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'Letters to Jackie' reveals personal loss felt by ordinary folks

New Hampshire Sunday News

November 17. 2013 12:23AM

Of all the words written about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, perhaps none were more powerful than those sent by ordinary Americans to his young widow in the days and weeks after Kennedy's death.

Ellen Fitzpatrick, a professor of history at the University of New Hampshire, collected some of those letters in her 2010 book "Letters to Jackie." And now her work has been turned into a film of the same name that premieres tonight on TLC at 9 p.m.

Filmmaker Bill Couturie weaves home movies, historical footage and still photos to capture the era, as actors and actresses give voice to the letters. Among them are Viola Davis, Kirsten Dunst, Chris Cooper, Anne Hathaway, Allison Janney, Frances McDormand, Mark Ruffalo, Michelle Williams and Betty White.

Last week, Fitzpatrick was in Dallas for a special screening of the new film at the Dallas Opera House and was part of a panel discussion afterward. "It was very powerful," she said.

For her book, Fitzpatrick spent a year going through about 15,000 letters sent to Jacqueline Kennedy that had been preserved by the JFK Library in Boston.

The letter writers ranged in age from a 5-year-old to a 100-year-old man who had lived through all four presidential assassinations.

Fitzpatrick included 220 letters in her book; 21 of them ended up in the film.

What struck her about the letters, she said, "was really the way in which people felt so deeply that this was a personal loss to them."

"Some of them were extremely poor," she said. "Some were barely literate, but they wrote with such passion and eloquence that I found it very moving."

One letter that made the film was from a Texas mailman named Henry Gonzales. "Please try to find it in your heart that we Texans of Mexican descent had a great love for all of you," he wrote. "We do hope that you will not think all of us Texans were bad, there is bad in every sort of people as you well know."

There's also a letter from the widow of an officer who died in the USS Thresher tragedy in April, 1963. Mrs. John J. Wiley had received a condolence letter from President Kennedy at that time, and she in turn offered comfort to the new widow.

Fitzpatrick said she was thrilled at how the filmmaker translated her work to the screen. "It was fantastic to see the letters brought to life, particularly by these incredibly talented actors and actresses," she said.

"I knew the material so intimately, and yet they added this extra dimension to it."One of Fitzpatrick's favorite letters didn't make it into the film.

It was from Stephen Hanrahan, inmate #85255 at the federal penitentiary in Atlanta. "Heaven it seems, calls its favorites early," he told Mrs. Kennedy.

"The lights of the prison have gone out now. In this, the quiet time, I can't help but feel that my thoughts and the thoughts of my countrymen will ever reach out to that light on an Arlington hillside for sustenance," he wrote. "How far that little light throws his beam."

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