This is my interview with Bridget Watson Payne.
Looking back, which experiences, jobs and personality traits do you think have really helped you? Honestly? Stubbornness. I don’t think I necessarily come across as a stubborn person when you meet me, but I have a sneaky kind of stubbornness that does a good job disguising itself as patience. If I want to make something happen—a project, a job, a collaboration—I tend to just keep at it and keep at it, really almost to the point of wilfulness. These days there seems to be a trend to call this trait by other, much more complimentary, names—like “tenacity” or “grit”—but if we’re being honest it’s really just old-fashioned stubbornness, right? Or maybe obstinacy in a pinch. It’s a very useful trait, but I don’t flatter myself that it’s exactly admirable.
What inspired you to write this book? Ok, this is going to sound ridiculous but here goes: it came to me in a dream. I know! Ridiculous right? But it’s the truth. In the dream I was holding the finished book in my hand (of course it looked nothing like what the real book ended up looking like) and all I saw was the title NEW YORK JACKIE but I knew immediately what the contents inside would be—all these amazing photos from the 30 years she lived in NYC, which is a time in her life people don’t seem to talk about very often, but it was when she was raising her kids, working as a book editor, walking around town with that amazing insouciant style of hers, and just being a New Yorker—and I woke up thinking “That would be a great book! For real! I have to make it happen!”
What is your first memory of hearing about Jackie? I think I was always vaguely aware of her—growing up as a kid in the 70s and 80s she was just kind of there in the background as this iconic figure, with the pink suit and the pink pill box hat, and then when I started going to art museums I think that notion must have been reinforced by seeing Warhol’s image of her. But then, as an adult, not too long before I had the dream about the book actually, I read an old essay Norah Ephron wrote about the magazine Women’s Wear Daily and how it was totally fascinated with her when she lived in New York and ran photos of her outfits almost every day—and that’s when I got really interested in her time in New York and started reading more about it and discovering all the amazing things she did in those years.
Which are your favourite images in this book? There’s an amazing photo of her walking her two kids to school while also walking a dog. Here she is, this person that—maybe more than almost anyone else in America—had been treated almost like royalty, and she’s doing this most normal thing in the world; walking down the sidewalk, chatting with her kids, taking them to school, giving the dog its walk, just being a regular person. And of course she looks inimitably chic while doing it—but in a casual real-world way that feels very accessible to women today.
What were some of the most important moments when writing this book? One of the most amazing moments came when Nan Talese agreed to write the Introduction. I’d been thinking it would be really hard to find the right person to write about Jackie in general, and this period of her life in particular, but then a friend passed me a wonderful piece Nan had written about Jackie for Harper’s Bazaar—Nan is an absolutely legendary New York book editor and the two of them were colleagues at Doubleday in the 70s. It was the perfect fit, but I was sure she’d be too busy, or not interested in doing it, but when I asked her if she’d like to write the intro and she said she’d be delighted to do it, I was over the moon!
What was the most interesting thing you discovered when writing this book? I think just the fact that she had these three decades in New York that so rarely get talked about. She’d go away for a while—she was in Greece a good deal when she was married to Aristotle Onassis—but she always came back to New York. She rode bikes in Central Park with her kids and then 25 years later she’s taking her granddaughter to Central Park for ice cream. She hobnobbed with all sorts of celebrities, attended fancy book parties and political fundraisers, helped save the architectural legacy of Grand Central Terminal, but she also worked a desk job, and walked the dog, and went the movies, and wore blue jeans.
What do you love most about Jackie? Oh god, it’s so hard to pick one thing! Her grace and ease and charm? Her whip-smart intelligence and wicked sense of humour? Her clothes sense? I think, ultimately though, I’d have to say her joy in life. She so clearly took so much pleasure in the people around her, in friends and family, in daily life, in work and art, and in the city of New York itself. I hugely admire that.
Do you have a favourite museum or art gallery? The SFMOMA here in San Francisco. It’s been closed for the past two years while they build a massive new extension to it, and will be closed for another year or so, and I miss it so much! I don’t think I realized how much l loved it until I couldn’t go there anymore. I really love having a local museum where you’re familiar with the collection and can spend a long time just wandering around revisiting old favorites or just pop in for a quick visit to see what’s new. I cannot wait to see inside the new building when they reopen!
When you go into a bookshop, which department do you head straight to? Fiction. Professionally, I edit art and photography books, but as a reader I read novels almost exclusively. I like having that separation. I’d hate to be the person who works in the ice cream store and stops liking ice cream. I don’t ever want the fact that I work with books to turn me off of books—just the opposite in fact! I started doing this job because I love books and, 13 years later, I love them all the more: both the art books I work on and the literature I enjoy reading.
What are you working on next? I’m actually working on two new book projects right now: one is about art and the other one is about being a grown-up. They’re not coming out until 2017, so its early days yet, but I’ve started writing—they’re both much more text-heavy and writing-focused than my previous books—and I am having so much fun working on them!
Read my review of ‘New York Jackie’ here.