It’s been 25 years since Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis died, which has given her friend and confidante, singer-songwriter Carly Simon, plenty of time to reflect on her relationship with the former first lady and the person whom many associate most closely with American royalty.
Separated by 15 years and a world of differences, the two, after meeting at a restaurant on Martha’s Vineyard in 1983 and reconnecting weeks later at a dinner party on the island, formed a close friendship that lasted until Onassis’s death in 1994.
The affection the women shared is chronicled in Simon’s latest book, “Touched by the Sun — My Friendship With Jackie,” released this week.
In “Touched by the Sun,” Simon reveals an easy-going, playful side of Onassis that most people never saw — sneaking a smoke during intermission at the opera, frolicking in the ocean off the Vineyard, revealing her crush on the much younger actor Alec Baldwin. The woman who would later edit several of Simon’s children’s books was “just fun to be around,” Simon said in a recent phone interview from her Vineyard home.
“She had on the surface this attitude of being very mannered, very proper, very schooled, and a Newport kind of debutante when, while she could act the part, she could also make fun of it,” Simon says. “And I think people would be surprised to know what a romantic she was. She loved things like Christmas Eve and snowstorms and beautiful velvet circle skirts and paintings and old-fashioned things.”
Simon says the former first lady was a great support (it was to Onassis that Simon made her one daily call during a stint in rehab). She “fit the mother or older sister [role]. In our friendship . . . I also think she was able to transfer her own imaginable yearnings onto me and imagine she was free to do whatever she felt like doing — which of course she could; she just needed to have a hand to lead her into the ring.”
When asked if she consulted with Onassis’s daughter, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, before writing the book, Simon says that the former ambassador to Japan was “probably the main reason why I wrote it.”
“She said to me, maybe five years after Jackie had died, ‘Would you sit down with my kids and talk to them about Jackie, because you’re the person who probably knew her the best who would be able to talk to them [and] who they would listen to,’ ” Simon says, referring to the three children of Kennedy Schlossberg and husband Ed Schlossberg. “I do want to give a copy to each one of them.”
If life hadn’t taken Onassis in a different direction, Simon believes she would have “done something in the arts.”
“She was very creative and certainly everything she did was artistic,” she says.
Onassis never shared with Simon that she was dying from cancer. (Onassis began chemotherapy for non-Hodgkins lymphoma in January 1994, and died that May.)
“I don’t know if she knew how bad it was. I saw her about a month before she died, and I don’t think she had quite thrown in the towel yet,” Simon recalls. “I think she thought she had more time and there was more of a chance of recovery, because we talked about wigs that she was going to wear that summer on the Vineyard.”
The next time Simon saw her friend was at Onassis’s bedside in her East Side apartment the morning of the day she died. Onassis wasn’t responsive, but Simon held her hand and told her she loved her. Simon says she believes that, if able, Onassis would have said, “I love you” back, and then told her to “go home and get some rest.”
Carly Simon will be signing copies of her book “Touched by the Sun — My Friendship With Jackie” at the Harvard Bookstore at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 26.
Juliet Pennington can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org