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Friday, September 16, 2011

Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy

I simply cannot put into words the beauty of this book, audio, and project that was put together by Caroline Kennedy and historian Michael Beschloss, but of course you have to consider what they are building upon. It is January 1964; a 34 year old young widow who has captivated America with her personal courage was forced by her husband's death to leave what had become her home, the White House. She must endure the long winter. She is alone, without husband, and she has 2 young children who have been devastated as well by their father's death. She also has to be going through what any of us who have been divorced go through, the feeling of abandonment, and completely devoid of being rooted in reality because the reality is too harsh to contemplate.

At this moment less than 4 months into the grieving process, she agrees with Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger to go through a series of interviews to be recorded for history. The historian had taken a leave from Harvard to become an assistant to JFK in the White House. He was considered the egghead of the entourage that had followed the President. There was one caveat to the agreement with Schlesinger and the President's widow. These recordings would not be released until 50 years after the audio sessions were held, and Jackie would have editorial control over any revisions she wanted to make.

Thus in January 2004, the widow and the historian began what became 7 ½ hours of recordings. The sessions were held in the Georgetown home that Jackie, Caroline, and John Jr. moved into several weeks after the assassination. The tapes are extraordinary. They have been audio enhanced for quality. You can actually hear things in the background like Jackie lighting up a cigarette, or putting ice into a drink. The emotionality is all there. For those of us who may have thought we understood the first lady, or her relationship to the 35th President, we need to rethink our ideas based on this fascinating new material.

Organization of the Material

What we are looking at her is really a project as opposed to a book or a cd recording. You will receive a slip case which will contain an audio package with cd's; each cd will represent one of the seven interviews conducted by the first lady. It is elegantly packaged, and even the choice of colors (Presidential blue) is exquisite. In the slipcase is a book which contains the transcripts of the audio cd recordings. It is 349 pages of narrative, and whatever you do; don't forget to look at the picture of the President and Jacqueline sitting in the backseat of the Lincoln in Dallas on page 350-351. I have never seen this picture before. She is absolutely radiant and in love with her prince.

Since nowhere in the review materials does anyone mention the contents of the recordings, I will give you a brief synopsis of them so you can judge if this is the type of material you would be interested in:


The First Lady covers then Senator Kennedy's political aspirations. This entire session is devoted to the 1950's. The period preceding JFK's ascension to the White House is chronicled. She also discusses the future President's attempt to win the Vice Presidential nomination in 1956 during the Stevenson convention. Early married life and social life in Georgetown, Washington is also covered.


We all know that the President was a prolific reader, some say he read at a 1200 word per minute reading speed. Jackie tells us what he liked to read, and then she goes into his opinions of other leaders past and present. These include Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, and Charles DE Gaulle. She also has some interesting words to say about the President's father Joseph P. Kennedy, and she is surprisingly candid about the JFK - RFK relationship. This is the recording which also tells us the story of the 1960 election.


It is here that the conversations go into the relationship between JFK and United States Senator Joseph McCarthy. You will be surprised at some of the things she has to say. She covers the primaries that took place during the 1960 campaign. How did the President pick LBJ as his running mate; what did she think of the debates between Kennedy and Nixon? Election Day is thoroughly chronicled.


JFK was the first President born in the 20th century, and the youngest elected President ever to serve, which is still true. His transition from Senator to President was crucial. How was it done? You will now understand her viewpoint. What were the youthful President's plans for the Presidency and what about the early White House daily life which included the social life and his back problems? The inaugural address is highlighted.


Here we have the Cuban Revolution, and the Bay of Pigs which completely redefined his Presidency. What is uniquely talked about however are the Presidential visits to Canada and France where she charms De Gaulle?


Mrs. Kennedy with emotion describes the Cuban Missile Crisis from her vantage point. Perhaps the most amazing and insightful statement is made in the recordings right here. Jackie tells us that during the darkest moments of the crisis when the missiles were ready for launch, that she tells her husband, that she would rather stay in the White House with her children and die with you, then go on living without you.

The First Lady also tells us about the Berlin Crisis, disarmament, and Civil Rights, but everything pales in comparison to Cuba where we were all in jeopardy and so very close to perishing as a civilization.


The recordings are summed up with discussions of JFK's trip to India. We then understand what the President thought about Viet Nam which became the dominate domestic issue of the next ten years. It also threatened to rip apart the social fabric of our country. Mrs. Kennedy talks about her children and the plans for the second term, and the coming campaign.


The First Lady only granted 3 interviews after the young President died. One was to Theodore White, a fabulous writer who published his interview in Life Magazine shortly after JFK's death. It is here that the President and his Administration were compared to Camelot and King Arthur. Another series of interviews were given to author William Manchester who wrote the best seller "Death of a President", the official chronicle of the assassination, although there were disagreements with the Kennedy family. These tapes that we now have are the only other interviews granted.

Upon Jackie's death in 1994, the tapes of the interviews which were stored in a vault at the Kennedy Library were opened and revealed to Caroline. She made the decision that the tapes would eventually be made available to the public, and to history. Her biggest decision was whether or not to edit the tapes. How interesting that she chose to leave them alone - no revisions, which was her right to do.

The only revisions that were made were in the interest of clarification. You know how sometimes when you transcribe spoken language to written language; it can look very awkward, even unintelligible. Those are the only revisions that were made.


This is an elegant book, it is beautiful, and it is historically meaningful and important. The tapes and the voice will have meaning for all of us that were alive during this period of history. For those being exposed to the life of the slain President, you might get a little bit of the feeling of what the rest of us share. Historian Richard Beschloss in the first sentence of his Introduction to the book says, "It is her turn to speak". How appropriate. Jackie in the tapes says, "He is free and we must live". It says it all, doesn't it?

During this period that Caroline Kennedy shepherded the project, the President's sole surviving sibling asked herself, when does someone no longer belong to you, but history. With the publication of this book and the accompanying tapes we now have our answer, and we are all better off for it. Thank you for reading this review.

Richard Stoyeck

Post Script:

I have attempted to be objective in my understanding of both the book and the recordings, but you must understand the hold that this man had on those of us that lived through his administration regardless of our ages. I was once caught in a building in the late 1980's where the fire alarms went off and found myself on the elevator alone with Larry O'Brien, the President's campaign director during the run for the presidency. We began a conversation, and I asked what he was really like? O'Brien turned inward, thought for a moment, and then began. He said "You must understand, I left my family for him during the 1950's. I followed him everywhere. He had that kind of hold on people." This book and accompanying recordings will have an impact on the historical analysis of JFK's life and legacy. Get it today.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Tiger's Wife: A Novel

By the time she is thirteen, Natalia has taken so many trips with her grandfather to visit the caged tigers that she feels like a prisoner of ritual. Then a war hundreds of miles distant breaks the ritual: the zoo closes, curfews are implemented, students are disappearing, and spending time with her grandfather seems less important than committing small acts of defiance: staying out late, kissing a boyfriend behind a broken vending machine, and listening to black market recordings of Paul Simon and Johnny Cash. When her grandfather is suspended from his medical practice because he is suspected of harboring "loyalist feelings toward the unified state," Natalia adopts new rituals that keep her at his side when he isn't paying clandestine visits to his old patients. In return, he takes her to see an astonishing sight that offers the hope for an eventual restoration of the rituals that made up their pre-war lives. Natalia's grandfather tells her that this is their moment: not a moment of war to be shared by everyone else, but a moment that is uniquely theirs.

The Tiger's Wife is filled with wondrous moments, small scenes that assemble into a novel of power and wisdom and beauty. As an adult doctor delivering medicine across new and uncertain borders, Natalia grieves for her deceased grandfather while recalling the lessons he taught and the stories he told -- stories that more often than not center on death: how it is faced, feared, and embraced. Death is everywhere in this novel: death caused by war, by disease, by animal and man and child. And there is death's counterpoint, a character who cannot die (or so the grandfather's story goes). Death is virtually a character in the novel, as is the devil -- although the devil's identity is somewhat obscure, appearing as someone's uncle in one of the grandfather's stories, suspected of wearing the guise of a tiger by others. The tiger, of course, is a force of death -- feared by many, but not by the tiger's wife, who shows us that fear is unnecessary. Ultimately, coming to terms with death is, I think, the novel's subject matter.

Téa Obreht writes with clarity and compassion. She tells the interwoven stories that comprise The Tiger's Wife without judgment or sentiment. Her characters are authentic; with only one or two exceptions, she doesn't go out of her way to make them likable or sympathetic. Nor does she ask readers to hate characters who commit evil acts, although she wants us to understand them. She does not insist that we either condemn or condone the actions of a wife-abusing butcher. Instead, she gives us a chance to comprehend human complexity, to know that there is more to the characters than their offensive or violent actions. The village gossips, knowing nothing of the truth, judge both the abuser and the abused. Obreht shows us how foolish it is to judge others without knowing them ... and how unlikely it is that we will know enough to judge.

Obreht writes with the maturity and confidence of an accomplished novelist. Her style is graceful. It is difficult to believe that this is her first novel. If she continues to produce work as sound as The Tiger's Wife, readers should wish her a long career.