The Day I Met Jackie O

Monday, September 21, 2009

My Scrapbook

The guy on the phone wanted to know if I could set up a private screening for Jacqueline Onassis. I said sure, but why does she want to see Werner Herzog’s “La Soufrière”? Is she a Herzog fan? “Mrs. Onassis recently traveled to Guadeloupe and went hiking on La Soufrière, the man said. “When she heard about the film, she was very interested to see it.” Wow, I thought. Jacqueline Onassis is coming to New Yorker Films. Better tidy up the screening room.

Werner Herzog At first it seemed an odd conjunction to me, Jackie O. and Werner H. But when I thought about it, who was more marginal than Jacqueline Onassis? She pushed the outer limits, just like his characters, albeit on the luxe side of the cosmos. There were all the people in the world, from the homeless and the untouchables to the heads of states and movie stars, and then there was Jackie, a universe of one, floating above them all. It wasn’t far-fetched at all that they would turn up in the same place, like Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca.” They both had damned good reasons to get as far away as possible from densely populated areas.

La Grande Soufrière is the tallest mountain on the Island of Basse-Terre (in the cluster of islands that is Guadeloupe), as well as an active volcano. When it was set to blow in 1976, the entire island was evacuated, but reports came out that one man refused to go. Recognizing a kindred spirit, Herzog—with his typical fearlessness-- went there to talk to him. He did interview the man (and two others!), filmed the spookily empty streets, and he and his crew, including my friend, cameraman Eddie Lachman, journeyed up to the open mouth of the volcano. I don’t know what Ms. Onassis had heard about this eerie and powerful film, but she was certainly going to get her money’s worth.

When the day came for the screening, something very peculiar happened. Our doorman, who had never previously displayed any signs of insanity, got into the elevator with her and started following her. I was so focused on escorting Ms. Onassis and her friends to the screening room that I didn’t notice him tagging along behind us. Before I knew it, he brushed past me and went right up to her. And there he stood, tranced out like a Val Lewton zombie, his glassy eyes trained on her face. Her fame was so overwhelming and irresistible to him that it short-circuited any sensible judgment he might have had before she turned up. It seemed to me he stood there for quite a while, but I realize we must have pulled him away pretty quickly. Seeing a previously sensate man suddenly thrown into hypnosis is one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen but what was even stranger was that the sheer weirdness of it all didn’t throw Mrs. Onassis a bit. I guess people turning into zombies in her presence wasn’t all that unusual. Hence the appeal of a place like an isolated archipelago in the eastern Caribbean sea.

Quote She immediately started telling me about Guadeloupe and asking me questions about the film. I gave her a little background on Werner and his other movies. She definitely knew how to set you at ease. I was particularly struck by the sound of her voice. It seemed girlish to me, something I didn’t remember, and found totally disarming. In fact, I couldn’t remember anything at all about what her voice sounded like. In retrospect that’s not so strange--I was eight years old when she was conducting those TV tours of the White House—but I was couldn’t stop thinking, “I’m chatting with the most famous woman in the world, and this is the first time I’ve ever heard her voice.”

Also, when you think about it, while the Jackie O image was as iconic as Mao’s or Che’s, whether captured by Avedon or Galella or silk-screened on a Warhol canvas, it was largely a silent, frozen one. We didn’t hear her voice nearly as often as we looked at her. In a sense, she was our last great Silent Film Goddess, a startling achievement considering her heyday was a time as clangorous as the sixties.

And what a voice! As I said, it sounded girlish to me, and I couldn’t place the accent. Southern? (Maybe now, with a few productions of “Grey Gardens” under my belt, I might just have called it Bouvier.) Despite all the incredible accomplishments she had achieved in her life before she ever set eyes on Jack Kennedy, Jackie had learned how to project that debutante thing and baby, she still had it! I don’t know exactly what I was expecting from her, but definitely not that. I flattered myself on not letting celebrities intimidate me, but I had prepared myself to meet somebody regal and what I got instead was somebody who was--I don’t know how else to say this--fun.

While I’m sure she would have liked nothing more than to continue her conversation with me for hours, out of politeness to her friends, I begged off, dimmed the lights, started the film, and went back to my desk to work. Hello, Real Life. Later on, as I brought the lights up after the screening ended, Ms. Onassis asked if it would be okay if they stayed and ate their lunch in the screening room. I said, “No problem, just don’t leave a lot of crumbs.” (No, I didn’t say that, I said something like “it would be my pleasure.”)

After watching them whip out their brown bags for their “picnic,” I walked away contemplating the exorbitant operating costs of fame for someone on her level. The things we all take for granted, getting something to eat when we are hungry, going to the bathroom when we want to go to the bathroom—none of these things are easy or even guaranteed for someone like her. A restaurant visit takes some planning: a special reservation, a private room, transportation arrangements. Everything she did, no matter how banal, was newsworthy. And of course, as confining that was for her, it was nothing like it is now. These days reality stars need three-person security details, but Jackie O. strolled into New Yorker Films in the late 70s with two friends.

A few days later, I received a thank you note. Realizing that it was the kind of thing you need to hold on to, I promptly lost it. It’s out there with my original Spiderman #2 comic, my lengthy correspondence with Louise Brooks and all the other intensely eBay-able items that might have gotten me through some tight spots. All I have left is the memory of my extremely brief meeting with her, which has been rejuvenated through the process of writing it down.