The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Letters to Jackie’ shows ordinary people’s grief over Kennedy’s assassination

The images surrounding John F. Kennedy’s assassination are seared into our collective memory, from the mortally wounded president slumped against his wife in the open car in Dallas to their three-year-old son saluting his father’s funeral caisson in Washington.

Within minutes of the slaying, the world responded with a torrent of messages of grief and sympathy for the widowed Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy and her two children. Fifty years later, those notes still move us to tears.

“Dear Mrs. Kennedy, I am only thirteen and I know you are well educated, but I still feel I could give you some advice. I have been operated on four times for polio and I am now recuperating from a broken hip, but I know you have problems too, so I’ll tell you my remedy for smiling and happiness. Always sing ‘You Gotta Have Heart’ from ‘Damn Yankee’s’ and I think you’ll be happy,” urged Janis Hirsch of Trenton, N.J.

And this from Mrs. Frank Borders of Shelby, N.C.: “Dear Mrs Kennedy, You & your family have our sorrow of the death of your husband, not only because he tried to help us as Negro but all so he was human. We feel that Oswald did not do it – it was someone larger than he. We loved your husband because he thought Negroes was Gods love and made us like he did white people and did not make us as dogs. Mrs. Kennedy we are praying for you and your family.”

The numbers are staggering: Some 45,000 cards, letters and telegrams arrived within three days of the cataclysmic news — “President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time,” a shaken CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite confirmed on Nov. 22, 1963 — jumping to 800,000 within seven weeks and ultimately topping 1 million.

As the 50th anniversary of the assassination draws near, 20 of those poignant condolences are featured in “Letters to Jackie: Remembering President Kennedy,” a documentary that opens in theaters Tuesday. Several surviving writers will take part in a post-screening panel that night in Boston, which will be simulcast in dozens of theaters nationwide.

Oscar-winning filmmaker Bill Couturié based this documentary on historian Ellen Fitzpatrick’s book, Letters to Jackie: Condolences From a Grieving Nation. Eighteen top Hollywood actors were recruited to read offscreen the hand-penned and typewritten notes — some riddled with errors of grammar and spelling — against a backdrop of never-seen Kennedy family home movies and photos. The images also include all-too-familiar news footage: the campaign and inauguration, the Cuban missile crisis, violent racial struggles at home, the war in Vietnam, official trips overseas, the moon landing, even Jackie’s televised White House tour.

But it is the heart-wrenching sentiments of ordinary people who loved Jack Kennedy, and even those who did not support his presidential run, that give this film such power.

“What I love about letters is their immediacy, that they come straight from the gut. They have a wonderful emotional resonance for people.” said Couturié, a 1990 Oscar winner for “Common Threads,” about the AIDS quilt. For this project, Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks Studios helped him snag such A-list actors as Anne Hathaway, Chris Cooper, Kirsten Dunst, Octavia Spencer and Mark Ruffalo.

Long before the dawn of e-mail, Twitter and texts, stunned writers revealed much about themselves on paper to the widow Kennedy. “I have grown up without a father. Last year the head man on my list, my grandfather, passed away. Since then your husband was the man I looked up to. I feel that I knew him,” confided student Nancy Ashburn of Beacon, N.Y. “As I write this letter I burst into tears, over the loss of a great man. His memory will last forever. Thank you for listening. P.S. I wish they would let me get my hands on the assassinator.”

“I am but a humble postman,” explains Henry Gonzales of El Paso, noting that he and the president both served in World War II and got married the same year. “Please try to find it in your heart that we Texans of Mexican descent had a great love for all of you. We do hope that you will not think all of us Texans bad, there is bad in every sort of people. May God bless all of you.”

Seven months before the assassination, Mrs. John J. Wiley of Washington was widowed at 23 when the nuclear submarine USS Thresher sank off New England, killing all 129 crew members. “I pray for you Mrs. Kennedy, and our husbands, and Mrs. Kennedy, when you are very much alone with only your thoughts, please, please think of us, the wives the Thresher left behind. Our hands reach out for yours.”

Now Patricia Kelleher of Wellesley, Mass., she marvels at her small role in what she calls a spontaneous “community of consolation.”

Gabriele Gidion, a German-born Jew who ultimately settled in New York, wrote, “Dear Mrs. Kennedy: Twenty-six years of: escaping from Hitler — growing up in wartime China fleeing from Communism — watching my father’s futile struggle against cancer — seeing my roommate killed in an automobile accident — all these I deemed adequate preparation for some of life’s bitter moments. Yet NEVER, until last Friday, have I felt such a desperate sense of loss and loneliness.”

Today, Gidion is 76 and still lives in Manhattan, a retired retail executive and recruiter. The film is “a snapshot of those times where people were feeling optimistic about the direction of where our country was headed, and I think I was one of them,” she said by phone. “The poor black person in the backwoods could feel the same way as I did, and I think we all felt that might have died with him.” The election of President Obama restored her hope, she added.

Janis Hirsch, 63, the teenage polio victim whose credits as a Los Angeles producer include “Will & Grace” and “Murphy Brown,” recently showed the film to her 20-year-old son. “Without any editorializing, it just makes history so real and accessible for other generations.”