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Sunday, 22 September 2013
As the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination approaches, so does the merchandising onslaught — books, movies, commemorative magazines.
But there is one aspect of this commercialism that remains surprising: The most shameless huckster of Kennedy mythology and memorabilia is Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg.
Her public image is that of the classy, quiet keeper of the Kennedy legacy, the civic-minded former lawyer who publishes books on poetry while her cousins crash into trees and kick nurses. With the bar for Kennedy comportment set so low, it’s almost impossible for Caroline not to look good.
Look closer, though, and it’s clear that Caroline’s image is as fake and manufactured as her father’s: She is a profit-minded serial holder of non-jobs, culminating in her appointment to one of our ultimate non-jobs, ambassador to Japan.
During her confirmation hearing last week, her accomplishments, such as they are, were listed by Sen. Chuck Schumer: lawyer (she’s never practiced law), author (more on that in a moment) and philanthropist. He noted, with disproportionate awe, Caroline’s recent completion of a three-mile swim in the Hudson River. “I’m not sure either of us could have accomplished this feat,” he said to Sen. Bob Menendez. Well then — confirm her!
Caroline’s disastrous flirtation with taking Hillary Clinton’s vacated Senate seat — a damning interview revealed her capable of little more than like’s and you know’s, her entitlement off-putting — has long been forgotten.
Yet Caroline’s true accomplishments have gone criminally unnoticed: Her ability to seem above the fray while continuing to burnish a false legacy, all while indulging in a “Real Housewives”-style hustling of ancillary products.
In 1996, two years after Jackie Kennedy Onassis died of cancer, Caroline and her brother, John Jr., put the bulk of their mother’s estate up for auction. Mixed in with the oil paintings and jewels was JFK’s hat box (worth $100, sold for $31,625), a foot stool (worth $150, sold for $33,350) and one of Jackie’s lamps (worth $900, sold for $48,875). Even the doors from Jackie’s White House dressing room were ripped off their hinges and put on the block.
Lest this all seem too greedy, Caroline said that some of the proceeds would go to charity.
New York senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer fawn over Kennedy at last week’s hearings.Reuters
More shocking than the auction’s $34.5 million haul was the selling itself: here were the intimate possessions of the most famous and private New Yorker since Garbo, set out for the equivalent of a yard sale for lockjaws. Even the interior of Jackie’s Fifth Avenue apartment was photographed for the Sotheby’s catalogue (which, by the way, is still for sale at Amazon, used for $34.99).
As for those much-vaunted donations to charity, neither she nor John ever disclosed how much, if any, of that revenue went there.
“My mother kept every single thing she ever got in her life,” said John Jr. “Either we were going to open up a museum or we were going to have more normal lives.”
But Caroline set about tracking down all the memorabilia she could. In his book “American Legacy: The Story of John and Caroline Kennedy,” C. David Heymann quotes Robert L. White, a businessman who owned the largest Kennedy collection of all. Caroline, he said, wanted what he had.
“The Kennedys made my life miserable,” White said. “I tried to appease them by offering the JFK Library and Museum a number of these items. But that didn’t satisfy them. They wanted everything. Ted Kennedy led the charge, but there’s no question that Caroline Schlossberg was behind it all. Evidently $34.5 million wasn’t enough for her. It’s like the more money she had, the more she wanted.”
Jackie herself, ever shrewd with money and negotiations, left her children $250,000 each in her will to avoid punitive estate taxes; she reportedly told them, on her deathbed, to sell whatever they didn’t want to keep.
When it came to auctioning, as ever, there were two sets of standards: one for the Kennedys, another for everyone else. In 1998, after two civilians put their extensive JFK memorabilia up for auction (the items came from two former JFK aides), Caroline and JFK Jr. hired an army of lawyers to try and stop it, and when they failed, questioned the authenticity of the items, then slammed the whole thing as gross exploitation. The pieces for sale, they said, were “intensely personal.” One bidder spent $3,000 on a pair of JFK’s long johns.
Heymann also wrote that when Caroline’s distant relation, Yusha Auchincloss, was preparing for his own auction of items from Hammersmith Farm — where Jackie spent much of her childhood and where she and JFK held their wedding reception — Caroline demanded that he not use the Kennedy name. He agreed.
In 2005, once again proclaiming herself overwhelmed by her parents’ possessions, Caroline staged another auction at Sotheby’s. Here were things most people wouldn’t give to the Goodwill: old magazines, dingy wicker baskets, a doorstop, chipped jars, a pair of tarnished candlesticks. A sugar bowl sold for $7,200. The press dubbed it “Came-schlock.”
Some Kennedys were upset that they were downgraded to mere bidders.
Eunice Kennedy, a source told The Post, “was ticked off that she had to be there bidding on items that belonged to her parents and grandparents.”
Meanwhile, Caroline was forging a career as an author. She co-wrote two books on the law and said she insisted her co-author’s name come first — not, she said, to reflect the division of labor, but because she was more famous, and how unfair for her civilian friend. It was noblesse oblige presented as humility. Caroline promoted the books only on the condition that no interviewer ask about her family.
In 2001, Caroline decided to go it alone. For her next books, she cobbled together lots of other people’s work — poems her mother loved, poems she loved, poems to memorize, poems that helped her on her “woman’s journey” — and packaged them as distinct parts of her Kennedy upbringing.
She also edited a couple of on-brand anthologies, publishing “Profiles in Courage for Our Time” — a callback to the book her father didn’t write and won a Pulitzer for — in 2002. It contained 13 essays by other writers, with Caroline’s name on the cover. That was followed, the same year, by “A Patriot’s Handbook: Songs, Poems, Stories, and Speeches Celebrating the Land We Love.” It included full reproductions of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. In 2009, it was reported that her five Kennedy-themed books earned her $4 million in royalties.
In 2011, Caroline sold the recorded interviews that her mother gave to Arthur Schlesinger in the wake of JFK’s assassination — tapes that Jackie had sealed and stored at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. Jackie ordered the tapes kept secret until 50 years after her death, and the implication was these recordings were part of American history — that they belonged to all of us and would be released for free.
But Caroline took those tapes and sold them to her publisher, Hyperion, only 17 years after her mother’s death. The transcripts were packaged with CDs, and Caroline also sold the rights to ABC for a TV special.
“I think people really need to understand the purpose of an oral history,” Caroline told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, explaining her magnanimity. “And it really — the value of it is immediate, it is honest.” The value was also $60 retail.
Then, last August, a friend of Caroline’s told The Post that she couldn’t believe QVC was selling reproductions of Jackie’s jewelry. “Trust me,” the source said. “Jackie wouldn’t have been caught dead wearing this stuff.”
Never mind that QVC was able to make copies because Caroline auctioned off Jackie’s jewelry, or that you could buy this stuff at the Kennedy Center’s gift shop, or one of Jackie’s favorite pieces was a fake three-strand pearl necklace — clearly, peons should not have such easy access to her replicas of her mother’s fakes. Caroline is like the Gwyneth Paltrow of legacy politics, selling off curated pieces of her image and life, crying foul whenever she can’t control the narrative or turn a profit herself.
As the 50th anniversary of her father’s assassination approaches, Caroline is keeping things low-key. This year, she’s selling off two parcels of undeveloped land on her late mother’s Martha’s Vineyard estate.
“Simply magnificent is the only way to describe this pristine waterfront parcel,” reads the listing. Caroline, who is currently worth an estimated $271 million, expects to get $45 million for it.
She’s also publishing a new book, “Rose Kennedy’s Family Album: From the Fitzgerald Kennedy Private Collection, 1878-1946.” It’s available for pre-order at Amazon now.