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Even in her letters Jackie reveals exactly why we still find her mesmerising

GIRLISH handwriting. Childish drawings of kisses and cartoons of hearts. The letters Jacqueline Kennedy sent to elderly Irish priest Fr Joseph Leonard started when she was twenty one.

But in many ways, they seem to have come from a younger girl - a less sophisticated kid than we assumed her to have been.

The photographs of her, even as a pre-teen, suggested she came from money and sophistication, and that was true.

Her in-laws were the Auchinclosses, one of whom - Louis - maintained a top position at one of Manhattan’s most prestigious law firms while, almost every year, producing a collection of short stories or a novel of impeccably delicate observation.

Culture

The French surname was handed on by a philandering father, who in a picture chilling, even today, in its brutality, was photographed in an intimate embrace with another woman while his wife, unknowing, stood on the other side of him.

Up to now, the photographs of the young Bouvier girl had to tell the story, because she never did. She talked to some of the great writers of the time about her husband’s assassination and legacy, but what it was like to grow up the daughter of a notoriously unfaithful and eventually alcoholic father - she kept all that to herself.

As First Lady, she measured herself out as a chic and cultured representative of the United States - remember Jack Kennedy’s rueful introduction of himself on June 2, 1961, when beginning a visit to France?

“I’m the man who accompanied Jackie Kennedy to Paris,” he said, to the applause of those who had realised, in the previous day and a half, that the First Lady was the most fascinating American they’d ever seen in Europe.

She wasn’t just gorgeous, elegant and a committed mother. She had an understanding of her persona and her privacy that was decades ahead of her time.

It was only in the letters to an elderly priest that she felt safe enough to talk about her father’s ghastly marital record and about her fears that - in marrying John F Kennedy - she was buying into a continuation of that grim pattern: a man in love with the chase, who bored quickly once he had conquered the woman.

That’s one of the reasons the letters up for auction this week have captured world attention. Because, unlike more recent famous female figures like, say, Princess Diana, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis still has her delicate grip on the international imagination.

Obscure

Princess Di told everything. Jacqueline Kennedy told nothing, except in blurting bursts of honesty, in letters to an obscure Irish cleric she trusted.

The letters show us aspects of the former First Lady we would otherwise never have known, such as her move from an unquestioning Catholicism to a position, after JFK’s death, where she indicated she had a lot of issues to raise with God if she ever met him.

Above all, though, two threads run through the letters, each of those threads reminding us of why this beautiful woman was so mesmerising, even as she aged - and suffered - past the point of beauty.

One of those threads is visual. She enthusiastically remembers and mentions colours of rooms and expressions on faces that the reader sees what she saw, all those years ago.

The second thread is the charm thread. Across thousands of miles, she conveys an affection, trust and gratitude that was guileless and beautiful. No wonder we still find her so compelling a figure...


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