Letters from Jackie: The unlikely friendship between an American student and an Irish priest

The friendship that flowered between Jackie Kennedy and Fr Joseph Leonard nurtured a long and close correspondence

It was the most unlikely friendship – a beautiful , wealthy American student in Washington DC and an elderly Irish priest living in semi-retirement, more than 3,000 miles away in Ireland. The correspondence between Jackie Kennedy and Fr Joseph Leonard began when she was 21 and he was 73.

She saw him only twice in 14 years – during visits to Dublin in 1950 and in 1955 – yet wrote to him regularly. She poured out her heart to him and often remarked how much she valued their friendship and cherished his advice.

After their first meeting in Ireland in 1950, Jackie and Fr Leonard began a correspondence that lasted until he died in 1964.

Over the years she wrote to him from a succession of addresses that included her family home, Merrywood, a 46-acre estate in McLean, Virginia, northwest of Washington DC, that overlooked the Potomac river; the nearby house Hickory Hill, acquired by her husband John F Kennedy after their marriage; and, of course, the White House.


Her letters acknowledged the crucial importance of the correspondence and she explained, at the end of one especially long and frank letter about her love life: “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 – but poor you has to read it!”

When Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis died in May 1994 her obituary in the New York Times (by Robert D McFadden) described her as "a quintessentially private person, poised and glamorous but shy and aloof". She "never created an oral history" and, noted McFadden, "her silence about her past, especially about the Kennedy years and her marriage to the president, was always something of a mystery".

In her own words
Although she worked as an editor for publishing companies in her later years, she never wrote an autobiography. She gave no interviews after 1964 and battled vigorously to suppress unauthorised revelations about her private life. But these letters reveal for the first time Jackie's views on crucial events in her personal life in her own words.

The letters to Fr Leonard suggest she may have needed a father figure in whom to confide. Her parents had divorced when she was 10 years old, a difficulty compounded for her as a Catholic, given the church’s opposition to divorce.

In 1942, her mother married the businessman and oil heir Hugh Auchincloss and the then 13-year-old Jackie acquired two stepbrothers in addition to her younger sister, Lee.

Fr Leonard, who seems to have been utterly captivated by Jacqueline (as she signed her letters), playfully called her a "girouette" – the French word for a weather vane used informally to describe a fickle person. She signed off her first letter to Fr Leonard "Jacqueline, who really isn't a girouette" and the word crops up in subsequent correspondence.

Flowing style
The letters are written in an easy, flowing style, with Jackie mixing family gossip with highbrow observations about literature. She and Fr Leonard regularly sent each other books and commented on their respective choices.

"Your book [a gift for Christmas 1962] My Ireland, by Kate O'Brien, brought the perfect Irish note to our Palm Beach Christmas," wrote Jackie. "We will both enjoy reading it, because Kate O'Brien has made a great name for herself in this country with her charming style."

She often shared Fr Leonard’s recommended books with JFK and requested “more Irish priests’ jokes” which he used, to apparently great effect, during his election campaign speeches in the 1950s.

Jackie seems to have found a safety valve in the letters to express sentiments that might not have been appreciated by the Kennedy clan, such as a wickedly succinct description of her mother-in-law, the matriarchal Rose Kennedy: “I don’t think Jack’s mother is too bright – and she would rather say a rosary than read a book.”

Terms of endearment
The letters in the archive, almost all of them handwritten, often end with terms of endearment. Examples from the early years include: "bushels, barrels, carts & lorry loads of love to You – Jacqueline XO" and "XXX OOO".

She had to explain to Fr Leonard that the Xs and Os “mean hugs & kisses” and told him: “Now you know what they mean so you don’t have to reveal my indiscretions to other women!”

Although the volume of correspondence declined in length and frequency after Jackie became first lady, she continued to send handwritten letters to Fr Leonard until shortly before his death in 1964.

She suggested to him that their correspondence and friendship was similar to the celebrated early 20th century literary friendship between Franco-Romanian writer Princesse Bibesco and Parisian cleric l'abbé Mugnier which had resulted in a book of their letters, La Vie d'une Amitié (A Life of Friendship).

The whereabouts of Fr Leonard’s letters to Jackie is not known.

Sheppard's Irish Auction House said the archive "Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Letters to Fr Joseph Leonard 1950-1964" had been consigned to auction by a client in Ireland and would go under the hammer on June 10th.

Spokesman Philip Sheppard said the archive would be sold as a single lot with an estimate of between €800,000 and €1.2 million.

The auction will also include photographs and other collectible items associated with Jackie and JFK.

Michael Parsons

Michael Parsons

Michael Parsons is a contributor to The Irish Times writing about fine art and antiques