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New letters reveal more intimate side of Jackie Kennedy

Jacqueline Kennedy shared a secret correspondence over nearly 15 years with Father Joseph Leonard, an Irish priest.

Sheppard's Irish Auction House

Jacqueline Kennedy shared a secret correspondence over nearly 15 years with Father Joseph Leonard, an Irish priest.

Jacqueline Kennedy was questioning her faith. She was no longer certain there was a God and, if there was, why he would steal away her young husband.

“I am so bitter against God,” she wrote a few months after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

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“I think God must have taken Jack to show the world how lost we would be without him,” she wrote “But that is a strange way of thinking to me – and god will have a bit of explaining to do to me if I ever see him.”

The letter, one of several shared with the Globe in the last several weeks, is one in a trove of secret correspondence that the former first lady had over nearly 15 years with Father Joseph Leonard, an Irish priest. Kennedy, who was elegantly mysterious for so long, divulges in great detail some of her most intimate feelings. Over the course of more than 30 letters, she questions the faithfulness of her husband, mourns the death of her son, and shares excitement about her first job as a journalist at Washington Times-Herald.

There are discussions of art and literature, mixed with private thoughts and exchanges of books.

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“It’s so good in a way to write all this down and get it off your chest,” she wrote at one point. “Because I never do really talk it with anyone.”

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Jacqueline Kennedy with Father Joseph Leonard at All Hallows College in 1950.

The letters, which for decades have sat in a drawer at All Hallows College in Dublin, are now coming to light after being discovered, sold, and prepared for an auction.

Owen Felix O’Neill, a rare books dealer, shared some of the letters with the Globe and also provided them to the Irish Times. The letters may be auctioned next month -- with an estimate of up to $1.6 million -- although O’Neill says he is also in discussions with several book publishers about selling them beforehand.

The Globe authenticated the letters that it received with specialists in the correspondence of presidents and first ladies. The Globe also obtained other letters from their correspondence through the John F. Kennedy Library.

In the letters reviewed by the Irish Times, Kennedy writes about her early marriage -- “I love being married much more than I did even in the beginning” – but also her worries that her husband would become like her father, who “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.”

She also had a description of her mother-in-law, Rose Kennedy.

“I don’t think Jack’s mother is too bright – and she would rather say a rosary than read a book,” she wrote.

Kennedy grew close to Leonard over a handful of visits to Dublin, the first coming in 1950 when she and her step-brother, Hugh Dudley Auchincloss III, toured Europe during the summer. Kennedy’s step uncle, W.S. Lewis, first met Leonard in the 1920s, and recommended they meet up with the priest on their trip.

Leonard picked them up at the airport and drove them around Dublin, and taking them to a horse show. He recommended other places to go in Ireland – including kissing the Blarney Stone while leaning over backward, which they did – and Jackie bonded with him over their shared Catholicism.

“She loved the stories about the kings and castles in Ireland,” Auchincloss said in an interview. “She has a wonderful series of conversations with him and then came back to America and got into a correspondence.”

Kennedy later asked Leonard to marry her and the future president, as well as to christen Caroline, according to Lewis’s book “One Man’s Education.”

Jackie Kennedy and her husband, then a young US senator from Massachusetts, went to Dublin in 1955 and again met with Leonard. On that trip, Jackie later wrote, she bought her husband a tiny silver pillbox and had it engraved. He always carried that pillbox with him, “even when he died.”

Her early letters are conversational and chatty, divulging details about trips that she took with her sister to Europe, where they triggered a fight among men at a bullfight in Spain, capsized in a torchlight process in Venice, and met with an art scholar in Florence.

“I will write you again very soon,” she ended one letter. “You are a much more conscientious correspondent than I am, but I will make up for it.”

She also writes about the breakup of her brief engagement with John Husted, the man she was supposed to marry in 1952.

“I’m ashamed that we both went into it so quickly and gaily but I think the suffering it brought us both for awhile afterwards was the best thing,” she wrote. “We both needed something of shock to make us grow up.”

She also, at times, appears young and vulnerable. In one letter she references the books that Leonard continues to send to her.

“It seems to me you know everything and from all you’ve read and learned you can pick and choose the most lovely things for me,” she wrote. “Does it give you a sense of power to think you’re molding someone else mind and taste? I hope it does and certainly no one ever had a more willing piece of putty to work with.”

The Globe also obtained some of the letters that Leonard sent to Kennedy. A few weeks after Christmas in 1962, he sent a letter to “my dearest Jacqueline” thanking her for sending a book about the White House.

“I shall like the President to know how profoundly I appreciate the courage, equanimity, and wisdom with which he is carrying out the duties of his great office, and yourself to realize that I look upon your friendship as one of the greatest consolations and blessings of a long life,” he wrote.

“I pray you, him and the children every day without fail and hope you will remember me in yours,” he wrote. “With love to you both, I am, as I have ever been your devoted and affectionate old friend.”

He also wrote a letter just after learning about the death of her son, Patrick.

“I hope that yourself and his President will allow me to join in your grief of the death of your little son, who is now beginning his glorious and eternal life,” he wrote, before quoting scripture.

“I can’t refrain from adding that I believe Patrick Bouvier will do more for his father and much for his spirituality / transforming, than if he had lived to be a very old man like I am,” he continued. “And I say all that, owing to my friendship with his President and yourself, I look forward to his helping me also, for I need it.”

Several months later, she was grieving again, over the death of President Kennedy. Leonard wrote a few weeks after the assassination.

“I shall not write a letter of sympathy,” he wrote. “I could not find the words. Instead, I shall ask you to do me a favour, and that is, to let me unite my simple feelings of love, grief and desolation to your profound and heartfelt ones.”

He called President Kennedy “a Christian martyr” because he spoke out for the rights of the poor and neglected.

“I think 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,” he wrote.

Leonard, who revealed that he had not been well, said he wrote to the Vatican for special permission to say Mass while sitting down.

“Strange to say the permission arrived on the day and almost at the hour the President died, so that I had the consolation of saying Mass for the repose of his soul on Sunday 24th,” he wrote, before closing, “Our friendship has been one of the greatest blessings and happiness of my life.”

It was likely one of the last letters they exchanged. Several months later, Leonard died. As soon as Kennedy found out, she called for flowers to be sent. According to some attendees of the funeral, the flowers arrived outside the church just as seminarians were hoisting the coffin to their shoulders to carry Leonard into the Mass.

“The flowers were placed atop the casket and they carried it into the church,” Father Raymond J. Boland, a former seminarian at All Hallows College, recalled in a 2008 interview with a newspaper for the Kansas City diocese where he was serving.

Related coverage:

Photos: Letters between Jackie Kennedy and Father Leonard

Framingham woman helped Jackie Kennedy reply to condolence letters

JFK library releases letters to a grieving widow

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.

 Correction: Because of incorrect information provided the Globe, an earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the owner of the letters. They are the property of All Hallows College in Dublin, Ireland.

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