Cultures

Letters to Jackie Book Excerpt

posted: 10/16/13
by: TLC
letters_to_jackie
Image Courtesy Harper Collins

In this excerpt from the introduction of Ellen Fitzpatrick's "Letters to Jackie: Condolences from a Grieving Nation," become acquainted with the book that inspired the television event.

Almost a half century [after President Kennedy's assassination], the events of November 22, 1963, remain a vivid, searing memory for millions of Americans who still recall precisely where they were when they learned of the President's death. Kennedy served as President of the United States for little more than a thousand days. Yet his brief term in office and his shocking assassination deeply touched people of all walks of life, and of every social class, economic station, political sensibility, region, religion, and race. Whether they adored, were indifferent to, or frankly disliked JFK, countless Americans shared the feeling that their own lives would never be the same after their young President died so violently.

The nation has changed profoundly in the decades since President Kennedy's death, as have the lives of all who remember those fateful days. Many of the schoolchildren who raced home on that Friday to discover grieving parents are grandparents today. The "new generation" of World War II veterans that Kennedy's election brought to power has now reached old age. The President's two younger brothers, Senator Robert F. Kennedy -- himself a victim of assassination in 1968 -- and Senator Edward M. Kennedy, are both buried near their brother in Arlington National Cemetery. Wars have been fought. The scourge of legalized segregation has been repudiated. Access to fundamental political and civil rights has widened immeasurably. Fashions and mores of all kinds have changed. And yet for many Americans a filament of recollection easily brings back the incandescence of the early 1960s, when the nation appeared in some ways as bright and as full of promise as its handsome President. Millions still recall how in the passage of a single moment, much of the confidence, energy, and hopeful idealism that Kennedy appeared to exemplify were suddenly swept away. As one young mother predicted shortly after the assassination, "Surely this generation has a deep scar on our hearts which we will carry to our graves."

That scar has inevitably faded in the nearly half century since the assassination. Time has dimmed once vivid memories of the nation's first "television President" -- a man whose verve, intelligence, humor, and grace captivated the public. The personal and political mythology burnished in the first years after the assassination have rightly given way in the ensuing decades to a much more complex view of President Kennedy and his administration. Indeed, the pendulum has swung so far in the direction of a more sober, more stark assessment of Kennedy that it is difficult to evoke today the soaring idealism, fresh hope, and sense of possibility that many Americans saw in him. Still, whatever history's judgments about the merits and consequences of those expectations, there can be little doubt that millions of Americans who lived through the Kennedy assassination felt that they had experienced a calamity that they would not forget.

A largely unexamined, and never before published, collection of letters to Jacqueline Kennedy stored in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library vividly brings to life what the President and his death meant to thousands of Americans in the days and months following the assassination. "How does a nobody write to the wife of our late President?" asked one woman as she began a letter to Mrs. Kennedy four days after the death of JFK. In overcoming her hesitation, this letter writer resembled more than a million and a half other individuals who wrote messages of condolence to the former First Lady. The President died on a Friday afternoon at 12:30 p.m. Central Standard Time. The following Monday, mail delivery to the White House brought a mountain of letters -- 45,000 on one day -- from bereaved citizens, many of whom had sat down within minutes or hours of the assassination to share their grief, shock, and sense of outrage. Piled into cardboard boxes, and then stacked, these containers soon stretched from floor to ceiling, taking up space beyond the offices where "social correspondence" was normally handled and spilling out into the White House corridors. The volume of mail quickly overwhelmed Jacqueline Kennedy's small White House staff, which was nonetheless instructed by the Pentagon to open every single item for security reasons." On one occasion, loud ticking from a package raised anxieties, until the box was found to contain a wind-up toy sent from Germany to three-year-old John F. Kennedy Jr.

Within seven weeks of the President's death, Jacqueline Kennedy had already received over 800,000 condolence letters. In a population of nearly 190 million, those who took the time to pen a letter to Mrs. Kennedy were clearly exceptional. But the sheer volume of mail, the rapidity with which their messages appeared, the extraordinary diversity of the letter writers, and the parallel manifestations of national grief and mourning evident in the country make the letters a notable element of the public response to the assassination. These individual expressions of grief offer in vivid detail aspects of the widespread reaction to President Kennedy's death.

For millions of Americans, television provided a focal point for the shock, disbelief, grief, and even fears precipitated by the Kennedy assassination. From the moment CBS interrupted its regular television programming at 1:40 Eastern Standard Time on November 22 to report that shots had been fired at the Presidential motorcade in Dallas, the three major networks provided unprecedented news coverage of the assassination's aftermath. For four days they suspended their normal broadcasting and advertising in favor of nonstop coverage of the President's death, lying in state, funeral, and burial. Hungry for stories to fill airtime, the networks ran footage of Kennedy's life and career in an endless loop along with live coverage of breaking events. Nothing comparable in the history of television had ever taken place. And then, on Sunday morning, millions of viewers witnessed in real time Jack Ruby's murder of the President's assassin, as live television covered Lee Harvey Oswald's transfer from one Dallas jail to another. It was, the New York Times reported, "the first time in 15 years of television around the globe that a real life homicide had occurred in front of live cameras. . . . The Dallas shooting, easily the most extraordinary moments of TV that a set-owner ever watched, came with such breath-taking suddenness as to beggar description."

Television captured, as well, the crowds that thronged the Capitol. On November 24, some 300,000 lined the streets to watch as a horse-drawn caisson moved the President's casket from the White House to the Capitol Rotunda. For the next eighteen hours, hundreds of thousands filed through the Rotunda--some waiting in line in bitter cold for as long as ten hours. On the Monday of Kennedy's funeral, Tom Wicker would report in the New York Times, "a million people stood in the streets to watch Mr. Kennedy's last passage. Across the land, millions more -- almost the entire population of the country at one time or another -- saw the solemn ceremonies on television." In towns and cities across the nation, and indeed around the world, memorial services, eulogies of all kinds, exhibits, and ceremonies remembering the slain American President continued for months afterward.

So too did the outpouring of condolence messages. Mrs. Kennedy's secretaries recruited volunteers to assist in opening, sorting, and acknowledging the correspondence that deluged first the White House and then the Harriman residence in Georgetown where Mrs. Kennedy and her children moved eleven days after the assassination. Some addressed their letters to Hyannis Port where the Kennedys maintained a summer home; the postmaster there estimated on November 30, 1963, that a quarter of a million letters had arrived in the week following the assassination. A few rooms set aside in the Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House soon became the locus of activity, but that space also proved inadequate; additional room was located nearby at the Brookings Institution. The volume of correspondence ultimately exceeded 1.5 million letters. In May 1965, a House Appropriations Committee report noted that Mrs. Kennedy still received 1,500 to 2,000 letters a week, according to the New York Times, "more mail than either former President Harry S. Truman or former President Dwight D. Eisenhower."

Americans also sent artwork, poems, eulogies, Mass cards, newspaper clippings, cartoons, gifts, family Bibles, and military dog tags, among other items, to express their sympathy. Some included snapshots of themselves, their pets, and their children, including the many newborns who had been named after the President or Mrs. Kennedy.

A news report that Caroline Kennedy had broken her wrist prompted a letter to the President's daughter with a picture of the writer's pet dachshund, sporting a cast on his leg. Some sent to Mrs. Kennedy photographs of the President, which they had taken at campaign rallies and other public appearances. Texan John Titmas enclosed in his condolence letter the two poignant photographs of President and Mrs. Kennedy on this book's jacket, which he took at Love Field less than an hour before the assassination.

As letters continued to pour in, Jacqueline Kennedy made a brief television appearance seven weeks after the President's death, in which she thanked the American people for their expressions of sympathy. Mrs. Kennedy's remarks on January 14, 1964, gave the public their first glimpse of the President's widow since the state funeral on November 25. Flanked by her brothers-in-law Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Senator Edward Kennedy, and wearing a simple black wool suit, Jacqueline Kennedy spoke for only two minutes and fifteen seconds. She thanked the nation for the "hundreds of thousands of messages . . . which my children and I have received over the past few weeks." "The knowledge of the affection in which my husband was held by all of you has sustained me," she continued, "and the warmth of these tributes is something I shall never forget. Whenever I can bear to, I read them. All his bright light gone from the world." Noting that "each and every message is to be treasured not only for my children but so that future generations will know how much our country and people of other nations thought of him," she promised the public that "your letters will be placed with his papers" in the Kennedy Library, then already in the planning stages. Her touching remarks, as well as her assurance that each message would be acknowledged, prompted a new avalanche of condolence letters, with many writers apologizing for their tardiness.

Ellen Fitzpatrick's book "Letters to Jackie: Condolences from a Grieving Nation" can be purchased here.

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