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Jacqueline Kennedy's Letters No Longer On Auction Block


A college in Ireland is working with the family of Jacqueline Kennedy to decide what to do with a collection of her letters. The former first lady wrote them to an Irish priest. The college planned to auction the letters, but reconsidered. NPR's Tovia Smith reports.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: The extraordinarily personal handwritten letters were expected to fetch millions of dollars. In one letter that's been published, Mrs. Kennedy questions her faith a few months after her husband's assassination, writing, quote, "I am so bitter against God." In another from her dating days, she writes that Kennedy, quote, "hurt me terribly for not calling from the campaign trail." She goes on to write that she thought Kennedy was, quote, "as much in love with me as he could be with anyone," and that if he ever proposes, quote, "it will be for rather practical reasons," as she put it, because a senator needs a wife. Other letters deal with lighter things, like literature, the arts and getting her first job at a newspaper.

CAROLANNE HENRY: The letters opened a little window on the personality of Jacqueline Kennedy in a way that very little in the current public domain does.

SMITH: Carolanne Henry is a spokesperson for All Hallows College in Dublin, where the letters have been kept for decades. Mrs. Kennedy herself alludes in the letters to her rare candor, writing in one that it's good to get so much off her chest, quote, "because I never do really talk it with anyone."

HENRY: It's fascinating. It really is fascinating, from a historical point of view.

SMITH: Especially for an iconic public figure who fought so fiercely to keep her personal life out of the spotlight.

JACQUELINE KENNEDY: There's so little privacy.

SMITH: From her first White House interview with NBC, Mrs. Kennedy vowed to guard her family's privacy, even as first lady.

KENNEDY: And I'm going to try very hard to do that, because otherwise, how can I bring up normal children?

SMITH: Her daughter, Caroline Kennedy, declined to comment, but the Irish college says its decision to take the letters off the auction block was prompted by family concerns. Many see releasing the letters as a violation of privacy and a breach of trust. But Henry says the college and the Vincentian Order does not consider it a breach of confidentiality by a pastor.

HENRY: She does talk about matters that concern her and that are happening in her life. But the Vincentians are very confident that the relationship depicted is not that of the confession box.

SMITH: Rather, Henry says, the priest, Father Joseph Leonard, who died in 1964, was just a good friend. The young Jacqueline Bouvier was told by a relative to look him up when she was traveling in Ireland, and the two immediately hit it off. Biographer Barbara Perry says the close relationship between a 20-something graduate student and an 80-something priest may be an unlikely one, but, Perry says, it was also typically Jackie.

BARBARA PERRY: She was 10 when her parents divorced, and she was always looking for a father figure who was safe for her and to whom she could confide these innermost thoughts.

SMITH: Perry says the letters reveal an insightful and mature young woman. For example, in one published letter, she worries that John Kennedy might be like her father, who she says, quote, "loves the chase and is bored with the conquest, and once married, needs proof he's still attractive, so flirts with other women and resents you."

PERRY: She was somewhat worldly, and she was unused to seeing marriages crumble, particularly because of the unfaithfulness of the spouse. And so, in some ways, I think she goes in with her eyes open to the Jack Kennedy marriage.

SMITH: Mrs. Kennedy's correspondence with Father Leonard continued until his death, just months after the death of her husband. Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.