Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy: In her own words


She was one of the most famous women of the 20th century, instantly recognisable and the subject of endless speculation. But Jacqueline Kennedy has remained mysterious, encased in her fame and enveloped in the Camelot myth. Fiercely private and jealous of the public image of her family, she gave no interviews for the last 30 years of her life, wrote no memoir and declined to co-operate with biographers. As her daughter Caroline observed in 2011, most people could recognise Jacqueline immediately but they didn’t really know her at all: “They may have a sense of her style and dignified persona, but they don’t always appreciate her intellectual curiosity, her sense of the ridiculous, her sense of adventure, or her unerring sense of what was right.”

All these qualities are evident in the letters she wrote to Fr Joseph Leonard, a Vincentian priest at All Hallows College in Dublin, between 1950 and 1964. The correspondence covers everything from her first impressions of John F Kennedy – his Macbeth-like ambition and a roving eye reminiscent of her father’s – to her grief and despair after his death. She emerges as an unusually sophisticated, erudite woman with a keen emotional intelligence and a disarming sense of mischief and fun.

The decision to sell the letters at auction and to publish parts of them has provoked unease among some who feel that sharing such private correspondence represents an unacceptable intrusion. Others argue that letters to a priest should be subject to something like the seal of the confessional, although these letters are written to a friend rather than a confessor. In truth, reading her account of important events in her life in her own words helps historians and the public to better understand a woman who was far more than a style icon but was an essential partner in the presidency. Such arguments, and indeed the family’s ownership and control of Jacqueline Kennedy’s historical profile, must recede with time. Twenty years after her death she belongs to history and historians.