BOSTON (CBS) – In the days following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Pat Kelleher wrote these words to his wife, Jackie Kennedy, “if I could take away the sorrow and pain I would, but I can only share it.”
Kelleher wrote that letter as one grieving widow to another. Pat’s husband was killed earlier in 1963 when the submarine Thresher sunk off Cape Cod.
“And then seven months later Jack Kennedy was assassinated. So I felt that connection,” she said.
Kelleher’s letter is one of more than 800,000 that poured into the White House after JFK’s death. The letters were recently compiled into a book titled “Letters to Jackie” by historian Ellen Fitzpatrick. Now the letters are part of a documentary by Bill Couturie. He tells the story of JFK’s presidency through the letters read aloud by Hollywood actors.
The film premiered Tuesday night at the JFK Presidential Library. It was streamed live to theaters around the country. Kelleher joined fellow letter writers Gabriele Gideon and Janis Hirsch at the Boston event.
Gideon heard about Kennedy’s murder as a young woman in New York. As an immigrant who had escaped Nazi Germany and grown up in war torn China, she had moved by the President’s optimism and belief in the American Dream.
“I think what propelled me to write that letter was gratitude,” Gideon said.
Hirsch wrote her letter from a hospital bed in New Jersey as a 13-year-old girl suffering from Polio. She told Mrs. Kennedy, “I’ll tell you my remedy for smiling and happiness,” at the premiere, Hirsch recalled what that remedy was. “I suggested that she listen to ‘You’ve Got to Have Heart’ from Damn Yankees,” she laughed.
In 1964, Mrs. Kennedy said that “the warmth of these tributes is something I shall never forget.”
And in sharing their letters all three writers hope no one will forget John F. Kennedy’s life, his tragic death, or the incredible compassion and kindness that followed.
“I think it’s a snapshot of how every segment of the population felt at a given moment in time, I think in a way that we’ve never had before and will never have again,” Gideon said.
The film “Letters to Jackie” will be shown at select theaters on limited dates throughout the fall. It will air on cable television in November to mark the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination.