You might not have guessed that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis—ever the epitome of buttoned-up elegance—was a master prankster, but, in a new book about her friendship with the style icon and former First Lady, Carly Simon remembers Jackie’s hilariously “naughty” side.
Growing up surrounded by celebrities (her father Richard L. Simon was the “Simon” in Simon & Schuster), and eventually becoming one herself, Simon is almost as well known for her high-profile relationships as she is for her music. (Has any break-up song in history spurred as much speculation as “You’re So Vain?”)
Still, it’s not widely known that she and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis were friends for more than a decade. Simon, who lives on Martha’s Vineyard, met Onassis at a restaurant there in 1983 and the two struck up a friendship that lasted until Onassis’ death in 1994. The singer-songwriter, who published a memoir called Boys in the Trees in 2015, uses her latest book, Touched by the Sun: My Friendship with Jackie, as a chance to share stories about a woman the public believes they already know. Many elements of their friendship were pretty normal, she recounts, until they tried something like going to the movies, where Simon would have to stand guard in the bathroom to prevent Onassis from being spied on. But the two were close confidantes and Onassis even served as Simon’s editor when she authored children’s books in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
In her Culture Diet, Simon details why she decided to write about Onassis, chats about her wacky Instagram presence, and reveals why she’s been “in hiding” this past year.
At what point did you realize you needed to write this book?
It evolved slowly. At first I was going to write a book about my mother and my sisters, and other close friends who are strong women in my life and who were mentors or role models. Jackie was one of them. But she started coming into a separate category; she was such an icon that it was hard to make her fit with everybody else. She is in another sphere. I asked my editor about it and he was like, Why don’t you just start with the easiest subject? Jackie was infinitely easier, believe it or not, than my sisters or my mother, to start with. It grew lengthy and it grew complicated, and so I just decided to make it about her—it just seemed like a book unto itself.
When did you start writing?
About three years ago.
The book includes stories about a lot of people, in addition to Jackie, who have passed away. Was writing about them particularly difficult?
I was very constrained by what is decent exposure. I didn’t want it to be a tell-all book, and I didn’t want it to trample on any of the sanctity that is Jackie, and the special things about her. So, I didn’t really delve into areas that have already been touched on in other books. The only difference was telling it from my point of view, and adding some details.
Perhaps one of the more surprising elements to read about was Jackie’s sense of humor.
She was really funny. She loved practical jokes and she loved to be sort of naughty.
Do you remember any pranks that threw you for a loop?
Definitely. There was a time that we went to a recording session of mine together. I was recording with Placido Domingo, a song called “The Last Night of the World” from Miss Saigon. She came with me to the recording session, which was in Queens. She and Mike Nichols both came, and they sat in the control room and watched us sing. We sang into mics that were side by side, and Placido was teaching me how to hold a note a little longer than I thought I could, and I was teaching him how to move a certain way with a more popular tune as opposed to an operatic one. Jackie and I had gone home in a limousine together and talked about how wonderful Placido is and what fun it was. The next day, I got in the mail a letter from Placido. It was in Spanish, and it said, “My dear Carlita, you are my valentine, I hope to sing with you again sometime. You are so wonderful and so beautiful,” and this and that. I picked up the phone to call Jackie immediately to tell her how excited I was to get such a letter from Placido, and she just stopped and paused and said, “Carly, did you really think it was from Placido?”
What did you say to that?
Well, I just howled with laughter. What an amazing thing for her to do. She disguised her handwriting. And she sent me an autographed, by her, copy of one of his albums, signed “Placido Domingo.” [Laughs.]
You open the second chapter of your book by saying, “No one is more interested in famous people than other famous people.” When did you have that realization?
My father was the person who instilled that attitude in me. I asked him why he had so many friends that were celebrities, and he just said, “Because they’re more interesting.” I thought that was kind of a shallow answer, and I continue to think that, but there is an aura about somebody who has achieved a certain level of fame. They have a certain charisma about them without even trying because you have a feeling about them before you even meet them. If I met somebody and had no idea that they were famous, there’d probably be no difference between him or her and anybody else. But having some kind of preconceived notion about who a person is will instill a certain attitude in you—of romance, of something special, something in a different sphere. And if you have a good opinion of them and their work, it’s a little intimidating to meet them.
Do you think that living on Martha’s Vineyard separates you from celebrity? Or do you feel like you’re still in the mix?
I don’t socialize the way I used to because you get exhausted. But there are some people who continue to socialize and socialize and socialize, and they’re at every single dinner party and cocktail party on the island. And I’m not one of them. I’ve turned into a little bit more of a hermit because I just enjoy my time alone so much, and I love reading, and tending to my family, and watching television.
What shows do you watch?
The British series Last Tango in Halifax and the Australian series A Place to Call Home. They’re both so wonderful. I watch In the Line of Duty, I watch a French one called Spiral. It’s a group of detectives who go on different jobs and have relationships with each other. And I adored Downton Abbey.
Have you seen the movie yet?
No, I’m dying to see it. Elizabeth McGovern read my book on tape. I have to go see it. I broke my hip about a year ago, which has encumbered me tremendously, so that I am a little bit intimidated to go back to New York and see all the people again. It’s like going back to school after a long holiday. I forget what it’s like to socialize with people. I forget what it’s like to get up at 7:30 in the morning.
Do you sleep in a lot?
And I assume you also stay up late, then?
Yes. Watching TV, writing, or reading.
What’s the first thing you read in the morning?
The New York Times.
What books are on your bedside table?
I’m reading a book called The Body Keeps the Score, which is a lot about neuroscience and the body. I’m reading Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov, which is an autobiography of his. And The Hidden Life of Trees.
What’s the last thing you Googled on your phone? “gold camisole”
You’re really playful on Instagram, especially with your performance of an Irish character named Gammerleine. Where did that come from?
[Laughs.] Just spontaneously. One time, I did a very bad bleach job on my hair with a drugstore dye. I had to have it all taken out, and a woman came and bleached the whole thing so that it was this light, strawberry blonde. The name Gammerleine just came to me, and the accent. [With an Irish accent] “Hello, I’m Gammerleine.” I can get into different identities and whole different personalities emerge. I’d like to do more of it.
I would love to see that! I think Instagram is the perfect forum for it.
I have a French character, too. I can’t remember her name, but she’s definitely on there. She is [with a French accent] a singer from Paris and she hopes that everyone will find her song! She has a short red wig. I’ve got a Russian one, too, who has recipes. It really frees me up a lot to get into other characters. I have so much fun. More fun than I have being me.
What podcasts have you been into lately? “Hidden Brain.”
What’s the last song you had on repeat? Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work.”
What’s the last concert you went to? Ben Taylor at The Yard.
You’ve always had such great style. Where do you get all of your chic hats and sunglasses?
Anywhere I go! There’s this English designer who designs for the royal family, Philip Treacy. He made three hats for me. I have a lot of sunglasses. I’m now at a stage where I can hardly read because I’ve gotta have my lenses changed, they’re just not working very well. So I can’t read anything, I’ve gotta listen to books on tape.
And your big, puffy turquoise coat that you wear a lot. Where did you get that?
I went to a store on 57th Street, and it was in the mid-80s. I was with someone named Mitch Posner, and he became a real designer. I’ve sewn so many patches on it and repaired it many times. It’s my favorite coat. It’s my go-to.
Are you familiar with the term hypebeast?
Hypebeast? No. What is it?
It’s a person who wears a lot of trendy streetwear. The coat looks like it could fall under that category of style.
Well I don’t know if this style has come back around, but it’s certainly kept me warm for many, many years. Almost 40 years. It’s made of down.
In your book, you write about your experience working on the movies Heartburn and Postcards From the Edge. If you could score any other movie what would that be?
Can it be a series? I would pick one of the two series that I love the most, A Place to Call Home or Last Tango in Halifax. If you want a movie, let’s see, I’d like to score an old film noir movie: The 39 Steps or Rebecca or Wuthering Heights.
What’s the last piece of art you bought or ogled?
It’s been so long since I’ve been to a gallery. I broke my hip a little over a year ago and I’ve really been in hiding, I just haven’t gone out much in a long time. I can answer that question better next week because I’m going to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Are you into astrology at all, and do you find your horoscope to be accurate?
Yes. And I do. I don’t swear by it, I don’t live according to it, but I’m always relieved when I read my astrology report for the day and it’s been somewhat on the nose. It makes me feel reassured. I’m a Cancer, born on June 25th. And I’m very true to my sign. I’m a homebody, emotional, moody. I have a graph which oscillates wildly between up and down. My creativity waxes and wanes with the moon. When there’s a full moon, I’m definitely more hyper and more excited to create. But I always have a faucet going on in my brain giving me music, it’s just a matter of catching it and putting it on tape.
What comes first, music or lyrics?
I’ve got hundreds of songs that are on my iPhone, just little snatches that I’ve caught. I usually need some kind of deadline to get it all into shape, where I know I have a project due, a film to score or a single to release or somebody’s asking me to write a lyric for something. It’s very hard for me to write lyrics to already existing music. It’s much easier for me to write music to lyrics, so when I write my whole songs, which I usually do, I write the lyrics first and I set the music to that.
What’s the last thing you do before you go to bed?
I pray. And when I really, really pray, I get down on my knees because I think that’s God’s area code.