Jackie and Carly go to the movies

This is an article that delights me because it combines two of my favourite genres:

1) Famous people being friends with other famous people who are so much more famous than them that they make the first famous person feels almost like a normal person.

2) Stories that tell me what famous people think about items of popular culture that involve them but for which they weren’t responsible.

In this piece, Carly Simon and Jackie Kennedy try to avoid seeing Oliver Stone’s JFK.

Going to the Movies with Jackie Kennedy

By Carly Simon

New Yorker, Oct 15, 2019

What’s playing on the East Side? What’s playing on the West Side? Uptown? Downtown? What’s playing at the Roxy? Whenever we both happened to be in New York at the same time, Jackie and I made plans to go to the movies. In those days, if you didn’t have a newspaper handy, you called 777-FILM to find out what was playing and where and at what time, and that’s how I stumbled into a little inconvenient web of cross-purposes.

I’ll tell you what was playing uptown, downtown, and at the Roxy: “JFK.” It was early in 1992, a few months after the release of Oliver Stone’s conspiracy-minded unpacking of the Kennedy assassination, and the movie was still playing at various theatres. How could we stay as far away as possible from a “JFK” sighting, from seeing even a poster, the one with Kevin Costner glaring through an American flag, wearing his horn-rimmed glasses? The human eye would always seek out the much smaller photo at the top of the poster, of the motorcade, the chaotic aftermath. Maybe, just maybe, the eye could redirect the moment, make things work, subvert destiny. The eye could somehow keep the shots from ringing out, and have the happy, beautiful couple return to Washington, after a day at the races in Dallas, Texas. And what about the previews? Scarier, even, would be a two-minute trailer for “JFK” inserted before the feature-length film we’d gone to see—those two minutes could end up destroying the entire afternoon.

“You pick out the movie,” Jackie had said, “and I’ll meet you there.”

I did so much homework, did so much to head off any possible encounter with “JFK.” I amused myself by imagining my extremely serious C.E.O. voice demanding to speak immediately to the owner of the Sony cinema complex at Lincoln Square, telling him I needed highly important and classified information about the posters hanging in its lobby and the previews playing before each film. Well, from all the intelligence I was able to extract, I learned that “Bugsy,” starring Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, was the only movie in town that wasn’t surrounded by other theatres that might have been playing “JFK” and that it was playing at a time that was good for both of us. When I called her back, Jackie was happy with the choice, and she and I had a quick Warren Beatty moment, since he was a mutual acquaintance. We also talked about Annette Bening, and how interesting a person she must be. I gave Jackie the address, Second Avenue and Sixty-fourth Street, and she seemed satisfied with the arrangement.

Jackie and I usually met up at the movies in the same way. When she arrived before me, I would find her inside the movie theatre by going to the ladies’ room, where she would be waiting in one of the stalls. That afternoon, before the 4 p.m. showing of “Bugsy,” was no different. Her Gucci loafers were poking out from beneath a stall. I hummed a bar of a familiar song, in this case “How High the Moon,” which was the signal for all clear.

Jackie emerged. “I almost thought the woman who came in a minute ago was you, and I . . . it wouldn’t have been the worst thing, but . . . well, shall we go in? Oh, Carly, I see you got popcorn . . . what fun!”

We took an elevator and arrived at Theatre No. 2, finding nothing to fly in the face of a happy Thursday afternoon spent seeing “Bugsy” with your girlfriend. The theatre was mostly empty, with maybe twenty other people distributed like arbitrary commas in the semi-darkness. Yet I still felt terribly ill at ease. There hung between us a palpable silence, and for some reason I couldn’t allow it. Maybe it was only three seconds, or not even two, but the silence whipped at me like some sudden freak storm. I turned to her, this friend, this woman whose burden it was to be poised, and whose responsibility it was to set an example for the rest of us.

“So,” I said. “Have you seen ‘JFK’? I mean, the movie. I mean, the Oliver Stone movie. I mean the one that’s just out now?”

“Oh, no, Carly, no. No, no.” Jackie reacted as if she had been attacked. “It’s so awful. No.”

I continued my crash into the reef of self-destruction. “I didn’t even mean to say that,” I said. “I just . . .”

No, Carly, NO.” She slumped backward into her seat.

That was the end of the conversation about anything and everything “JFK.” I was dead. I couldn’t live past this moment. Rewind! Oh, please, rewind!

I started to cry, and I was fortunate to be able to hide it behind the opening music of “Bugsy,” which had just started up. I sat there motionless, shocked silly. “I’m so sorry, Jackie,” I whispered.

From my diary on that day: “What sort of brain derangement sent such a signal to my wayward tongue?”

I could hardly concentrate on “Bugsy.” All the while I was thinking, I have to be so careful—she is so much more fragile than we all think. Every time a shot sounded on the screen—and the film was plenty violent—she reacted physically, dramatically, her body mimicking the victim’s. All I wanted to do was protect her, put my arms around her.

I was reminded that day of the story of Mr. Nose, which is really a story about where a person’s best intentions can land. Mr. Nose, as he came to be forever known by my family after one fateful evening, was the unsuspecting man with a prominent nose, to which we—my sisters and I—were told, by our parents, not to call attention, one night, when Lucy was five or six and I was even younger. He was one of my father’s erudite authors, and, when he showed up, it was true: his nose was not charming, and it was also way too long not to notice. That night, I watched it happen. When our father introduced the man to us, Lucy held out her hand and said in her most beguiling voice, “How do you do, Mr. Nose?”

Daddy very quickly led him away from us kids, and I have no idea what happened after that, but the story of Mr. Nose does get a lot of play in the family folklore, an old standby that gets repeated frequently at Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. Nothing could have been a purer repeat of the essence of the Mr. Nose story than what happened to me at “Bugsy.”

When the movie ended, Jackie gave me a lift home in her Communicar. Again and again, I thought to apologize once more, but I also knew it couldn’t be done. I knew only that I would never bring that subject up again. So many subjects to be avoided. It was the reason why it was so hard to be as close to her as I wanted to be. When I got back to my apartment, I wrote Jackie a long letter, telling her about Mr. Nose, and sent it to her office, by messenger, the next day. She called me directly after getting it. “Carly,” she said. “No one else would ever have been so upset or as sensitive as you were. I completely understand. I love Mr. Nose”—she laughed—“and someday you should write a children’s book about him.” She laughed again, and reassured me again, as a good mother would have. I still couldn’t get over how I had transgressed, even though it may have been more traumatic for me than it was for her.

Part of my relationship with Jackie was trying to stay out of harm’s way. I suffered from a terrible stutter as a child. And, though learning to sing helped keep it in check, it is an affliction I carried into adulthood. Thinking before you speak, that natural pause, turns out, for stutterers, to be a creature comfort they can’t always afford. It’s complicated, because it has everything to do with being afraid that if I don’t say something immediately, I’ll begin anticipating what I’m going to say and therefore induce my stutter. My stutter certainly casts a long shadow. Is it mechanical? Do I have certain neural connections that are shorter and stubbier than most people’s?

I’ve thought many times about that night at the movie theatre, where I watched as my foot landed in my mouth. I knew it was—it must have been—important for Jackie to keep the lustre of Camelot alive, or, at least, the version of it that she reported to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. For her own sake. For her children’s sake. For the sake of her religion. If it was true that she had persuaded Joseph Kennedy, the family patriarch, to convince his son that she, Jackie, would make the perfect Presidential wife, then Jackie had allowed her life and her heritage to be stamped in eternity with that light.

“JFK,” in addition to all the other crass pop-culture productions intent on dissecting and distorting her life, must have been terribly disorienting. After Bobby Kennedy was killed, almost nothing could be kept in its respectable place anymore. Perhaps the perfect diversion for her, as it was for more than a few women I’ve known well, was to abandon some relationship to the “spiritual” and veer a thousand per cent toward the material. To feel comfortable. To feel free to spend as much money as you wish, not to give a damn anymore what anyone else thinks or says. It was an issue of sheer survival. On some level, Jackie knew that I understood this, which is why, as time went on, it seemed like she felt freer and freer to talk about her past, even if only in little glimpses.

This essay is adapted from “Touched by the Sun: My Friendship with Jackie,” to be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, in October.

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