Friday 20 September 2019

Priests turned down over €3.9m for coveted Jackie Kennedy letters

New York publisher and Los Angeles production company made offers for 15-year correspondence

Jacqueline Kennedy revealed her private thoughts in letters to an Irish priest
Jacqueline Kennedy revealed her private thoughts in letters to an Irish priest
CONFIDANT: Jackie Kennedy wrote to Fr Joe Leonard for 15 years
Some of the letters between Jackie Kennedy and Fr Joseph Leonard.
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

The Vincentian fathers turned down offers of $5m for the coveted Jackie Kennedy letters to an Irish priest before returning them to her family last week.

The offers were made by an agent who said he was acting for two wealthy American clients.

Owen Felix O'Neill, a collector and dealer in rare books, told the Sunday Independent this weekend that he had been approached by two American clients - a New York publisher and Los Angeles production company - to make offers "in excess of $5m" for Jackie Kennedy's 15-year correspondence with Fr Joe Leonard.

On Friday, the Vincentian order announced that the letters had been "transferred" to the Kennedy family because of the "respect due" to correspondence of a "private nature".

The Vincentians did not respond when asked whether it received money or support from the Kennedy family in return for the letters.

The decision ended the protracted debate over who owned the copyright to the 33 letters between the iconic American first lady and the Vincentian priest over 15 years.

The correspondence attracted huge international attention when it first came to light in May. The letters were discovered by the cash-strapped All Hallows College, the Vincentian seminary in Dublin where Fr Leonard lived until his death. The college planned to sell them to stave off closure. But, according to the college president, Fr Patrick McDermott, a will found in a dusty attic at the 11th hour confirmed they belonged to the Vincentians and not the college. The letters were withdrawn from auction and the Vincentians entered talks with representatives of the Kennedy family, who had made their displeasure at the sale known through the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Mr O'Neill said the return of the letters on Friday was an opportunity missed for All Hallows. "I can confirm there were two firm offers in excess of $5m on the table," he said.

At one point it was thought that the valuable Kennedy letters were lost, according to Mr O'Neill. He said he was told about the existence of the letters when he was asked to evaluate the college's books and artefacts earlier this year. But the college staff couldn't find them. The letters had been "missing" for several months. The letters were formally reported missing to gardai in Santry on April 3. Within hours, the letters reappeared and the Garda investigation was called off. Other valuable artefacts, a set of 37 Italian prints and rare books that went missing from the college, have never been recovered.

The Sunday Independent has learnt that a man has been questioned by gardai about the missing artefacts, but has not been charged. A file is being prepared for the Director of Public Prosecutions. A spokesperson for All Hallows said the person who was questioned was not a staff member at the college.

The college was hoping to raise much-needed funds by selling off its archive. The offer of $5m for the Jackie Kennedy letters was three times what it originally hoped to raise, but the money would not have staved off its eventual closure. The college reportedly needed around €25m to survive. It has begun winding down its operations with a view to closing, entailing the loss of 70 jobs.

Jackie Kennedy wrote the 33 letters between 1950 and 1964 to Fr Leonard, a well-connected Vincentian priest who also exchanged correspondence with George Bernard Shaw. She met him while she was a student in France and he an elderly priest. Letters written by Jackie's brother-in-law, Bobby Kennedy, and husband, John F, will be auctioned in Boston later this year.

Sunday Independent

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