When Jacqueline Onassis was 45, she had a midlife crisis.
The health of her much older husband, the millionaire Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, was rapidly declining, as was the diseased state of what was a second marriage for both of them. Her daughter, Caroline, was in her last year of high school. Jackie’s younger child, John Jr., was a high school freshman, busy with his own friends and interests. Much of her day-to-day work as a parent was done, and aside from dabbling in charities and being the almost-estranged wife of a man who lived abroad, she had few other responsibilities outside of her very regular hair appointments, which happened to be once a week at Kenneth.
Like so many parents of grown children who find themselves suddenly single — or just unhappy at midlife — Jackie, in 1975, had begun to think more about herself and how, despite having such a full closet, she felt empty. She had enough money to continue living a life of leisure, albeit one where she was always trying to escape the haunting assassination of her first husband, President John F. Kennedy. But what ambitions and talents had she tucked away two decades earlier, to become—in succession—a wife, the first lady, an international fashion icon, a grieving widow, a single parent, and later, a stepmother and jet-setter?
The world knew she was beautiful, stoic, and rich, with impeccable taste and a soft, little-girl voice that turned out marvelous French. It did not know, or perhaps did not care, that she was interested in history and architecture, that she was a talented writer, a voracious reader, and a person of some ambitions of her own. In 1975, society all around her was changing with Watergate and Vietnam ending and the Equal Rights Amendment still up for debate as women entered the workforce in record numbers and divorced in record numbers.
Within this context, Jackie was beginning to wonder how she should spend the rest of her life. What would make her truly happy? This was an especially difficult question for a woman whose pre–World War II generation and social stratum had bred her for nothing more than marriage and motherhood and the attendant accessory decorating and volunteering opportunities.
In this year of remarkable personal transformation, Jackie called upon her interests and passions from an earlier age: writing, reading and historic preservation. Yes, she lost a husband. But she saved a landmark (stopping the ruinous redevelopment of Grand Central Terminal), and she found herself, by pursuing a career in publishing that would span the last two decades of her life and produce more than 100 books. She also contemplated launching a career as a writer, publishing a piece in The New Yorker. All within a 12-month span.
Although some may find it difficult to relate to a woman who was so famous and wealthy — feel sorry for the poor little rich girl? — this was not an easy transition for her. Jackie’s first attempt looking for a job in 1975, at Random House, became a stinging rejection in which she was essentially told there was no way a person with no experience could just walk in to an editing role when there was a line of potential candidates already hoping for the opportunity. And yet she didn’t give up, landing a job as an editor at Viking Press, where she churned out her own photo copies, occasionally even made the office coffee, and got down on the floor to review layout spreads.
Jackie never could have known that she would be among the last of the pre-feminist first ladies, nor that a cultural revolution was coming. Today, in these post-feminist years, the mommy wars have centered on the choice of work — even though many women do not have the option. For Jackie, defining her third act was not about the money or whether to have a job, per se. It was about her self-worth, about being immersed in subjects she cared about.
While some women feel trapped by age, she seemed liberated by it. Passages author Gail Sheehy once said that women are most happy between 45 and 55 because menopause and the empty nest are physical signals that they are free to move on. Jackie had reached an age when finding one’s purpose beyond raising children becomes central to happiness.