One can't help feeling just a little tawdry reading Jackie's deeply private letters
Published 17/05/2014 | 02:30
International reaction to this week's revelation of a tranche of letters between Jackie Kennedy and an elderly Irish priest in Dublin shows the enduring fascination of this extraordinary family to the public, and especially to the Irish public.
The letters from Jackie to Fr Joseph Leonard are from an earlier and more innocent era. The correspondence began in 1950 when Jackie was just 21 and a student visiting Dublin, where she met Fr Leonard, who was 73. For over a decade, the usually very private Jackie revealed aspects of her life that she never spoke of in public – feelings about John F Kennedy's womanising, his political aspirations and his eventual assassination, which, she told the Vincentian priest, made her "bitter against God".
But she confessed that she, too, was overcome by ambition, "like MacBeth". "Maybe I'm just dazzled and picture myself in a glittering world of crowned heads and Men of Destiny – and not just a sad little housewife," she wrote.
"That can be very glamorous from the outside – but if you're in it – and you're lonely – it could be a Hell."
But fascinating as these insights are, they are also deeply private, by a woman who was herself very private and would have been mortified by the thought that they are now in the public domain, and even to be auctioned off to the public. And one can't help feeling just a bit tawdry reading them. Added to that, they were her thoughts and feelings made to a priest, in a situation that was the postal equivalent of the confession box, even if this was not formally acknowledged. Strictly speaking, they should have remained private, but in our age of shrinking privacy and the cavalier erosion of the principle of confidentiality, this was never going to be the case, once the bunch of letters came to light.
They are to be auctioned next month in Carlow and are expected to fetch close to a million euro. The fact that the seller is All Hallowes College adds to the unease, but the seminary claims it needs the money. One wonders if the letters could not have been offered for sale to the Kennedy family or the Kennedy Centre in Washington, rather than just being thrown on to the open market, where anyone with dosh can buy them as a private trophy item. There is a parallel here with the large amounts of War of Independence memorabilia now flogged off at auction each year, with little look-in for our national archives or cash-strapped museums. Now it looks like the sale could even be threatened by court action involving the aggrieved and alleged 'broker' of the letters to the auction house.
Reaction to the letters themselves says a lot about how we have changed. The relationship between Jackie Kennedy and Fr Leonard has been described as a "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." But is this really the case? In fact, it would be hard to think of a more likely friendship, and of a kind that surely still persists, between a wealthy and important member of a religious faith and a senior cleric of that faith – be it a Rabbi, an Imam or a priest – especially a cultured and outgoing one. Fr Leonard was no dour cleric either, he had an impish sense of humour and took the young Jackie to Jammet's, probably Dublin's only posh restaurant.
In that sense, our reaction to the letters illustrates our more secular age, but also our modern culture of celebrity and the complete lack of privacy that we have now, in an era of social media and camera phones. But it also shows our continuing fascination with the Kennedy family saga.
It was a fascination that I saw at first hand when I was based at the Irish Embassy in Washington DC. I visited Senator Ted Kennedy's huge office on Capitol Hill as well as the leafy Hickory Hill compound in Virginia, where Jackie had lived and where Robert and Ethel Kennedy had lived afterwards. You could see the strong Irish connections on the walls of these places, with photos of visiting Irish politicians and Jack Yeats paintings.
But it was more than just a diaspora connection. In the 1990s, Jean Kennedy Smith became US Ambassador in Ireland and played a crucial early role in the Northern Ireland peace process, co-ordinating with her brother Ted to press President Clinton to get more directly involved, which Clinton did, to major and lasting effect. The next generation of Kennedys continued this public role.
But there was also the perpetual dark side to the dynasty, which of course is also part of its fascination. The assassinations, tragic deaths, and constant scandal. During my Washington summer, for example, Jean Kennedy's Smith's young son William was on trial for rape, after a drinking spree with, among others, his gregarious uncle Ted. He was eventually acquitted, but it was all very tense and embarrassing. Meanwhile, out in Arlington Cemetery, the perpetual flame was still burning at the rocky grave of his uncle, the slain young President.
Tragedy always lurked near for the Kennedys. But the lively letters of the young Jackie Kennedy, posted to Dublin, are an echo of a much more innocent time – for all of us.
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