“Dear Mrs. Kennedy,”

Within days of the President’s assassination, the letters began to arrive. Some were addressed simply “Mrs. Kennedy, White House, Washington, DC.” A shocked and grieving nation could find no other way to express its anguish than to write condolence letters to the young widow whose comportment through those dark days was the very definition of dignity.

In all, more than one million letters from all over the world were received. What a monumental task faced the First Lady’s staff and volunteers in sorting through the torrent of mail. Each had to be opened, read, categorized, passed on to the First Lady in some cases, and eventually archived. Imagine the organizational skills and hours of labor involved as workers tirelessly sorted through a veritable postal avalanche.

For weeks the letters arrived at a rate of thirty to forty thousand a day.

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Staff members and volunteers sorting through the avalanche of mail in the Executive Office Building.

 

I have a lovely little book, “Dear Mrs. Kennedy,” wherein Jay Mulvaney and Paul De Angelis have compiled for us some of the condolence letters Jacqueline Kennedy received after the assassination of her husband.

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From William O. Douglas, Supreme Court Justice:

My heart is so heavy that words fail me. A sadness has come over the earth that it never knew….

From Dr. Benjamin Spock:

I have admired your husband for many qualities but most of all for his dignity. For the clarity of his vision and for his courage in fighting for the rights of Negroes and for peace…

From Reverend Billy Graham:

The President’s death is a national tragedy. He was my personal friend and I feel a personal loss…..

From Richard Nixon:

In this tragic hour, Pat and I want you to know that our thoughts and prayers are with you. While the hand of fate made Jack and me political opponents I always cherish the fact that we were personal friends from the time we came to the Congress together in 1947. That friendship evidenced itself in many ways including the invitation we received to attend your wedding…..

From David Wise, chief of the Washington Bureau of the “New York Herald Tribune:

Once, on a lovely day in Cape Cod, you told me that your husband was a thoroughbred. In the past five days you have joined him in showing the nation and the world what the word means.

From Noel Coward:

This is just to let you know that I, together with many millions, am thinking of you with heartfelt sympathy in this dreadful and incredible tragedy….

From Lauren Bacall:

This letter is so difficult to write. But a day has not passed that you and your husband have not been in our thoughts….the waste of a man who gave so much and had so much more. We miss him…..

From Queen Elizabeth II

I am so deeply distressed to learn of the tragic death of President Kennedy. My husband joins me in sending our heartfelt and sincere sympathy to you and to your family.

And then the heartbreaking letters from children. This one in particular speaks to me. This little girl was a second grader in 1963, just like me.

I am Gloria Crayton. I Live in a Small Town in The deep South. I am a Little Colored Girl, 7 years old in The  Second Grade. I Love you.

Two things strike me about this book: One, it’s interesting to note just who were contemporaries in 1963 and their common horrified reaction to the President’s death. Among the prominent letter writers were Winston Churchill, David Niven, Angie Dickinson, Ezra Pound and Bennett Cerf. Oh yes, and Nikita Khrushchev.

And two, this book is a poignant example of the power of the written word. Cumulatively, the letters are a howl of sorrow and regret. How beautifully people expressed themselves, many with references to classic literature, the Bible, and poetry. The letters read as a tragic time capsule into a time when certain graceful behaviors and levels of erudition were more commonplace than they seem to be today.

On St. Patrick’s Day of 1964, a date not without import to the Kennedy family, over 900,000 acknowledgement cards were mailed from Washington, D.C.  Mrs. Kennedy would respond personally to many other letters over the subsequent years.

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But there is one other letter of note I want to show you. We sometimes forget the other man who was shot to death by Lee Harvey Oswald that day, Dallas police officer J. D. Tippit. Jacqueline Kennedy did not.

In the midst of her overwhelming grief, she wrote this letter to his widow:

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What can I say to you — my husband’s death is responsible for you losing your husband. Wasn’t one life enough to take on that day? […]

I lit a flame for Jack at Arlington [Cemetery] that will burn forever. I consider that it burns for your husband too and so will everyone who ever sees it.

With my inexpressible sympathy, Jacqueline Kennedy

And that, my friends, is class.

Thank you for reading,

Barbara

 

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About Silver in the Barn

Life in a 1915 farmhouse in Central Virginia. Blogging about whatever happens to catch my fancy - sometimes nonsense, occasionally not.
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51 Responses to “Dear Mrs. Kennedy,”

  1. saddleguy says:

    A most excellent post Barb. Looks like an interesting book. Thanks for posting.

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  2. Phil Taylor says:

    Wow. I love posts like this and books like that. They flesh out a historical event I’ve only read about. An interesting fiction novel about that day is Stephen King’s 11/23/63. It’s definitely a different approach to telling the story of that day but he was painstaking in his historical research and helped educate me as well.

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    • I’ve just googled the book. The whole concept of time travel and altering the course of history is just ripe with possibilities. Do you remember the old Star Trek episode where Kirk and Spock went back in time to prevent McCoy from disrupting the course of events which led to the rise of Adolph Hitler? I love contemplating how one tiny occurrence in history could lead to the world being completely different than it is today. Thanks for the lead on what sounds like a fascinating book, Phil.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Jackie was the classiest. I am in need of writing a sympathy note for another male who’s life ended way too soon. Thanks for the reminder, Barb.

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  4. Another beautifully written post.

    I was in the 4th grade. It was as if the world stopped when the President was assasinated. I am old enough to clearly remember the paralyzing fear of the Cuban Missile Crisis. JFK saved us from nuclear annihilation. The world changed forever when it started spinning again.

    Being the visual creature that I am, it wasn’t until the mid 1980’s that I could look at the combination of pink and navy blue without the image of Jackie Kennedy in her blood stained Chanel coming first and foremost to mind.

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    • I was in the 2nd grade living in Army quarters in Germany. I guess with the time difference, I didn’t know about it until the next morning when I went into the kitchen and found my mother in tears over the “Stars and Stripes” newspaper. Regarding the pink suit, there is a heartbreaking picture of Jackie playing with John Jr. wearing that suit, obviously before Dallas. I doubt she ever wore that color again.

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  5. Beautiful post Barbara. I was 12 years old and Mother Superior came in to tell our class. We were all let out early and our parents picked us up.
    She was a woman with class.

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  6. kristieinbc says:

    This was such a wonderful post, about such a tragic event. The letter from the little girl and the one from Jacqueline Kennedy herself are especially touching. I’m ashamed to admit I forgot there was a police officer killed that day.

    Like

  7. dorothy says:

    Imagine taking the time to respond to all of these people who were so impacted by that tragic day. Don’t we wonder if the abundance of handwritten letters would be the case today. I personally miss the written notes and the phone correspondence of years past. Here’s to a blog with class depicting a lady with class. Good job.

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  8. Beautiful letters, Barbara. Words also fail me. I was heartbroken when President John Kennedy was assassinated. Jacqueline Kennedy’s compassionate letter to the widow of the police officer killed that same day does, indeed, show true class.

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  9. ritaroberts says:

    JUST BEAUTIFUL !! Thanks Barbara.

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  10. joannesisco says:

    I think you summed it up perfectly in the last line … Jackie Kennedy embodied class.

    The volume of letters following JFK’s assassination is absolutely staggering. We talk now about messages/videos going viral on social media, but it simply cannot compare to the magnitude of all that incoming paper. I had no idea it was THAT MUCH!!

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  11. I never would have thought to write such a post, but this one was beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

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    • You’re welcome, Cherity. I suppose this was well before your time, but the impact of this day on those of us around at the time was very much like that of 9/11. We will always know where we were when first hearing the news.

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  12. Jodi says:

    What a beautiful post, Barbara. I was a mere babe – not even a year old (BRAG BRAG! LOL!), but have certainly heard so many stories and am still very drawn to any stories of the events of this day. And darn if I didn’t care about this in history class, but crave the knowledge of to this day as so many do. I share in your passion for the written word – especially the very rare handwritten note that has come to be such an exquisite indulgent pleasure to give/receive. It’s kind of why I like making cards – I feel it is a little piece of me I can share with someone who receives it and know how much they mean to me and that I think so much of them. You are right – what a true CLASS act Jackie was to write that letter to the wife of the officer. And what a CLASS Act YOU are to write such a wonderfully powerful post. You knock my socks off with every post. I am kind of in awe, my friend :). Thanks for sharing!

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    • Yes, I know you are MUCH, MUCH younger than I am, Jodi, rub it in! Ha! Roger and I were both in second grade and both remember it vividly.

      Do not be even “kind of in awe”, my friend, as I rarely have an original thought of my own, but can do a fairly decent job of regurgitating others’! Ha! But thank you so, so much. It pleases me immensely that you enjoy these posts.

      And yes, your cards are a little piece of you and that is why the recipients cherish them so. It means sooo much more than a quick little email. That letter to Office Tippit’s widow really hit me. She knew exactly the right words to use to elevate the situation and console that widow forever. Really inspirational. Thank you again so much for always being such a bright light.

      Like

  13. nrhatch says:

    Wonderful post, Barbara. His death did not impact me at the time . . . but his contribution to the world stage is timeless.

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  14. Thank you, Nancy. I do remember being very affected at the time…even my second grade self knew something terrible had happened and, of course, the reactions of my parents was very upsetting. We lived in Army quarters then and I remember the flags at half-staff all over the base.

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  15. menomama3 says:

    What a fascinating book.The final note from Jackie to the police officer’s widow, Mrs. Tippit, was so simple and honest, I felt my heart breaking for both of them.

    Like

  16. Behind the Story says:

    I was at Seattle University, walking up the stairs in the Liberal Arts Building when I heard the shocking news that Kennedy had been killed. That day all the students in my dorm gathered on our various beds and cried. It’s one of those days you never forget.

    In 2011, my daughter gave me a newly published boxed set of eight CDs and a book entitled, “Jacqueline Kennedy, Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy.” Another interesting historical record.

    Just a few hours ago, I returned from seeing “All the Way,” the first of a two-part stage play about LBJ. It starts just after the Kennedy assassination and ends with Johnson’s election in 1964. An excellent play! If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend it. We’ll be seeing part 2, “The Great Society,” in January.

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    • Hi Nicki! I’ve heard excerpts of these interviews and they were fascinating. A rather different side of Jackie than we were exposed to through the press all those years, isn’t it? Wow, eight CDs. I’d love to hear your impressions of it someday. I’ll Google the play – curious to see who is playing LBJ. Did you feel he was captured accurately?

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      • Behind the Story says:

        Yes. I thought he was captured accurately. Of course, we know our past presidents so intimately that the only way Johnson could be portrayed perfectly is if he came back from the dead.

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      • Bryan Cranston, eh? You know I am probably one of a handful of people who have never seen “Breaking Bad”, so I have no preconceived image of him in my mind. Sometimes when an actor is so readily identified with one particular role, it can be hard to shove that out of your mind when they play a new one. James Gandolfini springs to mind immediately.

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  17. Sue Mayo says:

    November 22, 1963 is a day I will never forget. I was feeding my 11 day old son when my phone rang. It was my mother telling me to turn my TV on. She said the President has been shot. I was stunned. I turned the TV on and could not believe what I was seeing and hearing. When Walter Cronkite announced that the President was dead, I began to sob and I don’t think I stopped for days. A time in history that I will never forget. The strength and grace of Mrs. Kennedy was none like I had ever seen before or since.

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    • Wow, Sue, what a powerful memory you’ve shared with us. Nobody who was alive at that time will ever forget it, will they? And to think how young Jackie was when all of this happened….Thanks, Madam, I appreciate your comment.

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  18. JFK must have been the most loved American president – ever. I was always surprised to see pictures of him in various parts of the world well into the 80s (I am thinking about the Caribbean and Africa). I was too young to know about his death when it happened but I do remember the newspaper headlines when his brother was assassinated some years later. What a treasure to research and write a book about the condolence letters. I just wished we knew the true reason for his assassination and the true origin of this evil plan (there are many opinions and suspicions, of course).

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    • My mother tells me, Annette, that he was very much beloved in Germany at the time as well. I think he represented hope to an awful lot of people. I vividly Bobby’s death in 1968. I was older then and I remember my father was just devastated.

      Liked by 1 person

  19. Diane Ahlberg says:

    What beautiful letters, indeed a time that our entire country was in mourning.
    Reading this post brings back many memories of that time in history. So right you are- class she certainly was
    Thanks for sharing-

    Like

  20. KerryCan says:

    Such a fabulous post, Barbara! I’ve seen this book of letters but haven’t picked it up because I was sort of afraid of the emotion in it (I’m such a coward). That was such a life-altering time and Jackie Kennedy so many of us a view of the power of grace and dignity in the face of the unthinkable. I wonder how many women, over the years, have consciously tried to emulate her when they have been faced with loss . . .

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  21. reocochran says:

    I have always admired and studied the Kennedy family but Jacqueline Bouvier was a fantastic photographer and journalist before she married her husband. I felt she had a tough life to live, although she showed “grace under fire” and lots of class. You were so wonderful to feature all these famous people’s letters written to Mrs. Kennedy. I love the fact she did not take off her pretty pink dress/suit since she felt this would make an impression on the country. She didn’t want to remove it also since it had a part of her husband on it. I liked the movie, “Graceland” with the whole hospital staff and such a great performance and imitation of Jackie in it, too. I have the red burgundy newspaper bound copy of President Kennedy’s death tribute. It is not worth anything nor are the copies of the newspapers from the two cities close by to where we lived. But mermorabilia is what has me keeping them, just to pass the torch to the next ones in my family. Barb, I rambled, but you expect this out of me! Hugs for this fantastic post, Barb!

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    • This wasn’t a real bumblebee ramble at all! Just a thoughtful rumination on a sad subject. I read that Jackie wanted that pink suit to stay on so we could see what “they’ve done to him.” My parents have saved the “Stars and Stripes” Army newspaper as well fully aware that it is not worth anything as you say, but as a show of respect. But the letters were what impressed me so in this post. Seeing how many diverse peoples managed to express their grief so eloquently was extremely moving. I am so happy you enjoyed this post, Robin, thank you for letting me know so.

      Liked by 1 person

      • reocochran says:

        I am so glad I didn’t ramble and could add to the comments, Barb. I think we all have such vivid memories of this devastating time. It would be hard to not wish to mention how we mourned collectively. I am glad your parents also saved the newspaper out of respect. I love the word, “eloquently” to describe the letters of those who wrote their respectful regrets for the loss of President J. F. Kennedy. This would be a great book, while I appreciate how you shared some of the ones I would have wished to read, too.

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  22. Sheryl says:

    Grape salad in Minnesota!?!? Uff da.

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  23. Pingback: A Reading Resolution | Silver in the Barn

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