Jackie Kennedy was the most successful of the Kennedys in managing her own legacy – until now

Opinion: It is easy to forget there are real people behind all the Kennedy photographs and books

‘Jackie Kennedy  was always her own person in a family where conformity is prized.’ Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

‘Jackie Kennedy was always her own person in a family where conformity is prized.’ Photograph: AFP/Getty Images


It is fairly safe to assume that if Jacqueline Kennedy had even a hint that her correspondence with an Irish priest would become public, not to mention sold off at auction, she would have been horrified.

But she probably wouldn’t have been surprised.

As part of a family that has tried, mostly in vain, to control the unrelenting glare of public scrutiny, Jackie Kennedy had been the most successful in managing her own legacy. At least until now.

Publicity has always been both a blessing and a curse for the Kennedys. The family, especially old Joe Kennedy, used carefully managed publicity to build a fortune and a political dynasty. But the Faustian part of that deal is how the family’s most intimate moments have often played out in public, almost as a voyeuristic form of entertainment for some.

Every towering achievement, from Jack Kennedy’s election as the first Catholic president in 1960 to young Joe Kennedy’s recent election to Congress, has been matched if not surpassed by a slew of tragedies that seem disproportionate to the family’s size.

Real people, not caricatures
Given that Kennedy-watching, like the royals beat, is a cottage industry, it is easy to forget that there are real people, not caricatures, behind all the photographs and books.

Last year, in the midst of the commemorations of the 50th anniversary of Jack Kennedy’s assassination, I had dinner with young Joe Kennedy, the newly minted congressman. He had been after me to talk about an issue dear to him, the disenfranchisement of Haitian migrant workers who cut sugar cane in the Dominican Republic.

Joe spent his years in the Peace Corps, founded by his great-uncle JFK, in the Dominican Republic and was worried about a recent ruling by the Dominican supreme court that could leave many Haitian migrant workers stateless. He talks about helping migrant workers in the Dominican Republic with the same passion that his grandfather Bobby talked about helping Caesar Chavez’s migrant workers in California.

As we talked about a subject with which most Americans couldn’t be bothered, I noticed that the TV on the wall over Joe’s shoulder was showing the open car as it made its way down Dealey Plaza in Dallas on the afternoon of November 22nd, 1963. When I told Joe what was on the TV behind him, he didn’t turn around. He had been animated while talking about helping migrant workers but now he was suddenly subdued.

“I’ve tried not to watch any of it,” he said, looking down, fumbling with his silverware.

For Joe Kennedy, for his whole extended family, this was not some media event, not some opportunity for every Joe Soap in the world to recall where they were when JFK was shot. For young Joe Kennedy it was another reminder that he never got to know his father’s uncle who became president. It was another reminder that he never got to sit on the lap of his grandfather who wanted to be president. It was, for young Joe Kennedy, not a national moment of reflection and commemoration, but a sombre, personal reminder that he was part of a family that has been given much but also has had so much taken away.

Young Joe Kennedy articulated the blessing and the curse.

“The outpouring has been moving,” he said of so much attention to the anniversary of his great-uncle’s murder. “What he embodied and represented, in challenging us to be a better country, for us to be better citizens, to be better people, is still important. That challenge still resonates. If you are willing to answer that call, you can serve in the military, in the Peace Corps, whatever form.

“But, you know, he was a father, a husband, an uncle, a son. And our family still misses him.”

Jackie missed him, too, for the rest of her days. And she was determined to limit the intrusion, which would explain why she maintained such a long, intimate correspondence with Fr Joseph Leonard.

Jackie was an outlier, always was. She was always her own person in a family where conformity is prized. Jackie’s independent, curious spirit emerges in these letters and, as with her friendship with Cardinal Richard Cushing, her choice of Fr Leonard as a confidant shows her preference for priests who were more warm than pious.

These letters going on the auction block, after emerging in the pages of The Irish Times, the Boston Globe and then everywhere else, shows just how difficult it is for someone as wildly famous and purposely mysterious as Jackie Kennedy to manage a legacy, especially from the grave. At the end of the day the most private of first ladies comes out looking better, I think, but she would not have wanted it to happen this way.

Kevin Cullen is a columnist for the Boston Globe

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