The Cult of Jackie Auction: Her dedicated following can see and perhaps own things that have added value because Mrs. Onassis owned them.


NEW YORK CITY -- Some of her earrings are missing their mates, but she kept the single ones anyway. She doodled in her childhood French textbook and folded down pages and jotted notes in another volume. Her piano has scuffed corners, her sofa's upholstery is faded and her enamel candlesticks are chipped.

And yet, such wear and tear actually make these items more valuable and likely to draw record prices in a coming auction -- because the person behind the wearing and tearing was Jackie.

Elusive and aloof from the masses that she nonetheless captivated throughout much of her life, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in death has become the most public of commodities. Yesterday, Sotheby's began a public exhibition of more than 4,000 of her possessions -- jewelry, furniture, books, art, china and even her riding saddles -- to be sold to the highest bidders in an auction that opens Tuesday.

"This stuff is important only because she owned it. It literally is Jackie that is being sold," says Wayne Koestenbaum, a Yale professor and author of "Jackie Under My Skin: Interpreting an Icon," which was published last year. "It's the first time Jackie's been on the marketplace -- she always claimed original status. It is odd now that a price is going to be set for her."

Odd, indeed, but then, hers was a life full of paradox. She was one of the most famous women in the world, yet she was intensely private and self-cloistered. Except for a tight, loyal set of intimates, few could claim to know her, yet many felt they could refer to her simply and familiarly as Jackie.

And so her stuff proves irresistibly alluring: She may have been personally elusive, and yet here are tangible things that can be seen and touched and, for what surely will be highly inflated prices, bought. So many want to do just that that Sotheby's had to enact extraordinary crowd-control measures. Even this so-called public exhibition was by ticket only; you had to either buy a catalog ($90 hardback, $45 softcover) to enter the lottery for the tickets or be, as Jackie was, a regular at Sotheby's.

Some 40,000 people are expected to attend the exhibition, which runs through Tuesday when the auction itself starts. Even before the first going-going-gone is heard, though, the auction is already breaking records: 75,000 catalogs sold (45,000 more than Andy Warhol's auction), 40,000 advance bids from more than 40 countries.

Only 1,800 people will be allowed into the auction at Sotheby's headquarters, although 90 phones have been installed to accept phone bids, and satellite locations in Los Angeles and Chicago will help turn the Tuesday through Friday auction into a sort of Jackie Shopping Network.

A blockbuster

The start of the exhibition yesterday was like a blockbuster art exhibit -- people had timed tickets that allowed them in at a specific time for a single hour, and yet they lined up anyway, snaking around 72nd and York where white party tents had been erected around the auction house itself. Once inside, they passed through metal detectors and, finally, were allowed into the showrooms, where the lots were divided up into various eras -- White House years, country homes, etc. -- each with a large picture of Jackie herself, who, with her fresh good looks and sporting manner and simple yet perfect clothes looks like the original J Crew model.

"I knew I would make it, no matter what," breathed Ellen Schuerger of Long Island, her left leg wrapped in a long brace after tearing ligaments last week. It was worth hobbling through the exhibit on crutches, she said.

"It wasn't like you were just looking at things. They had pictures too, so it brought you back 20, 25 years," she said. "I loved her. When she died, I mourned her like I mourned someone in my family."

The show was quite a spectacle: Items like the Lesotho III diamond, while impressive in the catalog, were mind-blowing in person. The 40.42 carat iceberg of a diamond ring, an engagement present from Aristotle Onassis, is expected to draw the highest single price in the auction, $500,000 to $600,000.

Gawk and buy

Mr. Koestenbaum, the author, will be there, "first to gawk, and then to buy." He is particularly covetous of two items: Lot 364, a black enamel cigarette lighter with a gold initial "J" on it, and Lot 166, the schoolgirl's doodled-upon textbook of French verbs.

"I want the cigarette lighter because Jackie's smoking is her secret sin," he says of how she never let herself be photographed smoking. "It's a document of the sinful Jackie. And also the eternal flame. It's a metaphor of Jackie's own flame-light attributes. It's representative of Jackie's evanescence."

He holds out little hope, though, that he'll be able to possess these desirable possessions, since the bidding is expected to be competitive. But being there, he says, will be enough. "I feel enhanced enough by her," Mr. Koestenbaum says.

"I think she's incredibly, incredibly full of magic and aura, and we can't hear enough about her."

Enduring fascination

It is hard to pinpoint why Jackie fascinates, even now after her death. Ever since she burst on the national consciousness as the sleekly chic bride of John F. Kennedy, she has rarely failed to attract cameras and curiosity. On the campaign trail, in the White House, in that pink suit on that horrifying day in Dallas, as the veiled widow calmly burying her husband as the rest of us fell apart, in exile from her country's affection as she married Greek magnate Aristotle Onassis and, finally, as the private citizen at long last allowed to live a somewhat normal life here on the Upper East Side -- we couldn't keep our eyes off her.

The auction brings out the almost religious quality of this cult of Jackie: It has the feeling of relics being parceled out to congregants.

"It's of her and to her, so that means something," says Ellen Aisenberg of Baltimore, a former art teacher and collector who attended the public exhibition and plans to bid on Lot 1172, a drawing of Jackie done by Rene Bouche.

But it goes beyond the auction. Like pilgrims, the curious feel the need to physically, literally trace Jackie's footsteps and see where she lived, where she shopped, where she banked and strolled and attended Mass and, finally, where she died and was buried.

Sidewalks of New York, which offers various quirky tours of the city (literary Greenwich Village and famous murder sites are two) began offering a Jackie-themed stroll in 1990 when she turned 60. "We thought we'd do it for a couple of weeks, but instead we ran it for months," says Tom Farrington, the company's manager. After Mrs. Onassis grew ill with cancer, the company discontinued the tour. After her death, however, so many people called asking to take the tour that the company revived it.

"People can go to her gravesite, but there really is no memorial to Jackie, no Jackie shrine," Mr. Farrington said. "So her neighborhood becomes it."

Women, gay men and foreign tourists have flocked to the tours. They ooh and ahh at a Citibank branch undistinguished except for one particular client; cluck over the Carlyle Hotel, site of alleged JFK-Marilyn Monroe trysts; and marvel at not so much the actual Madison Avenue grocery and florist that she patronized as the fact that she ran such prosaic errands.

Looking for Jackie amid the items for sale at Sotheby's takes some leaps of imagination. What's here, for one thing, is leftovers: what her children, Caroline and John, decided not to keep or donate to the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation in Boston. (The foundation received her wedding dress and numerous items related to the renovation of the White House, among other gifts.)

Major pieces

There are, however, some major, high-end pieces at Sotheby's: a number of Old Masters, a couple of John Singer Sargent watercolors and a Robert Rauchenberg drawing are some of the artworks for sale. Dazzling jewelry -- necklaces, rings and earrings heavy with diamonds, rubies and emeralds -- are among the highest-priced items.

But most interesting are those possessions whose value is more contextual than monetary.

The catalog smartly pairs pictures of the various lots with, when available, archival photos of Jackie wearing them, or using them.

What would be a nondescript necklace of black beads, for

example, is elevated when you see Jackie wearing it and speaking to an obviously beguiled President Charles de Gaulle during the Kennedys' 1961 trip to Paris.

The appeal of a very Louis XV-style lamp jumps with the sight of her sitting in her Georgetown home with then Senator Kennedy, reading by that very lamp.

The auction adds touchstones to images and memories that probably need no additional boosting.

Not a namesake

"We've said over and over, 'No, it doesn't have anything to do with her,' but her personal cult is so strong, people want to believe it's connected to her," sighs Chi Chi Valenti, a founder and producer of a downtown club here called Jackie 60.

While the club, a favorite among drag queens, night crawlers and other performers, opened in 1990, the year the real Jackie turned 60, its name comes from a private joke among the founders, Ms. Valenti says. (And, no, she won't explain the joke, saying the legend has become much more amusing.)

Even Ms. Valenti, though, marvels at what she calls the synchronicity between Jackie the club and Jackie the icon.

The club, which opens only on Tuesdays and has themes that customers are required to dress in line with, never used a picture of Mrs. Onassis in its mailings until it decided to have a First Ladies theme night. "The day after we put it in the mail, she died," Ms. Valenti says.

This Tuesday, the theme will be "Jackie's Passage to India," featuring a photographer who has worked in that country.

Much farther uptown, on that same evening, Sotheby's will begin its auction with Lots 1 through 57. Lot 16 is "Jackie and Lee on a Camel," a watercolor by Jacqueline Duheme, a friend of Matisse and Picasso, that is paired in the catalog with the oft-reprinted photo of Jackie and her sister riding on an elephant in India.

Pub Date: 4/20/96

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