Tuesday 20 February 2018

Dear Jackie: How a nation shared its grief

Dear Mrs Kennedy, I am very sorry about the death of President Kennedy. I know he did much to help our country and to show how much I liked him, I am going to try to be a better boy.

All the children in my class are praying every day for the President and for the family. I too am praying very hard especially for you and Caroline and John.

May God Bless you!

Respectfully yours,

George Wysota

When George Wysota, like the rest of his classmates, wrote a letter to Jackie Kennedy five days after the assassination of JFK in 1963, he was just nine years old, a pupil in a Catholic school in Brooklyn. He's now 58 and lives on Long Island. "I totally forgot about the whole thing," Wysota says. "Looking at it now takes me back to the good times and the bad times."

Wysota's letter is just one of those included in a remarkable new book which reveals the extent of the pain and despair felt by so many people in the US and around the world after Kennedy was murdered.

Thousands of letters of condolence were sent by ordinary Americans to Jacqueline Kennedy in the wake of the assassination.

One of them was from a woman called Martha Ross who had been born in 1890 in Georgia, the daughter of a slave. In her letter to Jackie she told the children Caroline and John of how close she had felt to their father, calling him "my friend". Although they had never met, she felt a special bond, as did so many people.

The letters poured into the White House. On the Monday after the assassination, 45,000 letters arrived on that one day. Within seven weeks of the President's death, Jackie had received more than 800,000 condolence letters. And they kept coming. Two years after that terrible day in Dallas, there were one and a half million letters.

For almost half a century, the letters remained in storage, largely untouched. Then a few years ago an Irish-American historian called Ellen Fitzpatrick, who was researching a book on the impact of the assassination on the American psyche, remembered hearing about the letters and went to find them.

Because of space problems, the National Archives had disposed of most of the letters, but a representative sample of 15,000 letters from Americans in all walks of life had been kept and were now stored in the Kennedy Library in Boston. Fitzpatrick, who is Professor of History at the University of New Hampshire, visited the library every day for five months, reading every one of the letters that had survived.

What she found was a treasure trove for a historian, a window into exactly how so many Americans had felt at that terrible time. Many of the distraught letter writers poured out their hearts and souls to Jackie. The letters were full of anguish and of the desperate soul searching of the nation, as people wondered how such a tragedy could have happened and what it meant for them and their country.

Fitzpatrick picked 250 of the letters and they are published in her new book, Letters To Jackie. They express the way so many people felt, people of all ages, race, religion and political beliefs. They were written on everything from expensive stationery to scraps of paper. They were in pencil, ink, often smudged by tears, some typed, some in barely legible handwriting. But they all captured the devastation felt by so many.

Fitzpatrick spent a year writing the book and employed a number of researchers to track down the authors of the letters, or their relatives, for permission to use them. This itself proved fascinating, because the notes in the book tell us a little of the personal histories of the letter writers, where they were when they wrote the letters and what happened in their lives afterwards. It all adds up to an emotional journey into how America felt at the time and the on-going effect it had on people, many of whose lives were indelibly marked forever by the assassination.

Some of the most affecting letters in the book are from children, bewildered by the enormity of what had happened. Eight-year-old Kevin Radell, now an investment banker in New York, wrote: "Dear Mrs Kennedy, I am very sorry your husband got shot . . . I know you should forgive your enemies, but it is hard to forgive Lee Oswald."

Looking back now, Radell remembers that at the time it was terrifying: "It was just a convergence of emotions -- of fear, because he was such a protector of the nation and such a leader, and we all loved him."

Radell remembers that Kennedy, who had an average approval rating of 70pc during his presidency, was a father figure who was loved by so many people, and this was reflected in many letters in the book.

One woman wrote that "they killed our Lord and Father, and now they have killed our president and father". A number of letter writers made the same comparison between the assassination of President Kennedy and the crucifixion.

The letters of sympathy also crossed the political divide. "I am a Florida dairy farmer who has been a lifelong Republican," wrote one man. "I am Protestant and have been anti-Kennedy since 1960. However I feel a desperate urge to extend my deepest sympathy to your children and you. As an American I am deeply ashamed."

Many of the most emotional letters came from African Americans and reflect the fact that the battle against segregation had reached its peak at the time of Kennedy's death.

"The reason that I have not written you (before) was because I am poorly educated and was ashamed to write,"

Mrs Andrew Burril wrote. "I am colored and 65 years old and John F Kennedy is the only man that fought a mighty battle for the freedom of my race of people. He was going all the way out for my people. That is why he is sleeping in Arlington National Cemetary today." A woman from North Carolina wrote: "We loved your husband because he thought Negroes was God's love and made us like White people and did not make us as dogs".

Another African-American woman, Grace Pinkney from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, wrote and invited Jackie to visit her home: "Darling all we Can do is Pray the good Lord will lighten our burdon. I wish you would visit me in Harrisburg. I am poor but Clean, you are welcome any time."

One of the moving letters came from 19-year-old Roger Burke in Massachussetts, who although very bright had a disability that affected his speech and as a result worked as a dishwasher. He was deeply upset by the assassination. The diner he worked in closed and he died in 1998 at the age of 54 in sheltered housing.

The emotional letter from one cabdriver ended with the question asked in different ways by so many of the letter writers: "Why, why I'm still asking myself why?" he wrote.

Jackie Kennedy publicly acknowledged the letters a month after the assassination. "All of you who have written to me know how much we loved him, and he would return that love," she said.

Letters to Jackie: Condolences from a Grieving Nation by Ellen Fitzpatrick is published by HarperCollins Ecco at £17.90

Irish Independent

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