jackie and maurice

 

by Gabriel Rotello

Newsday - May 26, 1994



THEY WEREN'T a dashing couple the way she and Jack had been back in the high summer of the '60s, brimming with grace and vigor, Bouvier charm wed to Kennedy charisma. One pairing like that is probably enough for anyone. Nor were they a controversial power couple the way she and Ari had been, ensconsed in their private island like pharaohs, he ruling the waves of commerce with his vast fleet, she nursing a secret pain and all the billions in the world.


No, they weren't dashing and they weren't billionaires, this odd couple of Fifth Avenue. They weren't married, either, because Maurice Tempelsman was still bound to his legal wife, an orthodox Jew who refused to grant him a divorce. So his years with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis were unsanctified by religion, unnotarized by the law, and the press and the public hardly knew what to call him. Adviser, friend, escort?  Or what to call them. Companions, partners?


No one, I think, publicly called them lovers, but that is what they clearly seemed, and when she suffered her unexpected illness and died last week, too young at 64, he was by her side every moment, faithful as any husband, devoted as any partner, devastated as any person who sees the comfortable vision of his declining years snatched away and replaced with the looming shadows of a lonely old age.


Homosexuals are not the only people who, for reasons not of our own design, are unable to marry those with whom we share our lives. There have always been people who are married in spirit but not in law, wed in their own eyes but not (at least according to the rabbis and the priests) in the eyes of God.


But the pairing of Jacqueline Onassis and Maurice Tempelsman, and the cruel disease that ended their very private love story, struck a deep resonance with many gay people. Many of us know the awkwardness of terms like lover, longtime companion, domestic partner, none of which convey the heart's truth. Too many know the horror of feeling within yourself, or on the body of your beloved, those implacable signs that signify impending death. Too many have known the insecurity of becoming an overwhelming burden to someone who has no legal or religious obligation to carry that burden, but carries it anyway.


And far too many have tasted the acrid bitterness that comes when, after that burden has been honorably borne and finally set aside by death, the survivor is cast aside by the family because he or she lacks the legal rights that legal spouses take for granted.


So while the world watched the famous as they came and went, the gorgeous children, the celebrated cousins, the movie stars and senators and living legends, I strained for a glimpse of the private mourner. I longed for him to be recognized, and was cheered to see that he was given pride of place as a member of the innermost family. Her hand was in that, I'm sure, as though the grace that touched her first husband's funeral she extended to this last partner at her own.


Although Catholicism condemns adultery as seriously as any sin, Tempelsman properly partook in the religious rites of Jacqueline Onassis' death as he had in the joys and sorrows of her life, and read from the altar of St. Ignatius Loyola a poem by Cavafy, the great gay poet of modern Greece, himself never married but long in love.


In the last photo we have of this most private, most photographed woman in the world, taken just days before her death, Jackie is leaning on Maurice's arm in a sun-drenched Central Park, her daughter pushing a grandchild nearby. No shame. Dignity. And a model to the very end, in ways she never knew.