Eric's Reviews > Jackie Under My Skin: Interpreting an Icon

Jackie Under My Skin by Wayne Koestenbaum
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's review
Sep 16, 2008

it was ok
bookshelves: americans, bagatelle, lurid, photography, dandies
Read in October, 2010

At his most exasperating, Koestenbaum seems a child of the forced captive mating of Roland Barthes and Camille Paglia. He’s got his dad’s parenthetic prolixity, and his mom’s loopy associative rants. And I would add Jackie Under My Skin to the pile of Books That Should Have Remained Essays. That said, some of the chapters—“Jackie as Dandy,” “Jackie and the Media,” “Jackie as Diva”—make this recommendably brilliant despite the 2(.5) stars I’m giving it. Koestenbaum’s special strength is his 1970s New Jersey gay suburban fanboy youth, when he played pageboy at powwows of the muumuu’d “block ladies” with their endless cigarettes, endless gossip, devotionally dog-eared copies of Valley of the Dolls and “braying phlegm-laced laughs.” Not just some academic going for his Walter Benjamin Merit Badge, he’s a collector-cultist with a deep command of three decades of tabloids. I could read him all day on these vessels of Jackie’s fame:

In a representative mid-1960s issue of Movie Mirror, the ads cater to housewives, dreamers, and drag queens—to anyone, particularly a woman, who is unsatisfied with her body or life, and therefore seeks marital aids, bust enlargers, diet secrets, negligees (“the undie world of Lili St. Cyr”), depilatories, star glossies, vanishing creams, inflatable female dolls, vibrators, correspondence courses, cellulite removers, harem jamas, “Shape-o-lette” Lycra spandex corsets, height-increase shoe pads, falsies, muumuus, sea monkeys, false finger nails, hormone creams, and wigs, including maxie wig, swept-back flipper, curly-cue s-t-r-e-t-c-h wig, and a bippy tail that functions as braid, bun, twist, or dome.

Jackie habitation of the block ladies’ tabloids was somewhat new to me. I knew she was paparazzi-beset but my major image of Jackie was supplied by sedate commemorative ephemera of the type collected by my mom, and once pored over by me (her birthday falls on Nov. 22, and she recalls a 9th birthday party converted into a conclave of crying moms and sullenly drinking dads).


Koestenbaum introduced me to the Jackie that first overwhelmed him, the sybaritic 70s jetset Jackie, a gluttonous shopper with a swarthy billionaire rebound and a killer private-island tan.


This is Jackie Oh!—or “Jacqueline Borgia,” as Koestenbaum calls her—the source of so much titillated outrage in her former subjects, the Good People of America, who made her a tabloid icon:

In what kind if magazines did icon Jackie appear? Sometimes she materialized in magazines that lived on the border of soft porn. For example, a Jackie Kennedy Onassis souvenir booklet from the late 1960s was published by a company, “Collectors,” that also issued Peter Pecker, Oral Lust, Seduction of Suzy, Drugged Nurse, Queenie, Skirts, Whips Incorporated, Lesbian Foto-Reader, Adult/Lad Lovers, Punishment Journal, Chaplin vs. Chaplin, and Love Stories of a Wayward Teenager. In contrast to these titles, children’s books about Jackie ostensibly aimed to teach youngsters how to read, or to offer moral uplift…It’s bizarre that there should be a children’s bio (“A See and Read Beginning to Read Biography” by Patricia Miles Martin) about Jackie O, since her image epitomizes late 1960s salacious yet safe “adult” pleasures. And yet icon Jackie had the knack of inhabiting the border of porn and pedagogy, and shuttling between the two without blinking: the same picture of Jackie could be a lech’s pinup, a patriotic talisman, and the picture that explained a baffling emergency headline.

Jackie Under My Skin begins with Kostenbaum standing in the cordoned crowd outside Jackie’s funeral cathedral; the first chapter, “Jackie’s Death,” records his discomfort and unease at “the media’s rehabilitation of the errant Jackie O.” “Only Maurice Tempelsman,” Koestenbaum writes of the service,

struck a note that recalled the Jackie O who had originally captured my affection: reading the C.P. Cavafy poem “Ithaka,” he artfully resummoned her years in Greece with Ari. It was wonderfully contrary to the spirit of the mawkish and idealizing media coverage that Jackie’s Jewish companion should have chosen a poem celebrating the louche and sybaritic virtues for which Jackie O, in the tabloids, had long been recognized. Of particular interest were the lines: “may you stop at Phoenician trading stations / to buy fine things, / mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony, / sensual perfume of every kind”—a passage confirming and blessing the acquisitive aspects of Jackie’s reputation that the media momentarily neglected.

Koestenbaum wonders about the future of Jackie’s “iconicity.” I think it’s safe to say that the 70s tabloid icon no longer has any power to shock, and has yielded entirely to the First Lady—just as we remember Thin Elvis and Black Michael—and after all, as he notes, Jackie chose to be buried at Arlington, next to Jack, under the eternal flame. (I wonder if Tempelsman also meant “Ithaka” to stand for Arlington, for the mausolean Kennedy Legacy; the poem’s last stanza, according to Wikipedia, reads:

Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
To arrive there is your final destination.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better for it to last many years,
and when old to rest in the island,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to offer you wealth.

Paparazzi images of the Aegean-yachting Jackie, once so scandalous and breathlessly consumed, are now mainly staples of fashion magazines whose editors wish to impart glamorous precedent to this or that season’s large sunglasses and strappy sandals. Which is all the more reason I’m glad Koestenbaum gave us this encapsulating, eccentrically tributary media memoir.

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09/25/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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message 1: by Jessica (new)

Jessica It seems like you tried to give this a a sedate, First-Ladyish two stars, but wound up getting all seventies Greek-island-style enthusiastic. I mean, despite the stern warning at the start, I kind of want to read this now based on your review.

message 2: by Manny (new)

Manny Is Jackie's ghost haunting Goodreads? I also wrote about her today, after years of not even thinking about the woman.

message 3: by Geoff (new)

Geoff "the muumuu’d “block ladies” with their endless cigarettes"


"Walter Benjamin Merit Badge"

message 4: by Eric (last edited Oct 27, 2010 11:47AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Eric ...but wound up getting all seventies Greek-island-style enthusiastic.

That's exactly what happened. And you should read this book. The first half can be a slog but in the end it's totally worth it.

message 5: by Jelis (new)

Jelis "Koestenbaum’s special strength is his 1970s New Jersey gay suburban fanboy youth..."

Koestenbaum grew up in California, not New Jersey.

Eric Your correction is appreciated.

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