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Sunday 18 May 2014


Princess and the priest – a bond that lasted a lifetime

Jackie Kennedy and Fr Leonard's intimate letters enhance the good reputation of both, says Ruth Dudley Edwards

Jackie and her husband JFK
Jackie and her husband JFK

Is All Hallows wrong to make public the letters Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy sent Father Joseph Leonard? She may have at one time been as famous as the Queen of England, but she was notoriously private – a publisher who elected never to write the autobiography the book trade begged for.

Having read what's been published of the letters, I don't think we need agonise abut this. They were intimate letters but she wasn't confessing her sins, just talking frankly, and the correspondence enhances the reputations of both. Father Leonard, who befriended Jackie in Dublin in 1950 when she was only 20, was until his death in 1964 a constructive, loving friend throughout an extraordinary period in her life, which included a broken engagement, a marriage that propelled her on to the world stage, a miscarriage, the death of a baby and her husband's assassination.

Jackie and the priest were intellectual equals and her enquiring mind, her frankness, her affectionate nature and her appreciation of an old man's wisdom helped them bridge an enormous age gap. "I look upon your friendship as one of the greatest consolations and blessings of a long life," he said once, and her letters to him show that though they met so rarely, his feelings were fully reciprocated. "Your devoted Jacqueline" was a typical signing off. How could one not be moved by what he wrote after Jack's murder, asking Jackie "to let me unite my simple feelings of love, grief and desolation to your profound and heartfelt ones"?

An astonishing aspect of Jackie's letters is her precocious maturity. She was only 22 when after she broke up with her fiance, she wrote to Father Leonard of her shame that "we both went into it so quickly and gaily but I think the suffering it brought us both for a while afterwards was the best thing. We both needed something of a shock to make us grow up."

When after Jack Kennedy's death the truth about his crude and inveterate womanising began to emerge, there was much speculation about what Jackie had known. To Father Leonard she showed that from the beginning she knew exactly what she was getting into.

"He's like my father in a way – loves the chase and is bored with the conquest – and once married needs proof that he's attractive, so flirts with other women and resents you. I saw how that nearly killed Mummy."

She had already worked out that politicians "are a breed apart", that – "like Macbeth" – the man she had fallen in love with was consumed with ambition, which attracted her. "Maybe I'm just dazzled and picture myself in a glittering world of crowned heads and Men of Destiny – not just a sad little housewife." Yet she understood the dark side – the Faustian pact. "That world can be very glamorous from the outside – but if you're in it – and you're lonely – it could be a Hell."

Her union with Jack would give her plenty of experience of Heaven and Hell, not least the humiliation of his more public flirtations. What she thought about that is expressed indirectly in a letter she wrote long after Father Leonard's death to Joan, the miserably unhappy wife of Ted Kennedy, explaining that while "men under pressure have to let off steam somehow", talking on the phone to mistresseses while in the house with his family, "and bringing them there when you're away" was intolerable.

"What kind of a woman but a sap and a slave can stand that, and still be a loving wife and care about him and work like a dog for him while campaigning? It is so old-fashioned – probably got it from his father!"

His father, Joe Kennedy, was an old goat who trained his sons to regard women as a commodity designed for intercourse, baby-making and looking good on the campaign trail. But though Jackie fulfilled those roles, she was neither sap nor slave. Despite her husband's atrocious philandering, he prized her grace, her cultured intelligence and that spiritual side reflected in letters where she seeks to make her peace with God.

Seeking a protector after Robert Kennedy's assassination, she would make a disastrous marriage to Aristotle Onassis, yet another faithless, driven man. But after his death she reached the equilibrium she had craved in her work as an editor and her long and happy relationship with Maurice Templesman, a Jewish businessman and philanthropist with a love of the arts. She died at 64: at her funeral, he quoted from Ithica, one of her favourite poems. "And now the journey is over, too short, alas, too short. It was filled with adventure and wisdom, laughter and love, gallantry and grace." Father Leonard couldn't have put it better.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards