It should have been a year of triumph for Jackie and John F Kennedy. Despite legislative setbacks in the president's first term in office, he had appeared electorally unassailable and, if his health held up, a second term in the White House seemed inevitable.
Instead, Jackie began 1964 as the world's most famous widow. On November 22nd, 1963, President Kennedy was shot by a sniper as he travelled by motorcade through Dallas, Texas. Jackie was with him in the presidential limousine and cradled his slumped body as the car was taken to the city's Parkland Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Images of Jackie, in her blood-stained suit in Dallas and attending the state funeral three days later on November 25th, prompted a global outpouring of sympathy and emotion.
Black-edged mourning notepaper
One of the relatively few Christmas cards sent from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC that year was to Fr Joseph Leonard in Dublin, a card that bore on the front, along with an image of the White House, a handwritten inscription: "For Father Leonard – with all our love. Jacqueline. Christmas 1963."
A few weeks later, in January 1964, she wrote again to Fr Leonard, her friend and spiritual confidante, using black-edged mourning writing paper embossed simply with “Mrs John F Kennedy”.
She thanked the priest, who in his 87th year was now also close to death, for “saying Mass for Jack and for all your prayers”.
She revealed her torment and how the death of the president had undermined her deep Catholic faith by declaring: “I am so bitter against God.” But, in a confessional tone, she added: “only He and you and I know that”. She explained that she didn’t want to be bitter “or bring up my children in a bitter way” and was “trying to make my peace with God”. She said: “I think God must have taken Jack to show the world how lost we would be without him – but that is a strange way of thinking to me.”
'I have to think there is a God'
Despite her raw anger and distress, her humour and hope shone through and she remarked: "God will have a bit of explaining to do to me if I ever see him."
She asked Fr Leonard to pray for her and said she would pray too in an effort to overcome her bitterness against God. She said: “I have to think there is a God – or I have no hope of finding Jack again.”
Despite being inundated with thousands of messages of sympathy from world leaders and members of the public, Jackie found time to write again to her “dearest Father Leonard” a few weeks later to say: “I feel more cruelly every day what I have lost – I always would have rather lost my life than lost Jack.” But she was “sure the comfort of your prayers will begin to help soon”. She agreed with a sentiment Fr Leonard had apparently expressed in his last letter to her: “ You’re right – the American people are beginning to realize what they have lost.”
Fr Leonard died in Dublin in the autumn of 1964.