Icons / May 2016

BLACK JACK’S ACE

His dubious parenting style and numerous character flaws aside, looking at John Vernou Bouvier III, it isn’t difficult to surmise where his famous daughters Jackie and Lee got their good…

‘Black Jack’ Bouvier was many things — a boulevardier, an inveterate risk-taker, a heavy drinker, the father of Jackie Onassis (née Kennedy, née Bouvier), a narcissist, and a ringer for Clark Gable; appropriately so, since Gable-as-Rhett Butler’s fabled parting shot in Gone with the Wind — “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” — could have been Black Jack’s mission statement.

His haughty insouciance was one of Black Jack’s ineffable birthrights, along with a fastidious elegance and a notable appetite for self-destruction. He was born John Vernou Bouvier III in East Hampton in 1891; his father, Major John Vernou Bouvier, Jr. was known to all as ‘the Major’, due more to his overbearing mien than to his brief spell in military service. The Bouviers were descended from a line of southern French Catholic artisans, but the Major, finding this genealogy insufficiently illustrious, commissioned a treatise titled Our Forebears that forged a concocted link to Plantagenetesque aristocrats (family members would always insist on pronouncing Jackie’s name ‘Jack-Leen’, in strangulated haute-French style).

Black Jack (the piratical soubriquet came from his extremely dark Bouvier complexion, spawning other nicknames, including ‘the Sheikh’ and ‘Black Orchid’) was the heir to a family fortune made on Wall Street and in real-estate speculation, and the Major drummed a sense of entitlement into him, along with a keen sense of style. The Major’s favoured East Hampton Sunday attire consisted of a brown tweed jacket, a white shirt with high, stiff collar, white linen trousers, black socks and white shoes. He was also the proud possessor of a Hercule Poirot-style moustache, painstakingly waxed every morning until the points formed a perfect 90° angle to his cheeks.

Black Jack followed facial-adornment suit with his own pencil-thin Gable-esque number, which only added to his movie-star allure. His thick black hair was assiduously groomed, with an arrow-straight parting; his piercing blue eyes were complemented by full, sensual lips and a muscular physique that he maintained by working out in a private gym or at the Yale Club (later, he would sweat around the Central Park reservoir in a specially-commissioned bespoke rubber suit, possibly the first instance of a gimp-style weight-loss programme). He topped up his tan by sunbathing naked at the window of his Park Avenue apartment, or in the men’s cabana area of the Maidstone Club.

He topped up his tan by sunbathing naked at the window of his Park Avenue apartment, or in the men’s cabana area of the Maidstone Club.

"He topped up his tan by sunbathing naked at the window of his Park Avenue apartment, or in the men’s cabana area of the Maidstone Club"

His suits were tailored just that little bit more expansively than those of his peers — wider lapels, boxier shoulders, more elaborate drapes, extravagant DB frontage — to complement his high-collared Brooks Brothers shirts and modishly-pinned rep ties; even at the zenith of an East Hampton summer, he was never seen out of an immaculate gabardine suit.

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Stuart Husband