News / Arts & Entertainment

Kennedy Condolence Letters Capture Unique Moment in American History

Handwritten, 47-year-old missives recall an era, its president and people

Nancy Tuckerman (teal dress) and volunteers help answer condolence and Christmas mail, Executive Office Building, 11 December 1963.
Nancy Tuckerman (teal dress) and volunteers help answer condolence and Christmas mail, Executive Office Building, 11 December 1963.
Faiza Elmasry

After President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, his widow, Jacqueline, received an estimated one and a half million letters of condolence.

About 800,000 of them arrived within the first seven weeks after the president's death. Most of those letters were destroyed, but 15,000 of them were sent to the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts, where they sat, untouched, for more than four decades.

Letters to Jackie

Now, some are available for the public to read, in a new book called, "Letters to Jackie: Condolences from a Grieving Nation."

Gabriele Gidion, seen here in the 1960s, wrote a Kennedy condolence letter that is included in 'Letters to Jackie.'
Gabriele Gidion, seen here in the 1960s, wrote a Kennedy condolence letter that is included in 'Letters to Jackie.'

One of those letter writers was Gabriele Gidion, who has lived and worked in New York City since she emigrated from Germany with her parents after World War II. She vividly remembers where she was and how she felt when she heard the news about President Kennedy.

"I was in the garment center, 1400 Broadway [in New York]," she recalls. "We were reviewing a line and somebody came in running and said, 'The president was assassinated.' We were in total disbelief. I get goosebumps just talking about it again. There are certain periods in my life that are defining moments. It was one of the defining moments of my life."

Gidion was 26 years old when she wrote a condolence letter to Jackie Kennedy. The letter reads, in part:

"Twenty-six years of escaping from Hitler, growing up in wartime China fleeing from Communism, watching my father's futile struggle against cancer, seeing my roommate killed in an automobile accident… all these I deemed adequate preparation for some of life's bitter moments. Yet never, until last Friday, have I felt such desperate sense of loss and loneliness."

'Letters to Jackie' is a collection of 250 condolence letters Mrs. Kennedy received after the assassination of President Kennedy.
'Letters to Jackie' is a collection of 250 condolence letters Mrs. Kennedy received after the assassination of President Kennedy.

Reflection of society, politics

Gidion's letter is one of about 250 that Ellen Fitzpatrick chose to include in her book, "Letters to Jackie."

When the New Hampshire history professor visited the Kennedy Library more than a year ago, she was working on a different project: how Americans perceived John Kennedy when he was president. When she started to read the condolences letters, she says, she was astonished by what she found.

"What I began to read were letters from small towns, big cities, from every part of the country, from very, very diverse Americans," Fitzpatrick says. "There were letters from dairy farmers. There were letters from children. There were letters from Republicans. There were letters from Native Americans on reservations. There were many, many letters from African Americans. Some of them were just scrolled on a little scrap of papers in pencils. Some of them were written on elegant stationary."

That was when Fitzpatrick decided to change her research topic and focus on the letters.

"It came clear to me right away, when I was working on the letters that they fill roughly into 3 categories," she says. "There were letters that talked about November 22, that day, how people responded. There were many letters reflected on politics, on society, on their views of the presidency. And finally, there were letters, in which people in their effort to console Mrs. Kennedy reflected upon their own experiences with grief and loss. Those became the three parts of the book."

The common thread among the letters, Fitzpatrick says, is sincerity and directness, such as this one, written by 14-year-old Tommy Smith. He had seen the Kennedys in Dallas just before the assassination.

President and Mrs. Kennedy descend the stairs from Air Force One at Love Field in Dallas, TX, 22 November 1963.
President and Mrs. Kennedy descend the stairs from Air Force One at Love Field in Dallas, TX, 22 November 1963.

"Dear Mrs. Kennedy:
I know the grief you bear. I bear that same grief. I am a Dallasite. I saw you yesterday. I hope to see you again. I saw Mr. Kennedy yesterday. I'll never see him again. I'm very disturbed because I saw him a mere 2 minutes before that fatal shot was fired. I couldn't believe it when I heard over the radio 5 minutes later. I felt like I was in a daze. To Dallas, time has halted. Everyone is shocked and disturbed. My prayers to you, a sympathetic, prayerful, and disturbed Dallasite, Tommy Smith"


The youngest letter writer in the book is Tony Davis. He was seven when he wrote his condolence note.

"It was a simple piece of paper in which he just simply said, 'I'm sorry he is dead,'" Fitzpatrick says. "and his mother wrote on the bottom of the letter that, 'PS: Tony wrote this the evening after hearing of the President's death and it so aptly yet simply expresses the feelings of all of this family that I have decided to send it on to you.'"

Age of innocence

Historian Ellen Fitzpatrick says Kennedy's assassination had such an emotional impact because Americans felt they knew him, personally.

Author and professor Ellen Fitzpatrick
Author and professor Ellen Fitzpatrick

"President Kennedy was really the first television President," she explains. "He and Mrs. Kennedy were raising the youngest children in the White House of any presidential couple in the 20th century and they were doing that at a time when the World War II generation was raising the baby boomers. So a lot of Americans identified with this young couple in the White House. They felt, through TV, they had come to know this family very well."

And, she adds, it was a less politically cynical age, as well.

"This is a period before Vietnam, which greatly increased cynicism and skepticism of many Americans about the president and how truthful he was," Fitzpatrick says. "And it's before Watergate, which badly damaged the faith of many Americans in the presidency for some time after that. I don't want to romanticize the early 1960s because there were very difficult problems the country was struggling with at that moment and we've made enormous progress since then, but yes, there was a kind of faith, belief and affection for the president that I think had been a casualty of the modern era, when we know much more about these men than we did when President Kennedy was president."

Ellen Fitzpatrick says future historians are unlikely to have collections like these condolence letters for their research. With cell phones and e-mail, people just don't send hand-written letters as much as they used to. But she is happy that she had such a resource to let future generations know how much President Kennedy meant to the American people.

You May Like

Tired of Waiting, South Africans Demand Change ‘Now’

With chronic poverty and lack of basic services largely fueling recent xenophobic attacks, many in Rainbow Nation say it’s time for government to act More

Challenges Ahead for China's Development Plans in Pakistan

Planned $46 billion in energy and infrastructure investments in Pakistan are aimed at transforming the country into a regional hub for trade and investment More

Audio 'Forbidden City' Revisits Little Known Era of Asian-American Entertainment

Little-known chapter of entertainment history captured in 80s documentary is revisited in new digitally remastered format and book More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populationsi
X
April 24, 2015 10:13 PM
A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populations

A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Data Servers Could Heat Private Homes

As every computer owner knows, when their machines run a complex program they get pretty hot. In fact, cooling the processors can be expensive, especially when you're dealing with huge banks of computer servers. But what if that energy could heat private homes? VOA’s George Putic reports that a Dutch energy firm aims to do just that.
Video

Video Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festival

Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video UN Confronts Threat of Young Radicals

The radicalization and recruitment of young people into Islamist extremist groups has become a growing challenge for governments worldwide. On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council heard from experts on the issue, which has become a potent threat to international peace and security. VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports.
Video

Video Growing Numbers of Turks Discover Armenian Ancestry

In a climate of improved tolerance, growing numbers of people in Turkey are discovering their grandmothers were Armenian. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians escaped the mass deportations and slaughter of the early 1900's by forced conversion to Islam. Or, Armenian children were taken in by Turkish families and assimilated. Now their stories are increasingly being heard. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul that the revelations are viewed as an important step.
Video

Video Migrants Trek Through Western Balkans to Reach EU

Migrants from Africa and other places are finding different routes into the European Union in search of a better life. The Associated Press followed one clandestine group to document their trek through the western Balkans to Hungary. Zlatica Hoke reports that the migrants started using that route about four years ago. Since then, it has become the second-most popular path into Western Europe, after the option of sailing from North Africa to Italy.
Video

Video TIME Magazine Honors Activists, Pioneers Seen as Influential

TIME Magazine has released its list of celebrities, leaders and activists, whom it deems the world’s “most influential” in 2015. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports from New York.
Video

Video US Businesses See Cuba as New Frontier

The Obama administration's opening toward Cuba is giving U.S. companies hope they'll be able to do business in Cuba despite the continuation of the U.S. economic embargo against the communist nation. Some American companies have been able to export some products to Cuba, but the recent lifting of Cuba's terrorism designation could relax other restrictions. As VOA's Daniela Schrier reports, corporate heavy hitters are lining up to head across the Florida Straits - though experts urge caution.
Video

Video Kenya Launches Police Recruitment Drive After Terror Attacks

Kenya launched a major police recruitment drive this week as part of a large-scale effort to boost security following a recent spate of terror attacks. VOA’s Gabe Joselow reports that allegations of corruption in the process are raising old concerns about the integrity of Kenya’s security forces.
Video

Video Japan, China in Race for Asia High-Speed Rail Projects

A lucrative competition is underway in Asia for billions of dollars in high-speed rail projects. Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia Thailand and Vietnam are among the countries planning to move onto the fast track. They are negotiating with Japan and the upstart Chinese who are locked in a duel to revolutionize transportation across Asia. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok has details.
Video

Video Scientists: Mosquitoes Attracted By Our Genes

Some people always seem to get bitten by mosquitoes more than others. Now, scientists have proved that is really the case - and they say it’s all because of genes. It’s hoped the research might lead to new preventative treatments for diseases like malaria, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Bible Museum Coming to Washington DC

Washington is the center of American political power and also home to some of the nation’s most visited museums. A new one that will showcase the Bible has skeptics questioning the motives of its conservative Christian funders. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Armenia and Politics of Word 'Genocide'

A century ago this April, hundreds of thousands of Armenians of the Turkish Ottoman empire were deported and massacred, and their culture erased from their traditional lands. While broadly accepted by the U.N. and at least 20 countries as “genocide”, the United States and Turkey have resisted using that word to describe the atrocities that stretched from 1915 to 1923. But Armenians have never forgotten.
Video

Video Afghan First Lady Pledges No Roll Back on Women's Rights

Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani, named one of Time's 100 Most Influential, says women should take part in talks with Taliban. VOA's Rokhsar Azamee has more from Kabul.
Video

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.

VOA Blogs

New in Music Alley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harry Wayne Casey – “KC” of KC and the Sunshine Band – comes to VOA’s Studio 4 to talk with "Border Crossings" host Larry London and perform songs from his new album, “Feeling You! The 60s.”