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JFK Condolence Letters Reveal How a Nation Grieved

March 11, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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For the first time, some of the condolence letters sent to First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy after President John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963 have been published. Gwen Ifill talks to historian Ellen Fitzpatrick about the letters and her book.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: a look back at a treasure trove of notes from a nation in mourning.

Gwen Ifill has our book conversation.

GWEN IFILL: Letters, scribbled, handwritten, committed to paper, 1.5 million of them, that’s how many letters of condolence Jacqueline Kennedy received in the months after her husband’s shocking 1963 assassination.

Now, nearly half-a-century since John F. Kennedy’s death, historian Ellen Fitzpatrick tells the story behind that outpouring of grief in her new book, “Letters to Jackie: Condolences From a Grieving Nation.”

And Ellen Fitzpatrick joins us now.

Welcome back to the “NewsHour,” Ellen. It’s good to see you.

ELLEN FITZPATRICK, author, “Letters to Jackie: Condolences from a Grieving Nation”: Thank you, Gwen. Good to see you.

GWEN IFILL: One of the things that remains true about that bad day in 1963 is, we all remember where we were.

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Mm-hmm.

GWEN IFILL: So, I want to start by asking you, where were you?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: I was actually in the sixth grade. And John F. Kennedy had come to my hometown just less than a month beforehand to dedicate…

GWEN IFILL: Which was where?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Amherst, Mass. He came to dedicate the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College.

And I woke up with great excitement that day and walked into town, and I saw the first American president I had ever seen. I was tremendously excited about that. And then, less than a month later, I was having a tour of the school library with my classmates, and we heard it on a radio.

And I remember instantly believing it, because my parents, in the morning, had been talking about the climate in Texas and the hostility to President Kennedy.

GWEN IFILL: What made you decide to find these letters and to read all of these letters and to compile them?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: I actually stumbled across this collection. I was doing research on another book.

And what I was trying to get at was how Americans in the moment viewed John F. Kennedy. It seemed to me that, in the decades since his death, there’s been so much historical revisionism, much of it appropriate, that dismantled the hagiography that grew up around him in the immediate aftermath of his assassination.

But it had become increasingly difficult for students, for younger people, even people of my own generation, to recover that moment, the kind of idealism and faith that people had and the way that President Kennedy was viewed in his time.

So, I was thinking, how can I recapture this? And I went into the archives. I asked the archivist. I remembered the condolence letters. I remembered Mrs. Kennedy thanking the public. We sat around in our living room and watched her two-and-a-half minute talk on television in January of 1964.

And I said, what about those condolence letters? Have you got any of those? And the archivist said that most of them had been destroyed by the National Archives, but that a sample had been kept. And I said, oh, well could I see a couple of boxes? And he brought them up.

The first letter I read was from a family of Eskimos writing about their response to the death of the president. And from there, every corner of the nation, every person of every background and belief was represented.

GWEN IFILL: Reading this, I was struck by how many people were unified around their television. That’s their memory of this…

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Yes. Yes.

GWEN IFILL: … not only hearing about it, but watching the ceremonies that followed.

Did you — did — was that one of the many themes that seemed — it seemed our first national shared moment.

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: I think what was compelling about the television as a variable in this whole story was the level of intimacy that people felt about the Kennedy family and about President Kennedy.

If you think about it, this was the baby boom generation raising their young children, their many young children, in the aftermath of World War II. And they very strongly identified with this young couple in the White House who had the youngest children in the White House in the 20th century.

And, so, there was a sense of — that they followed the Kennedys very closely. They were very photogenic. And they learned about them in a way that we might not have learned about previous presidential families.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you to read some of the passages in the book. I was struck by a letter that came from the great-grandson of James Garfield, a former president who was assassinated in 1881.

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: His great-grandson wrote to Mrs. Kennedy in November of 1963, just after the assassination.

And he says: “Only now have I come to have some realization of the great personal loss which Grandmother Garfield felt at the time of her husband’s death. No longer is it only an isolated fact in history. Assassination is merely a dry euphemism which applies to the outright murder of so prominent a person. The terminology doesn’t lessen the pain of those who are involved at the time. This has been a personal loss to us all.”

GWEN IFILL: Other people took it far more personally. They didn’t have to be the children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren of presidents. A lot of widows and widowers also wrote to Jacqueline Kennedy, identifying with the plight that she found herself in.

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Yes.

And this letter from a man in Oklahoma City describes his response to seeing Mrs. Kennedy in the midst of her loss: “Mrs. Kennedy, I’m just an old 73-year-old man who lost his wife in 1963, and I can feel the sorrow you are going through. My wife died in my arms, as your husband died in your arms. And when I watched you on television as you walked behind that flag-draped coffin, I cried my eyes out.”

GWEN IFILL: And even children spoke up and wrote her and wrote to John-John and to Caroline. But, in one case, there was a 12-year-old boy who sent his picture. And his name was Monroe Young.

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: He did. And he wrote and said: “In 1962, September 23, some mean man killed my daddy, too, here in Dallas. My daddy was a soldier. Santa Claus didn’t get my letter. I hope he will get my letter. I want a bicycle. When you write him, tell him my name, Monroe Young Jr. III, Dallas, Texas.”

GWEN IFILL: Now, you — one of the interesting things you did in this book is, you tracked down. You verified all of these letter-writers. You went and you actually talked to their families or talked to them.

Let’s start with Monroe Young. What’s his story?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: He died very young, unfortunately, but he did have two children. And they’re alive today. And they were incredibly moved to hear that this letter existed.

The most extraordinary dimension of the project for me, as a historian, because we’re so often working on people who we don’t really ever have any contact with, was to pick up the phone and call someone and say, I have just read a letter that I think your mother or your father wrote to Jacqueline Kennedy in 1963.

GWEN IFILL: Were they aware of it in many cases?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Most — in most cases, they weren’t.

And many felt that it was a voice beyond the grave, because, often, the parents talked about their children.

There’s a wonderful letter from a man who describes his 3-year-old son. He says: “I came home from work. My 3-year-old son said, ‘Daddy, they have killed the president.’” And he said: “I’m a hard man, but I broke down and cried.”

Well, I talked to the son, who’s now nearing 50 years old, and he — he was extremely moved to hear — his father is now deceased — his father describing him as a 3-year-old, telling this story.

GWEN IFILL: As a historian, what did you take away, after having gone inside kind of the hearts and minds of so many people who were grieving all at once?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: When you read these letters, and you see the incredible eloquence of the American people, their decency, their compassion, their concern, their patriotism, their worries about the country, no matter what their race, their religion, their political belief, it is all very much in evidence in these letters. And it was very, very moving and, to me, very reassuring.

GWEN IFILL: The book is “Letters to Jackie: Condolences From a Grieving Nation.”

Ellen Fitzpatrick, thank you for taking us there.

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Thank you, Gwen.