Sarah Bradford is a historian and biographer. Her previous books include Cesare Borgia, Disraeli, Princess Grace, George VI, Splendours and Miseries: A Life of Sacheverell
About Sarah Bradford
An Interview with Sarah Bradford
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Sitwell, Elizabeth: A Biography of Her Majesty the Queen, America’s Queen: The Life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and Lucrezia Borgia.
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' newest biographer, Sarah Bradford, has already been praised for the power and quality of her account: She has accomplished what I have always assumed to be impossible, piercing the veil of secrecy to write an incisive, intelligent interpretation of a woman who defied anyone to know her" The Times
But, she says, telling the truth behind the glamour isn't always easy, or the most comfortable thing to do ...
Jackie was such an icon, and we do love to admire people who from the outside seem to live magical, fairytale lives; but we are also always very keen to discover that the fairytale was just a sham. Is there a paradox in that, or is it just a human quality?
Well, I suppose there's slightly a human jealousy in there, isn't there, or envy. And you certainly hope that perhaps they live a slightly more normal life than appears. You want there to be things that you can empathise with, or see how badly they behaved at times, and that they didn't get all the luck. As far as Jackie was concerned, Edna O'Brien said to me "well, her life was a fairy tale, but like all fairy tales there's this dark side to it". And if you look at her life, it was full of drama and all that, but there were also terrible tragedies.
And such a weight to live up to that expectation. It seems from the way you've portrayed her beginnings that she was very aware, in a way, of wanting to live the fairy tale - her love of Gone with the Wind, for example - and she very much started to live that life. It must be a huge pressure to have that ideal for yourself, from your own desire, but then when the public start to recognise you and impose that on you, too, the pressure must be enormous. How well do you think Jackie coped with that?
Incredibly well. Obviously there were times when it was very difficult for her. If strangers approached her, it would frighten her, literally - after all that had happened to her family, and with the assassination. But she was a very strong person and I think she could simply cope with the fame. She'd internalise her own feelings and maintain this wonderful mask of beauty and calm and serenity, and she was very good at being photographed. She'd always put on that smile, you see, always, and she was a great actress - that helps - and she was a very strong person.
I actually found myself very surprised by how much her strength comes out in your book, and also her great intelligence, which isn't necessarily something that's survived in the legend.
No, not at all. She appears, on the whole, as a very one-dimensional figure: beautiful, well-dressed, married to rich men - not at all the real person that she was underneath.
Do you think you have succeeded in getting to know what she was really like? To have come from such a different background from her - and being a different nationality. Was it hard to make that leap?
No, I don't think it was. I'm only about 10 years younger than Jackie, and therefore I was growing up 10 years later than her, in what was still very much the same world. Everything changed a great deal in the 60s, but before that it was still very much the same. I was born a Catholic, just as she was. My parents divorced quite early, when I was seven or eight, just as happened to her, and they also were rather bitter about it. So all those experiences I could experience with her, and this feeling of being an outsider, not only as a Catholic in a protestant society, but with divorced parents, which was more unusual. And then, from the age of 21 I went to America a lot, I've got a lot of American friends, and read a lot of American history. I feel very at home there, so that wasn't a culture shock at all.
It must be a very interesting way to learn about a culture like that, from the inside - by writing a biography, and learning more about the history
Yes - what was fascinating about this book was talking to people like Arthur Schlesinger and Ted Sorenson who were key figures in the Kennedy administration - that was rather a thrill.
And looking at that extremely male-dominated political world from the woman's point of view. With Hilary Clinton taking her own place on the political stage, it's becoming more and more relevant.
Jackie, although not a political person, did get frustrated by the extent to which Kennedy side-lined her from politics. She was interested in the big issues, she wasn't interested in the nitty-gritty. The only figure who really succeeded before Jackie and before Hilary Clinton, was Eleanor Roosevelt, and she had to go through a lot of prejudice because of her very active political life.
Does that make your female subjects more interesting to you? Do you think it was more interesting to write about Jackie than it would have been to write about Jack?
I suppose so, because if you're a woman, and a woman of a certain age, it's interesting to see how your subjects deal with these things. In those days the choice was always pretty stark - career, in which you probably wouldn't get very far, or marriage.
So choosing the right husband was akin to choosing the right career.
Yes, and deciding how you could live an interesting life and fulfil yourself if you could, and that was a terrible problem. Jackie I think resolved it by having an interesting life, in fact by being married to the President, and then at the end of her life she found a very fulfilling job being an editor, a publisher.
But she never felt moved to write herself.
No. People asked her all the time. I don't think she felt very confident of her own writing style, although she did write well - she wrote wonderful letters, she expressed herself in a very individual way. And I think she was afraid of revealing herself, and I think she might also have been nervous of what she found when she looked inside herself and back at her life.
Because she had a lot of insecurities and some dark places there. One of her friends, Peter Beard, said that she was always skimming over the surface, she didn't want to look at the reality of her life.
You've talked to a lot of Jackie's family and friends, and the key figures who surrounded her. How difficult is it to pick the truth out from memories and stories which may not be so accurate now, looking back?
That's a question of being an experienced biographer really, because of course people have axes to grind, or they remember what they've read and that appears to them to be their own memory, even if it isn't, and that's pretty frustrating. So you have to use your own judgement, and interview a lot of people, and weigh up each against the other.
What was the most surprising thing you discovered through your research for the book?
Such a lot of it was new to me. We all think we know Jackie's life, but we don't, or we didn't - I didn't - only the outside. I didn't know about her childhood, which was so important, I didn't know about her passion for - and at the same time her disapproval of - her father. He wasn't a responsible father, he was a charming, lover-like friend, you know, he was a jolly, amusing, swashbuckling father, which had a huge effect on her subsequently. She was always searching for an older man. All that was very interesting, and told to me by her sister Lee, who hasn't spoken to anybody else before. And her marriage to Onassis - she went into that far more innocently and romantically than I think Onassis did. So she had two marriages that disappointed her very much, although the sad thing was that she and Jack were getting much closer than they'd ever been just before he was killed.
But that's what is so interesting about America's Queen, because Jackie is very much an image for us now, but you never really think about the person. But it's the person who comes across extremely strongly in the book. And it's almost like reading a novel, because that was the nature of her life.
Yes, it is an extraordinary life. And I tried not to cop out when I was writing. Sometimes it's not easy, the things I have to say. But I like to think I'm really searching for the truth all the time.
Sarah Bradford talks about biography...
How did you choose to become a biographer?
Well, I've always been interested in history and historical characters. When I was a child I used to imagine meeting these people - it was very alive to me - so after I read History at Oxford, it seemed to me a natural progression to write historical biography. Then that developed into contemporary biography, because nowadays oral history is very important. We all write less letters, we make telephone calls, send faxes - ephemeral material - so I think people's contemporary testimony is important.
And perhaps it's more pertinent to record people's lives, instead of creating a more general oral history of a period?
I think everybody identifies with other human beings, and everybody's life touches somebody else's life in some sort of way - certainly that's the case for me. I like to see how my subjects coped with particular situations and wonder whether that's how I would have done it, and whether I empathise with them. It's also actually an easy way of absorbing history, particularly with somebody like Jackie, who was very much an important part of her time.
So how do you choose your subjects - because of their historical position, or because they hold particular attraction for you?
Definitely the latter. I really choose them because they appeal to me. I've done a very mixed bag of characters, from Cesare Borgia, who was very much a historical villain, through to her majesty the Queen, who is a very blameless character. I've always done people who've interested me, and sometimes it's concerned with my own personal history. For example, I was a teenager when the coronation took place, so it's always interesting to go behind the scenes and find out what everything was really like. That was certainly an appeal with Jackie for me, because I was 21 when the President Kennedy was elected, and I was always a tremendous admirer of the Kennedys in those days - especially Jackie, who hit the world as this super-glamorous figure. And I thought, well, how interesting to find out what they were really like.
But is what they're really like ever a disappointment?
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Well, I suppose you make allowances. Certainly I usually find that they were more interesting than I thought they were going to be, and I think that's true of everybody. The further you go, the more you find out.
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