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Carly Simon Chronicles Her Friendship With Jackie Kennedy Onassis

Singer's new memoir is a fond, intimate exploration of her relationship with the former first lady

En español | Carly Simon may be best known for such hits as “You're So Vain,” “Nobody Does It Better,” “Anticipation” and the Oscar-winning “Let the River Run,” but the singer-songwriter's résumé also boasts five children's books and 2015's Boys in the Trees: A Memoir. In her new book, Touched by the Sun: My Friendship with Jackie, Simon, 74, chronicles her unlikely and enduring friendship with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis — from their chance meeting at a party in 1983 until the former first lady's 1994 death at 64 from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Onassis, an editor for Viking and Doubleday, worked with Simon on her books and shared stories of two husbands, President John F. Kennedy and Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis, whom she'd married in 1968. Simon, divorced from singer James Taylor in 1983 and wed to writer James Hart from 1987 to 2007, likewise confided in Onassis about her family and career. We talked to the author about her new book and their remarkable friendship.

Why focus on Jackie?

It started out to be a book about my relationship with my mother, my sisters and my closest girlfriends, and that was just too voluminous. I talked to various people who seemed to be most interested in my relationship with Jackie. She was a fascinating human being and a part of history. It constantly surprised me that we became friends. For someone who is no stranger to belittling herself, I thought, Why me? But there was a genuine connection.

Did you ever fully relax around her?

I thought I did. When I was with her, I felt comfortable. I'd go to her house and we'd spend a couple of hours together and I'd think we were having a great time. I'd go home and collapse. All the muscles in my neck needed to be massaged out.

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Did Jackie seem happy?

She was a complex person for sure. She could present as happy. She could also present as mysterious and withdrawn. She was interested in so many things other than herself, and that makes one intellectual. She had an artistic soul. She wasn't meant to be a politician's wife. She didn't like to go to parties and soirees, though it was fun for her to dress up and play the role. She dressed up in beautiful clothes and jewels the way a child would play with her dolls. She could play with herself as a doll.

You wrote that you saw each other as different versions of Audrey Hepburn.

I thought she was like Hepburn in War and Peace and in My Fair Lady, after she's made into a beautiful, perfect woman and makes her first entrance as Miss Doolittle. I thought Jackie probably studied her, the way you study an idol. When we discussed it, she said, “That's funny. I thought of you as Audrey in Funny Face.” I don't know if it was something she saw in the ballet slippers or the bohemian hair.

You also wrote that you were careful not to mention delicate topics that might upset her.

That's true. Why would I? I was respectful. She opened up to me in certain areas. She talked to me about Jack's other women and Onassis’ outlandish ways. It's not a tell-all. I didn't put everything in the book. I crossed over some lines that were appropriate but I didn't want to be indiscreet.

Jackie was warm and protective. Did she provide something you didn't get from your mother?

Definitely. I needed my mother and loved her so much and she did push me away, out of jealousy and anger and various things addressed in my first book. Jackie was very consoling, full of advice.… She was very opinionated about the man I was married to [Jim Hart]. She had a firm idea that a woman should not marry beneath her station — that she shouldn't marry a man she was going to have to take care of. She felt I was going to resent it and therefore the marriage would break up. There was a myriad of reasons the marriage broke up. It did last for 20 years, which is not a short period of time.

While in rehab, you were allowed one call a day, and you called Jackie. Why?

I did turn that experience into a dramatic scenario, and she was the best audience. There were dramatic and funny and strange things happening. There are certain people you can tell things because they're so interested and will gobble it up. She did love me and care for me and did want me to tell her everything.

"She consulted me about who she should see to have her wig made. There were hopeful times when it was in remission... It wasn't until she got the final diagnosis and was told she would have to go through so much more chemo that she knew she couldn't bear it anymore."

— Carly Simon on Jackie Kennedy Onassis' non-Hodgkin's lymphoma

Jackie told you she was blasé about Ari [Onassis]'s womanizing and Jack [Kennedy]'s mistresses. Did you believe that?

I think there must have been a sting the first time she heard about it. There was some famous story about panties she found [in the White House]. Then she made up a story around it, that she knew Jack loved her more than the others and that his actions were a superficial physical need because of the enormous amounts of cortisone he was on. Whatever she told herself, be it part truth, part fiction, it worked for her. But I don't know to what degree it worked.

It sounds as though you both avoided discussing her illness, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

To a certain degree. She consulted me about who she should see to have her wig made. There were hopeful times when it was in remission. She went to work. It wasn't until she got the final diagnosis and was told she would have to go through so much more chemo that she knew she couldn't bear it anymore.

Who's the audience for Touched by the Sun?

Certainly the generation most interested in her is my generation. But I hope it opens some new eyes to her. I hope to be surprised and get some younger readers.

Would Jackie approve of the book?

I think she'd feel good about it. I don't think I've taken advantage of my friendship with her.

Edna Gundersen is an American journalist and a former longtime music writer and critic for USA Today.