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Jacqueline Kennedy’s letters to Irish priest pulled from auction amid controversy

“My dearest Jacqueline,” wrote Father Joseph Leonard to former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy in 1963. Some of the Irish priest’s letters to Mrs. Kennedy are archived at the JFK Library. (Courtesy of John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)


In response to the news in May about the upcoming sale of more than 30 letters written by former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy to an Irish priest from 1950 to 1964, I wrote that privacy was becoming “an artifact.” The idea of reading that correspondence — likened by some as the autobiography she never wrote — felt like an invasion of her privacy.

The collection was scheduled to be auctioned in Dublin June 10th. But All Hallows College, which has had possession of the letters since the death of Father Joseph Leonard in 1964, announced May 22 that the correspondence, expected to fetch at least $1.3 million, was being withdrawn from sale.

The decision was made by the Vincentian Fathers and the college, which is run by the Vincentian order. A statement explained that representatives “are now exploring with members of Mrs. Kennedy’s family how best to preserve and curate this archive for the future.”

The next day brought the news that All Hallows College in Dublin will eventually close due to falling enrollment and financial struggles.

Earlier in May, a spokeperson for the college told the Irish Times there were no legal issues with selling the letters. The matter did end up in the courts when a temporary injunction was issued against a rare book owner for falsely representing himself as the owner of the correspondence and possibly taking photos of some of the letters as well.

The letters had been discovered after the arrival of a new president — an American-born Vincentian priest — as the college instituted a search of the archives to find any items that might be sold to raise needed cash. He’s since said the sale would only have given the school some “wiggle room” and would have failed to save it permanently.

But that’s not the end of the story. The Irish Times has had almost-daily updates on the college and the letters. In late May, it was discovered that “thousands” of dollars worth of items, including a 15th century book, Raphael prints and a book signed by Mrs. Kennedy to Father Leonard, were missing. Not the Kennedy correspondence, however. Interpol is involved, according to the Irish Times.

It was also reported that in 1967 Mrs. Kennedy requested copies of her letters to Father Leonard to share with her children, but she did not ask for the originals. That doesn’t mean she expected them to someday be sold to the highest bidder.

Complicating the matter is copyright law: The author of the letters, not the recipient, owns the copyright to the content, which means Mrs. Kennedy’s  estate holds the legal rights 70 years after her death.

At least some of Father Leonard’s letters to Mrs. Kennedy, written to her during the White House years, are in the archives at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum. Although the copyright of those letters is in question, according to a library spokesperson, anyone may go to the library and request to read them.

Also available at the library are copies of some of Mrs. Kennedy’s correspondence to the priest, such as a thank-you note for a Christmas gift that includes the line, “We think of you often, and wish we could have sent a magic ship to bring you over to spend some time in the sun with us.” But that note was typed by a White House secretary, and Mrs. Kennedy knew by then that she was part of history.

The fate of Mrs. Kennedy’s letters to Father Leonard has not yet been determined, but the Kennedy family is now involved. Monday the Irish Times reported, “It is believed Caroline Kennedy, US ambassador to Japan, and her husband Edwin Schlossberg, have retained a Dublin law firm to assert their copyright of the content of the letters.”

In an opinion piece, history professor Diarmaid Ferriter argued, “Testimony that is genuinely meant for posterity should be locked away for a very long time.”

Mrs. Kennedy, though, wasn’t writing for posterity when she started this correspondence as a young woman with no idea of her future fame.

These letters are private. And I hope they stay that way, unless her daughter decides otherwise.

Diana Reese is a journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.

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