The Lady of Camelot. Jan Morris on the sordid, selfish, greedy and squalid influences that blighted the life of the twice-widowed Jackie Kennedy

America's Queen: the life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

Sarah Bradford <em>Viking, 701pp, £20 </em

Ugh! When Jackie Kennedy was chatelaine of the White House, in the fabled years of Camelot, she gave instructions that half-empty glasses abandoned at champagne parties should be topped up "unless they had obvious lipstick marks" and distributed among later guests.

This distasteful detail might well stand as an epigraph to Sarah Bradford's skilful, eminently fair, fascinating, squalid and ultimately pathetic biography of the person variously known as The Most Beautiful Woman in the World, The Lady of Camelot and The Nymph of Central Park. In her last years, twice widowed and liberated, Jackie Kennedy evidently matured into a true and decent woman; but during the first half-century of her life, she was subjected to influences so sordid, so selfish, so greedy, so full of sham and envy - in short, so despicable - that just reading about them is almost enough to make one despair of humanity.

Think of it! Her father was an amoral, drunken lecher whose claims to aristocratic French origins were fraudulent - he was four generations removed from shopkeepers in Provence. Her mother was a chain-smoking, nail-biting social climber who pretended that her Irish immigrant grandparents were Southern gentry. Her stepfather was a penny-pinching collector of pornography who kept his family tree in the bathroom. Her first husband was pathologically hypersexed, had picked up gonorrhoea at Harvard, was allergic to horsehair, had one leg shorter than the other and suffered from Addison's disease, a weak stomach and skeletal muscular spasms. Her second husband was an ugly and arrogant Greek businessman who frequented his former mistress throughout their marriage and called Jackie "Mummy" or "The Widow".

What chance did the poor girl have? When she went off to Europe, she did more or less what every American debutante did on the American Grand Tour: spent time at a summer school in Paris, that is, presented introductions to the Contessa this, the Lady that and Bernard Berenson, saw the bulls run at Pamplona and went home again with a taste for spindly gilded furniture and toffs. And when, as a married woman, she entered the snake-pit of American fashionable and political life, what a gallimaufry of serpents was waiting to initiate her! There is a picture in America's Queen of the whole Kennedy crew posing and grinning at Hyannis Port in 1960, from Joe the old crook of a patriarch to "Chappaquiddick" Teddy and the creepy Peter Lawford. On a sofa in the middle sits Jackie, relatively new to the game, not yet to the manner born, bolt upright and smiling gamely. She might be Diana Spencer during the early days of her royal ordeal.

The statutory socialites and celebrities who sidle through these pages add their own familiar tinctures to the brew - Capote and Chatwin, Andy Warhol, Gore Vidal and Joe Alsop, "the friend of grand ladies throughout the Anglo-Saxon world". Here Marion Davies is drunk at Jackie's wedding. Frank Sinatra throws a jealous tantrum, and Marilyn Monroe snidely dresses up as Jackie for a photograph in Vogue. Viscountess Stuart of Findhorn remembers the Kennedys as being "fearfully unsophisticated . . . terribly provincial". Maria Callas sneaks the newly married Aristotle Onassis into her flat in Paris. Somebody called Lorraine Waxman Pearce opines of America's 35th president that it was "chic-er not to have slept with him".

It all sounds a far cry from Camelot - an unfortunate metaphor for Jack Kennedy's sleazy court, devised, it turns out, by Jackie herself. While the world marvelled at the grace and charm of the New Frontier, those already-used glasses were being distributed at the White House. Kennedy had sex with a mother and daughter, one after the other, during a reception for the president of the World Bank; and now and then, Dr Max Jacobson (later struck from the medical register) arrived with his syringe to give both Jack and the First Lady injections of his "magic potion" of amphetamines.

All the more terrible was the climax of the story in Dallas - the blood and brains splashed over the clothes that women the world over had envied and copied; all the more squalid the anticlimax, remarriage to a man so unlovely that, far away in Stockholm, a newspaper greeted the news with the simple headline "Jackie, How Could You?". Jackie had been moulded, by tragedy as by the world's corrosion, into a persona that was not her own, a progress that is horrible to read about.

Jack Kennedy's death is horrible to read about, too, even so long after the event, but the demise of Onassis comes, on page 498 of this book, as a positive relief. At last, we feel, Jackie is free to be herself. She has never played a great part in the affairs of state beyond charming miscellaneous visiting dictators, presidents and emperors and converting the poor old White House into a sort of aspirant Versailles. She seems utterly wasted, swanning around the world on Onassis's vulgarly ostentatious yacht; but in 1973, widowed again and $20m the richer, she returns to New York and to a kind of reality.

She had her native faults, without a doubt. She could be hard and coarse, she was mad about money, she had bow legs and a maddening little-girl voice. But, tempered as she was by two miscarriages and a stillbirth, she was always a tender and loyal mother and a fond grandmother. She was unshakably kind to awful old Joe Kennedy when he was miserably incapacitated by a stroke. She was intelligent, well read and conscientious, and when she ended up at last as an editor with a publishing house, she seems to have done the job ably and without pretension, despite the attentions of the paparazzi and gawping tabloid readers.

The last years of Jacqueline, then, recorded in Bradford's generous but dispassionate prose, are like a return to port - like a dented warship limping into harbour flying a somewhat tattered but bravely laundered ensign. She died in 1994, of cancer, and already the world is forgetting her. "Jackie Kennedy?" said a neighbour of mine when I told her I was reading this book. "Why, is she dead or something?"

Jan Morris's most recent book is Our First Leader (Gomer, £5.95)

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Interview - Lord Falconer