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The Jacqueline Kennedy Letters, and Why They Were Withdrawn from Sale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>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Leon TOLSTOÏ. <i>Anna Karenina.</i> Moscou, 1878. First and full edition of the Russian novel, in the author’s language.<br>Est. 3 000 / 4 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Mark TWAIN. <i>Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer's comrade).</i> New York, 1885. First American edition.<br>Est. 5 000 / 6 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Walt WHITMAN. <i>Leaves of Grass.</i> Brooklyn, New York, 1856. Second edition gathering 32 poems. Est. 3 000 / 4 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Karen BLIXEN. <i>Out of Africa.</i> Londres, 1937. First edition in the UK, before Danish translation and American release.<br>Est. 1 500 / 2 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Ernest HEMINGWAY. <i>A Farewell to Arms.</i> New York, 1929. First edition with $2.50 on the dust and A on the copyright page.<br>Est. 2 000 / 3 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> James JOYCE. <i>Ulysses.</i> Paris, Shakespeare and Company, 1922. First edition published by Sylvia Beach. Est. 3 000 / 4 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> James JOYCE. <i>Dubliners.</i> Londres, 1914. First edition. Nice copy in publisher’s cardboard. Est. 2 000 / 3 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Franz KAFKA. 8 novels in German first edition, published in München, Leipzig and Berlin 1916-1931. Est. from 300 / 400 to 2 000 / 3 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> David Herbert LAWRENCE. <i>Lady Chatterley's Lover.</i> Florence, 1928. Privately printed first edition. Est. 4 000 / 5 000 €
    John STEINBECK. <i>The Grapes of Wrath.</i> New York, 1939. First edition. Nice copy with $2.75 on the cover. Est. 1 000 / 1 200 €
  • <center><b>Cowan’s Auctions<br>The Road West: The Steve Turner Collection of African Americana<br>February 20, 2020</b>
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Harriet Tubman Cabinet Card by H.S. Squyer, Auburn, NY, 1892. $10,000 to $15,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Scarce <i>Events of the Tulsa Disaster,</i> First Edition, 1922. $4,000 to $6,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Unpublished CDV of Frederick Douglass by Benjamin F. Smith, 1864. $3,000 to $5,000
    <center><b>Cowan’s Auctions<br>The Road West: The Steve Turner Collection of African Americana<br>February 20, 2020</b>
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> California Imprint of <i>President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation</i> Broadside, 1864. $10,000 to $15,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> John C.H. Grabill Cabinet Card of Buffalo Soldier Wearing Buffalo Coat, ca 1886. $8,000 to $10,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Rare <i>What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking,</i> 2nd Cookbook Published by African American. $6,000 to $8,000
    <center><b>Cowan’s Auctions<br>The Road West: The Steve Turner Collection of African Americana<br>February 20, 2020</b>
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Frederick Douglass Walking Stick, 1888. $3,000 to $5,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Only Known Slave Narrative Published Independently in California, <i>Life and Adventures of James Williams.</i> $2,000 to $4,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Rare First Edition of History of Black Literature, Abbé Grégoire <i>De La Littérature des Nègres</i>. $2,500 to $3,000
    <center><b>Cowan’s Auctions<br>The Road West: The Steve Turner Collection of African Americana<br>February 20, 2020</b>
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> African American Soldier and Medal of Honor Winner Christian A. Fleetwood CDV, PLUS. $8,000 to $10,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Jack Johnson vs. Jim Jeffries Pennant, 1910 Reno, Nevada. $2,000 to $4,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Joe Gans Photograph at 1906 Goldfield, Nevada Fight by Percy Dana. $600 to $800
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Jane Austen, <i>Sense and Sensibility: A Novel, By a Lady,</i> 3 volumes, London, 1811. $30,000 to $40,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Virginia Woolf, <i>Kew Gardens,</i> limited edition, signed by Woolf & Bell, London, 1927. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> <i>[Arabian Nights],</i> Calcutta II version, 4 volumes, Calcutta & London, 1839-1842. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Princess Diana, 6 ALS to <i>Harper’s Bazaar</i> editor, anticipating Christie’s sale of her dresses for charity, 1995-97. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Jane Austen, <i>Emma,</i> first edition, London, 1816. $15,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Hirohito & Nagako, Emperor & Empress of Japan, 2 photographs signed, showing Nagako in kimono & obi bearing the imperial seal. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Princess Diana, 6 autograph letters signed to <i>Harper’s Bazaar</i> editor Elizabeth Tilberis, anticipating Christie’s announcement of a sale of her dresses for charity, 1995-97. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Sarojini Naidu, complete galley proof of <i>The Broken Wing</i> signed with several holograph pages & an autograph letter signed to writer Edmund Gosse, 1916. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Fernando Pessoa, <i>Mensagem,</i> first edition, presentation copy, signed & inscribed, Lisbon, 1934. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Graham Greene, <i>The Basement Room,</i> first edition, Greene’s personal copy, signed with annotations throughout, London, 1935. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Abraham Lincoln, partly-printed document signed, call for troops issued during America’s first national draft just days before the NYC draft riots, 1863. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b><br><i>Les Chansons de Bilitis</i> by Pierre Louÿs, illustrated by George Barbier & F.L. Schmied, Paris, 1922. $8,000 to $12,000.
  • <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Helvelius. Two Autograph Letters Signed to Francis Aston, Royal Society Secretary, noting his feud with Robert Hooke, 5 pp total, 1685. $70,000 to $100,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Newton, Isaac. Autograph manuscript on God, 4 pp, c.1710, "In the beginning was the Word...."?$100,000 to $150,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. First edition, first issue. Untrimmed copy in contemporary boards. $30,000 to $50,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Lincoln, Abraham. Signed photograph, beardless portrait with Civil War provenance. $80,000 to $120,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> IMPEACHMENT. Original engrossed copy of the first Andrew Johnson impeachment resolution vote. $120,000 to $180,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Mucha, Alphonse. 11 original pencil drawings for?<i>Andelicek z Baroku,</i> "Litte Baroque Angel," Prague, 1929. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Einstein, Albert. Annotated Galley Proofs for <i>The Meaning of Relativity.</i> 1921. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Silverstein, Shel. Original maquette for <i>The Giving Tree,</i> 34 original drawings. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Roth, Philip. Typed Manuscript with substantial autograph corrections for an unpublished sequel to <i>The Breast.</i> $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Taupin, Bernie. Autograph Manuscript, the original draft of lyrics for Elton John's "Candle in the Wind," 2 pp, 1973. $100,000 to $150,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> HARVEY, WILLIAM. <i>De Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus Anatomica Exercitatio.</i> Padua: 1643. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> CESALPINO, ANDREA. <i>Peripateticarum Quaestionum Libri Quinque.</i> Venice: 1571. $30,000 to $40,000.

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