Rare Book Monthly

Articles - June - 2014 Issue

The Jacqueline Kennedy Letters, and Why They Were Withdrawn from Sale

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All Hallows College (photo from their website).

The previous article in this month's issue of AE Monthly recounts the case of an astounding collection of letters written by Jacqueline Kennedy to an Irish priest between the years 1950 and 1964. They revealed the innermost thoughts of America's most famous and glamorous first lady, from the time just after her college graduation, though the terrible assassination of her husband. What was surprising was that this personal archive was being put up for auction. Many questioned the appropriateness of selling these letters. Then, with pressure mounting from all sides, the sale was abruptly canceled.

 

Two days later, the college that possessed these letters for the past half a century, announced it would be winding down operations and permanently closing its doors. This second surprise reveals why the controversial decision to sell the archive was made in the first place, and tells us more about the difficulties declining institutions with valuable collections face. There were no easy choices for All Hallows College in Dublin. Ultimately, they were forced to make the final one.

 

Early this year, All Hallows College began the process of evaluating the worth of a Book of Hours it possessed. It was dated 1460, a date that almost certainly would make it a very valuable item. Bookseller Owen Felix O’Neill was called in to appraise it. That led to O'Neill examining other items possessed by the college, which led to the stack of Kennedy letters kept in a drawer.

 

Jacqueline Kennedy, then Jacqueline Bouvier, first met Father Joseph Leonard on a visit to Ireland in 1950. Fr. Leonard ushered Ms. Bouvier and her step-brother around Dublin. The young woman found him more open and accessible then the priests she knew back in the states. He would be someone she felt comfortable in confiding her inner thoughts. She only saw the Priest one more time, on a visit to Ireland with her new husband, John Kennedy, in 1955. Nonetheless, she corresponded with him by letter for the rest of his life. Fr. Leonard died in 1964. There were 33 of these letters in his possession when he passed on, including some written shortly after her husband was assassinated.

 

What we have only recently learned is that while it was having the value of its archives assessed, All Hallows College was in desperate financial straits. It had been running at a loss for many years, and was unable to make up the difference through contributions or other sources. The decision to sell such personal items was borne of necessity – these letters were possibly worth millions of dollars, and while this would not solve the college's long term needs, it could put off the day of reckoning awhile longer. Perhaps the solution to its financial problems that had eluded the college's administrators for so long could be found if it could buy more time by selling off valuable, but unneeded items from its archives.

 

All Hallows College is not a recently formed educational institution. It has a long history, explaining why it would have some very old material in its possession. It was founded in 1842 as a place to train priests who would in turn become missionaries to far off lands. Fifty years later, operation of the college was taken over by the Vincentian Brothers, followers of the teachings of St. Vincent de Paul. They have operated the college since 1892. However, as the need to train priests to serve in far off lands decreased, it was decided to change the college's mission. It would become a typical college, open to all. Undoubtedly, this choice, made in the 1980's, was necessary for the college to survive at that time.

 

When Father Patrick McDevitt, recently appointed President of the college, and other officials examined the Kennedy collection, they assumed it was the property of All Hallows. Fr. Leonard had left no will of which they were aware, and his letters had remained at the college, where he lived, in the 50 years since his death. Surely there must have been concerns that auctioning the letters might raise some controversy, but they were at the end of their financial rope. They commissioned the Dublin auction, Sheppard's Irish Auction House, to conduct a sale. Sheppard's is not noted for selling documents and works on paper, but they do sell furniture and other antiquities from their location in Dublin. It also appears that All Hallows hoped to keep their name as source of the letters, as well as their specific content, out of the press.

 

Unfortunately for All Hallows, some conflicts arose with bookseller O'Neill. It appears he believed his role was greater than that envisioned by All Hallows. He made photocopies of some if not all of the letters, and appears to be the one who made some of the content known to the Irish Times and the Boston Globe. The Boston Globe had images of some of these letters, which they ran in their newspaper. The source and content was out. Sheppard's then sued O'Neill to stop releasing information about the letters, or depicting himself as being their owner. Perhaps O'Neill was implying his ownership to hide All Hallows' identity, and was publicizing content to help earn a greater price. Boston is home to the Kennedy's, and to the most obvious potential buyer, the John F. Kennedy Library. Shortly before the auction was withdrawn, a court ordered O'Neill to turn over his copies of the letters to them for safekeeping.

 

Besides the negative publicity and messiness of a court dispute, two other things intervened to disrupt the planned sale. One is some sort of objection raised by the Kennedy family. It is not clear whether objections were made directly to the college, or some back channel concerns were expressed. Whichever it was, it became apparent that the Kennedy family was not pleased with Mrs. Kennedy's personal letters to a priest being made the subject of a public sale. Those sentiments are certainly understandable.

 

The second issue was the ownership of the letters. Later on, it turned up that Fr. Leonard had left a will. He left all of his possessions to the Vincentian Brothers. While the Vincentians ran the college, the college and the Brothers are not the same. They are the owners of Fr. Leonard's letters, and their wishes for them are not necessarily the same as those of the college's administrators. President Fr. McDevitt conceded that the sale would have given the college more time, but wouldn't have prevented its ultimate closure. The Vincentians may not feel that delaying the likely inevitable is a good use of the letters.

 

It now appears that the parties, the Vincentians and All Hallows, are in discussion with the Kennedy family as to the proper repository for the letters. Where they will end up is not known. Our guess is that ultimately they go to the JFK Library, as we can think of no more appropriate place for them to be. The letters are deeply personal, and they and the thoughts they reveal should be treated with the respect they, and Mrs. Kennedy, deserve.

 

Another wrinkle to this story has been added by Fr. McDevitt, according to the Irish Times. This is another issue institutions in trying situations, and many not in such circumstances, nonetheless are confronting. Reportedly, Fr. McDevitt told the Irish newspaper that “a sizable number” of items were missing. He estimated their value in the “thousands.” However, bookseller O'Neill estimated this more likely to be in the millions of dollars. O'Neill reportedly estimated over 100 books and some very valuable artwork was missing, the college having been “plundered” for a long time, some thefts coming recently. Among the items he listed included prints by Raphael, a first edition by Issac Newton, a 1484 sermon, books sent to Fr. Leonard by Mrs. Kennedy, and correspondence Fr. Leonard had with George Bernard Shaw, including an undated script sent to him by Shaw. Apparently, some valuable items were legitimately sold by the college in the past, during earlier financial troubles. Whether that accounts for the differences in estimates between Fr. McDevitt and bookseller O'Neill, or if it is explained by a deeper familiarity with current values by the latter, is unclear. Whatever the value, something went very wrong, and All Hallows College is hardly the first, nor will it be the last, institution to suffer these problems. Even healthy institutions have a hard time finding the funds needed to adequately manage their collections. How much harder is it for ones like All Hallows, teetering for so long on the brink of extinction?

 

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Doyle, online only: Angling Books from the Collection of Arnold "Jake" Johnson. July 13-24, 2018</b>
    <b>Doyle, online only Jul 13-24:</b> Zane Grey, Inscribed photograph album depicting Grey and party at Catalina, fishing, and in Arizona. $700 to $1,000
    <b>Doyle, online only Jul 13-24:</b> Eric Taverner, Salmon Fishing...London: Seeley, Service & Co., 1931. $600 to $900
    <b>Doyle, online only Jul 13-24:</b> The Gentleman Angler. $300 to $500
    <b>Doyle, online only: Angling Books from the Collection of Arnold "Jake" Johnson. July 13-24, 2018</b>
    <b>Doyle, online only Jul 13-24:</b> Ken Robinson, Flyfishers' Progress. [London: The Flyfishers' Club, 2000. $200 to $300
    <b>Doyle, online only Jul 13-24:</b> G. H. Lacy, North Punjab Fishing Club Angler's Handbook. Calcutta: Newman & Co., 1890. $300 to $500
    <b>Doyle, online only Jul 13-24:</b> J. Harrington Keene, Fly-Fishing and Fly-Making for Trout, etc. New York, 1887. $200 to $300
    <b>Doyle, online only: Angling Books from the Collection of Arnold "Jake" Johnson. July 13-24, 2018</b>
    <b>Doyle, online only Jul 13-24:</b> Arthur Macrate, The History of The Tuna Club, Avalon, Santa Catalina Island, California, 1948. $400 to $600
    <b>Doyle, online only Jul 13-24:</b> Joseph D. Bates Jr. Streamer Fly Tying and Fishing. Harrisburg, PA: The Stackpole Company, 1966. $800 to $1,200
    <b>Doyle, online only Jul 13-24:</b> Paul Schmookler and Ingrid V. Sils. Rare and Unusual Fly Tying Materials: A Natural History. $300 to $500
    <b>Doyle, online only Jul 13-24:</b> Herbert Hoover, Fishing For Fun - And To Wash Your Soul. New York: Random House, 1963. $400 to $600
  • <b>Potter & Potter Auctions: Fine Books & Manuscripts. July 28, 2018</b>
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions, July. 28:</b> Lot 372: Martin Luther King Jr. March for Freedom Now! Placard. Chicago, 1960. 28 x 22”. $3,000 to $6,000
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions, July. 28:</b> Lot 567: Warhol, Andy. Tate Gallery Exhibition Booklet, Signed on the Cover by Warhol. Tate Gallery, 1971. $700 to $900
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions, July. 28:</b> Lot 72: Mitchell, Margaret. <i>Gone With the Wind.</i> New York: The Macmillan Co., 1936. First edition, first issue. $4,000 to $5,000
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions: Fine Books & Manuscripts. July 28, 2018</b>
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions, July. 28:</b> Lot 468: Photo Archive Documenting the 1930s—50s Chicago Jazz and Night Club Scene. A significant collection. $2,000 to $4,000
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions, July. 28:</b> Lot 143: Dr. Seuss. <i>Oh Say Can You Say.</i> 1979, First Edition, Signed. $200 to $300
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions, July. 28:</b> Lot 285: [Maps] Thomas G. Bradford. <i>A Comprehensive Atlas, Geographical, Historical & Commercial.</i> Boston: William D. Ticknor, 1835. First Edition. $1,600 to $1,800
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions: Fine Books & Manuscripts. July 28, 2018</b>
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions, July. 28:</b> Lot 69: Herman Melville. <i>Moby Dick, or The Whale</i>. New York: Random House, 1930. First Kent Trade Edition. $400 to $600
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions, July. 28:</b> Lot 295: John James Audoban. Group of 148 Lithographs from the Birds of America. Philadelphia: J.T. Bowen, ca. 1840s. $600 to $800
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions, July. 28:</b> Lot 54: Langston Hughes. <i>One-Way Ticket.</i> New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1949. First edition. $300 to $500
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions: Fine Books & Manuscripts. July 28, 2018</b>
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions, July. 28:</b> Lot 7: Ray Bradbury. <i>The Martian Chronicles.</i> With a Wine Label Signed by Bradbury. Garden City: Doubleday, 1950. First edition $300 to $500
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions, July. 28:</b> Lot 121. Frank L Baum. <i>The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.</i> Chicago: George M. Hill Co., 1899, 1900. First Edition. $4,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions, July. 28:</b> Lot 369. [Declaration of Independence] Peter Force Engraving of the Declaration of Independence. One page; 29 x 26”. From the "American Archives" 1837-1853 series of books. $15,000 to $20,000
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Luis de Lucena, <i>Arte de Ajedres,</i> first edition of the earliest extant manual on modern chess, Salamanca, circa 1496-97. Sold for $68,750.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Carte-de-visite album with 83 images of prominent African Americans & abolitionists, circa 1860s. Sold for $47,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Gustav Klimt, <i>Das Werk,</i> Vienna & Leipzig, 1918. Sold for $106,250.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Man Ray, <i>[London Transport] – Keeps London Going,</i> 1938. Sold for $149,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Thomas Jefferson, Letter Signed, to Major-General Nathanael Greene, promising reinforcements against Cornwallis, 1781. Sold for $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Nicolas de Fer, <i>L’Amerique Divisee Selon Letendue de ses Principales Parties,</i> Paris, 1713. Sold for $30,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Russell H. Tandy, <i>The Secret in the Old Attic,</i> watercolor, pencil & ink, 1944. Sold for $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Ernest Hemingway, <i>Three Stories & Ten Poems,</i> first edition of the author's first book, Paris, 1923. Sold for $23,750.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Walker Evans, <i>River Rouge Plant,</i> silver print, 1947. Sold for $57,500.
  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
  • <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> SHAKESPEARE, WILLIAM. <i>The Tragedie of Julius Caesar.</i> London, 1623. 1st appearance in print, Complete from the First Folio. Sold for $175,000
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Ernst, Max. <i>Mr. Knife and Miss Fork</i>. Paris, 1932. DELUXE EDITION. Sold for $15,625
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Cage, John. Autograph musical leaf from his Concert for Piano and Orchestra, NY, 1958. Sold for $18,750
    <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Einstein, Albert. Signed Passport Photo for his US citizenship application. Bermuda, 1935. Sold for $17,500
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Verard, Antoine. Illuminated printed Book of Hours. Paris, 1507. Sold for $7,500
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Wetterkurzschlussel. German Weather Report Codebook - for Enigma use. Berlin, 1942. Sold for $225,000
    <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Morelos y Pavon, Jose Maria. Autograph letter signed to El Virrey Venegas, February 5, 1812. Sold for $6,250
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Milne, A.A. Complete set of <i>Winnie-the-Pooh</i> books. 4 volumes. All first issue points. London, 1924-1928. Sold for $5,250
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> A 48-star American Flag, battle worn flown at Guadalcanal and Peleliu, 1942-1944. Sold for $35,000
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Locke, John. Autograph Letter Signed mourning the death of his friend, William Molyneaux, 2 pp, October 27, 1698. Sold for $20,000

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