You can get lost in “Touched by the Sun: My Friendship with Jackie” in several directions, particularly if you’re of a certain generation and specifically if you’ve lived on this Island for awhile.
We are respectful — protective, really — of many of our luminaries. We don’t pry. Tourists pry. We don’t pry. That doesn’t mean we don’t want to know. In “Touched by the Sun,” author Carly Simon, respectfully and protectively, gives us insights into Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, the most noted American woman of the 20th century.
And in the telling, Simon fills in her own story, adding to what she outlined in her 2015 memoir, “Boys in the Trees.”
Now, Simon can write. She’s got four best-selling children’s books, her memoir, and now this one. Her prose writing has touches and animations of her songwriting style and it’s redolent with opaque imagery and unmistakable meaning by turn. And that’s how she unveils the remarkable Bouvier for us. This is not a tell-all, it’s a love story. Simon loved Jackie and their friendship because, as it turns out, she knew that Jackie loved her.
If you are old enough to know what you were doing on Friday afternoon, Nov. 22, 1963 when you heard that President John F. Kennedy had been shot, and saw video of his wife covering him in the open car, and now it’s nearly 57 years later and the memory still puts tears in your eyes immediately, then you know what this woman meant to a nation, the world, and what a friendship like that would mean to anybody.
Back then none of us Boston blue-collar Irish knuckle-draggers understood people like Jackie Kennedy. We never met any. But she was Jack Kennedy’s wife and we were good with that. I’m maundering here but that’s what Simon’s book can do.
Now we have learned that Jackie would act in the moment. Edgartown Harbormaster Charlie Blair recalls he and his young teenage friends taught the first lady-to-be how to waterski off the beach at the Chappy Beach Club with Jack looking on, two months before the 1960 election. “She got up on the skis on the first try. I remember that,” Blair would recall nearly 60 years later.
That’s the way Simon made Jackie real for me. They shared the grand, luminous, Island social life through most of the ‘80s and early ‘90s in a friendship born here when Jackie was in her early 50s and Carly not yet 40. Simon was at Jackie’s bedside, holding her hand, as she lay dying with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, which took the former First Lady on May 19, 1994 at age 64.
Simon admits to being completely overwhelmed by Jackie (“no one is more interested in famous people than other famous people”) but grew comfortable over time as their friendship and working relationship grew. They became pals. They dished about social life here and in New York, wisecracked and practical-joked, conversed about men and the nature of relationships, and about what animates our human natures.
Here’s a thought from the book. Jackie Kennedy suffered from PTSD, Simon muses. How could she not? But we didn’t know about PTSD in November, 1963. Simon leads us to see that becoming Jackie Onassis was her solution, a way of reinventing and saving herself and her kids from loss.
Simon shows us a publicly silent woman of wisdom with quotes throughout the book. This one relates, I think, to Jackie Kennedy’s decision to become Jackie O: “I had to make such a grand left turn so as not to be reminded of my former life,” she told Simon. And later, “One must be so close to the flame to be alive.”
There’s more like that — little glimpses into both of these women — and make no mistake, Simon’s story has some scary emotional turns as well.
These women still own us. The line at Simon’s book signing at Bunch of Grapes bookstore was 300-people-long last month, out the door and down the block toward Mocha Motts on a snappish December afternoon. We spoke with some of the earliest arrivals, one and one-half hours before the event, including Judy Shea-Vaillancourt of Edgartown, who was there to get a copy of “Touched” signed for a friend in her off-Island nursing practice who’s going through an illness. Because of the length of the line, event organizers suggested signings not be personalized “but when I told Carly about my friend, she wrote a personal message. It’ll mean a lot to Kathy,” Shea-Vaillancourt said.
Sylvia Daley and Lori Laurendeau made the trip from New Bedford to see Simon and get their books signed. They were excited. “I’m her (Lori’s) surrogate mother,” Daley said. “And I’m making her dream come true.”
“Sylvia is Carly’s biggest fan,” Laurendeau added.
“This is as good as it gets. (Simon and Onassis) are both beloved women and celebrities,” Daley said.
“Touched by the Sun: My Friendship with Jackie” by Carly Simon, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27. Available at Bunch of Grapes Bookstore, Main Street, Vineyard Haven, Edgartown Books, Main Street, Edgartown, online, and at Island libraries.