The cache of 31 letters written by Jacqueline Kennedy to an Irish priest has been called by some in the media the autobiography she never wrote.
But why does the idea of reading this correspondence feel like an invasion of her privacy to me? As much as I would love to sit down and read those letters, it just feels wrong. It’s as if I were to pick the lock on the personal diary she might have kept.
Jacqueline Kennedy had no idea when she began her correspondence at the age of 21 in 1950 to Father Joseph Leonard, a priest she had met during a trip to Ireland, that she would someday be a part of history. She had not even met John F. Kennedy yet — that would come a year later when she worked as the “Inquiring Camera Girl” for the Washington Times-Herald.
The tidbits from the letters released so far to the media hint that she confided personal feelings that she didn’t share with others — feelings that she probably expected would remain a secret with the priest. I doubt that Jacqueline Kennedy worried whether canon law treated correspondence the same as the confessional (the same rules apparently do not apply), but releasing these letters to an auction house constitutes a breach of trust.
Yes, the letters have been touted as “a treasure trove” for historians. Where are the headlines discussing Jacqueline Kennedy’s take on the Bay of Pigs, the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis? Instead, the letters reveal her fears that her husband shared her father’s womanizing ways and describe her crisis of faith after JFK’s assassination.
I understand letters and diaries form the basis of many biographies and reveal much of what we know about history. Who can forget Abigail Adams asking her husband John, serving as a representative to the Continental Congress, “to remember the ladies” in a letter written in 1776?
One of my favorite classes in college involved writing a research paper based on sources from the Western Historical Manuscripts Collection at the University of Missouri. I literally forgot to go to class one day while immersed in reading the diary of Miriam Davis Colt who traveled to Kansas from upstate New York in 1856. But these were papers from the previous century.
President Chester Arthur understood the power of personal and professional papers. Many sources agree he had the majority of his burned before his death, perhaps hoping to save his reputation.
Letters written by John Brown Jr., son of the abolitionist, were written in a numerical code during the Civil War to his wife — most likely because of their personal nature, according to Bill Hoyt, the Pittsburg State University graduate student (and for transparency’s sake, a friend of my husband) who broke the code after 150 years. He called the content of the letters “fiercely intimate, maybe even the 19th-century version of sexting.”
You can read those letters now, but let’s face it: There’s a difference between reading such private missives 50 years later and 150 years later.
Privacy is becoming an artifact. We share way too much on social media. Most of us would rather not think about how much the NSA knows.
But the death of privacy is no excuse for sharing the secrets of a very private woman who could have written her own memoir — she worked for years as an editor — but chose not to do so.
Now these letters are literally being auctioned off to the highest bidder who may, or may not, share them with the rest of the world (there goes an argument for their value to historians if the scholars are never allowed access).
One friend of mine said he hoped that whoever bought the letters would promptly burn them on the floor of the auction house. I just hope whoever does come up with the expected $1.6 million price tag will show some responsibility in what happens to the correspondence. Perhaps turning these letters over to Caroline Kennedy or to the JFK Presidential Library, where decisions could be made about what to release to the public and what should be saved for the sake of history, would be the right thing to do.
Will these letters end up in the history books — or in the National Enquirer?