Written by Justine Rothbart
Continuing with my
fascination obsession with the Kennedys, I’ve decided to write a blog post on, yet again, the Kennedys. The other day while I was reading the Washington Post, this article caught my eye: Jacqueline Kennedy’s Letters to Irish Priest Pulled From Auction Amid Controversy. A few weeks earlier, I remember hearing the news of how newly discovered letters written by Jackie Kennedy will be put on auction. All Hallows College in Dublin, Ireland originally put the letters on auction to help their financially struggling institution. These 31 letters were written by Jackie Kennedy to an Irish priest, Father Leonard, from 1950 to 1964. She started writing these letters when she was 21, which was long before she knew her future fame. They include very personal information about topics such as marriage and faith. Since the announcement, there has been strong opposition. Many people say putting these letters up for auction is an invasion of Jackie Kennedy’s privacy. Several think it’s disrespectful to financially benefit from someone else’s private information. Diana Reese, from the Washington Post, said “Privacy is becoming an artifact.”
The common question being asked is, “What would Jackie Do?”
Would she want these letters to be available to the public? What does she want us to do?
As archivists, we are constantly asking those questions. We try to balance privacy and access gracefully (as gracefully as Jackie). Sometimes, however, the answer is not clear. Putting the letters on auction is, yes, technically legal. But is it moral? Who decides what’s right and wrong?
For some historians, this discovery has been described as a “treasure trove.” Some call it the “autobiography she never wrote.” However, as Reese reminds us, Jackie Kennedy was a very private person who chose not to write her own memoir. Her feelings expressed in these letters were probably only intended to remain between her and the priest.
For many of us, our initial instinct is to read and share these letters. But I think we often forget that archival materials are linked to real people. Real feelings. Real emotions. We need to take a step back from our first instinct and try to walk in Jackie’s shoes. If Jackie Kennedy did not write her own memoir, maybe she wouldn’t want to share these letters. It was recently announced that they are “now exploring with members of Mrs. Kennedy’s family how best to preserve and curate this archive for the future.” I am happy to hear that Kennedy family is now involved and trying to figure out the best solution.
So what does the future hold for these letters? We don’t know. Right now we don’t know if they will become publicly available in the future or if they’ll be locked away forever. But the question we are all trying to figure out is…what would Jackie do?