By Sarah B. Boxer and Brian Prowse-Gany
She once said: “I want to live my life, not record it.”
That might be why Jackie Kennedy’s legacy is mostly etched in the American consciousness through pictures, videos and other cultural imagery — as opposed to her actual writings.
But a new collection of letters that she wrote — not to either of the men she married, but to a longtime companion in between those two unions —offer new insight into the former first lady as she went through a period of her life marked by both tragedy and tenderness.
The correspondences are with David Ormsby Gore, the British ambassador to the U.S. during the Kennedy administration. The diplomat and his wife were longtime friends of John and Jackie Kennedy through the English social scene, and when Kennedy was elected to the presidency, he specifically asked for Ormsby Gore to become ambassador, says grandson Jasset Ormsby Gore.
“During the time that my grandfather and grandmother were based in Washington, other ambassadors from other countries were slightly jealous of how much the Ormsby Gores were invited to dinners and dances,” Jasset tells Yahoo news. “They were really part of the White House inner circle.”
The kinship remained tight even after the assassination of JFK in 1963. When Ormsby Gore’s wife, Sylvia, died suddenly in an automobile accident in 1967, Jackie flew to Europe for her funeral.
After that, it seems, a deep companionship — and even a romance — came to pass.
“Your last letter was such a cri de coeur of loneliness — I would do anything to take that anguish from you…” Kennedy wrote in one letter to Ormsby Gore after the death of his wife. In another: “As I write this, looking out the window I see all the ships going past… and it makes me feel such comfort to be writing to you now — with so much love dear David…”
Even after Jackie married Aristotle Onassis in 1968, the emotional connection she shared with Ormsby Gore persisted. In one heartbroken letter dated Feb. 3, 1968, David even wrote of his “pathetic” hopes of “a secret marriage this summer” to Jackie — “all had become irrelevant trash to be thrown away within a few hours of my landing in New York. As for your photograph? I weep when I look at it.”
For her part, Jackie staved off his hopes and remained committed to her new life — and new husband, Aristotle Onassis. She wrote to David: “If ever I can find some healing and some comfort — it has to be with somebody who is not part of all my world of past and pain. I can find that now — if the world will let us.”
“Jackie and David both went through very serious tragedy in their personal lives,” says Jasset. “This tragedy brought their friendship together, and I think this is illustrated in the closeness and tenderness of the letters.”
No one knew about the existence of these notes until just months ago, when they were unearthed by Jasset, when clearing out his family’s estate in an effort to auction it off and preserve it.
In a remarkable parallel to a famous home associated with Jackie Kennedy’s family — Grey Gardens — Jasset says that when he inherited the Ormsby Gore estate last year, when his father died, it was in shambles. He knew he needed to take action immediately in order to keep it at all.
“It soon became clear that the house was in a serious state of disrepair and was going to take a lot of work to bring it back to livability,” says Jasset. “It’s kind of at that point where, if we don’t do something now to save it, it’s going to be gone forever. It’s kind of just at that precipice.”
So with the help of Bonhams, he went room by room through the 17th century house, which was cluttered full of incredibly valuable antiques, from a Marcus Gheeraerts portrait of Elizabeth I dated 1592 to a 1925 Douglas motorbike in pristine condition.
The letters were locked away in a crimson attaché that had not been seen for decades. “As we started to peel back the layers of the house, we found quite a few gems that we thought had been lost to the antiquities of time, one of them being this red dispatch box. Once we opened it, we found this incredible cache of letters. There’s government papers, letters from heads of state and, of course, there’s the letters from Jackie.”
More specifically, says Jasset, “The red diplomatic box was actually found underneath a cabinet in the study behind a mass of maps and boxes and general bric-a-brac.”
Since the briefcase was locked, everyone had to weigh whether or not it would be worth it to break into. If nothing of interest was inside, they might have damaged a case worth about $500.
Turns out, it was worth it.
The full collection of over 500 lots is set to be auctioned off in London on May 27. Bonhams estimates that the lot with the 18 Jackie letters alone will sell for between $120,000 and $180,0000.
“It wasn’t an easy decision to take, to have this collections sale,” says Jasset. “But taking everything into consideration, and the resources we’re going to need to restore the house, this felt like the only conclusion.”
Though Jackie did once say that she wasn’t interest in recording her life, Jasset is certainly glad that she did — not only because of what he learned about his family in the process. At age 30, he never knew his grandfather, who died in 1985.
“The whole process of cataloging and researching the collection has been incredibly evocative. Unfortunately, my grandfather passed away before I was born, so this process has given me insight into this incredible man. In a funny sort of way, I feel I got to know him through this process.”