History In The Flesh

I interviewed the historical novelist Margaret George shortly after she had released Elizabeth I, a book that includes an intimate portrait of not just the queen and her many courtiers and ladies, but also William Shakespeare—whose appearance, I have to admit, had me sitting up a little straighter in my reading chair. Silly, I know, because it was only George’s imagining of The Bard, but still – my disbelief was fully suspended. I wanted to meet the man. Sometimes you go in search of history, and sometimes it sits down and talks to you. Three days before I met Margaret George, I spoke with Caroline Kennedy about She Walks in Beauty, a collection of poems that had inspired her over her lifetime. I did not intend to talk about her family, but for Kennedy, poetry and her family are inextricable. So there we were talking about her mother and father, and I had to remind myself exactly whom she meant.

It was history in the flesh – only it wasn’t, because John and Jacqueline were just her parents, and John-John was just her brother, just like Shakespeare was just a writer. I thought of Kennedy when I was chatting with Margaret George after our interview, and she mentioned something she’d heard Sylvester Stallone say: “We all invent our own mythology.”

I couldn’t agree more. Kennedy said she authored her first anthology, The Best-Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, after her mother’s death, when the public seemed fixated almost entirely upon Onassis’s fashion sense. She was trying, however vainly, to rewrite the evolving Jackie O mythology.

Shortly after talking to Kennedy, a man in the bookstore asked what I had been doing. I told him. He shook his head in wonder. “What a woman,” he said. “So grounded. What a national treasure.” As he said this, his eyes seemed to be focused somewhere far off, on some mountaintop where the national treasures reside. There they must stay, if we aim to be inspired by their perfection. Or, if we choose, we could join them by standing perfectly still, surrounded entirely by history forever in the making.

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