'Letters to Jackie' Documentary Shows Snapshot of 1960s America's Grief Over Kennedy's Assassination

PHOTO: President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline Kennedy are greeted by an enthusiastic crowd upon their arrival at Dallas Love Field, Nov. 22, 1963.

A new documentary is aiming to put a fresh perspective on President John F. Kennedy's legacy, by retracing it through the moments when the American public reacted to his assassination.

"Letters to Jackie," a two-hour film based on the book by the same name, features several Academy award-winning actors reading 20 condolence letters mailed to then-first lady Jackie Kennedy in the weeks following her husband's death.

"Letters to Jackie" will open the American Film Institute's AFI Docs film festival today in Washington, D.C.

President Kennedy was shot on Nov. 22, 1963 -- a Friday. The following Monday, 45,000 letters were delivered to the White House. Within seven weeks, that number rose to 800,000. In the end, Jackie Kennedy received over 1.5 million condolence letters.

The film, directed by Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Bill Couturie, follows Kennedy's short, tumultuous presidency and his death through the words of the letter writers. Capturing a snapshot of a nation in mourning without "the filter of time," Couturie said, the actors aren't seen, only their voices are heard as the letters are read aloud. Images of the original letters and archival footage scrolls across the screen -- some of which has rarely been seen publicly.

"One of the things that I love about the film and the letters is that they are from common Americans," Couturie said. "Most of these are people are just run-of-the-mill folks but there is so much wisdom there."

The film is based on the book, "Letters to Jackie: Condolences of a Grieving Nation," by Ellen Fitzpatrick, who was given access to the letters through the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. When the book was first published in 2010, it was the first time any of the condolence mail to Jackie Kennedy had been made public.

Book Excerpt: Read a Small Section of "Letters to Jackie"

In their letters, Americans from all corners of the country, and many abroad, expressed shock and grief over the loss of their president and offered their sympathy to Mrs. Kennedy. Some shared stories of losing loved ones to gun violence. Others said the president had to die for the civil rights bill to pass and for the country to move forward.

"You could actually see the teardrops on some of these letters, some 50 years later, and the handwriting, all of that was really revealing," Fitzpatrick said.

Condolence Letters Written to Jackie Kennedy: See the Photos

Due to the sheer volume, many of the letters were destroyed, but over 200,000 were archived in the Kennedy Library. Fitzpatrick said she combed through 15,000 letters and selected roughly 3,000 she thought were interesting and historically significant -- the first letter she read was from an Eskimo family in Alaska. From there, she picked around 250 to include in the book.

"As a historian I spent my whole career studying modern American history," she said. "I had opened the [archive] box and I felt like I was staring at the beating heart of America at a moment of historical cataclysm."

Due to U.S. copyright laws, Fitzpatrick had to obtain permission from the original letter writers or their next of kin to publish the letters in her book and hired a research team to help her find them.

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