on how I did things with my horses. She wanted to know everything. We’d talk for hours on my porch.”
Jackie’s love of horses started at an early age. As a child of six, she began schooling in dressage — the art of controlling a horse with subtle movements of the hands, legs, and weight. She kept a horse at Miss Porter’s, the boarding school she attended in Farmington, Connecticut. It was her Vassar classmate Gay Estin who encouraged her to get a hunt box — a weekend house with a small barn and paddock — in Virginia.
Recently, Jackie had written a foreword to James L. Young’s A Field of Horses: The World of Marshall P. Hawkins, a coffee-table book about the equestrian photographer who had taken a famous picture of her in 1961 falling headfirst from her horse when it balked at a fence. Of hunting in the open country, Jackie wrote: “As we see them [horses and riders] move together across the exquisite landscapes, we are made aware of our own responsibilities to preserve and conserve the simple splendor of a vanishing America.”
This weekend, Jackie was a guest at Rokeby Farm, the estate of her lifelong friends Paul Mellon, the renowned art collector, philanthropist, and horseman, and Rachel Lambert “Bunny” Mellon. There were no fewer than ten foxhunt clubs within an hour’s drive of the Mellons’ 4,200-acre farm. Jackie hunted with the two most exclusive — the Orange County Hunt and the Piedmont Foxhounds.
Rokeby was located in Piedmont territory, just to the west of Orange County territory. The Masters of the Foxhounds Association in nearby Leesburg controlled the hunts, and kept track of which land went with which hunt. Because there were so many hunt clubs, it was important to know where one ended and another began. In the case of the Piedmont Foxhounds and the Orange County Hunt, the line was known, tongue in cheek, as Segregation Lane. The only time a Piedmont hunt was allowed to go into Orange County territory was when the fox and hounds crossed Segregation Lane and the riders had no choice but to follow.
Because the area had more manicured grasslands than rough crop fields, it was considered ideal for hunting. To keep out the riffraff, the best clubs had a policy that members had to own at least one hundred acres of land. Guests of the members were allowed to hunt three times a year by paying a “capping” fee of two hundred dollars per hunt — a holdover term from English days when a rider placed his daily fee in a hunt servant’s cap.
To its devotees like Jackie, foxhunting was more passion than sport. As the hunting expert Mason Houghland wrote in Gone Away: “It is a religion, a faith; in it are all the elements that form the framework upon which beliefs are built: the attempt to escape from life as it is to life as we would have it; an abiding love of beauty; and an unconscious search for the eternal verities of fair play, loyalty and sympathetic accord, which are so clouded in our mundane existence.”
The sky over eastern Virginia began to lighten, and the horses were unloaded from the vans. Plumes of vapor issued from their nostrils. Jackie was not riding her favorite horse, Frank, with whom she had won the hunter trials at the Orange County Hunt three years before. Instead, she had chosen to ride a dark bay Thoroughbred gelding (a castrated male horse) who had once raced over hurdles, but who now, in his later years, was happy to follow the hounds.
It was not clear to Jackie’s fellow riders why she had switched mounts. Was Frank disabled? Did Jackie seek the challenge provided by an unfamiliar horse? Whatever her reason, Jackie’s decision to ride a strange horse (a fact that has never been reported until now) set off a rapid chain of events that began with her fall from the horse and ended six months later with her death.
Piedmont’s chief huntsman, Randy Waterman, nodded hello to Jackie. Waterman was responsible for the territory, the fences, the horses, and the hounds — for everything that went with providing sport to the paid subscribers. He was well known for his “surprise” method of foxhunting.
“There are basically two theories about foxhunting,” explained Betsy Parker, who covered equestrian sports for a chain of papers in rural and northern Virginia. “In one method, you go out quietly, slowly, walking up to places where foxes might be found — little woodlands, low-lying grassy areas, anywhere the huntsman thinks he will find a fox — and the fox will eventually hear your approach and move away, sometimes at a trot, sometimes, depending on scenting conditions, at a mad dash — and the hunt is on.
“The other method,” she continued, “is the gallop-up-to-the-covert and surprise the heck out of Mr. Reynard,* to get him on the move quickly. That was Randy Waterman’s choice, which made for basically running and jumping from the get-go, all day, all the time.”
One of the grooms, Leroy Moore, helped Jackie mount. Her horse had a freshly braided mane and tail, and gleamed with health and care. The frozen dew covering the ground squealed and crackled beneath the hooves of the horses. The smell of snow was in the air. It was going to be a perfectly horrible day —cold, damp, and dark. Ideal hunting weather for the scent-sniffing hounds. And a day made to order for Jackie.
The real Jackie.
The Jackie most people rarely got to see.
There was no resemblance between Jackie in the flesh and the woman people read about in slander-mongering books and supermarket tabloids. That woman was a figment of the media’s imagination, a creature who had been invented by sensational journalists following Jackie’s highly unpopular marriage in 1968 to Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis.
Millions of Americans saw the marriage as a betrayal of trust. They had expected Jackie to remain forever on display like a piece of Royal Dresden — delicate and untouchable. When she fell off her pedestal into the arms of a dark, lecherous foreigner, people stopped viewing her as an object of uncritical devotion. The once-saintly icon was transformed, practically overnight, into a greedy, grasping witch nicknamed Jackie O.
Her detractors were not confined to the tabloid press or to stand-up comedians like Joan Rivers, who asked the women in her Las Vegas audience: “Come on, be honest, would you sleep with Onassis? Do you believe she does? Well, she has to do something. I mean, you can’t stay in Bergdorf’s shopping all day.”
The Vatican got into the act, too. It considered the idea of excommunicating Jackie, then thought better of it. But the Vatican announced that Jackie would no longer be eligible to receive the sacraments of the Holy Church, because she had married a divorced man.
After Onassis died in 1975, Jackie was automatically eligible again to receive the sacraments of the Church. But almost fifteen years after his death, Jackie was still struggling to cleanse her reputation of the tabloid sludge. In 1989, C. David Heymann’s best-selling biography A Woman Named Jackie drew a devastating picture of a shallow woman who was obsessed with the material side of life.
Jackie’s friends wondered why she wasn’t more effective in combating this distorted stereotype. Perhaps the answer lay in her guilty conscience. Strange as it might sound, Jackie sometimes wondered in the presence of friends if she did deserve all the scorn that was being heaped upon her.
As she once told Onassis’s sister Artemis: “Sometimes I think that I am responsible for my misfortune. My first husband died in my arms. I was always telling him that he should be protected, but he would not listen to me. Before my second husband died, I was always telling him to take care of himself, but he wouldn’t listen to me [either].”
Her friends in Virginia did not recognize Jackie in the media’s portrayal of her as a cold, calculating she-monster. They knew her as a tender, warm, and witty woman.
“It’s queer how her public persona and her real self are so un-alike,” former ambassador to Thailand Charles Whitehouse told the author of this book in 1989, long before Jackie had begun to receive proper credit for her affiliation with the arts, the preservation movement, and the John F. Kennedy Library. “I’ve given a lot of thought to this, and I think it’s because she hasn’t become connected in the public mind with any virtuous cause. She’s not perceived like Lady Bird Johnson, planting and making things beautiful, or like Barbara Bush with reading. And, you know, being involved with a national problem might have eased Jackie’s situation.
“So why doesn’t she just do it?” he continued. “It may be connected in some way with her being fiercely independent and not willing to be involved superficially in something just for the sake of the press. Jackie is clearly not gripped by children with rickets. What she is, is a fascinating, somewhat perplexing human being — lively, sporty, affectionate, youthful. Not at all like the acquisitive monster that is portrayed in the press.”
“The heavy gray November sky couldn’t decide whether to spit snow or rain,” recalled one of Jackie’s hunting friends.
Jackie and Barbara Graham, along with a field of fifty other riders, moved off, following the hounds, a well-matched pack with white bodies marked with black and brown patches and spots. The hounds dove eagerly into a wooded thicket. They soon found the scent of the fox and were off — tails waving, noses down, howling furiously. Unlike foxhunting in England, the goal of the sport in America was not to kill the creature, just to chase it.
The thundering hooves, the music of the hounds in full cry, and the hunters’ horn echoed through the Shenandoah Valley and off the wooded hills. The riders followed closely behind the field master, taking a hefty wall, trying to keep up with the tumbling pack. The countryside was laced with old stone walls and tall post-and-beam chestnut fences, which had been milled before the great chestnut blight at the turn of the twentieth century.
Breathing heavily with excitement, perspiring despite the freezing cold, the riders entered a wooded area, then streamed out of it, one by one, and faced another old stone wall just behind historic Trinity Episcopal Church in Upperville. Several of the riders were having trouble negotiating the small wall.
“It was starting to fall down,” recalled Barbara Graham. “There were rocks littering the ground in front of it. It wasn’t a great approach, so I turned my horse left, riding down the line, to look for a better place to jump.”
Barbara glanced over her shoulder to see if Jackie was still with her. But Jackie had fallen back. She was separated by several horses from Barbara, and did not see her friend turn away to find a better jumping spot.
“Jackie’s horse took off well back from the wall,” Barbara said. “He was trying to avoid the fallen stones, I guess. He basically landed on his nose, and she catapulted right over his head.”
Jackie hit the ground with a loud thud.
“Oh, my God!” screamed a spectator, “she must have broken her neck.”
Barbara and another friend of Jackie’s, Ann Tate, instantly dismounted and rushed to Jackie’s side, while other riders caught up with her loose horse. The rest of the field streamed away, following the screaming pack of hounds.
“Later, I called Mrs. Mellon and told her what had happened,” Barbara said. “I told her that Jackie was unconscious for thirty minutes.”
Like many experienced riders, Jackie had taken spills before. As a young woman, she had fallen off a horse and was semiconscious for three days. But today’s fall was particularly bad. The accident appeared to be caused by a number of factors other than the condition of the stone wall. To begin with, she was riding an unfamiliar horse who was not entirely under her control during the fast and furious jumps required in the Piedmont-style of hunting. In addition, she seemed to lose her focus at the very moment her horse took off over the wall, perhaps because her mind was on other things. Finally, looking back from the perspective of what we now know about Jackie’s health in the fall of 1993, she was clearly in no condition to ride that day.
“I got a call about Jackie from one of her friends who also happened to be my patient,” said Dr. Bernard Kruger, a well-known New York cancer specialist. “This patient told me about Jackie’s accident, and I said, ‘It doesn’t sound as though she fell off her horse by accident. If I were her, I’d be concerned about what’s going on with my health.’”
*Renard, a fox, is the hero of the French medieval-beast epic Roman de Renart.
From “Farewell Jackie: A Portrait of Her Final Days,” by Edward Klein. Copyright ©2004 by Edward Klein. Excerpted by permission of Viking, a division of Penguin Books USA. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.