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‘Jackie & Me’ puts a refreshing spin on Camelot

Jack’s gay pal narrates fictional take on iconic love affair

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(Book cover image courtesy of Algonquin)

‘Jackie & Me: A Novel’
By Louis Bayard
c.2022, Algonquin
$28/352 pages

It is a truth that is universally acknowledged: A love story will be not only entertaining, but a moving, thought-provoking page-turner, if it has a gay best friend.

“Jackie & Me” by Louis Bayard, the acclaimed gay novelist, isn’t a Jane Austen tale. But Austen would have appreciated Bayard’s witty, poignant, new novel.

Unless you’ve lived under a rock, whether you’re Gen Z or a Boomer, you know about Jack and Jackie Kennedy and Camelot.

Yet, Bayard, in his tenth novel “Jackie & Me,” puts a refreshing spin on this story.

The novel is narrated by Kirk LeMoyne (a.k.a. “Lem”) Billings, Jack’s best friend. Lem has been JFK’s pal since they were students at Choate. Though Lem never says “I’m out and I’m proud,” it’s clear that he’s gay.

Lem is JFK’s fixer and court jester. He pays for Jack’s lunch. If Jack’s in the mood, Lem drinks with him. When Jack needs advice on love affairs, Lem’s on it.  

“Jackie & Me” brings us JFK and Jackie before they were iconic.

The novel takes place in 1952. Jackie, 22, then Jacqueline Lee Bouvier, is the “inquiring photographer” for the Washington Times Herald. Jack, 35, is a Massachusetts congressman. They don’t know each other until they meet up at a party in D.C.

What makes “Jackie & Me” so enjoyable is that Lem is our fly on the wall. He takes us along as the couple date, meet the parents, and wed.

Jack is from a wealthy, Irish, Catholic political family. The Kennedys know everyone from Harry and Bess Truman to Henry and Clare Luce to Joe McCarthy.

Jackie’s father, known as “Black Jack,” was a Wall Street stockbroker. Her mother Janet Auchincloss was a socialite. Her stepfather Hugh Auchincloss was a Standard Oil heir. Unlike many women at the time, Jackie is well educated (with a degree in French literature from Washington University and classes at the Sorbonne in Paris). 

Jack loves sleeping with women, but has no love for marriage. Yet he must marry because “my father says I can’t get elected [president] if I’m not married,” he tells Lem.

Knowing that matrimony is in his future whether he likes it or not, Jack thinks Jackie might be the right woman to marry. But he wants to be sure she’s not involved with other men and that, if they wed, she’ll tolerate his extramarital liaisons. He turns to his dependable buddy Lem and asks him to pal around with Jackie – to spy on her.

Lem isn’t thrilled by this. “Who would I be working for,” he says to Jack, “you? Your father ‘the bossman’?”

While Jack’s been busy in Congress and womanizing, he’s been escorting Jackie about town. They’ve gone to the Smithsonian, laughed at bad Loretta Young movies and gone to an amusement park. They’ve become close friends.

If something happens and Jack doesn’t work out, “would you be my back-up husband,” Jackie, who’s caught on to Jack’s foibles, jokes to Lem.

Billings, who lived from 1916 to 1981, maintained ties with the Kennedy family after Jack’s death.

But “Jackie & Me” is, without apology, a fictional work and “an exercise in alternative history,” Bayard writes in the acknowledgments.

Though a work of fiction, “Jackie & Me” feels true. In the novel, Jackie and Lem are outsiders. Jackie isn’t of the Kennedy family and doesn’t, as many women did then, aspire to be a homemaker. Lem was a closeted gay man when homophobia was socially acceptable.

Lem recalls how at Choate, boys who wanted sex or tenderness from other boys, would write notes on toilet paper. “I’m not that kind of boy,” responds Jack on receiving a note on toilet tissue from Lem.

“Jackie & Me” is intriguing because it’s not, at heart, about the romance of a glittering young couple. It’s an Austenesque triangle: the tale of the twists, turns, love and friendship of three compadres.

It’s a charming, elegant summer read.

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Books

Two new political memoirs reveal how the sausage of democracy is made

Top Dem, GOP spin-meisters weigh in on Trump, Buttigieg, more

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(Book cover images via Amazon)

‘Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell’
By Tim Miller
c.2022, Harper
$26.99/259 pages

‘Any Given Tuesday: A Political Love Story’
By Lis Smith
c.2022, Harper
$22.39/304 pages

The lilies of the field, the Bible tells us, “neither toil nor spin.” If only, they had met Tim Miller and Lis Smith!

Miller and Smith, two top-tier spinmeisters have written memoirs. Fasten your seatbelts. These aren’t the usual tepid politico’s tales.

As you read, you’ll laugh out loud one minute. Then gulp down your go-to comfort food or libation while (literally) worrying about the fate of our democracy. 

“Next to love, the most sacred thing you can give is your labor,” James Carville says to staff and volunteers in the last days of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign in a real life Aaron Sorkin moment in the 1993 documentary “The War Room.”

Miller and Smith both saw “The War Room” when they were kids. Miller would grow up to be a Republican strategist who left the party over Trump. Smith would become a top Democratic political operative. But “The War Room” instilled in both of them a love of the public service and game of politics. 

Miller, who lives in Oakland, Calif., with his husband Tyler and their daughter Toulouse, is a former Republican political operative. He was communications director for Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign and spokesman for the Republican National Committee during Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. Miller left the GOP to become a leader of the “Never Trump” movement. After calling it quits with Trump, Miller worked briefly as a consultant for Scott Pruitt, Environmental Protection Agency administrator during the Trump administration. Now, Miller is an MSNBC analyst, a writer at large with “The Bulwark” and the host of “Not My Party” on Snapchat. 

The Republican Party has a history – from Ronald Reagan’s abysmal record on AIDS to Donald Trump’s transphobic policies – of being anti-queer. You’re likely wondering how Miller, as a gay man, could stomach working for the GOP.

In “Why We Did It,” Miller puts himself and some of the people who “enabled” Trump under the microscope. 

“America never would have gotten into this mess if it weren’t for me and my friends,” Miller writes, “We were the ‘normal’ Republicans.”

When Trump arrived, they didn’t take him seriously. They didn’t, “get off on the tears of immigrant children,” Miller writes. Nor would they have been caught “dead in one of those gaudy red baseball caps,” he adds.

“Why in the fuck,” Miller asks, “did the vast, vast majority of seemingly normal, decent people whom I worked with go along with the most abnormal, indecent of men?”

The first half of the memoir is Miller’s story of how he “compartmentalized” being a gay man with being an operative for the largely homophobic GOP.

Take when he worked for John McCain’s presidential campaign. Though he was gay, Miller told McCain to walk it back after McCain said “gay marriage should be allowed if there’s a ceremony kind of thing.”

In the second half of the book, Miller examines why people such as Elise Stefanik opted to “take the red pill” and work for “the great MAGA future.”

“Why We Did It” is dishy, dark, and soul-churning.

Smith, a top Democratic strategist and veteran of 20 campaigns, has worked for everyone from Claire McCaskill to Barack Obama. She was a senior communications adviser for Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign.

Thankfully, “Any Given Tuesday” isn’t a stuffy political memoir. It’s smart, snarky, and gossipy. Smith is James Carville in high heels.

“Any Given Tuesday” is about Smith’s life in politics intertwined with stories from her personal life.

Due to sexism, her love life was politicized. Smith became a tabloid target when she fell in love with former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer. Former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, after learning of Smith’s relationship with Spitzer, fired her from her job with his administration. (Though she had worked for de Blasio’s campaign.)

You wonder if this would have happened if Smith had been a man. But Smith gets many digs at de Blasio. After her firing, de Blasio tried to win Spitzer’s political endorsement. “Both of us had tried to get in bed with Eliot,” she writes of de Blasio’s failure to win Spitzer’s backing, “but only one of us had been successful.” (Smith and Spitzer no longer have a relationship.)

Unlike Miller, Smith doesn’t have to twist herself into a compartmentalized pretzel to do her work. Like Miller, she’s hopped up on the “game” of campaigns. Though Smith doesn’t agree with everything everyone she works for believes in, she’s generally in synch with centrist Democrats.

Among the most interesting chapters of “Any Given Tuesday” are those about her work on Buttigieg’s campaign. If you’re queer or queer-friendly, even if you don’t agree with his politics, you get the historic significance of Buttigieg’s campaign.

Smith’s account of being on the road with the “Buttibus” and prepping Buttigieg for the candidates’ debates is entertaining and informative. It’s moving when Smith, a seasoned, snarky hack, comes to believe Buttigieg is “the one” — the candidate who truly would serve this country well.

In “Any Given Tuesday,” Smith reveals how the messy sausage of democracy is made. In “Why We Did It,” Miller makes even die-hard atheists pray that democracy will last.    

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Books

Love of baseball unites father, gay son

‘Magic Season’ explores family life after a tragedy

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(Book cover image courtesy of Hanover Square Press)

‘Magic Season: A Son’s Story’
By Wade Rouse
c.2022, Hanover Square Press
$27.99/ 304 pages

You’ve always looked up to your dad.

Sometimes it happened literally, like when you were a child and “up” was the only way to see his face hovering over yours. You’ve looked up at him in anger, embarrassment, dismissal, and yeah, you’ve looked up to him in the best ways, too – never forgetting, as in the memoir “Magic Season” by Wade Rouse, that sometimes, the hardest thing is seeing eye-to-eye.

Wade Rouse threw like a girl.

He couldn’t catch a baseball, either, and he wasn’t much of a runner as a young boy. He tried, because his father insisted on it but Rouse was better with words and books and thoughts. He was nothing like his elder brother, Todd, who was a natural hunter, a good sportsman, and an athlete, and their father never let Rouse forget it.

And yet, curiously, Rouse and his dad bonded over baseball.

Specifically, their love of Cardinals baseball became the one passion they shared. The stats, the players, the idea that “Anything can happen,” the hope that there’d be a World Series at the end of every season was the glue they needed. It was what saved them when Todd was killed in a motorcycle accident. When Rouse came out to his father, Cards baseball was what brought them back together after two years of estrangement.

In between games, though, and between seasons, there was yelling, cruelty, and all the times when father and son didn’t communicate. Rouse accepted, but didn’t like, his father’s alcoholism or his harsh life-lessons: his father didn’t like Rouse’s plans for his own future. Rouse admits that he cried a lot, and he was surprised at the rare times when his father displayed emotion – especially since an Ozarks man like Ted Rouse didn’t do things like that.

Until the time was right.

Love, Wade Rouse says, is “shaped like a baseball.” You catch it, throw it, or hit it out of the park, but “You don’t know where it’s going.”

Just be sure you never take “your eye off it, from beginning to end.”

Oh, my. “Magic Season” is a 10-hankie book.

First, though, you’re going to laugh because author Wade Rouse is a natural-born humorist and his family is a great launching-pad for him despite the splinters and near-clawing despair of the overall theme of this book. That sense of humor can’t seem to let a good story go, even when it’s obvious that there’s something heartbreaking waiting in the bullpen.

Which brings us to the father-son-baseball triple-play. It may seem to some readers that such a book has been done and done again, but this one feels different. Rouse excels at filling in the blanks on the other, essential teammates in this tale and, like any big skirmish, readers are left breathless, now knowing the final score until the last out.

If you like your memoirs sweet, but with a dash of spice and some tears, here you go. For you, “Magic Season” is a book to look up.

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Calhoun and O’Hara give us hope that art will still be a life force

New memoir ‘Also a Poet’ will inspire readers

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(Book cover image courtesy of Grove Press)

‘Also a Poet: Frank O’Hara, My Father, and Me’
By Ada Calhoun
c.2022, Grove Press
$27/259 pages

Families. Especially if your parents are acclaimed writers and artists, they can get under your skin. They love you, but sometimes withhold praise and suck the air out of the room. You wonder if you’ll end up as a second-string imitation of your famous folks.

That was what growing up was like for writer Ada Calhoun, author of the new memoir “Also a Poet: Frank O’Hara, My Father and Me.”  

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” Tolstoy wrote in “Anna Karenina.”

If you’re queer, you know not only how right Tolstoy was, but that family tension makes for riveting reading.

Calhoun, a lifelong New Yorker who grew up in the East Village, doesn’t disappoint. 

Her parents are creative and talented. Her mother Brooke Alderson started out performing stand-up comedy in lesbian bars. Later, she was an actress whose most well-known roles were in “Urban Cowboy” and “Family Ties.”

Her father Peter Schjeldahl, born in 1942, is a poet and The New Yorker art critic.

Schjeldahl is far from a pompous gasbag. As The New York Times book critic Molly Young said recently, in his book “Hot, Cold, Heavy, 100 Art Writings 1988-2018,” Schjeldahl received, perhaps, the most awesome blurb ever. “Bruce is no longer the Boss; Schjeldahl is!” Steve Martin said of the volume.

Not surprisingly, Calhoun didn’t have a typical childhood.

Gay writer Christopher Isherwood, author of “The Berlin Stories,” was among those who Calhoun’s parents hung out with. “One of the most agreeable children imaginable,” Isherwood said of Calhoun when she was a child, “neither sulky nor sly nor pushy nor ugly, with a charming trustful smile for all of us.”

Most of us as kids see “The Nutcracker” with an aunt or grandma. Calhoun saw the holiday classic with a “dreamboat” poet. An artist posing topless so other painters could paint her wasn’t shocking to the young Calhoun.

While Calhoun’s Mom makes several memorable appearances, “Also a Poet” is focused on Calhoun’s relationship with her father.

Relationships between daughters and fathers can be difficult. But they’re often more fraught when the dad is a renowned writer. Especially when Calhoun, born in 1976, was growing up.

Then (thankfully, to a lesser extent, now) if you were a male writer, life in your household centered around you. You didn’t help with housework or pay much attention to your spouse and kids.

Though Calhoun was raised in the sophisticated East Village, life with her father fit this pattern. One day, Schjeldahl let her go alone, with no directions, at age eight on a bus to a friend’s birthday party. 

When she was young, Calhoun wanted to escape the Village literary life. “My typical answer was farmer because that was the most tangible, least cosmopolitan option I could think of,” Calhoun writes, when as a kid, people asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. 

But Calhoun couldn’t evade the clutches of the writing bug. From early on, she wanted to get away from her father’s shadow. So her work could be judged on its own merit. She changed her last name from Schjeldahl to her middle name Calhoun.

Despite their difficulties, one thing bonded Calhoun with her dad: their love of Frank O’Hara, the openly queer poet and Museum of Modern Art curator, who died at 40 in a Jeep accident on Fire Island in 1966.

In the 1970s, Schjeldahl, who like so many poets, writers and artists then and now, idolized O’Hara, tried to write a biography of the beloved poet. But O’Hara’s sister and executor Maureen Granville-Smith derailed his attempt to write the bio.

But all wasn’t lost. Decades later, Calhoun discovered the tapes of the people (from Larry Rivers to Willem de Kooning) who Schjeldalhl had interviewed for the project in the basement of her parents’ building. 

In a magnificent Rubik’s Cube of literary history and memory, Calhoun weaves a tale of family and of making art. 

The memoir will inspire you to read O’Hara. O’Hara wrote funny and moving poems out of the pop culture and sadness of his time (from the “The Day Lady Died” on the death of Billie Holiday to the hilarious “Poem” – with the line “Lana Turner has collapsed!” to “Personal Poem” about Miles Davis being beaten by cops).

“His life force was on the page,” Grace Cavalieri, Maryland’s poet laureate and the producer/host of the radio show “The Poet and the Poem, said of O’Hara in an email to the Blade.

In this “Don’t Say Gay” era, Calhoun and O’Hara give us hope that art will still be a life force.

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