One of the most recognizable and beloved women ever to walk the Earth – Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis – endured more in her short 64 years of life than any human being should face.
Ironically, the woman who spent years editing books for two major publishing companies never penned a personal memoir, though authors have written at least a hundred books — with varying levels of accuracy — to maintain the legacy of a woman whose stoicism in dealing with dire tragedies is unparalleled.
But how did this quiet woman of fortitude truly feel about her life – and the people in it? About “Papa Joe,” patriarch of the Kennedy clan, who grilled her like a Marine sergeant before he let her marry his son? About her handsome president/husband who won the world’s admiration, but lost his sole effort at monogamy? About her unheralded miscarriages, her secretive yearning for pills and booze and how rich folks and families hurt her more than they helped?
Actor/playwright Tom Dugan’s new play, Tell Him It’s Jackie, which recently completed a successful South Florida premiere at the Mizner Park Cultural Center in Boca Raton, answers many of those queries – not always in a positive way. Dugan discovered an exceptional actress in Kait Haire, who revives the soul and spirit of the elegant First Lady from the early 1960s during a 90-minute, one-person performance.
The production drew rapt attention from attentive Boca audiences mesmerized by the actress’s talent, striking resemblance to the lady known as Jackie K-O, and her uncanny ability to capture Jackie’s breathy, slightly New York/New England-tinged accent.
Playwright Dugan, known for his performance as Simon Wiesenthal in his play, Wiesenthal, said he dove deeply into Jacqueline Kennedy’s life history to stay true to the woman. “I discovered new information that was only recently released to the public. And I came to understand that Jackie had a powerful sexuality she used to manipulate the media, the public and the people in her life. Kait Haire has that same alluring charisma – her Jackie is compelling, real, and seductive.”
Tell Him It’s Jackie is not a surface-y production. It dwells on a side of a phenomenally famous woman never allowed to show her human frailties. In the public eye, she was always well-coiffed and stylishly dressed. Even on the day her husband was shot by an assassin and literally died in her lap, she wore her blood-stained pink dress all that day with honor and fury — a fist in the face of the unknown killer or killers who stole JFK.
The play opens in the debris-strewn apartment shared by Jackie and her two children, Caroline and John, Jr., nicknamed John-John “by the press.” The date is June 5, 1968, and Jackie has received word that her beloved brother-in-law, Bobby, has suffered a deadly head wound in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles after winning the California Presidential Primary. She doesn’t yet know if he has survived.
It is barely five years since John Kennedy was gunned down during a presidential motorcade in Dallas. Believing herself incapable of living through another great loss, Jackie takes a course of action that will irrevocably change her future and that of her children.
She decides to commit suicide.
In the play, Jackie pops pills and drinks glass after glass of Scotch – a liquor she says, “tastes like tragedy.” As if in shock or a stupor, she prattles about her life to the audience whom she refers to as “my confessors.” Frequently losing her train of thought, she recalls a life filled with woe from a “a bitter, violent” mother and a father — nicknamed John “Black Jack” Bouvier, a philanderer after whom she was named.
With utter frankness, Jackie reveals lots of Kennedy family secrets. “Papa Joe” ruled with an iron hand. She says Joe told his oldest son, Joe Jr., to fly the risky mission in World War II that killed him. Joe “sent away” his special needs daughter Rosemary. And JFK “rode in an open convertible” on the day he was murdered “because daddy said to!”
She even admits that “Papa Joe” directed Dr. Max Jacobson – known as Dr. Feelgood” – to inject her with “vitamin” shots that actually contained deadly amphetamine.
Haire deftly captures the never-before-exposed life noir of Jackie Kennedy – but not the one we saw on TV, leading newsman Charles Collingwood around the White House after it was renovated at her direction.
In cathartic fashion, she portrays an angry, spiteful Jackie, a woman who bitterly scorns Mamie Eisenhower for not providing her with a wheelchair for a White House tour only days after she had given birth. She calls Winston Churchill “sloppy” and says Nikita Khrushchev’s wife “has a face like a fist.”
She tells of meeting shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis several times, though she was revulsed at his constant proposals of marriage.
Rage melds with fear as she ponders a life without companionship. Clearly, in the years following her husband’s death, Jackie has turned to brother-in-law, Bobby, for solace and stability. And now, the man who has propped her up and stood by her, spiritually and often physically since JFK’s death, himself lies mortally wounded.
The play more than hints that their relationship was more serious than the general populace realized. Jackie admits that she smashed the screen on the TV in her apartment with a bottle of champagne intended to celebrate Bobby’s victory in California – a win now pyrrhic and wasted – not unlike segments of her own life.
Haire aptly plays Jackie with an emphasis on fear and anxiety, with shaky emotion that overflows as she very quickly rages about the assassination, putting her face into an ice bucket as if she were vomiting the stomach-churning recollections.
The ringing of a pink Princess telephone brings Jackie back to reality. The call is about Bobby. He has died.
She hangs up, then redials, making a call that will take her life in a never-before-tried direction.
A Massachusetts native who moved to Florida in 2000, he is a graduate of Northeastern University in Boston, with honors degrees in English and Journalism. In New England, he worked for the Attleboro (Mass.) Sun Chronicle and the Pawtucket (R.I.) Times, the latter for 28 years. After moving to Florida, he worked as a copy editor at the Palm Beach Daily News, and, in 2001, became a reporter and later, city editor, at the Boca
Raton News where he worked for eight years.