In 1951, former debutante Jacqueline Bouvier is hard at work as the Inquiring Camera Girl for a Washington newspaper. Her mission in life is “not to be a housewife,” but when she meets the charismatic congressman Jack Kennedy at a Georgetown party, her resolution begins to falter. Soon the two are flirting over secret phone calls, cocktails, and dinner dates, and as Jackie is drawn deeper into the Kennedy orbit, and as Jack himself grows increasingly elusive and absent, she begins to question what life at his side would mean. For answers, she turns to his best friend and confidant, Lem Billings, a closeted gay man who has made the Kennedy family his own, and who has been instructed by them to seal the deal with Jack’s new girl. But as he gets to know her, a deep and touching friendship emerges, leaving him with painfully divided alliances and a troubling dilemma: Is this the marriage she deserves?
The ingenuity of Louis Bayard’s new novel, Jackie & Me, is that it doesn’t try to penetrate the black box of the Kennedy marriage by writing about it directly. Instead, Bayard seeks an answer by focusing on the before: the years when Jack and Jackie were still two distinct individuals, a young man and a younger woman navigating their ways through Washington ... a poignant, late-summer-afternoon kind of novel. There is a sweet, timeless joy in Lem and Jackie’s shared scenes — riding the Ferris wheel, cracking silly jokes — and the pages turn easily, even if the tension never quite reaches more than a low simmer. These are two central characters who are, for the most part, stuck in a holding pattern, subject to the whims of another ... Bayard thoughtfully explores the question of what it means to repress one’s own desires, to shape one’s life and identity around another person ... Bayard captures his characters with deft economy ... There is a way in which Jackie & Me denies the future first lady these darker possibilities and, in that, denies her true complexity ... None of this, though, ultimately detracts from the sheer enjoyability of this novel. Jackie & Me is a story perfectly tuned to our ongoing fascination with the Kennedy marriage — and a novel, like Jackie herself, with charm to spare.
There are moments in Jackie & Me when I found myself wondering how Lem could have known what Jack and Jackie said to each other when they were alone in a guest room or the back seat of his car. But it was such a voyeuristic pleasure to be a fly on the wall (or windshield), and Bayard is such an exuberant storyteller, I was happy to set aside my disbelief ... Even if you’re not a Kennedy enthusiast — even if your grandmother didn’t have a framed picture of J.F.K. in her kitchen, as mine did, alongside one of Pope John Paul II — this stylish, sexy, nostalgic story will linger like Jackie’s signature scent of Pall Malls and Chateau Krigler 12. It’s a complicated bouquet of bitter and sweet.
The world knows the story of the marriage of Jack and Jackie Kennedy, or at least a version of it. What is less scrutinized is their courtship, which Bayard so convincingly fictionalizes as an often fraught and frantic tap dance of missteps and missed signals, of confidences and secret ... Bayard pursued the First Friend/First Lady trope before in the much-acclaimed Courting Mr. Lincoln (2019). Here he brings a poignant empathy, persuasive intimacy, and nuanced imagination to his interpretation of a relatively unexamined chapter in Kennedy lore.