Back Pages

How could something that was worthless 45 years ago still be worthless today? In the mind of a collector this should never happen. The mere act of preserving something fragile for that many decades should add some value.

In the case of tabloid newspapers it doesn’t. My stack of Jackie National Enquirers, International Tattlers. and Weekly World News that cost me 10 to 50 cents back in the day don’t even fetch the $4.95 of a current issue.

After all that effort, the archivist in me couldn’t allow them to be tossed or destroyed. I thought of salvaging them as bathroom art but who among us wants to see another door papered with Jackie Kennedy covers?

Then I decided rather than focus solely on her I would celebrate the toilet bowl genre of journalism that fed her celebrity so effectively.  There are a few Jackie front pages included but they are among more hard-hitting pieces like: the tallest known traveling salesman in the world at 8′ 2″; the woman who sprouted porcupine quills; and, the first ever pictures of the Antichrist.

To honor her lifelong struggle of protecting herself and her children from the hordes, Privacy Film was used to cover the articles. And the borders are neon yellow to warn of potential hazard: there are some dangerous ways of thinking out there.

It’s fascinating to think how appalled this refined woman must have been to have her gawkish likeness on two-bit tea towels and coffee cups. Then how she was turned into a cartoon character for the tabloids by the Kennedy publicity machine. They had no problem using her because it only increased the power of the family brand among the masses. Plus it gave her a few bargaining chips in life.

It’s also hard to reconcile that figure with the one who studied art with Bernard Berenson and debated philosophy with Andre Malraux; who was the only one ever to convince the French to temporarily lend the Mona Lisa; whose influence brought the Temple of Dendur to the Met; and, who would charge clothing to Onassis’ haute couture accounts then immediately sell them to second hand shops to pad her cash on hand. You gotta do, girl, what you gotta do. It was the perversity of how she got ahead, and not so much idolatry, that appealed to me.

That was the inspiration for starting the collection 50 years ago. I was so much older then I’m younger than that now.

Low Jackie

Bonhams is only taking some of the higher end items from my collection, less than 5% of the total. They have no interest in the kitschy weirdo things, which are the lifeblood of the collection to me. But there is no money in heart and soul so at the end of the day I’m still going to have to come up with a way to divest myself of all this quirkiness.

I’ ve always been fascinated by the kitsch because it was such a contradiction to how she was brought up. She was a child of privilege, attended the Sorbonne and studied with Bernard Berenson. She became a refined and intelligent woman who was told by her father in law that, in order to win the presidency,  she and her husband were going to be sold  “like a box of soap flakes.” I think of her embarrassment and disgust whenever I see her mawkish image on one of these carnival giveaway quality tchotchkes.

One of my friend Marilyn’s husbands (there have been so many I can’t remember them all) was a pilot for UPS. When he had layovers in San Francisco in the 1980’s he would stay with me. There were two things that intrigued him about my apartment: the lack of a television and the perversity of my Jackie collection.

He did contribute, however, in the form of a cigarette lighter from the 60’s. When he was in the New Zealand Air Force he and his buddies would buy these lighters thinking they were Jackie. It’s not the usual America’s Widow image we’re used to. Still I think we have to accept his word that he thought he was buying Jackie.

I’ve always given it a central spot in the display case. His intent was pure even though his thoughts might not have been.



The Jackie Obsession


The Metropolitan Museum of Jackie

One of the millions Who have visited the shrine
One of the millions who have visited the shrine

The Bay Area Reporter ran a story about me today. Ostensibly the interview was about my Jackie collection but the conversation turned into a mash-up of Jackie, eviction, and drag.  I was fine with that and pleased with the article except I look so old. But then so does Mick. It’s always fun to talk about Mrs. Onassis.

It all started in a Chinese Political Systems class back in the fall of 1972. As I leafed through my Warhol book I happened on his Jackie series. Inspiration struck. I turned to my friend and said “this is it!”

He was actually paying attention to the lecture and gave me a perturbed, “what’s it?”

I pointed to her and said “my Halloween costume.” We both started laughing. I knew I had a winner.

The Gay Halloween Dance at the Student Union was one of the biggest events of the year on campus. The pressure was on to be outlandish, everyone tried to outdo each other.

I thought my idea was the perfect antidote to glitzy, traditional drag. My idea contained the essential elements of Halloween: ghoulish, glamorous, sickening, sexy and instantly recognizable. Not to mention controversial and potentially in very bad taste.

I found a pink suit at the Goodwill and proceeded to alter it to resemble her Chez Ninon boucle. Food coloring mixed with ketchup served as the blood and brain matter. There was nothing haute about the reconstruction since I didn’t know how to sew. But as long as it produced the right effect, bas couture would have to do.

It did. People were stunned. I walked into the hall on Gary’s arm as he shouted “the President’s been shot!” Half the room was fascinated by it, the other half repulsed. The latter thought it cruel and callous making fun of America’s sainted widow (cum Greek shipping magnate courtesan).  I was dealing with imagery not people.

It would have been one thing if I was mocking my next door neighbor who was killed in a hunting accident. But I was in the public domain here. This was a person I would never meet or ever know, an image that would be used for years to gain political advantage.

And it’s not like the Kennedy’s haven’t milked martyrdom. Every time one of Bobby’s kids takes the stand it begins with a litany of the family tragedies.

My connection to Jackie was sealed after that night. When I moved into my second San Francisco apartment on 14th Street, a friend brought me a house-warming gift. He had just moved into a flat on Page Street where someone left behind Jack and Jackie salt and pepper shakers. He re-gifted them to me.

I had no idea this kind of kitsch existed. I could only think how appalled such a refined woman like Jackie must have felt seeing herself represented in such tacky gewgaws. It made me love them even more.

Once the pattern was identified, the collection was off. I found a plate to match, then small pitchers, then another pattern, and on and on. Friends gave me Jackie ephemera they found like books, magazines, autographs, letters, head vases, and pictures. The collection grew exponentially.

The first couple decades it was a challenge to collect since I only wanted items that included her. Kennedy’s campaign teams considered Jackie too effete for the masses so her image was rarely used. The scarcity of propaganda using her meant I could go months without finding a thing.

Then eBay came along and it was like fish in a barrel. Many items I’d accumulated as unique were really rather commonplace. Though I had a lot that were not. I continued to search but the sport went out of it. I slowly just stopped collecting.

One morning back in the 1980’s I was having coffee with an overnight guest. We sat quietly in my dining room under Jackie’s serene gaze. Out of the blue he said, “it’s like being surrounded by death.” I hoped he was commenting on the shrine and not the night before.

Testifying at the Church Hearings, 1975. Shirt courtesy of Chicken Little's Emporium.
Testifying at the Church Hearings, 1975. Shirt courtesy of Chicken Little’s Emporium.


The Jackie Obsession