A rare glimpse into Jacqueline Kennedy’s inner life
Few of Jacqueline Kennedy's letters have been published or sold at auction and fewer still have revealed much about her
For thirty years before her death in 1994, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis gave no interviews, withheld cooperation from all biographers and refused to write a memoir. Few of her letters have been published or sold at auction and fewer still have revealed much about her interior life or her relationship with John F Kennedy. The most intimate to appear in recent years have been a batch of 17 notes written to her personal shopper at New York department store Bergdorf Goodman, which were auctioned last year, and some love letters to a high school sweetheart that were sold two years earlier.
As First Lady, Jackie sought to shape her public image by authorising a biography by Mary Van Rensselaer Thayer, a Washington Post journalist and a friend of her mother’s. Thayer, whose Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy contained nothing its subject did not want to make public, had access to Jackie’s scrapbooks , photographs and letters. Subsequent biographers, from Kitty Kelley and Donald Spoto to the more substantial Sarah Bradford, had to depend more heavily on secondary sources and often anonymous interviews with friends and associates. Jackie was so jealous of her privacy and so protective of her family’s image that those close to her knew that spilling her secrets or sharing her correspondence would mean the end of their friendship.
Days after JFK’s assassination in November 1963, Jackie invited a sympathetic journalist, Theodore B White, to the Kennedy family compound at Hyannis Port and gave him an exclusive interview for Life magazine. She told him that her husband was fond of the musical Camelot, which had just finished a successful run on Broadway, particularly the lines from the title song: “Don’t ever let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was Camelot.” Then, in a phrase that would shape the popular view of the Kennedy presidency from then on, she added: “There will be great presidents again but there will never be another Camelot.”
Jackie spoke to two other interviewers in the months following the assassination, the historians William Manchester and Arthur M Schlesinger. Manchester had been chosen by the Kennedys to write a book about the assassination and Jackie sat down with him for ten hours of interviews, fuelled by jugs of daiquiris and packets of cigarettes. She soon regretted the arrangement and sought to stop the book’s publication, insisting that the recordings of the interviews should be deposited in the JFK presidential library, where they will remain under seal until 2067.
Schlesinger, who was a close aide to her husband, conducted seven interviews with Jackie in early 1964 as part of an oral history project. These too were placed under seal at the JFK library but were released by Caroline Kennedy in 2011, causing a sensation on account of Jackie’s frank comments on political events and personalities. She described Martin Luther King Jr as “a phony” and claimed that he arranged orgies at a Washington hotel, she dismissed Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi as “a real prune-bitter, kind of pushy, horrible woman” and suggested that the South Vietnamese first lady, Madame Nhu, was a lesbian. Despite such candour, the interviews reveal little about Jackie’s relationship with JFK, which she describes as “rather terribly Victorian or Asiatic” insofar as she deferred to her husband on political matters.
Fr Joseph Leonard makes a brief appearance in Bradford’s biography America’s Queen during an account of Jackie’s first visit to Dublin in 1950 with her stepbrother Hugh “Yusha” Auchincloss III. When they first called Fr Leonard, they were “told by ‘a senile creature in broken Gaelic’ that he had left the country” but he appeared the following day to take them on a tour of Georgian Dublin and to lunch at Jammet’s. It was clear that the 21 year-old Jackie enjoyed the company of this worldly, 73 year-old priest, who apparently embraced a joyous form of Christianity that saw no conflict between religious piety and enjoying the finer things in life.
He was, Jackie told him in a letter two years later, “someone who loves everything I love - who you can have fun with - who can take you to Jammet’s & the theatre as naturally as to Mass - whom you can talk to about anything in the world and know you won’t shock them…” She took full advantage of this quality in her correspondence with the priest, which described her feelings about everything from JFK’s womanising nature to his extraordinary ambition and her anger and grief after his death.
“It’s so good in a way to write all this down and get it off your chest - because I never do really talk about it with anyone,” she wrote.
The letters reveal Jackie as an unusually self-aware young woman who went into her relationship with JFK, who was 12 years her senior, with eyes wide open. He reminded her of her father, Jack Bouvier, whom she adored but whose philandering (“loves the chase and is bored with the conquest”) caused her mother great misery. She thought that “if he ever does ask me to marry him it will be for rather practical reasons - because his career is this driving thing with him”.
The depth of Jackie’s despair after JFK’s assassination are evident in the two letters she wrote to Fr Leonard in early 1964, in the first of which she declares “I am so bitter against God”. In the second letter, her last to the priest, she writes “I feel more cruelly every day what I have lost - I always would have rather lost my life than lost Jack.”
Despite her determination to protect her privacy, few facts about Jackie or her marriage with JFK have remained hidden and the two decades since her death have seen a torrent of revelations about JFK’s sexual appetites. These extraordinary letters, many of which have the quality of a personal diary, may help to rescue Jacqueline Kennedy’s memory from the myth that surrounds it as they reveal in her own words how she experienced some of the most important events of her life.