Jacqueline Kennedy Letters Pulled from Auction Raises Questions of Ethics, History

Photographs and transcripts of these letters, written by Jacqueline Kennedy from 1950 to 1964, appeared in The Boston Globe on May 13, 2014. (Photo: Sheppard's Irish Auction House)

Photographs and transcripts of these letters, written by Jacqueline Kennedy from 1950 to 1964, appeared in The Boston Globe on May 13, 2014. (Photo: Sheppard’s Irish Auction House)

When published lots are abruptly taken off the auction block, there is usually controversy involved. That is certainly true of a recent cancellation that involved a trove of private letters written by Jacqueline Kennedy to a Catholic priest.

Their friendship started in 1950, when she was still Jacqueline Bouvier—a 21-year-old socialite visiting Ireland with her stepbrother, Hugh Auchincloss. The Auchincloss family knew Father Joseph Leonard, an elderly priest at All Hallows Missionary College, and asked him to give Jackie a tour of Dublin. The two became warm friends and exchanged letters until Father Leonard’s death in 1964.

Jackie was notoriously private, but she felt safe with Father Leonard and expressed some of her innermost thoughts in 33 letters spanning 14 years. Included are details about the failure of her first engagement and her marriage to John F. Kennedy the following year. She was sadly prescient about her new husband: “He’s like my father in a way—loves the chase and is bored with the conquest—and once married needs proof he’s still attractive, so flirts with other women and resents you. I saw how that nearly killed Mummy.”

Jacqueline Bouvier met Father Joseph Leonard during a tour of Ireland in 1950, when she was a young, unmarried socialite. They established a close friendship.

Jacqueline Bouvier met Father Joseph Leonard during a tour of Ireland in 1950, when she was a young, unmarried socialite. They established a close friendship. (Photo: Sheppard’s Irish Auction House)

In letters after President Kennedy’s assassination, she confessed that the tragedy sorely damaged her faith: “I am so bitter against God … I will see Jack again … with or without God.” The correspondence is filled with her deepest and most personal feelings about love, family, loneliness and death.

Birth of the Controversy
The letters were found at All Hallows College in April of this year when a bookseller was asked to appraise a valuable 15th-century book for subsequent resale. Examining other items, he found Jackie’s letters in a drawer, all but four of them in their original envelopes. And here the multi-layered controversy begins. The small Irish college had been in operation as a seminary school since 1842 but began taking lay students for higher education in the 1980s. In desperate financial straits, the college decided to sell the letters anonymously. Administrators chose an auction house not known for expertise in documents and paper.

The letters were estimated to sell for as much as $5 million, but then things went rapidly downhill. The bookseller (who allegedly claimed to be the owner) provided photocopied images to The Irish Times and The Boston Globe. The two newspapers reported the intimate contents with great fanfare. Aghast, the auction company sued the bookseller to stop releasing information about the correspondence and stop depicting himself as the owner. Meanwhile, the Kennedy family raised understandable complaints about candid letters to a priest being made the subject of a public sale. They also claimed copyright on the content and images.

With all of the ensuing publicity, All Hallows College—no longer anonymous—unfortunately found itself in the news. At first, administrators claimed that Father Leonard had no will and all of his belongings were left to the college where he lived. But, a “lost” will was subsequently discovered and it appears the letters were left instead to a religious order, the Vincentian Fathers, who operate (but are separate from) the private college.

Unsurprisingly, the letters were pulled from auction on May 21. Two days later, All Hallows College announced that, after years of operating at a loss, it would be winding down activity and closing its doors.

All Hallows College was founded in 1842 in Dublin, Ireland, to train priests for missionary work.  It became open to lay students in the 1980s. Two days after the letters were pulled from auction on May 21 of this year, the college announced that, after years of operating at a loss, it would be winding down activity and closing its doors.

All Hallows College was founded in 1842 in Dublin, Ireland, to train priests for missionary work. It became open to lay students in the 1980s. Two days after the letters were pulled from auction on May 21 of this year, the college announced that, after years of operating at a loss, it would be winding down activity and closing its doors. (Photo: All Hallows College)

Disturbing Questions
This very unfortunate story raises a number of disturbing questions for the collectibles market.

Many assume it is unethical to sell confidential letters to a clergyman, but that fact remains open to debate. Should the privacy of public figures take precedence over the historical record? Jackie Kennedy certainly trusted that her correspondence would remain discreet, but Father Leonard was a friend, not an official counselor.

If these letters had been written 100 years earlier—let’s say by Mary Todd Lincoln—would they be withheld from sale? The answer is probably not. But is that because so much more time has passed and Mary Lincoln has no living heirs? Or is it because she was not as beloved as Jackie Kennedy?

Most historians want to see Jackie’s letters housed at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, where they will eventually be open to researchers and thus public disclosure. So, why shouldn’t a needy institution profit from them?

It may be a question of ethics—but it is also a question of history.


Liz Holderman is a Worthologist who specializes in collectible books, documents and autographs.

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