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.
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.
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.
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:
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,