Kennedy 'diary' gives inside look at first lady
By ROBERT SIMS, Special To The Daily News
Friday, November 26, 2004
Forget Bridget Jones's Diary. Wouldn't you sell your pill box hat collection to sneak a peak at Jackie Kennedy's daily musings on her life as the First Lady?
Pamela K. Thorson doesn't have access to diaries Kennedy may have written during her White House years, but that has not stopped the West Palm Beach writer-actress from penning a fictional journal under the guise of Mrs. JFK.
Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy is the fourth in a planned 11-volume series called The Camp David Diaries. Thorson will perform excerpts from Kennedy during her one-woman dramatization Jackie at 3 p.m. Dec. 9 as part of the Society of the Four Arts' Campus on the Lake program.
Thorson's literary series fictionalizes the observations of each first lady — from Eleanor Roosevelt to Hillary Clinton — on the pivotal events that defined her husband's administration. She roots the diaries in historical fact, and presents the speculative reflections and anecdotes in a dignified manner befiting the ceremonial position.
The Iowa-born writer-actress is now writing the fifth volume, Pat Ryan Nixon, with plans to publish one diary every six months. She's also based plays on each of the five published diaries in the series. She even performed Eleanor Roosevelt at the first lady's home in Hyde Park, N.Y.
The Palm Beach Daily News spoke with Thorson about her on-stage transformation into Jackie Kennedy, how she melds fact with fiction in the Camp David Diaries, and why she won't put pen to paper as Laura Bush.
PBDN: How do you dramatize the Jackie Kennedy volume of the Camp David Diaries as a one-woman show?
Pamela K. Thorson: I come out as myself in a dressing gown. I talk to the audience directly. I tell them what's happening during that moment in time in the
Kennedy administration's history. I talk about the Bay of Pigs, the Berlin Wall being built, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Then, as I'm talking to people, I go to my dressing table and put on makeup. Following the introduction, I go behind a screen — I already have the costume under the dressing gown — and put on a wig. I come out from behind the screen as Jackie O. From then on I assume the character of the first lady. I talk about life in the White House from her perspective. Much of it is anecdotal in nature. Some of it is history. Some of it is sentiment, such as a discussion on how she met her husband, what the children are doing that day.
PBDN: What oh-so very Jackie Kennedy outfit do you wear?
Thorson: I'm wearing a pink stain sheath (dress). It has a boat collar, and it's very much of the period. She was known for her pill box hats, but I don't wear one as I do the show in the house. I do have her signature pearls and pearl earrings.
PBDN: The Kennedys were a Palm Beach fixture. How does "Jackie" address this?
Thorson: I talk about their time in Palm Beach, I talk about Ambassador Joe. Some of the early part of the show, especially after the election, includes their visits to Palm Beach to rest up. Jackie had just had baby John. So she was resting up before going to the White House.
PBDN: Did you talk to Palm Beachers about their encounters with Jackie and the Kennedys?
Thorson: I talked to a few people . . . but it was mostly anecdotal information I was getting. Mostly I want to confine my stories to facts, historical facts. Most of my information comes from researching books, magazines and newspapers. I try to find obscure magazine and newspaper stories, and pick up on an aspect
of a historical moment that would be of interest to people. Everyone knows the headlines, but not everyone knows the story behind the headlines.
PBDN: Such as?
Thorson: Take the Cuban Missile Crisis. We know everything about that. What I choose to write about is the time Mrs. Kennedy and the Chief Usher went to the bomb shelter in Washington, D.C., where Mrs. Kennedy and the children were supposed to go in case of an attack. The story I tell is of her looking through the bomb shelter and discovering not everything was prepared. They did not have gas masks for children. Other little things were not there.
PBDN: Four decades later, why are we still so fascinated by the Kennedys?
Thorson: They were young and attractive. We had very old presidents up until Kennedy. Eisenhower, Roosevelt and Truman were old, stodgy people. We now had beautiful people in the White House, and Kennedy's life was cut tragically short. The potential of what could have been intrigues us. I go to many parties, and people always wonder what Kennedy would have done about this and that, and how it would have affected the country's future.
PBDN: What was your first impression of Jackie Kennedy? You were probably a very young girl at the time.
Thorson: I was still in junior high school, maybe. I was mesmerized. My mother was very active in the Democratic Party on a national level at the time. Because I admired my mother, I was interested in what she was interested in. So we would read stories, watch TV, and talk about Jackie, how nice her children were, and how sweet she was.
PBDN: Strip away the glamour and how does Jackie Kennedy compare with the other first ladies?
Thorson: She's between Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton, who are two extremes. She was every bit as active as Lady Bird Johnson. She also was much more accomplished than I knew at the time she was in the White House. She was able to take a political situation and, through her social graces, could dissolve any tension. But I have a profound respect for all the first ladies. I'm so impressed that women take this job without being prepared for the role.
PBDN: Why pen 10 additional diaries?
Thorson: As I finished the book, I didn't want to let go. So I decided to write a diary by each first lady, from Eleanor Roosevelt to Hillary Clinton. To make it more interesting, as each first lady reads the previous first ladies' diaries, she writes comments in the margin, little notes commenting on what is written in the diary entry. Eleanor Roosevelt's diary has comments by the 10 first ladies who followed her, and so on. The books feature the diary entries on the right-hand page and the comments by the first ladies on the other page. Each first lady has her own font style chosen to represent their personalities.
PBDN: How do you avoid taking too many liberties with the facts when you write these fictionalized diaries?
Thorson: It's fiction based on fact. I make everything as historically accurate as possible. I never change history. The most fudging involves Camp David, but
it's not much. Some changes were made strictly because certain events happened and the president and first lady weren't at Camp David at the time. It's a way to make it work logistically. So the first lady is at Camp David to comment on what's happened or what's about to happen. But I did try to coordinate diary entries with all known visits to Camp David.
PBDN: Why employ Camp David to thematically connect each diary?
Thorson: I had to come up with a vehicle that would work between Eleanor and Hillary. I eliminated the White House because it's not private enough.
PBDN: Have you visited Camp David? If not, what research did you conduct in order to give the read a "you-are-there" feel?
Thorson: I wish I could, but they don't allow commoners. There are many books about Camp David. I have my favorite I use for virtually all my facts on it. It's a good little book called The President is at Camp David by W. Dale Nelson, with a foreword by David Eisenhower (whom grandfather President Dwight D. Eisenhower named Camp David after). It's a chronology of what's happened at Camp David.
PBDN: Is it tougher to get inside the head of a first lady or to find her voice?
Thorson: Getting into their heads. The voice can be assumed by how they write and how people talk about them. I use a lot of biographical material — not just by the first ladies, but others who comment on them. I get their personalities that way. Eleanor Roosevelt was very formal, so her diary uses a higher form of English than, say, a more modern-day first lady. Bess Truman's diary is folksier with lots of one-liners. It's also a little salty. Eisenhower was much blander. She wasn't colorful, so her diary doesn't have big words or long sentences.
PBDN: Which was the hardest diary to write?
Thorson: It's one I've not written. I think Hillary's will be the hardest because it will almost be writing about current events. People's memories are very clear about the events that happened during the Clinton administration. I have to be very precise about what I write . . . and I'm going to have to come up with some ideas that will make people look at those situations differently.
PBDN: From an author's perspective, were you hoping for a Kerry-Edwards victory so you could write the Laura Bush diary?
Thorson: Ha. I'm ending with Hillary because I started the books as a conversation between Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton. The second is that during the Clinton years, there was a time during the impeachment when (Special Prosecutor) Ken Starr subpoenaed personal records, such as diaries. They are no longer considered private. My observation is that no first lady in her right mind would ever keep a diary again. It could be subpoenaed and then it would no loner be considered private. That's Hillary's last entry. Or something to that effect.
PBDN: You've not met a first lady. Whom would you want to have tea with?
Thorson: I would have to have a joint tea with Eleanor and Hillary. Eleanor was an amazing first lady. When she took office, she was very shy and considered herself homely and gangly. But because her husband was ill, she had to overcome some of her personal shortcomings to make his administration work. Roosevelt could not travel easily, so she was sent on trips around the United States during the Depression to find out how families were doing. She would then come back and he would ask what's going on. She had to hone her observational skills to be able to provide accurate reports to her husband, who based some of his domestic decision-making on her observations. Hillary fascinates me I would love to find out how a woman as accomplished as she was could go from being the family bread winner to giving up her law practice and change her way of life.
PBDN: Who knows, maybe in 2008, Hillary could make her own run at the White House.
Thorson: I hope.