How did Jackie Kennedy come to place such trust in Fr Joseph Leonard?

Opinion: Such an exchange between an elderly priest and a famous woman is hard to imagine today

‘These letters provide significant background to an important era in US history.’  An  undated  image  of Jacqueline Kennedy with Fr Joseph Leonard. Photograph courtesy of  Sheppard’s Irish Auction House

‘These letters provide significant background to an important era in US history.’ An undated image of Jacqueline Kennedy with Fr Joseph Leonard. Photograph courtesy of Sheppard’s Irish Auction House


There is a video doing the rounds of a cat chasing away a dog that had attacked a little boy and dragged him off his bike. Cat videos are an internet staple, and a child-saving cat video was destined to go viral.

One interesting thing about the video is that the footage of the event is from many different angles, apparently edited together from several security cameras. Not only does that little boy own a Ninja cat but his life is being recorded from every angle.

A world in which such events can be captured, edited and shared so easily is, at first glance, very different to the one inhabited by cool, elegant former first lady of the United States Jacqueline Kennedy. She is in the news, of course, because an unexpected cache of letters to a priest friend has surfaced 50 years after his death.

Kennedy was stylish, well-groomed and very attractive but her air of mystery was no small part of her allure. Married to the handsome Jack, they seemed a golden couple and everyone wanted a part of them.

Almost voyeuristic
She could not halt the flow of revelations about his infidelities that emerged after his death but her inner life and reactions remained her own. How ironic, then, that this most private of public figures should have her correspondence with an elderly priest revealed. It seems almost voyeuristic to be reading material she obviously never meant for publication.

But both Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Fr Joseph Leonard are dead, so where’s the harm? These letters provide significant background to an important era in US history. And yet there is the lingering feeling that you are reading a diary that you accidentally picked up and should immediately put down.

Such an exchange between an elderly priest and one of the most famous women on the planet is hard to imagine today.

She placed enormous trust in Fr Leonard. What wife of a US president would take the risk of such openness today, with a priest she met only twice?

The answer appears relatively simple. Kennedy lived in an era when privacy was still possible; and no such privacy exists today. If she were writing to Fr Leonard today, she would no doubt be using encrypted emails that would probably be hacked eventually.

Age of surveillance
We live in the age of surveillance, not just security cameras that record freak events involving a cat and a dog but an unprecedented level of data gathering by agencies like the US National Security Agency. According to Glenn Greenwald, one of the recipients of US whistleblower Edward Snowden’s leaks, in one month in 2013 just one unit of the NSA collected data on more than 97 billion emails and 124 billion phone calls.

Those figures are numbing, so far beyond our ability to visualise as to be meaningless. Perhaps that is why we show sublime indifference to the amount of information routinely gathered every time we use the internet.

It’s not just the creepily accurate Amazon suggestions. It’s not just the advertisements that appear alongside the inbox every time we open it. All sorts of information is constantly being collected from everything from our loyalty cards to our social media sites.

So it seems clear Jacqueline Kennedy not only protected her privacy in an admirable way but did so in an era in which it was still possible.

Yet it is a little more complex than that. Kennedy wrote letters, a means of communicating that is “so 20th century”, but a vulnerable method, as shown by the fact the letters have indeed emerged in the public domain.

On the other hand, there are people who even in this era maintain their privacy through the careful manipulation of their “brand”.

It’s like hiding in plain sight. By giving a certain amount of information, celebrities or other public figures can effectively manage an online presence or persona that camouflages the things they really want to keep private.

We think we did not really know Jacqueline Kennedy during her lifetime, but that we do know, for example, Beyoncé Knowles.

The reality is we know neither, even if we know many facts about them. Nor do we know the people we view as hate figures, but often just the image with which they have been saddled.

Consumption of details
Knowing someone involves much more than consumption of details of their lives or reading things about them that they never intended to be read. We have somehow lost sight of that.

The flip side of the enormous appetite for information about well-known people, and the desire to feel connected to them, is the impulse to share every detail of one’s life online, as if that also somehow establishes meaningful connections. The desire of the human heart to be understood and appreciated remains constant.

Perhaps what Jackie Kennedy’s letters show best is that true friendship with someone who can be absolutely trusted and who understands you both spiritually and mentally was as rare and precious in so-called Camelot as it is in the era of viral cat videos.

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