Jacqueline Kennedy was one of the most high-profile -and private - women of the twentieth century, and her marriage to John F. Kennedy remains the source of intense speculation. While the public rarely heard her voice during her lifetime, letters and interviews released since her death have provided insights into who she was and, as Wendy Loughlin recounts here, how she felt about JFK.
She was famous for wanting privacy and famous for not getting it, becoming instead the object of an intense public fascination that has outlived her by 20 years. Jacqueline Kennedy followed her husband into the spotlight reluctantly, and then spent nearly half her life fighting its glare without him.
The doe-eyed young Jackie who was terrified of the crowd that assembled outside the church on the day she married John F. Kennedy is not the Jackie we came to know later—not Jackie O, the persona, the jetsetter who hid behind dark sunglasses and silence. But it’s the young Jackie whose voice we heard—or partially heard—after a Dublin church unearthed and nearly auctioned off a cache of her letters last month.
She wrote the letters to Irish priest Joseph Leonard over the course of fourteen years, from 1950 to 1964—years in which she met, married and lost JFK. Excerpts were first published in the Irish Times and quickly re-printed by publications around the world. And while the letters must have included her thoughts on a number of different topics, it’s telling that the passages chosen for release focus almost exclusively on John F. Kennedy.
Portrait of a Marriage
History has repeatedly been revealed through letters, but the letters of first ladies are often compelling in intimate, as much as historical, ways; at their core, they tell us about a marriage. The Kennedy marriage, with its mixture of glamour and tragedy, hearsay and scandal, has captured the public’s imagination for half a century.
They say she was intelligent with a rapier wit, that she could size people up in a single meeting, that she made JFK laugh. We see it in footage from the 1962 America’s Cup dinner, when she leans across the table toward him as if no one is watching. She’s wearing a strapless Cassini gown, looking conspiratorial as she rocks her chair in his direction, oblivious to the puffs of smoke from his cigar. He bends toward her easily, listens intently, smiles.
But mostly, we don’t see it; and her silence after his death, alongside rumors and revelations about his philandering, left a vacuum that has been filled with countless books and articles full of an almost feverish speculation about the true nature of their relationship. Ironically, her quest for privacy deprived her of it, made people clamor for her all the more, more than for any other first lady in history. Which is why the letters are so titillating.
It may be also why reading the letters feels like an invasion of privacy, why it probably is and why even a public usually hungry for a glimpse behind the scenes of Camelot felt uncomfortable with their release. A few weeks after the story broke, the Kennedy family intervened and the letters were removed from auction on May 21.
Public Figure, Private Thoughts
Still, the letters don’t feel any more intimate, any more telling about the Kennedy marriage than parts of Jackie’s 1964 oral history interviews with historian Arthur Schlesinger, which were released by Caroline Kennedy in 2011. Like when Jackie recounts what she said to JFK during the Cuban Missile Crisis: “If anything happens, we're all going to stay right here with you... I just want to be with you, and I want to die with you, and the children do, too—than live without you.” Or how, after the death of their newborn son, Patrick, “he sobbed and put his arms around me.”
But as Caroline notes in her introduction to the interviews, Jackie knew she was on the record when she spoke with Schlesinger, knew her words would shape history and one day become part of the public domain. When she began writing to Father Leonard in 1950, a 21-year-old Jackie Bouvier certainly could not have imagined this, could not have known what lay ahead for her—that ten years later, she would become first lady. “I feel as though I had just turned into a piece of public property,” she told Time magazine on the eve of her husband’s inauguration. “It’s really frightening to lose your anonymity at 31.”
This is not the first time Jacqueline Kennedy’s private letters have turned public, nor even the first time her letters have provided a glimpse at her feelings about John Kennedy. “I loved you from the first day I saw you,” she wrote to him a month before his death, “and if I hadn’t married you my life would have been tragic because the definition of tragedy is a waste. But ten years later, I love you so much more.”
The letter, which ran seven pages long, found its way into the hands of a private collector in the late 1990s, and excerpts from it have been published several times since. As with the Irish letters, the Kennedy family objected to its release. Yet this letter in particular may be the most compelling argument against the most persistent negative rumors about their marriage—that she only married him for his money, or that he only married her because he needed a first lady.
In fact, they loved each other—and the handful of times we hear her in her own words, that’s what she tells us. Is that fact historically significant? Perhaps not. But it’s still nice to know.
Now, click here to read our article on John F. Kennedy and the Tsar – The parallel lives of two fatherless boys.