Louis Bayard, JACKIE & ME

Louis Bayard, JACKIE & ME

Professor, critic, and author Louis Bayard joins Zibby to discuss his latest historical novel, Jackie & Me, which follows Jackie Kennedy Onassis before her tenure as First Lady. The two talk about what initially inspired Louis to write this book, how he got his start in politics before pivoting to writing full time, and why he likes the pressure of getting older. Louis also shares what’s happening with the film adaption of his book, The Pale Blue Eye, and hints at what he’s working on next.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Louis. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Jackie & Me and so much else.

Louis Bayard: It’s great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: I was very interested to see you over Zoom because I read your essay about your author photo and how everyone had been telling you you looked so young and handsome in the photo, and you didn’t really. I was like, what does he really look like? You look great. You look just like the photo.

Louis: Thank you. I’m an ever-graying specimen, so I have to keep changing my author photos to keep up with that. The essay you’re referring to was inspired by somebody who stopped me outside of the local coffee joint and said, “Boy, that’s such a young-looking picture of you on your cover.” It was like, uh-oh, I better change this. Author pics are the one piece of vanity that authors are allowed. It’s the same glamorous lie that an actor would do with the headshots thing. We get one moment out of the year to be a little bit glamorous and a little bit fake.

Zibby: I have to say, I loved that essay. It’s been funny because I’ve been meeting so many authors over the last few years. Sometimes there is such a huge divergence from the author photo, especially when I meet people in person and I’m like, oh, my gosh, okay. You just don’t know. You don’t know.

Louis: I know. There was a very well-known British author. I will not name her. She clearly hadn’t changed her author photo in about twenty years. I saw a TV interview. I was like, oh, my gosh, wow. There was a little bit of a Dr. Who quality to her at that point.

Zibby: I think you’re better off with a less-flattering author photo. Then when you see people in real life, they’re like, you look great.

Louis: You don’t want people doing a double take when they look at you. It’s like, wait, no.

Zibby: Oh, that was your college picture.

Louis: Exactly. What was that, your yearbook?

Zibby: Here we are. Despite the essay, you look very true to life in the most positive way.

Louis: Thank you. Thank you very much.

Zibby: That was not one of these disconnects. Your book, Jackie & Me, can you tell listeners a little about what it’s about and how you arrived at writing a book from the point of view of Lem and all of that? Where did this all come from?

Louis: All that good stuff. I’ll just start yaking. Cut me off if I’m going too long.

Zibby: Go ahead.

Louis: Jackie & Me is basically a novel about Jackie before she was that Jackie. By that Jackie, I could be talking about the glamorous first lady in the pillbox hat. I could be talking about the grieving widow with the beautiful children. I could be talking about the wife of the Greek tycoon, the enduring style icon, the paparazzi magnet familiar to generations of tabloid readers, the professional book editor. She had so many identities over the course of her life, so many avenues into this enduringly mysterious woman. I chose as my avenue, the Jackie before she was that Jackie. When we first meet her in the course of the book, she is a year out of college. She is making a go of it as a career woman. She has a job for the Washington Times-Herald. Her job title is Inquiring Camera Girl. She goes out every day in the streets of Washington, DC. She’s very dressed up. She’s got the silk dress and the stockings and pearls and high heels and then this really heavy Graflex camera. She buttonholes people on the street. These are man-on-the-street interviews, in effect, and asks them some predetermined questions, takes down their answers, takes their photograph, goes back to the office, edits the stuff down to five hundred words, develops the pictures, and then does this six days out of the week. It’s not a Pulitzer Prize-winning gig, but it’s a real journalistic job and is in keeping with someone who said in her high school yearbook that her goal in life was “not to be a housewife.” She’s serious about creating a career in journalism.

At the same time, she’s a woman of her time. She’s getting some pressure from her mother to find the right husband because that’s what a well-bred young woman in the early 1950s is supposed to do. Then she goes to a dinner party in Georgetown and meets this handsome, young congressman, already famous, probably America’s most famous bachelor at the time. His name, of course, is Jack Kennedy. Suddenly, all her plans are kind of thrown for a loop. She has to figure out if there is room in her life for this guy. What would it mean to be with this guy? That whole thing. She turns for help to Jack’s best friend, who is Lem Billings. Lem is the narrator of the book. He’s really the reason that I wrote the book. Some years back, I saw an issue of my college alumni magazine. There was this picture of two young 1930s undergraduates on the cover. I immediately recognized that one of them was this very young John F. Kennedy, but my eye was drawn to the other guy, who was larger and had this big grin on his face and this air of hilarity and bespectacled. It’s like, who is this guy? I learned all about Lem Billings. He was Jack’s best friend from high school through the end of life. He visited the White House every weekend, had his own room there. He had an actual career in advertising, but his job in his own mind and everybody else’s was to be Jack’s best friend. The novel is about what happens when that role conflicts with his new role as Jackie’s friend. How can he serve both of those interests or both of those people, still be a friend to both of them when, frankly, their interests begin to collide?

Zibby: In the book, and I didn’t crosscheck this or whatever, but was it true that Lem, his father died and he was at Choate with Jack and that’s how they became friends?

Louis: Yes, they became friends. Lem’s father died. He was a scholarship student. One of the things that he and Jackie had in common was they both grew up amidst great wealth. Of course, the Kennedys were enormously wealthy, but they didn’t have a lot of personal wealth of their own. Jackie, for instance, lived with her mother and her stepfather, who was a Standard Oil heir, but she wasn’t going to inherit any of that Standard Oil money. She was going to be sort of on her own. They had that weird outlier status in common, among other things that helped bind them together.

Zibby: Interesting. I feel like part of it is also coming to terms with the person you’re marrying and all of their foibles that you often know ahead of time. You decide to do it anyway. Then are you allowed to complain?

Louis: Exactly. Yes, marrying Jack Kennedy came with lots of baggage. First of all, the Kennedy family. You had to go through the initiation rite of meeting them and their Hyannis Port birth and being hazed by the Kennedy sisters. Then you had to be prepared for a different sort of marriage. Jack Kennedy had no intention of being faithful to anybody he married. He had no real desire to be married in the first place. This whole marriage process was driven by his father, Joe Kennedy, because of political ambition. He reasoned that nobody would vote for a presidential candidate — he always imagined Jack as a presidential candidate — who was not married. It is interesting to think about that because even today, I think we’d have problem with it, a bachelor candidate or any unmarried male or female candidate at the national level. It’s like, why aren’t they married? What’s going on with them?

Zibby: Unless we turned it into The Bachelorette meets the White House, which would be also very fun.

Louis: I love it.

Zibby: That could be your next book there.

Louis: It’s significant the other bachelor president we’ve ever had is James Buchanan. He, of course, was rumored to be gay.

Zibby: I also loved your piece on the list of the likelihood of different presidents being gay and the signs of what is likely and unlikely. That was hilarious.

Louis: Buchanan is far and away the most likely. Lincoln is not too far behind. In fact, I wrote a whole book about Lincoln and his friend Joshua Speed. The nature of their relationship is still being discussed and debated among historians. This is one of the first novels I’m aware of that really talks about what that would’ve looked like, what that kind of love would’ve looked like in the context of Lincoln at the same time meeting Mary Todd and going through that whole courtship ritual with her. It’s a love triangle of its own in the same way that Jackie & Me is a kind of triangle, really, with Lem and Jack and Jackie.

Zibby: Where did this fascination with political figures come from? I’m assuming you have some. Where did the idea for this to course through some of your books come from? In case you’re not actually fascinated.

Louis: That’s a really good question because I don’t know that I am necessarily that fascinated. I think there must be something subconscious going on here because I live in Washington, DC. I came here to take a political job. I was a congressional press secretary for a few years. Then I worked for some nonprofit groups here. I really came to realize that politics is not my love. I haven’t really done any political work for hire in many, many years. I thought of myself, despite living in the nation’s capital, as being, eh, all right, whatever. Then I turn around, and as you say, I’ve written three books about presidents or future presidents. It’s like, what did that come from? I don’t know. Maybe there’s something subconscious going on there that I’m not aware of. I will say, the next book, which I’m not at liberty to discuss yet, does not involve any presidents at all and, in fact, takes place in England. It’ll be a slight pivot.

Zibby: Is it involving the monarchy in any way?

Louis: I’m not at liberty to say, Zibby. Don’t push me. Don’t press me, Zibby. Don’t.

Zibby: All right, all right. Before you came to DC and everything, did you always want to be a — when you were being the press secretary and everything, where did writing even come from? When did this come into…?

Louis: Since high school, really, I kind of wanted to do that. I wanted to do other things as well, but they got sort of paired away. That’s what was left. Of course, I realized very early on that I couldn’t make a living writing fiction, not immediately. In the usual manner, I got my day jobs and tried to smuggle some time out of my schedule, an hour each day, to write stuff. Then starting in 1995, I became a freelance writer, cobbled together a freelance writing career writing for different organizations and just finding jobs where I could, gigs. That gave me a little more free time. I just carved out an hour a day, sometimes an hour and a half, two hours. A great day was when I could get three hours. That way, put together the first book, which found an agent but not a publisher. I thought, that’s it, I’m done. This is very discouraging. Then two months later, I’m writing another one, which didn’t find an agent but found a publisher. I’ve gone about it not the orthodox way, but it wound up working out in the end.

Zibby: Now one of your books is being made into a movie or a TV show or something.

Louis: That is correct. It’s a Netflix movie called The Pale Blue Eye. The original book is about, and the movie too, it’s a gothic murder mystery set in West Point in 1830 featuring a young Edgar Allan Poe, who was actually a cadet at West Point at that time. He joins forces with an older detective to solve a mystery involving cadets with their hearts carved out of their bodies. It’s very gothic and very Poe. The movie stars Christian Bale. Harry Melling plays Poe. Then also, Gillian Anderson’s in it, Robert Duvall. It’s really a wonderful cast. In fact, a lot of British actors in it. I’m looking forward to seeing it myself. I’ve seen bits and pieces. It’ll be out in December in the theaters for four weeks and then streaming thereafter.

Zibby: That’s exciting. That’s huge to actually get it made and everything. That’s a huge hurdle.

Louis: It is exciting. I know. It’s funny. This option business is interesting because a lot of times — you know how this works. A lot of people may not realize that when someone takes an option on your book it doesn’t really mean that much. It means they’re going to take the book and try to make something happen. Ninety-nine percent of the time nothing does happen. It just so happened that the stars aligned for this one. By stars, I mean the star, Christian Bale, I think something fell out of his schedule. He had worked with this particular director two times before. It just aligned. Most of the time, it doesn’t, so I feel very fortunate.

Zibby: I interviewed Garth Stein, who wrote The Art of Racing in the Rain, this morning. Do you remember that book? The movie ended up being with Milo Ventimiglia and Kevin Costner.

Louis: Oh, yeah.

Zibby: He was like, it was optioned. Literally ten years later, I got a call from a director being like, hey, I’m directing your movie. He’s like, no way.

Louis: It was fifteen years for me from the time it was first optioned to the time it actually happened. Whoever wrote The Queen’s Gambit, Walter Tevis, was dead thirty years before that was made. Poor Walter. He couldn’t even enjoy that one. It’s crazy. I’ve always been advised by agents, don’t spend any time imagining a movie because, as I said, ninety-nine percent of the time it won’t happen. This time, for some reason, it did. Grateful.

Zibby: Cool when it does.

Louis: Yes, it is nice.

Zibby: Did you go on set or anything?

Louis: I went on set for one day. I was going to go back, but then they had a COVID lockdown. This was being filmed right in the middle of the COVID quarantine, so that was interesting. I was also a consultant on the script. They showed me successive drafts, which they didn’t have to do contractually. They were very kind to enlist my feedback. I don’t yet have a single Hollywood horror story, which is only problematic because nobody’s going to buy you a beer to tell you that, oh, it’s been a lovely process. I need something with a little more…

Zibby: Try to rummage up something terrible in the next . We’ll see what happens. What about Jackie? Have you ever met her? Did you actually see her in the East Village one day or anything?

Louis: No, I never did. The meeting you’re referring to, it’s how the book begins. Lem is telling the story from the perspective of 1980, so he’s an old man now. Jackie has gone through all her stations of the cross. He just runs into her by accident in the East Village. That comes from an actual picture that was taken of her at the time. There are all these Jackie sightings. Of course, she was being followed by paparazzi all the time. In fact, one guy — he just died. He name is Ron Galella. He was legally enjoined from getting anywhere within fifty feet of her because he would just follow her everywhere. He’d take pictures of her kids. She was just this enduringly fascinating figure, so these interesting snapshots come up every now and again.

Zibby: Did you read Steven Rowley’s book, The Editor?

Louis: I love that book, yes. Steven did a blurb for my book, which I appreciated. Yes, I love that. I love Steven. He’s a very sweet guy. That, of course, is about when she was this professional book editor, her career pivot. I think it started in the seventies, right? Mid to late seventies, yeah.

Zibby: It’s like the continuation. If you can’t get enough after this book, move on to that book.

Louis: Exactly. There’s so many. There’s so many Jackie books, as we know. The challenge really is just finding something that somebody hasn’t plumbed all the way down. I realized that a lot of people didn’t know what Jackie did before she met Jack. She didn’t know what her life was like or what she was like. One of the fun things about catching them at a young age — the same thing happens with Lincoln in Courting Mr. Lincoln. They’re not quite that person, so they’re this liminal specimen. They’re still finding themselves. They’re surprising in some ways. I think people would be surprised to know that Jackie’s walking around the streets of DC grabbing strangers and asking them random questions. I don’t think that comports with how we think of her. We think of her as being the pursued one, but not her pursuing somebody else for the purposes of her job. Of course, as soon as she became engaged to Jack, she became the pursuit. She became the object of the camera rather than the operator of it.

Zibby: It’s funny. It’s almost like — you know how there’s that whole line of stories of famous people when they were little kids and how they grew up to be — I can’t remember. Brad Meltzer’s books, the whole series. You should brand this other swath of the young adult years.

Louis: Before they were “blank,” yes.

Zibby: But when they were close.

Louis: When they were close, exactly. You see the elements. They just haven’t quite come to fruition. The Jackie of my book, for instance, is still trying on different fashions, still trying on different looks. She has this then-fashionable poodle cut. She’s trying to figure, is this how I really want to look? She’s still kind of the teenage girl in front of the mirror trying things on and seeing how they work, but also has a really practiced and innate eye. She applied for this Vogue magazine scholarship, the Prix de Paris, which is very prestigious. She won. One of the things she said is she wanted to be art director of the twentieth century, which sounds insanely ambitious. In a way, she sort of became that. She created this sense of style that still lives today. Still a very classic look to her.

Zibby: Interesting. I love it. Aside from the ultra-secret book that you’re working on, what else do you have going on these days? What do you like to do when you’re not writing and everything?

Louis: I’m always working. What are you talking about, Zibby? I never stop. No, let’s see. I teach a class at George Washington University, which, by the way, is where Jackie graduated from. That’s where she got her diploma from back in 1951. I teach a fiction writing class. We just started up our semester today. I write tons of other things. I write a lot of book reviews, some stories, some articles. Just this past summer, I had my first ever play mounted here in DC at the Washington Fringe Festival, which was great fun. I’m just trying to keep stories flowing. I’m talking to somebody about writing podcast dramas, possibly, which I enjoy myself when I’m listening to podcasts. I’m always trying to keep moving and keep telling stories. I’m going to be fifty-nine. I sort of feel like my window — who knows how long the window will be? I want to just keep telling stories as long as I can.

Zibby: That’s so depressing. That’s a terrible way to look at it.

Louis: Oh, no? I think it’s great because it imparts urgency to it. I got to keep telling stories while I can. That’s my feeling.

Zibby: I do always have this ticking time clock in my head, this racing of time. I do feel that way.

Louis: I think it’s important. I know writers who don’t have that ticking. It takes them a long time to push stuff out. I have a friend who’s been working on a memoir for something like six years now. It’s like, okay.

Zibby: I’m forty-six. Mine already came out. I’m done. No time to spare.

Louis: What’s next, Zibby? Come on.

Zibby: Let’s go. Let’s go. I know.

Louis: You’ve got this. See, this is a nice way to fill your days. You’re meeting people like this. It’s very cool. Introducing people to new authors, new books, that’s awesome.

Zibby: I have, also, a publishing company. I’m publishing my own books. It’s really fun.

Louis: See? You’re your own editor. You’re your own everything.

Zibby: Well, no. My books go from somewhere else. I can’t edit my own books. Yes, I love doing this. It’s amazing. I learn so much every day. It’s a perpetual class. Literally, you were talking about your students, and I’m like, oh, wouldn’t that be fun to go back to class instead of all the emails I’ve been getting today from all the teachers of my various kids? I’m like, oh, my gosh. To be a student again, I love being a student.

Louis: I know what you mean. I see some classes on the curriculum. It’s like, I want to take that Virginia Woolf class. It would be fun. I don’t know that I’d want to write essays again. I remember being glad I didn’t have to write any more essays. I do write a lot of book reviews, which is sort of similar.

Zibby: I don’t mind essays. I’d prefer not to do rote memorization. I can’t remember anything anymore.

Louis: Yeah, I know. Especially as one gets older, that becomes .

Zibby: I can barely find words. Anyway, thank you so much. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Louis: Thank you. This has been very fun. I’ve really enjoyed meeting you.

Zibby: You too. Take care.

Louis: Buh-bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Louis Bayard, JACKIE & ME

JACKIE & ME by Louis Bayard

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