The dictionary defines the word “grace” as elegance or beauty of form, manner, motion or action. After reading Christina Haag’s magnificent book, “Come to the Edge,” that definition has expanded for me to two very public members of the Kennedy family: John Jr. and Jackie.
One of John F. Kennedy Jr.’s college roommates perhaps put it best at his funeral, after he died in an airplane crash in 1999 at the age of 38: “He was an ordinary boy in extraordinary circumstances. And he lived his life with grace.”
For five years Kennedy was Christina Haag’s lover. In dream-like prose—with details like the color of the leaves and the name of every plant in sight—Haag takes us on a detailed journey of his privileged and adventurous life. At its core, this book is a tale of unresolved love between two lifelong friends in their mid 20’s.
It’s a great read on this level alone. Unfortunately, as with so many such relationships, the affair doesn’t last. It was perhaps for the best. Haag becomes an actress and a best-selling author, and Kennedy, sadly at age 38, crashes his small plane off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, killing his wife, Carolyn Bessette, and his sister-in-law, Lauren Bessette.
As a child, I remember the Kennedy family well. I watched on television the day John F. Kennedy was shot and viewed every moment of the funeral live. Who could forget the image of young John saluting his father’s coffin? Or of Jackie Kennedy’s classy charm every inch of this extraordinary journey.
In later years, adverse to the constant lies in our celebrity culture, I turned off the hundreds of contradictory television shows, movies and books about the Kennedy family. It was because of the recommendation of a mutual friend of myself and Christina Haag, Rebecca Boyd, that I read this one. I am so glad I did. It is incredibly well written, amazingly detailed and a loving portrait of a remarkable family.
Though I found the core love story of Christina and John fascinating, it was Haag’s side story of her relationship with Jackie Kennedy I found to be extraordinary. This is another place where the word “grace” comes into play.
About the time this romance was going on in the mid 1980s, I was working in Los Angeles with Orson Welles, the film director. I’d become the middle man between Orson and his old producer, John Houseman, who were no longer speaking with each other. I endured many petty fights and disputes between these giants, but one day Houseman told me something I never forgot.
“Frank, it’s very rare in our lifetime to meet a real genius—not the fake kind the press conjures up—but a real one,” Houseman said. “Orson is a real genius. And when a real genius touches you, he changes your life forever. Don’t forget that.”
It took years for those Wellesian words to prove true for me and I suspect they have proven true for Christina Haag about her time with Jackie Kennedy Onassis. Haag gives Jackie credit for the creation of elegance. An example, written after Haag visited Red Gate Farm, Jackie’s 464-acre retreat on the southwestern end of Martha’s Vineyard:
“I remember looking in the kitchen for a glass one morning. Instead, I found vases and, attached to the inside of the white cabinet door, an unlined index card in her hand—which flowers in which vase in which room. It surprised me. When I saw a small carafe of sweet peas or a clutch of dahlias in a room, it seemed unplanned—as though they had just happened there, as though they belonged. Or there’d be a path that appeared to go nowhere, but when you reached a meandering end, you felt its purpose. What seemed happenstance was crafted, chosen by her unerring artist’s eye.”
That paragraph, and so many more like it in this book, convinced me of Jackie’s artistic genius. She did it for the nation, from her incredible taste in music to her restoration of the White House. I knew it instinctively from when I watched her famous televised tour of the White House as a kid in 1962, but Haag’s comments nailed it for me.
“Come to the Edge” will come out in paperback on Jan. 10. Don’t be like me and wait too long to read it. It is one of the best books of 2011 and I highly recommend it.