The discovery, a half-century after the fact, that Jacqueline Kennedy had a long, confidential correspondence with an Irish priest has filled in some of the blanks about the most private of first ladies.
It’s a treasure trove for historians who for generations have been frustrated as they searched for material to get inside the head of a woman who wanted them to stay away.
And it’s telling that when Jackie Kennedy decided to open up — about love, about infidelity, about life itself — she did so to a priest, a penitent outside the confessional.
Jackie knew that Father Joe Leonard, born in Sligo not far from where Yeats is buried, wouldn’t sell her out. Unfortunately for her, the school that held the letters did. As English aristocrats decided to open their houses to the great unwashed, so, too, did All Hallows College in Dublin decide to sell the letters.
One fertile area for historians will be comparing Leonard to Jackie’s favorite priest from Boston, Cardinal Richard Cushing.
While Cushing was a prince of the church, he complained that all he wanted to be was, like Joe Leonard, a simple priest. Like him, Cushing was more down to earth than pious, deeply spiritual but decidedly worldly.
Jacqueline Bouvier became a member of the most prominent Irish-American family by marriage and found her new tribe baffling.
“These Irish,” she told historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., “they always seem to have a sort of persecution thing about them.”
Having met Father Leonard when she was young and single, Jackie considered him a mentor and wanted him to preside over her marriage to JFK. But that was never in the cards. It was always going to be the archbishop of Boston, whoever that was, and it was Richard Cushing. While he may have been perceived as the Kennedys’ priest, Cushing appreciated Jackie for who she was, not whom she married, and she came to love him.
As Matt Viser noted in his nuanced piece in the Globe this week about the letters, Father Leonard admired JFK’s sticking up for the poor, as he did Jackie’s character.
“I think,” Leonard wrote to Jackie, “that you have given the women, not only of the USA but of the world, a representation of the ideal of the Valiant Woman as she appeared in the eyes of Solomon.”
It is extraordinary, then, that Cushing, without knowing of that correspondence, used almost identical language in a 1966 oral history he gave to Ted Kennedy.
While praising the character of JFK and Pope John XXIII, Cushing added, “Something of the same can be said of Jacqueline, that valiant woman, first described in the Old Testament. I meet young women today who were so impressed by her attitude at her husband’s funeral, by her dignity, her poise, her bravery, that many of these young girls now look up to her as an ideal. Whereas formerly they were chasing after moving-picture actresses and other popular idols, now they look to her as an example of genuine greatness.”
In 1968, Cushing got hate mail after he defended Jackie’s decision to marry the Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis. After the Vatican contradicted him, Cushing offered to resign, but he wouldn’t sell out Jackie.
Jackie had Cushing’s back. Her animosity toward Martin Luther King Jr. could be traced to her brother-in-law Bobby Kennedy telling her that FBI wiretaps captured King suggesting Cushing was drunk at JFK’s funeral.
When Jackie Kennedy’s son Patrick died three days after he was born, it was Cushing who presided over the funeral. Cushing went to her bedside later, and gave her a prayer he had written for her dead son. She cherished it.