In the weeks following President Kennedy’s assassination, Jackie Kennedy received over 800,000 condolence letters. In what must have been a historical undertaking itself, historian and Professor Ellen Fitzpatrick sorted through over 200,000 of these letters in her lasted book, Letters to Jackie: Condolences from a Grieving Nation.
The book includes 250 letters sent to the first lady from Americans across the country. The letters range from depressing (letters from widows whose husbands died when they heard that Kennedy had died) to the strangely comical (a supporter from Pennsylvania who desired Mrs. Kennedy to send her one of the President’s socks). The letters are presented in sets, each with a specific theme. Among the most heart wrenching of letters are those from children, whose letters reflect not only their own sadness and confusion, but also that of their parents and communities. Also of note is a series of letters from African Americans expressing their deep gratitude for President Kennedy’s civil rights efforts. Fitzpatrick does a fairly nice job of introducing each set of letters with the accompanying historical context, although I found myself wanting more substance at times. I was expecting a more intimate look at how Jackie coped with the President’s death, but instead was presented with an in-depth journey into the American psyche. In addition, after the book is complete, there is a short biography of each of the letter writers. I found this cumbersome and unusable after the fact; there was no mention of it in the introduction. It would have been better served to include the brief biographies with the letters themselves, as they would have provided additional perspective to the letters themselves.
While readers who remember the Kennedy assassination will very likely be moved by many of the letters, I, who was not alive at the time, found them less emotional and more of a peek into the everyday lives and psychology of the American people. I found myself drawing comparisons between the national reactions to the Kennedy assassination to that of the country’s response to 9/11. Fitzpatrick selects letters that clearly show the grief that gripped the country at the time, even among those who did not support Kennedy. Readers who lived through the assassination will likely find the book an emotional journey, but the book will also hold interest for history lovers of all ages.
Fitzpatrick, E. (2010). Letters to Jackie: Condolences from a Grieving Nation. New York: Harper Collins.