How sad the day, November 22, 1963, was. In America, it seemed that life suddenly stopped. My grandmother told of being in a shopping mall that was suddenly deserted except for a few who aimlessly wandered, crying. I had just turned 14, and up until that day the only bad thing that happened around my birthday was the issuance of first-term report cards. Schools closed, and remained closed while America mourned. For days, the networks suspended regular broadcasting and concentrated only on the murder of JFK and all things related. So many of us stayed rooted in front of our televisions from the moment the news was announced through the funeral. Yes, America mourned, but not just the death of a president, the death of dreams and innocence.
Stunned, thousands upon thousands took pen in hand and wrote letters of condolence to Jacqueline Kennedy. The letters were stored in the Kennedy Library. Author Ellen Fitzpatrick puts the letters into historical context in her introduction to Letters to Jackie: Condolences From A Grieving Nation (as well as to each chapter) then offers us a varied sampling of the emotions Americans felt compelled to share with Mrs. Kennedy. Historical photos and copies of the handwritten missives illustrate Letters to Jackie .
Some of the letters are beautifully written eulogies and others are beautifully written — but nearly illiterate — testimonies of loss. Parents forwarded letters from their children who reacted to the assassination, and all shared the Kennedy’s grief. According to Fitzpatrick, few people wrote condemning letters, although there were some critical of JFK’s support of civil rights or what others viewed as a soft stance on communism. Letters to Jackie represents the best of us, when we could put aside politics and pettiness. Perhaps we were shocked into civility; it took 9/11 to stir us so again.
The letters were written to both Jackie and to her and her children, Caroline and John-John. They preserve a moment in history when Americans — and much of the world — were united in shock and disbelief. Anyone who remembers that time will connect with many of the letter writers; those who did not experience it can learn from these first-hand accounts how a nation reacted.
In reading some of the letters, we wonder “Why did someone think to share that?” or “Where did that come from?” Incredibly, they all seem to come from the heart. There is a letter from a marine who felt guilty because he had criticized Kennedy’s seemingly slow response to the Cuban missile crisis. There are letters from people who identify themselves as negroes, who praised Kennedy as heroic. A white southern man wrote about how Kennedy opened his eyes on the subject of equal rights for all.
So many of these letters will strike a chord because they are from a diverse population of races, ages, and religions. Children wrote with suggestions on how Jackie could cheer herself up. Widows commiserated. E.G. Martin of Edgemont, Illinois, wrote “Please don’t let Robert or his brother get south of the Mason Dixon for I am afraid for their lives too.”
Some of the letters are sorrowfully surprising. Mrs. J.D. Tippitt of Dallas sent a telegram, “MAY I ADD MY SYMPATHY TO THAT OF PEOPLE ALL OVER THE WORLD. MY PERSONAL LOSS IN THIS GREAT TRAGEDY PREPARES ME TO SYMPATHIZE MORE DEEPLY WITH YOU.” Her husband was the police officer murdered by Lee Harvey Oswald 45 minutes after the Kennedy shooting.
Many writers requested prayer cards or photographs, however, one writer requested one of Kennedy’s suits, explaining he’d never owned a suit and he would take good care of it. Other writers praised Jackie’s strength and grace, and held her up as a role model. The most affective letters came from the simplest people — some uneducated — mothers, farmers, clergymen, children, members of the armed forces, Peace Corps volunteers. They expressed their grief and sympathy, their respect for JFK, their concern for the children, and their concern for their country. One man related how anti-Kennedy he was, yet he was totally shocked and devastated by the assassination. The depth of his grief stunned him.
One can’t help but wonder if the amazing flood of feeling would have been exhibited for any president since Kennedy, and why his death elicited such response. Not all, but many Americans looked at the Kennedy’s as “America’s Family,” because they were so accessible. They were active, athletic, photogenic, and fun. Jackie invited us all into the White House for a televised tour; Jack led us through some of our best and worst times. Those were the days the media largely kept us informed of the wholesome side of public figures, protecting us from the seamier celebrity news. I don’t think we’ve lost our ability to be shocked, but perhaps knowing every dirty detail of every celebrity’s life has lessened our ability to be rocked.
Letters to Jackie is a tight focus on a time in our history when we allowed ourselves heroes, and the letters therein offer insight into how deeply three bullets could rock our nation. It is an intimate, deeply affective expose of international anguish.
Fitzpatrick includes biographical information on many of the letter writers, letter citations, and notes at the end of the book. Although given only a small sample of the hundreds of thousands of letters that were written, we are provided with an incomparable look into America’s heart.
Bottom Line: Would I buy Letters to Jackie? Yes.