TOM PUTNAM: Good afternoon everyone. I‘m Tom Putnam, Director of the John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. And on behalf of all my Library and Library Foundation colleagues, I thank you for coming and for your patience with your heightened security as you entered the building today.
I‘m pleased to acknowledge the underwriters of the Kennedy Library Forums, including lead sponsor Bank of America along with Boston Capital, the Lowell Institute, the Boston Foundation, the Corcoran Jennison Companies, and our media sponsors, The Boston Globe, WBUR and NECN.
You may be able to imagine the scene: A group or archivists sit at a lunch table or congregate by the communal coffee pot, aware of the incredible depth and variety of our holdings, the suggestions start flowing. Wouldn‘t it be great if somebody wrote a book highlighting this fascinating collection, those powerful photos, these recently released presidential tapes? Time goes on, researchers come and go, each with their own carefully-chosen topics. And many of these imagined projects never come to fruition.
Such was the case with the Library‘s immense collection of condolence mail -- until today.
Magnificently and with the eye of the master historian that she is, Ellen Fitzpatrick not only discovered the hidden treasure of correspondence sent to Jacqueline Kennedy and her family, she read through every letter, selected the most powerful examples and contacted each correspondent or his or her heir for permission to publish; a massive undertaking that led not only to these particular missives being included in the book, but also led some of those contacted to be here with us this evening. Welcome to those.
Ellen then weaved the letters together with her own thoughtful introduction and commentary into a book that reads, as she describes it, as, ―A collection of valentines, an homage to a President who meant so much to so many and whose death was wrenching to the nation and an entire world.‖ Doris Kearns Goodwin has described the resulting work as a, ―Stunningly fresh look at the impact of President Kennedy‘s assassination on the American people.‖
It was not Ellen‘s original intention to write such a book -- and I'll let her describe in fuller detail the carefully chosen research project that initially brought her to the library and how she discovered the previously untouched collection of condolence mail. It‘s a wonderful story, and one that stirs the hearts of the Library staff and strengthens our hope that other untapped collections will one day find a champion like Ellen to make them accessible to all of you and garner the kind of national media attention that this book has received.
Ellen Fitzpatrick, a scholar specializing in modern American political and intellectual history, is the Carpenter Professor at the University of New Hampshire. The author and editor of six books, she is known to many through her regular analysis on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer. What this brief biography does not capture is what a fine and decent person Ellen is. She‘s won the hearts of all the staff here for the generous manner in which she shares credit, asks for advice and permission, and expresses appreciation to all who have helped her. And I promise I mention all of this because it‘s true and not just because I know that Ellen‘s mother is here with us this evening.
Letter to Jackie: Condolences from a Grieving Nation is on sale in our bookstore, and Ellen has agreed to sign your copies. Hopefully, we will have time for Ellen to answer all of your questions. But I do want to warn everyone that we‘ll need to end a few minutes early to allow additional time between this form and the next. So if you‘re not able to pose your question, Ellen would be happy to answer it during the book signing. I'll come back on stage at the end to provide a few more instructions.
We‘re so pleased to have Robin Young returning as moderator for this special session. Robin is host of the noonday news magazine Here and Now on WBUR. She‘s generously and expertly moderated a number of forums here, which reflect her wide range of interests and talents as an interviewer, including a delightfully humorous session with presidential cartoonists, a fascinating scientific discussion with Massachusetts-born NASA astronaut, Sunita Williams, and a deeply poignant conversation with Mariane Pearl, the widow of Daniel Pearl, The Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and murdered in Pakistan.
Working with a nationally-recognized advertising agency, the Kennedy Library launched a global ad campaign last year to promote the 40th anniversary of the moon landing. One of the ads that was developed showed a picture of the Apollo capsule with the tagline, ―Technically, it carried three but millions were aboard.‖ I thought of the sophisticated and clever wordsmith who developed that tagline when I read in this wonderful new collection a similar sentiment written by a 16-year-old student. ―The coffin was very small,‖ she wrote to Mrs. Kennedy, ―to contain so much of so many Americans.‖
―Reflecting on their sense of loss, their fears and their striving,‖ concludes Ellen
Fitzpatrick in the book‘s thoughtful introduction, ―the authors of these letters wrote an American eulogy as poignant and compelling as their shattered and cherished dreams.‖ And through this new collection, Ellen pays tribute to those dreams and the man who helped inspire them. Please join me in welcoming Ellen Fitzpatrick and Robin Young to the Kennedy Library. (applause)
ROBIN YOUNG: How many people remember where they were? Yeah. It‘s a question that you ask of a certain generation; they immediately know what you're talking about. Of course, for a new generation, they might think 9/11. But as Ellen writes in this incredible new book, this was perhaps the first historical moment that many Americans witnessed.
And we witnessed it because of the advent of television as well. We want to talk more about that.
But just to say, Ellen, that in reading it -- I was interested in it, very interested in it -- I had no idea how powerful it would be to start reading the letters, one after another. In fact, you have to put it down after a moment because it‘s so powerful. I know you remember where you were as well. And we‘re going to get to that part of the story. But first, put us in some context. How many letters were there? When did they start coming?
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: The letters began coming immediately when the White House reopened for business. President Kennedy, as you know, was murdered on a Friday. When the mail came in on Monday, there was a deluge of mail -- more than they had seen heretofore or ever before in the White House. And it was staggering for the staff to try to figure out what to do with all of these letters. As they began to open them, the letters just kept pouring in. They were largely addressed to Mrs. Kennedy. And by the middle of January-- I think January 15th or so -- when she went on television to thank the nation, she was thanking the country for the first 8,000 that she had received within seven weeks of the assassination. In the first year and a half or so, I think the general condolence mail sort of ends around — there are few from 1965 -- but by the end of 1964. Many people wrote on the anniversary of the assassination; others wrote on President Kennedy‘s birthday. And by that point, there were somewhere between 1.2 and 1.5 million letters.
ROBIN YOUNG: Well, you mentioned that she went on television seven weeks in. We have a clip from that. So let‘s enjoy that now. This is Jacqueline Kennedy thanking Americans for all these letters that, obviously, she and her staff hadn‘t gotten to yet, hadn‘t gotten through yet. And was this the first appearance by the first lady?
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Yes, it was since the funeral.
ROBIN YOUNG: Right.
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: It was her first public appearance.
ROBIN YOUNG: Let‘s watch. [video]
ROBIN YOUNG: I got a chill. But what happened for you when you saw that?
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: I was actually sitting with my family in the living room. Do you remember it, Rob, Mom? Everyone is here tonight. And there was a great deal of attention to the fact that this was Mrs. Kennedy‘s first appearance and so a great deal of curiosity.
And I registered it someplace in the brain. And when I was driving down here a year ago working on a different project, I was trying to think about how I might be able to find out how Americans viewed President Kennedy in his own time. What would be a good source? And I thought of the vast holdings of this Library and I thought where do I begin with this process? I‘m sure they have any number of things. And it just came to me, what about those condolence letters that she received that would have been written right in the moment of 1963? And that they might contain reflections on the times, on President Kennedy, on their views of his presidency. And I came upstairs and asked to see the first box.
ROBIN YOUNG: And they sure do contain all of those things. We‘ve put, as you said, the ones you picked out to represent all of these thousands and thousands of letters.
You‘ve put them together in this book in different categories. And what, broadly, do they tell us about America at that time?
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: It‘s a paradox. Because on the one hand, it‘s a time of greater innocence it seems to me. Remember this is before Watergate. It‘s before the escalation of the Vietnam War. And so there‘s a kind of faith in the President and a belief that he‘s on the side of the people, that in carrying out his responsibilities, he is trying to do the best he can.
ROBIN YOUNG: Well, there‘s also -- you remind us -- there were people who hated JFK at the time.
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Yes.
ROBIN YOUNG: And even some of those who write, write very civilly in almost a quaint language that you don‘t hear anymore about how they still are grieving. There‘s a quaintness, there‘s a civility. They‘re our letters. We don‘t write letters anymore.
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Yes.
ROBIN YOUNG: There‘s a language that‘s different.
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Yes. And I was very struck by the respectful tone of these letters that even people who began by saying, ―Gee, you know, I‘m sorry he was assassinated. I was looking forward to voting against him in 1964,‖ said how ashamed they were that this had happened. And they expressed concern about the climate of extremism. So that‘s the other side of it: an age of innocence, but also letters that remind us that it‘s still the age of segregation. There‘s a lot about the civil rights movement.
ROBIN YOUNG: That really struck me. And I know you want to read some of the letters. But I was struck by how now, decades later, there‘re all sorts of conspiracy theories: we have movies, there was a whiff of -- was it the communists or the mafia, or is it all these other theories? To a person, the letter writers that mentioned what they thought had happened were convinced it was because of Kennedy‘s push for civil rights.
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: A lot of people thought so, yes. And they strongly identified -- this was a surprise to me as a historian, because historians have rightly been critical of President Kennedy for being slow to protect the Freedom Riders, the civil rights workers in the South, and for being slow to initiate civil rights legislation. So there‘s no effort here to sanitize this, but an effort to bring to light how some Americans saw him and his stance in favor of saying that this was a moral wrong, that this had to be addressed, powerfully impacted many citizens.
ROBIN YOUNG: Yeah. And we know you have letters. The other categories are Grief and Loss. People who lost husbands, sometimes on the same … One woman -- I remember her letter -- her husband died while watching the coverage of the assassination. So there‘s that section. You have letters from African-Americans, letters from children.
Where would you like to start?
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: I‘d like to start with a letter from Janice Crabtree, if I may, because this was one of the early letters that I read in the collection. And Mrs. Crabtree, who is living and who I‘m going to meet in Dallas in two days, is now 84-years-old. And she did something that a lot of letter writers did, Robin; she wrote a letter to Mrs.
Kennedy that enclosed another letter. And, in her case, she begins by saying:
Dear Mrs. Kennedy,
The following letter is a copy of a letter that I wrote to a parish priest [she puts ―Episcopal‖ lest anybody confuse that Catholicism was involved here] who moved from this area some time ago.
I thought perhaps you would know by this letter that there are those who will never forget your husband and will always miss him. Even now, six months afterwards, unexpected tears spring to my eyes every time I see a film of him on television. Even now, it so hard to believe, I whisper to myself, ―Surely this can‘t be so!‖
Your beautiful picture on the cover of Life and your article prompted me to write to you. I hope I have given you some comfort.
And her letter, which is enclosed to the priest, is dated November 27th, 1963. And I‘d just like to read a little bit of this.
May I share a few thoughts with you about the tragedy? Nothing has touched me so deeply in a long time. I had seen President Kennedy just three or four minutes before he was shot. I had planned all week to go to the parade in downtown Dallas, but the morning dawned foggy, misty and ugly. Billy insisted that I stay home and watch the
motorcade on television. But by 9:30 a.m., I couldn‘t sit still any longer. I put on my oldest overcoat and overshoes and dashed to Dallas. I parked way down on Pacific and was the last car that that lot could take. Excitement was in the air, and I was so glad that I was alone so that I could soak it up without the necessity of polite conversation with anyone. I walked slowly, trying to kill the long wait.
She describes the crowds forming. And she says, ―It was quite heartening because I had worried so about his reception in Dallas.‖ And she talks about people standing on the rooftops and on awnings.
A young girl next to me had a transistor radio, and we were able to hear on-the-spot reporting about his wonderful welcome at Love Field, about his friendly handshaking, Jackie‘s beauty and everything -- the excitement was mounting. Finally, the police turned away all traffic, and Main Street was empty at noon. The police cautioned us to stay on
the curb, but we couldn‘t resist dashing out into the quiet street for a long look to see if the motorcade was approaching. At last it came into view, and that first sight of it filled me with such incredible excitement that I don‘t believe I can describe it -- indeed, even to write of it starts my heart pounding. The first thing I was able to see at several blocks distance were the red lights of the motorcycle police escort -- about eight flashing red lights proceeding the dark limousine. They were traveling faster than I had expected. The police were yelling to stay back from both sides of the street, but we surged out anyway. I almost got my toe run over by one of the motorcycles. Long as I live, I will never forget Kennedy – tanned (that was the first thing I noticed) smiling, handsome, happy. I didn‘t get to see Jackie‘s face, because she was waving to her side of the street, but her youthful image was unmistakably beautiful. Her long, mahogany-colored hair was blowing in the wind, and the sun, which had come out brilliantly, caught the red highlights. I'll remember the way it shone so brightly on the President. Then they were gone.
I was shaking so as I made my way back to the parking lot, that I decided I better stop on the way home and eat a bite of lunch. I got into my little Opel and turned on the radio. The first thing I heard was, ―The President has been shot.‖ And I just thought the
announcer had meant to say that the President has been shocked at the size and friendliness of the crowd. All too soon the terrible truth sunk in and I don‘t know how I got home.
ROBIN YOUNG: That‘s a letter that was enclosed to Jacqueline Kennedy, but people also wrote that kind of folksy narrative too, or they write pages. I‘ve got one open here. Here‘s young Elizabeth Zimmerman. She tells Mrs. Kennedy several pages in, ―I have my magazines which I keep in a special drawer, ―My President Kennedy Drawer‖ I call it. I know them by heart. I look at them and cry over them, always find something new.‖
She says she was walking along, and there was snow on cars. And she made a little square. ―And I wrote ‗JFK‘ and cleared the snow from around it. When you write about it, it is nothing. When you do it, it is something. I write mainly to say I love John F. Kennedy and when I stop to think, I find that I mourn for him more as a father of two lovely children and a husband of a charming woman more than as President to the United States.‖ Tell us about that personal aspect, that to many it was ―My President – My Leader‖. But for others it was they felt they knew the family.
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: I think, as I‘ve reflected on this, one of the reasons that Americans felt so close to the Kennedy family was that: number one, they had the youngest children in the White House in the 20th century at a time when the post-World War II generation was raising the baby boomers. They were part of that phenomenon. And so you had parents who were in their 30s and 40s seeing this vivacious, charismatic, young couple in the White House raising children just as they were. It was a point of commonality.
As was President Kennedy‘s service during World War II. Our wars these days are fought by only some Americans. And the Second World War, of course, it was a war that touched many, many families with many, many serving. And President Kennedy, despite his family connections and his wealth, had served in the Second World War. He had been a hero. And there was a sense, ironically -- given their social class, their wealth -- of a commonality with the American people.
And, third, this was the first television president. He was avidly followed, as were the exploits of his family, very, very closely, without any of the downside of the current television culture that we‘re in, in which nothing is sacred. We have 24 hour analysis and undoing of everything the president says by analysts, commentaries, critics. So it was a very different time.
ROBIN YOUNG: You mentioned the war experience. You have a letter in here from someone who was on PT109 with President Kennedy, a letter from General MacArthur.
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Yes.
ROBIN YOUNG: In fact, there are letters from people … So many of them started off by saying, ―I‘m just a nobody.‖ Tell us more about how they viewed themselves.
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: That was a line that I read more often than any single line other than ―I‘m terribly sorry.‖ ―I am a nobody from nowhere.‖ And it saddened me to think about people who thought of themselves in those terms. There‘s one letter that I absolutely love, and I hear this in my thoughts often. He begins by saying, ―I am but a humble postman.‖ He is Henry Gonzalez from El Paso, Texas, who had been born the same year as President Kennedy – as had my own father, by the way – and so he had been a veteran in the Second World War. So a sense of, I‘m not anybody important but I‘m writing to you even though you‘re a great lady and an important person, because I‘m moved to do so by this experience.
ROBIN YOUNG: I remembered them just in one reading. Was he the one that talked about what happened that day, how he went down the street and he would hear from …
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: That was yet another postman. I think I read three postmens‘ letters at least.
ROBIN YOUNG: Yeah. And he talked about how he traveled down the street that day, and at every home he‘d get a progress report. And, of course, it was increasingly bad news about what happened to the President. And that‘s another element that seems so important. I mean, you were hoping that you‘d get some snapshot of the day, and in fact, people thought of themselves as reporters. ―Mrs. Kennedy, I have to tell you what happened.‖ ―The street I was walking on, the postal route I was delivering.‖ ―Here‘s minute by minute what happened in my classroom.‖ ―It came at this time and then it came at this time.‖ It‘s almost as if she was otherwise horribly busy that day so they wanted to tell her what happened.
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Well, I think it‘s one of those events that was just etched indelibly in peoples‘ minds – just as we began this whole conversation by asking you about it. But over time as I‘ve worked more on this project, I feel that that is because it resembles some of the great personal traumas that people feel in their lives or losses.
That is, it‘s not so much the macro-historical event, it was that it was felt at such a deeply personal level. Many people said, ―I felt this was a member of my family.‖ This was something that people said, ―Happened to me. It changed my own life. It wasn‘t the President, the nation, it happened to me. I‘m not the same as I was before this happened.‖
ROBIN YOUNG: Many parents enclosed letters that their children had sent them from college or if they were abroad, and their children saying things to their parents like, ―I‘m going to go to the Peace Corps. This has profoundly changed my life.‖
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: There is a letter on that very point -- let me see if I can find it while I‘m looking -- from a woman who actually wound up helping a great deal with this book. Because she turned me on to a woman, a genealogist, who she said, ―Oh, this woman can find anyone.‖ It turns out she could. And thank God for that. Anna Lounesbery -- her mother wrote to Mrs. Kennedy and said, ―I don‘t know if you‘ll see this letter yourself but I hope very much you‘ll read the enclosed letter I received from my daughter who is teaching English in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia.‖ And the letter begins this way. I'll just read a small segment of it. It‘s dated November 23rd.
Even the Ethiopian sky is mourning today, and it was raining last night when President Kennedy died. We were having a housewarming party for the nurses when Ron came in with the news. We didn‘t believe him until he turned on the radio -- we sat in silent horror and each time the words were repeated it was a new shock -- and still is today, and will be for a long time to come, for presidents aren‘t assassinated in the modern world. I remember you cried when Roosevelt died, but of course it meant nothing to me. I feel now as though a member of my family died. In a very real sense, he was our idol; he is our reason for being here -- his idealism, his courage.
Truly the greatest tribute that anyone could pay to this man is to shake off complacency, examine one‘s own heart and mind, and dedicate oneself to the cause of peace, and the eradication of poverty, disease and inequality. The world is hurt, angry and weeps. Shall he have lived and died in vain? Shall he be a martyr? Surely history will be changed. I pray that we may all learn from him and work better because of him.
With love, Annie.
ROBIN YOUNG: You contacted the people to get their permission but then you also found out where they are, which is fascinating. Because as you‘re reading the letter, you find yourself flipping back to the index, especially if it‘s very powerful. You want to know what happened to the letter writer. And sometimes it broke my heart.
You can‘t see it, but I‘m going to hold it up anyway: a little cub scout saluting, and this is little Monroe, Monroe Young Jr. III. And it‘s in his very labored handwriting and he says, ―Some mean man killed my daddy too, here in Dallas. My daddy was a soldier.
Santa Claus didn‘t get my letter. I hope he will get my letter. I want a bicycle. When you write him, Mrs. Kennedy, tell him my name.‖ And I just thought, ―Oh, look at that little boy saluting.‖ And then I turned back to find out that he died at a young age in his 30s.
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: He did. But he has two children who were extraordinarily proud to find that this letter would be included in this book and who learned about it from us. They didn‘t know that he had written it.
ROBIN YOUNG: You know, I wondered about that. Even people who had written letters, had they forgotten about them? What was it like? And tell us more about Monroe‘s children. But what was it like when you contacted people and said, ―I have a letter you wrote to President Kennedy‘s widow decades ago‖?
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Well, I have to tell you that I began that process with trepidation. My heart was literally pounding the first day I picked up the phone to call the first person. And I figured this was a slam dunk. Because this was a woman who wrote a letter saying, ―You know, Mrs. Kennedy, you‘re getting all these letters and you really should put them in a book.‖ So I thought, now if this woman won‘t give me permission
to publish this letter, I‘m going to stop today and hang up my credentials and it‘s over. So I looked her up. Extraordinarily enough, she was living in the same home she was living in 1963. She was alive. And I called her. And I was really scared. I‘m somebody who, when I was a child, waited outside for my friend to come out of the house because I was afraid to ring the doorbell. So I called her and I said, ―I believe that I have a letter.‖ I explained that I was a historian. I said, ―I believe I have a letter that you may have written to Mrs. John F Kennedy. Do you remember writing such a letter?‖ And she said, ―Was it after he died?‖ And I said, ―Yes.‖ And she said, ―Yes, I did write that letter.‖ And I then explained that I was seeking permission to publish it. And she said something that I was not prepared for. There was a long, very long pause. And I thought, oh, this isn‘t going to go well. And she said, ―Would you read me the letter?‖ And I said, ―Yes.‖ And I did.
And she started weeping and said, ―No death in my life ever affected me as much as the death of President Kennedy.‖ And she said, ―Of course you can publish the letter. I would do anything for that man. That should never have happened.‖ And it was very moving. I then had to enlist a lot of people to help me with this process, some of whom are here tonight. And they were much better than I was at being aggressive about this. And we were able to find most of the people we wanted to find.
ROBIN YOUNG: Is there anyone you‘d like to introduce that‘s associated with the letter?
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Yes, Mary Dalton Hoffman. Is Mary here somewhere? Mary, she deserves a huge applause. (applause) Mary was my permissions editor and part-time psychiatrist. And she did an incredible job of finding these people. And Lauren Dinger as well, my research assistant. Is Lauren in the room? Or she might be wandering around?
There she is.
ROBIN YOUNG: Oh, she‘s up there. (applause)
ROBIN YOUNG: Can I add, too, are there families of the letter writers here?
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: I don‘t know if the Goins family has made it?
ROBIN YOUNG: There‘s a hand right there. ELLEN FITZPATRICK: How wonderful. ROBIN YOUNG: There you are. (applause) ROBIN YOUNG: Can we hear about that letter?
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Is Edna here? Edna, can you stand? Thank you. (applause)
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: I have a story I want to tell about Edna and me. But I want to begin by reading the letter that brought us together. This letter is dated November 23rd, 1963. It comes from Pinehurst, North Carolina to the JFK Family.
Dear Beloved One,
I know you are somewhat surprized shocked with the Last + Grief to What happen to such a great man husband father an Son an Father of our country -- but in this Sadist moment of your Life you have my greatest symphy for every one an I know you are surprized to know I am a Negro woman but as I set here an try en put in to words my feeling I hope you Will feel a spot in your heart for me. This marning God spoke to me it said President John F. Kennedy did for his Country what God did for his world they Killed our Lord an Father. An now they have Killed our Presidentend an Father. We love him but God loved him best. I feel our Lost is heaven gain how greater man is this to give up his life for his friends. Please don‘t say he is dead Lest say he is at the waiting room Waiting for God to say you have been ruler over a Few things but now you are ruler over many.
When his daughter and son walks through life People will Look on them an say there goes a great girl and boy and a sweet beloved wife but I Feel our Lost is heaven gain.
He isnt dead he is Just sleeping in heaven. I want to meet President John F. Kennedy in that great day an help him sing
They Will Be peace in the Valley. For me I am praying for the family.
Please tell the children to be Sweet an Obey their mother an Father is waiting to welcome them home.
Your Truly, Katherine Dowd Jackson
A Negro woman with a Big White heart
P.S. I wont to wish President Johnson a happy suscess in the Predensence Field I am Praying evry thing will work out find. Thank you. May God Bless an Keep him from harm.
So we did find Mrs. Jackson‘s daughter. (applause)
And I, in my typical cowardly way, had Mary Dalton Hoffman call her first to clear the ground, make sure everything was okay. And she said, ―Oh, she‘s a lovely woman.
You‘re going to like Edna.‖ So I called her up and asked her for the permission, which she happily gave. And she said, ―I don‘t believe you‘re calling me today! My son – Katherine Dowd Jackson‘s grandson – began his classes today at the John F. Kennedy
School of Government.‖ And I imagined a sort of wet-behind-the-ears graduate student. It turns out that her son is a Senior Colonel in the United States Army and is a National Security Fellow this year at the Kennedy School. And I think the Colonel is here tonight. Colonel Goins, can you stand? (applause)
ROBIN YOUNG: So this was his grandmother who had written that letter?
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Yes.
ROBIN YOUNG: And there‘s poetry to it. And we have to say that from many of the African-Americans who wrote, there were all these apologies. This is the '60s. Many hadn‘t gone to school, hadn‘t been allowed to go to school, were undereducated. But the poetry that comes through in the writing …
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: There are many letters also from poor white folks as well.
ROBIN YOUNG: Oh, sure, Appalachian.
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: And what I was struck by, in fact, in many of these letters, were the levels of literacy among adults -- white and black -- that many people had had to leave school at third-grade to support their families, and the distance that we have traveled since that time. I don‘t know if Fred Buerman‘s family made it or not? Are you here? Okay, well, this is the time to introduce these ladies here who are a wonderful group. This letter was quite amazing. Mr. Buerman had written a very long letter in which he introduced his very large extended family. And I am not going to read his long description of it, but I just want to read a couple of lines from this letter. It comes from St. Louis County and it‘s dated November 28th, 1963. It‘s addressed to Mrs. John F. Kennedy and her two sweet children.
This is a Letter with Grief and Sorry From My Bottom of My Heart and Sympathy to you, Mrs. J Kennedy and Children, and the Grief and Sorry for Your Dear Husband Ex Presedent Mr. John Kennedy. That Shall Never Be Fargotton By Anybody are the Whole World as the Spirit of All American People of the United States of America.
And he says,
He tried To Be Friendly to Everydody Poor Peopel to Rich Peopel and Foes and Enemies and He Spoke the Truth from His Bottom of His heart and He Never Be forgoton By the Whole World. God have mercy on him …
I am happy to write a few lines. I Hope this letter will Give you and your Children a Spirit and We Loved You All God Bless you.
Any he goes on. He‘s talking about the funeral here. And he says how the children acted so well through the performance.
What touches the People Heart -- When You Mrs. Kennedy and Kneeling at the Coffin of your Husband Mr. J Kennedy and your Daughter Kneeling at your side. I notice and the World Sees Your Daughter Touches with Her Gentle Hand the United States of American Flag that Showed that She Loved Her Father and Bid Him Goodby, and the Boy How He acted Like a Little Man Mrs. Jacklin Kennedy and Your Children I Hope you all Be Happy Good Health and Good Luck.
He ends the letter by saying,
Excuse for Writing this. My name is Fred Buerman. I am 92 Years old. Had My Legs take off 10 years ago. I Writing In a Wheel Chair. I Was Born September 25th, 1871. God Bless all of You.
So Mr. Buerman‘s family is here. I think we‘re looking at his granddaughter?
FEMALE: We‘re looking at his granddaughter who is 84, two great-granddaughters. And he actually included our names in the letter. And we didn‘t even know he had written this letter until we were contacted.
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: So an 84-year-old granddaughter and two great- granddaughters who didn‘t even know he had written this letter. This family is going to be around a long time; there are many, many generations to come. Yes, it‘s clear, a long- lived group.
ROBIN YOUNG: A couple more. There‘s a letter here from Mrs. J.D. Tippet. He was the police officer who, 45 minutes after the assassination, he saw Oswald and accosted him and Oswald killed him. And so his young widow writes to Mrs. Kennedy, ―May I add my sympathy to that of people all over the world. My personal loss in this great tragedy prepares me to sympathize more deeply with you. Mrs. J.D. Tippet, Dallas, Texas.‖
Can you also tell the story of Mrs. John J. Riley -- her name at the time. This is in the category of Grief and Loss. And these are other people who wrote about how they had also had grief and loss, some even around this time as we said. And her husband was an officer aboard the U.S.S. Thresher. Does that resonate with people? Now, my colleagues did not know that there was a US submarine that went down off the cost of Cape Cod.
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Yes.
ROBIN YOUNG: All the 129 aboard were killed. And, of course, that sort of got maybe wiped out of our memory because it was in 1963 when everything got wiped out – this is on page 210 – by Kennedy‘s death. But, interestingly, this was pointed out to me by a friend at work, who said, ―There‘s a friend of my mother‘s who wrote a letter. And it‘s in the book.‖ People are talking about this sort of connective web they have. And so I found it and I brought it to her. And this is her mother‘s best friend. And she read the letter and started weeping because this woman told more to Jackie Kennedy than she perhaps told anybody since. So would you tell us about this?
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Sure. This is a letter from Mrs. John Wiley. She has since remarried, and I believe lives in Wellesley. I‘ve talked to her on the phone. She wrote a wonderful letter in December of 1963. And she says,
If I could take away the sorrow and pain, I would, but I can only share it.
On April 25th, 1963, I received a letter from your husband expressing his sympathy on the loss of my husband, an officer aboard the U.S.S. Thresher, which sank April 10th, 1963.
May I quote a few lines from that letter, as I‘m sure you‘ll find some consolation from his words. [She‘s quoting to Mrs. Kennedy the letter that President Kennedy wrote to her. And this is what President Kennedy had written.] ―It is a sad fact of history that this price of freedom must be paid again and again, by our best young men in each generation. Your husband has joined the other defenders of this nation who have given their lives for their country.‖
And then Mrs. Wiley writes,
My Dear Mrs. Kennedy, This truly is your husband.
I pray for you, Mrs. Kennedy, and our husbands, and Mrs. Kennedy, when you are very much alone with only your thoughts, please, please, think of us, the wives the Thresher left behind. Our hands reach out for you in those moments of darkness.
Death is incomprehensible, a mystery, and a Divine one at that, not to be understood, only to be accepted.
Most Sincerely, Mrs. John J. Wiley.
ROBIN YOUNG: What was it like for you to read these letters one after the other?
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Well, I think there were days when you could have scraped me off the floor when I walked out of the Library. It was an intense experience but a great privilege to read them. I felt privileged to have access to them. And I was emboldened to … Some people have said, ―Well, gee, these are awfully intimate and personal letters. Don‘t you think you‘re reading someone else‘s mail?‖ Most historians are untroubled by these concerns. We would not be able to do our jobs if we thought so. And I think that people tend to forget that almost a half century has passed. We don‘t like to think of ourselves aging and that this really is history. So I felt it to be a privilege and honor. I occasionally came across a letter, one that was magnificent, in which I got to the end and I was thinking, ―Oh, I definitely have to find this fellow. This is a wonderful letter.‖ And the last line was, ―Mrs. Kennedy, please don‘t ever show this letter to anyone.‖ I turned the page and moved on.
ROBIN YOUNG: You realized in the course of looking at the letters, Mrs. Kennedy heard from living Americans who had been alive when all four American presidents were assassinated?
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Yes.
ROBIN YOUNG: That‘s amazing.
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: That was Perry Gum who was 99-years-old when he wrote to Mrs. Kennedy. And his birthday was on November 22nd. And he said, ―You can imagine this is a terribly sad day for me. I have had the misfortune to have been alive when all four presidents were assassinated.‖
ROBIN YOUNG: Now, we want to take some questions from the audience at some point. And you‘ll let me know what point that is. And maybe, at that point too, I‘d love to hear from the families what it felt like to read … I mean, I would give anything to be able to read something written by my parents or grandparents 50 years ago. Obviously, we‘re people capable of grieving. There was a lot of hate in this time that we‘re talking about. I mean, civil rights workers were being shot and killed. Churches were being bombed. But do you think that this is something that, in this way, would be reproduced, God forbid, but it would be something that Americans would do today?
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: I like to think so, because what is revealed in this book is the fundamental decencies, sincerity and compassion of the American people. Our system of government was founded on the principal that wisdom resided in the common people.
And what was so powerful to me about reading these letters was to see that on parade and the incredible wisdom of the letter writers, who reflected on all elements of our society and where we were as a nation. There are many expressions of guilt about what had happened. And I wanted to call your attention to one. This is a letter from Erie, Pennsylvania.
Dear Mrs. Kennedy,
I feel I too must join in the chorus of sympathy that has been showered upon you in regards to your husband. You must not grieve, great lady, because that is the job of our country. The world may be divided into vast empires, cities split in half, countries fighting against themselves, and neighbors killing each other. But all men of every race, color and creed came to give you something. It may not be a gift that can be seen, but one that you can feel in your heart.
The reason that all men mourn the death of your husband is because we feel we have played a part in his murder. We may not have been there or even known that you were there, but we were all responsible. Because we did not fight with him in everything he stood for. We just sat back and watched. We have wasted a great man. We may not realize that fault now, but in time history will write its own story on blood-filled pages. We all feel the loss of him, dear lady, and I as one am sorry.
ROBIN YOUNG: Because Americans not only heard on Friday that the President had been shot in Dallas and then later that day learned that he had died. But then on Sunday morning, they have the televisions on to begin watching the casket move through Washington. And they watched live on television as Jack Ruby shot and killed Lee Harvey Oswald. That was Sunday morning. So the shocks just reverberated.
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: What‘s amazing in the condolence letters is the utter lack of curiosity anybody had about who was behind any of this. There‘s a very thin file called Conspiracy Theories, and there may be ten letters in it. I think that most Americans at the time Oswald was arrested so quickly after the assassination assumed that this indeed was the man who had killed President Kennedy. But they were much more caught up in their reflections of the Presidency and what it meant to them.
ROBIN YOUNG: Yes. Couple last thoughts: it‘s notable that when you say ―people feel guilty,‖ people from Dallas felt particularly guilty. And people from all over the country, since we‘re sitting here now at the JFK Library, hoped something would be built to house these letters and has been. All over the country, people especially wanted to acknowledge people in Massachusetts and New England, and sort of, ―Mrs. Kennedy, please give your condolences to them, too.‖
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Yes. There‘s an incredible regional diversity to the letters; every state in the union is represented. And one thing I wanted to emphasize is that even though this book is based on -- the precipitant for the letters was the assassination -- this is not a really a book narrowly about the assassination; it‘s a book about the American people to me and to my mind. The author writes the book, and then you have very little control over how people respond to it. But what‘s in here is a snapshot of the country in 1963 and all the pluses and minutes are there to be seen.
ROBIN YOUNG: Well, I know we‘re going to take some questions for Ellen. And also she‘s going to have a book signing afterwards, so you‘ll be able to speak to her directly. But if you have some questions now, or if you are family members and you want to comment on what it meant to have this letter suddenly surface, we have microphones positioned in the room. Please feel free to come on up and ask a question. While people are positioning themselves to perhaps ask a question, I know you have more letters there. Is there another one you‘d like to share?
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Is John Clarke here?
ROBIN YOUNG: John Clarke?
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Mr. Clarke, I wanted to read this letter. One of the fascinating things about the collection of letters is how they reach across generations.
When President Kennedy said, ―The torch has been passed to a new generation,‖ he meant the World War II generation, men that were in their 40s. But what was fascinating were how many generations claimed President Kennedy, from young children, to high school kids, to college students. And this letter from Lynn and John Clarke captures that.
Dear Mrs. Kennedy,
We were graduated from Rutgers University in 1959, a year that CBS Television chose to make a documentary at Rutgers about college students called 'Generation Without a Cause.‘ That title was apt. We knew what was right and what we believed in, but we had no one rallying point and no leader to put our convictions into words.
And then John F. Kennedy ran for President of the United States. What a difference it made to all of us!
And she goes on, Mrs. Clarke, to describe how they had followed President Kennedy.
As his term progressed, problem after problem came up and was met head on -- civil rights and Cuba -- even though we didn‘t talk about him much, we knew he was there, and we believed in him. He embodied everything we could have asked for in a President.
Today, words are inadequate to express the loss that we feel. That awful Friday night, when we were talked out, and drained, and trying to sleep. John said only, 'Our brave young leader is dead.‘ But even thought the enthusiasm and fervor the President inspired in us will never be quite the same, the dedication he inspired will. And your great strength has been an example to us.
We just wanted you to know how much we loved him. Sincerely, Lynn and John Clarke.
Lynn is now deceased and John is here tonight. (applause)
ROBIN YOUNG: Thank you. Beautiful letters. Well, let‘s have some questions. Why don‘t we start right here. And go ahead, your question for Ellen Fitzpatrick?
QUESTION: I was just curious how long it took you to read all the letters?
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: I read them faster than you might imagine. They mostly are a page or so. So I would say the whole project took about a year, and I would guess maybe six months or so.
ROBIN YOUNG: And over here?
QUESTION: Hi. I was eight-years-old when the President was assassinated, and I remember exactly where I was. But I was wondering how torturous it was for you to choose the letters that you included in the book? And are there some that you wish you could have included as well?
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Oh, yes. We lost 20 to our inability to find a Dorothy Smith, for example. It‘s not easy to find a Dorothy Smith in America. And we tried. I was really reluctant to give up on that one. And by that time I was hiring genealogists in Dallas. And it was really kind of getting out of control. I had to call a halt to this at some point. And I think when the genealogist who can find anyone, who‘s located in Seattle -- Sarah Little - - basically said, ―Ellen, this is not going to happen. We are not going to find this woman,‖ I sadly gave up.
So it was very, very hard to give up those letters, 20 in the end, and it was also very challenging to find some of the other folks. But perseverance in the end, and the incredible skill of these researchers paid off. What was hard was getting the 15,000 -- I got them down to 3,000 -- that I thought were publishable. But I was pretty sure that Echo wasn‘t going to publish 3,000 letters. And then I got that down to 300, and my editor was less enamored of about 50 of them than I was. So we came to terms and wound up with what‘s in the book. Thank you.
ROBIN YOUNG: By the way, where were you when you were eight?
QUESTION: Getting off the school bus, and somebody shouted from their house in Peabody, Massachusetts.
ROBIN YOUNG: Yes, thank you. Question over here?
QUESTION: First of all, I just want to say thank you. Thank you so much. When growing up, I was just a young girl and my sister and my great-grandfather lived in the home with us. So he was always around. But we had no idea that he sent this letter like you said.
ROBIN YOUNG: Sorry to interrupt and I want to hear what you were going to say, but what does that mean to you that he did when you heard about it?
QUESTION: I‘m so honored. He must have been so overcome at the time. I mean, I was so little, I was so young at the time. But it must have been so important to him to take the time to do that. And you can tell by the writing in the letter that he was not an educated man. But he felt such conviction to write this letter and send it off. And it was the first time that I remember ever seeing my dad cry was that day.
And my sister and I watch out for my mom, because she‘s alone now. And when she got the call from the genealogist and called us, we were like real dubious. ―Don‘t give this woman any information at all, especially don‘t give her your social security number.‖ [laughter] And then when we found out a little bit more, we were just … Like I can‘t tell you how many times we‘ve toasted Fred. So I just want to say thank you from the bottom of our hearts. This has been just phenomenal for us. So thank you.
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Thank you. (applause)
ROBIN YOUNG: Yes?
QUESTION: You‘ve put together such wonderful letters from people in the United States. As you went through the letters, did you encounter many letters from people outside of the United States also?
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Yes. Thank you for that question. There‘s a huge collection of foreign mail. Ironically, more of the foreign mail was saved than the letters from Americans. I believe that virtually all of the foreign mail was saved. And I think that there are 80 boxes of foreign mail that are organized by country. Many of them are written in the language of whatever country it is. I read a box of letters from Ireland, because I just had to. But given the copyright issues I was dealing with in terms of trying to get permission from Americans, it just seemed impossible to take on the foreign mail. There‘s a wonderful project out there for someone.
And I actually have a colleague at the University of New Hampshire who knows a historian in Denmark who came here to the Kennedy Library and read the letters from Denmark, and told my colleague, ―Oh, you‘re not going to believe these fabulous letters I‘ve found from Danes who wrote to Mrs. Kennedy. They‘re from fishermen in little villages. I mean, you can‘t imagine the people that were writing. I‘m going to do a book.‖ And he said, ―Wait a second. That‘s being done right now.‖ But, in fact, it hasn‘t been.
And it would be a wonderful book for a very energetic, younger person.
ROBIN YOUNG: Thank you.
QUESTION: I was born two years after Jack Kennedy. I also served as a naval officer in the Pacific when he did. So that makes me a member of the Greatest Generation. (applause)
And I suspect there‘s a reasonable representation of my colleagues here. One thing I did not quite get as much a feel of from these letters was the great enthusiasm that we had when Jack Kennedy was inaugurated. That was a new day for us. And that elation all went away on the 22nd of November when we fell through the floor again. And I don‘t know whether the baby boomers have an appreciation of that or not; those of you who are more my age will. But with all the Presidents that we‘ve had, that one peak was tremendous. And the let down. Now a year ago we inaugurated another new President, and there was a certain feeling of enthusiasm along with that. That has to play out, we don‘t know. But that high spot in succession of presidencies was certainly important to us.
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Thank you. That‘s very well said. And I want to reassure you that there are many, many letters in the book from … There‘s a section of letters from World War II veterans who talk, and others, of the Greatest Generation, including my beloved mother here in the front row, who talk about that very thing you just said and do so, so eloquently. I mean, this was a generation that had endured a depression, that had come through a terrible war, and who were reconstructing life with some optimism and really felt that Kennedy represented that. I had a little button as a child in 1960 that had a picture of the Kennedys and the Eisenhowers on it. I can remember this. It was about the size of a dinner plate I think. And it said, ―Move over Mamie, the Kennedys are coming.‖ And I wore that and probably long after the election. But that sense of youth and vigor and vitality that the World War II generation was bringing to American life was very clear.
ROBIN YOUNG: One last comment.
QUESTION: I have two remarks to make: one‘s an anecdote, and one‘s a general remark. On the day that was Kennedy was assassinated, I was a physician in the Medical Corps of the US Army. And I was called immediately out by one of the technicians to go immediately to the colonel‘s office, at which time we were informed -- our base was adjacent to a nuclear strike base -- we were informed that we were on full war alert until further notice, until they sorted out what was happening in relation to the assassination.
And we were locked down centrally in all the functions at the base until they clarified that this wasn‘t some type of Soviet attack on the United States.
The second thing I want to say is more general and much more important. Ellen Fitzpatrick is a great scholar of American history and has made great contributions academically. However, I think this book really represents a paradigm shift for a great scholar to tap into the everyday person and to document history in that way. And I think we extend a great thanks to you, Ellen. (applause)
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Thank you. That‘s nice. Thanks.
ROBIN YOUNG: Well, I can add to that.
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Thank you.
ROBIN YOUNG: I can‘t really extend that. It was a perfect ending for a lovely evening. Don‘t forget, of course, you‘ll be able to speak to Ellen personally and have a book signed. But there is one little mention in a letter that would be an appropriate way to close. It‘s from a little boy, 11-years-old. And he writes,
Dear Mrs. Kennedy,
I hope the words I wrote last year in the fifth-grade for Robert Frost will express my feelings and provide an epitaph for our late President. ―The miles are gone; the promises were kept; I heard the news; I sat, I wept.
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: That‘s a beautiful letter. I‘m going to take advantage of my space up here to say my own thank you to several people who I think are here today. Is Allan Goodrich in the house here? Alan, who was the Chief Archivist at the Kennedy Library for many, many years, has recently retired. And he was my shepherd through this whole process. I went in to tell him that I wanted to write this book. He always looks so inscrutable, I never know what he‘s thinking. The eyebrows sort of pop up. And I‘m not sure if it‘s approval or disapproval. But I just kept talking. That was my way of dealing with Allan. And what he did was to open up for me three huge boxes of unprocessed letters. It was really a pain for the archivists to handle them. But I‘m so grateful for all the wisdom that he had about the Kennedy family, about this Library and its collection, absolutely extraordinary person to have contributed so much. The archivists that I worked with here -- Sharon Kelly, Michael Desmond and Steve Plotkin -- I don‘t know if any of them stayed late for work today. Are any of you here?
ROBIN YOUNG: I see some hands.
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Would you stand please? (applause)
They did a really wonderful job. When I read one of the early letters, I came running up to Sharon. She didn‘t know me at all at that point, and I said, ―Oh, I found an incredible letter here. You have to listen to this.‖ And she was polite. And she listened. And she oohed and awed with me. And then I had the idea that I better not keep doing that. She was trying to do her job and I was doing mine. Laurie Austin, who I don‘t think could make it here tonight, who is in charge of photographs, helped us tremendously. And Tom Putnam, who‘s a prince among men, has a wonderful job and the best office in Boston upstairs, was absolutely wonderful to me in constructing the book. I want to acknowledge Lynda Gaudiana and Betty White. Could you guys stand? Come on. (applause)
Linda and Betty knew me from my time at Hampshire College. They're both incredibly skilled executives, secretaries, administrators. And they agreed to transcribe these letters, and they did a remarkable job. It was really a hellacious task. But they did a beautiful job at doing it. Lauren Dinger and Mary Dalton Hoffman I‘ve introduced to you already. I wanted to call attention to … I talk in the beginning of the book about walking to Amherst College to see President Kennedy a month before he died when I was 11-years- old, and he was dedicating the Robert Frost Library. Very exciting day in my life. And I took that walk with my dear close friend, Debbie Merrill, who is now Dean of the School of Management at Simmons. And I see her. Debbie, please stand.
And then, finally, my final thanks are to my wonderful family. They‘re all here tonight. All of the Fitzpatricks, very, very proud, went to see President Kennedy that day. My mom, Mary, who is here and just celebrated her 88th birthday; my brother Bobby here; my oldest sister, Maureen -- I guess I shouldn‘t say oldest; my wonderful sister, Mary; and my youngest sister Gene. Now there‘s the question we always have got to ask in the Fitzpatrick family, am I forgetting anyone?
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Betsy.
ROBIN YOUNG: You did.
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Betsy, where are you? There she is. Do you know that my parents once left someone at a rest stop when we were on a family vacation? We‘ve got a way to go. I got Bob, mom. She‘s always looking out for Bob. We left Mary at a rest stop once. So this is how it goes.
ROBIN YOUNG: Well, it just goes to show that when you take your children and your family to see history, you never know what will come of it.
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: That‘s right.
ROBIN YOUNG: And this book is the thing that came with it. I know that Tom has to give us some directions, because there‘s some guy named John Kerry who is having an event here next. But, on behalf, thank you. And than you Ellen so much for letting me talk to you about this book. (applause)
TOM PUTNAM: So we want to remind everyone, again, that the book is on sale in our museum store and would make a delightful surprise St. Patrick‘s Day present to any members of your family. I feel a bit like an airline attendant. Those of you who are booked to remain on this flight for the Kerry/Miliband Forum, we ask that you remain in your seats. Anyone who‘d like to purchase the book should exit at the rear of the hall to get to the bookstore. If you already have your books and would like them to be signed, you can exit these doors. And Ellen is going to be in the café at the end of the bookstore where she‘s going to do her signing. And any of you who are invited to the special reception for Ellen‘s colleagues and families and friends and have your name tags, you can also exit this hallway and go down the stairs. And the reception‘s down in the Pavilion. Thank you all so much for coming. Robin and Ellen, thank you so much. (applause)