Like Elton John’s new “Me,” Carly Simon’s “Touched by the Sun,” is a surprisingly fresh and candid memoir. It’s a great read I’d always wanted from the confessional singer-songwriter whose life has included a pageant of famous names. It’s almost like a coda to her autobiography, “Boys in the Trees,” which was pretty juicy and insightful. (And I hope she follows this volume with a couple more.) She’ll make a rare appearance Tuesday night at Barnes & Noble in Union Square to sign books.
Way back in the mid 1980s Carly showed me some prose writing she had done that was exceptional, and told me Jackie Onassis wanted to publish it at Doubleday. They’d become great friends on Martha’s Vineyard. That book didn’t happen, but now Carly has written a lovely, endearing tome about their relationship, and associated pals of the era. It reminds me of Elizabeth Hardwick’s “Sleepless Nights” or Joyce Johnson’s “Minor Characters.” You can’t get enough of this opening to a private portal to history.
The book is almost as much about Carly as it is about Jackie, which is just about right. Jackie was a private, shy person. So is Carly. That they bonded makes perfect sense. They were each married to famous men, whom they still loved even after they’d left, whether dead (JFK) or alive (James Taylor). Simon writes: “We both had had husbands who were “gone” for us, yet whose voices remained.”
Simon weaves in a lot complex people, not just Onassis, through “Touched by the Sun,” including her own family, her formidable mother, her children and so on. But what readers will eat up is her humanizing of Jackie, who kept herself walled off from the public after becoming the most famous and chased celebrity of all time. I always wondered how she went on living after JFK’s assassination, and how she navigated living with the memories.
She tells Simon: “One is overwhelmed by the necessity to cover up the sentiments that are needed in order to go forward with one’s life. I had to make such a grand left turn so as not to be reminded of my former life,” Jackie explained.
Simon offers: “The life would have to be so completely different,” I offered, “like landing on the surface of a different planet.”
So Jackie Kennedy surprised the world and married older billionaire shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis.
Jackie continued, “I wondered if I went to the trouble of removing signs, newspapers, photographs, mementos . . .
never mind. He wouldn’t have seen it clearly, but the reminders were walking every day with me in the bodies of my children.
Their walks, their mannerisms, the memories of their births. First words, skating, riding, greetings, nightmares, Christmases, birthdays . . . worries that A.O. [this was how Jackie sometimes referred to Ari] could never erase.”
Simon– who, believe me. has enough to deal with in her own life– becomes witness to history. Over the course of a decade, Jackie drops little hints of her personal life. Of sister Lee Radziwill (recently deceased) she tells Carly: “With my sister,
there was always the one-upmanship. It was predictable and inevitable. I made her so mad she used to try to outdo me. And she did!”
There’s more, a lot more, about everyone, and how Carly– certainly a big star in her own right– deals with the biggest star of all. In “Touched by the Sun,” she’s just like us. There’s the whole issue of being public vs. private and being recognized. When they go out together “Jackie would always pretend people were staring at me,” Simon says, knowing better. Did she think for one second I would ever fall for that? Still, the deflection was charming and for the briefest of seconds flattering, before I reminded myself of the absurdity of it all. As the world knows by now, Jackie disliked being the center of attention. In her presence, I never remembered or accepted the fact that I was a well-known person in my own right. In my own field. But compared to hers, my field was a small garden of roses in the middle of the Amazon rain forest.”
A great read, and PS the audio book is read aloud by actress Elizabeth McGovern, currently of “Downton Abbey” fame.