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Friday 24 November 2017

How did Jackie's private letters to an Irish priest get put up for sale?

President Kennedy and wife Jackie
President Kennedy and wife Jackie
President John F Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy in 1961
JFK and Jackie with their daughter Caroline
An extract from the letters
Fr Joseph Leonard and Jackie Kennedy
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

IT is not the sort of intimacy one expects between a septuagenarian Irish priest and a young woman who was destined to become the most glamorous figure in the world, as First Lady of the United States, Jackie Kennedy

In a letter to Father Joseph Leonard, a priest at All Hallows in Dublin, in 1952, Jacqueline Bouvier signs off with: "Bushels, barrels, carts & lorry loads of love – Jacqueline XO" and "XXXOOO".

Lest the priest was in any doubt of her affection, the future First Lady explained to the ageing cleric that Xs and Os "mean hugs and kisses".

"Now you know what they mean so you don't have to reveal my indiscretions to other women!" she adds playfully.

This is just one of 33 letters, penned by Jacqueline Kennedy to Father Leonard between 1950 and the priest's death in 1964.

To have these letters up for sale is a remarkable coup for the auction house, Sheppard's in Durrow, Co Laois.

The auctioneer Phillip Sheppard said: "We are extremely proud to have them. The letters were shown to us first earlier this year, and my response was one of elation.

"This is the most important primary historical source to come to light in Ireland ever. It is perhaps the closest we have to an autobiography of Jacqueline Kennedy's early years."

But Mr Sheppard was yesterday keeping the identity of the owner of the archive a secret. It is expected to fetch over €1m at an auction in Laois on June 10.

The shared intimacies in the letters are all the more remarkable, given that Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy and the Vincentian priest only met twice, in 1950 and 1955.

Father Leonard seems to have become an important sounding board for her. He must have been an impressive letter writer himself to inspire such affection.

She tells him: "It is so good in a way to write all this down and get it off your chest – because I never do really talk about it with anyone."

The unlikely pair met in 1950 when she was visiting Dublin with her step-brother.

Father Leonard was a widely travelled veteran of World War I. The priest, who appeared to like the finer things in life, took the young visiting Americans on a Georgian tour of Dublin and invited them to lunch at Jammet's, then one of the most renowned restaurants in the capital.

Jackie later told him in a letter he was "someone who loves everything I love – who you can have fun with – who can take you to Jammet's & the theatre as naturally as to Mass – whom you can talk to about anything in the world and know you won't shock them . . ."

The letters shed new light on Jackie's belief that John F Kennedy would stray in their marriage and her heartache following his assassination.

In one letter, early on in her relationship with Kennedy, she tells Father Leonard: "He's like my father in a way – 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. I saw how that nearly killed Mummy."

In July 1952, she first reveals in a letter her affection for Kennedy: "I think I'm in love – and I think it would interest you – John Kennedy."

Later, Jacqueline compares her congressman boyfriend to Macbeth, fearing that his all-consuming ambition would eventually drive him into the arms of other women.

She reveals early difficulties in the relationship.

In late 1952, after Kennedy's successful campaign for the Senate, she seems to hint to Father Leonard that she believes the politician's interest in their relationship may be pragmatic. "He hurt me terribly when he was campaigning and never called up for weeks. I think he was as much in love with me as he could be with anyone and now maybe he will want to get married because a senator needs a wife, but if he ever does ask me to marry him it will be for rather practical reasons – because his career is this driving thing with him."

She seems to have been attracted to Kennedy's intelligence, and tells Fr Leonard that JFK is "older than anyone I've known and brighter than me (so many of my beaux are dumber – I think it's a curse for a girl to be bright) and he's a senator."

Jackie and JFK married in September 1953. She seems in the letters to be simultaneously impressed by Kennedy's political world, and repelled by it.

"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 was not always starry-eyed in the glow of the Kennedy charisma, however – "That world can be very glamorous from the outside – but if you're in it, it could be a hell."

The correspondence was less voluminous after Kennedy was elected president in 1960, but Father Leonard and the First Lady still kept in touch.

Their continued closeness is revealed in letters after the assassination of the president in 1963.

Although devoutly Catholic, she tells him: "I am so bitter against God . . . only He and you and I know that."

But even in her darkest hour, with the world's attention turned towards her, she betrays a wry sense of humour, telling her friend: "God will have a bit of explaining to do to me if I ever see him."

Fr Leonard died not long afterwards in 1964. According to one account, just before the funeral Mass began in Drumcondra, as the students were lifting up the coffin to their shoulders, a car rolled up.

A man emerged from the car and presented a large bouquet of roses from Jacqueline Kennedy, to be placed on the coffin.

The shared transatlantic intimacies and enduring bond between these unlikely penfriends had been summed up by Jackie in an earlier letter: "You are sweet to say you get pleasure from my letters – but it's nothing compared to the way I adore yours."

It was a touching friendship that has only now come to light.

Irish Independent

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