WASHINGTON — In 1966, in a letter to a friend in Ireland, Jacqueline Kennedy seemed to see her future. She described her “strange” world, one in which “privacy barely exists, and where I spend all winter in New York holding my breath and wondering which old letter of mine will come up for auction next!”
All these years later, her family is still carefully guarding her legacy — and launching a new attempt to prevent the auction of letters she wrote to an Irish priest.
Caroline Kennedy has gotten involved in trying to establish ownership over the batch of more than 30 deeply personal letters that her mother had written to the Rev. Joseph Leonard over nearly 15 years. Those letters — in which Kennedy revealed some of her most private thoughts on marriage, motherhood, and death — had been set to be auctioned.
But under questions of ownership, copyright, and morality, the letters were pulled. The same day that attorneys for Caroline Kennedy contacted the Irish auction house planning to sell the letters, the auction was canceled. And the financially strapped college that discovered the letters and was hoping for a windfall — All Hallows College in Dublin — is now planning to close some 172 years after it opened.
“The Kennedys are very, very controlling. And I’m sure they don’t like when they don’t have control of things,” said Laurence Leamer, author of “The Kennedy Women.” Caroline, he added, “feels now that she’s the bearer of the legacy, and that’s why they have to be so careful.”
The dispute is only the latest twist in a years-long effort by Caroline Kennedy to protect the writings left behind by her mother.
When Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis died, she gave her copyright interests and all of her writings to her children. After John F. Kennedy Jr., died in a plane crash in 1999, Caroline Kennedy gained complete control.
“I request, but do not direct, my children to respect my wish for privacy,” she wrote in her will.
This is not the first time Caroline Kennedy has gotten involved in such a dispute. In 2003, the author Thomas Maier published a book, “The Kennedys: America’s Emerald Kings,” that contained a chapter based on interviews with Father Richard McSorley, a Jesuit priest who, during games of tennis, counseled Jacqueline Kennedy shortly after her husband, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated in 1963.
The chapter – which tells of a grieving widow who talked about suicide and questioned her fitness as a mother — was also based on letters that Kennedy had written to McSorley, which were available in McSorley’s papers through Georgetown University.
Then, as now, questions were raised over whether such intimate thoughts and letters – particularly those expressed to a priest – should have been made public. The late Senator Edward M. Kennedy said at the time that he was “deeply disappointed that the privacy of communications such as these between a member of the clergy and his parishioner would not be respected.”
Just after the book was published, Maier said, Caroline Kennedy asserted that she owned the copyright to the letters and Georgetown put restrictions on the papers so they could no longer be viewed.
The head of the Jesuit community at Georgetown University apologized to the family. Maier was unapologetic.
“After 50 years, America deserves the full historical record to the best we can provide it,” he said. “Any actions that keep it as private property at this stage of the game are perhaps legally defensible but are not historically defensible. Especially when so much of the material is kept in taxpayer-funded archives.”
‘I request, but do not direct, my children to respect my wish for privacy.’
He added: “To not allow for the appropriate disclosure, more than 50 years after, does a disservice to history and to many Americans who are still alive who witnessed these events.”
Historians had long asked for the oral history Jacqueline Kennedy did with Arthur Schlesinger but were told it wouldn’t be available until 75 years after her death. Then, Caroline Kennedy came out with a book of her own that released those interviews.
The book became a best-seller.
“The family got fed up of everybody making money off of the Kennedys,” Leamer said. “They want the control. They want the money. . . . They’re very protective, and they feel these repulsive journalists are trying to say anything to make a buck. That’s not totally untrue.”
In general, while the physical copy of the letter belongs to the recipient, the copyright for the letter belongs to the author. The copyright transfers to a person’s heirs when he or she dies — as it did to Caroline Kennedy in this case.
The letters that her mother had written to and received from Father Leonard were rediscovered earlier this year when officials at All Hallows College — where Leonard had served and where he died — scoured their archives in an effort to find valuable materials that could be sold.
Jackie Kennedy first met Leonard in 1950, when she was 21, and over the course of nearly 15 years exchanged letters with him.
“I am so bitter against God,” she wrote a few months after the assassination of her husband. “I think God must have taken Jack to show the world how lost we would be without him. 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.”
After Leonard died in 1964, a mutual friend – John A. Costello, a former Irish prime minister — contacted Kennedy and let her know that Leonard had numerous letters from her. Kennedy wrote to say how “touched” she was by the careful and confidential way her letters had been treated.
And she wrote about reading one of the letters to her 8-year-old daughter, Caroline, and the effect it had on her. Kennedy asked the college if there was something she could do to assist it, and she later sent autographed books about her late husband.
The Globe earlier this year was able to review summaries of those letters, but the college would not provide actual copies out of concern that the Kennedy family would object.
Philip Sheppard, who represents the auction house that was going to sell the letters, said in a recent court affidavit that Kennedy family attorneys contacted the firm on May 21, asserting that they owned the copyright of the letters, according to the Irish Times. Sheppard declined to comment.
His attorneys also declined to comment, as did Caroline Kennedy and her husband, Edwin Schlossberg.
Meanwhile, an order of the Catholic Church affiliated with All Hallows College, the Vincentians, has said that Leonard’s will gives them ownership of the letters.
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ papers are held in various collections around the world, including many at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. But most of her personal correspondence – likely including many of the letters she received from Father Leonard – is not available to the public. In some cases, the papers have not been sorted through and indexed, and in others Caroline Kennedy has put restrictions on them.
The Kennedy Library has said it is not involved in trying to obtain the letters written to Father Leonard.
“It’s Caroline’s decision about what should happen,” said Hugh D. Auchincloss, who was Jacqueline Kennedy’s stepbrother. “Whatever she would suggest I would agree to.”
Auchincloss was with Kennedy when she first met Leonard, on a trip through Ireland in 1950.
“I’m sure that Father Leonard, having known him, if he were alive would have written Caroline and gotten her advice or permission as to what to do,” Auchincloss said.
At Caroline Kennedy’s suggestion, Auchincloss also donated all of the letters that he had ever received from his stepsister, dating from 1941 until shortly before she died. Those letters — about 180 items altogether — are now preserved at the library but are not available to the public.