Oct. 3, 2003 -- As the 40th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy approaches, two new books have added dimension to the history of the Kennedy era. One book recovered archival material that had been destroyed; the other examined archives that few people knew existed.
The first book represents a story of perseverance in the face of disaster.
In February of 2002, Thomasina Lowe went to an appointment with banking executives, hoping to find forty thousand photographic negatives which her father had valued so highly that he protected them with passionate care.
"He actually went to the expense of buying a separate plane ticket so that he could have the negatives in his briefcase, sitting next to him," she said. "He wasn't going to let anyone look after them for him."
Ms. Lowe's late father, Jacques Lowe, had been personal photographer to the Kennedy family. Lowe's negatives-most of which had never been seen-represented a painstakingly documented record of the Kennedys. Before he died in May, 2001, Lowe had talked of compiling the best of the photos into a book to coincide with the this year's 40th anniversary of John Kennedy's assassination.
Ultimately, to keep the negatives secure, Lowe had stored them in a safe. The location he chose was in the World Trade Center complex-5 World Trade Center, a nine-story building on the northeast corner of the plaza. The building was severely damaged and had to be demolished following the attacks on the twin towers on September 11, 2001. Lowe's priceless records of one tragic era were buried in the havoc of another.
After months of uncertainty following the cleanup effort on the Trade Center site, Thomasina Lowe was informed that her father's safe had been recovered from the rubble, and she was given an appointment to inspect what remained of the safe.
"It was very hard for me on that day to not have hope that I would recover something," she said. "I wanted to be optimistic."
But because of fires that had smoldered in the complex for days after the attacks, the contents of the metal safes had been subjected to the equivalent of a two thousand degree furnace for several days, according to a spokeperson for J.P. Morgan Chase.
Jacques Lowe's safe was empty, with only a few ashes inside, barely enough to sweep into a small bag-nothing to start the book that Lowe had envisioned.
But rather than concede to a devastating circumstance, the Lowe family and the book's designers and publishers studied the alternatives. In the absence of negatives, they went through Lowe's prints and contact sheets. Using digital enhancement, they began to reproduce what had been on the lost negatives, often from thumbnail-sized images on the proofs. The results were surprisingly effective.
Hugh Sidey, now a Time contributing editor, had covered John Kennedy since Kennedy's days in the Senate. He wrote text to place the photos in perspective. Sidey knew Jacques Lowe and understood the significance of what Lowe's photos had captured.
"It was just a matter of a few months…when Kennedy went from relatively obscurity to being … the glamorous Presidential candidate," Sidey said. "And Jacques' pictures played a huge role in that."
The Kennedys had taken Lowe into their family circle in the late 1950's-understanding the growing influence of the media in the mid 20th Century, and the importance of the intimate images that Lowe could take with his 35MM camera.
"He used to describe what he did as painting with light," said Thomasina Lowe. "Very rarely did he use artificial lighting. He didn't like to work in that way. He liked to be free with his little camera — very intimate, very real."
"And it, it is, as near as I can tell," Sidey said, "as serious and as profound a record of one of our remarkable episodes in politics as there's been."
Out of the restorations of Lowe's work came a book called Remembering Jack (Had he lived, Kennedy would have been 86 this year). The photos — most of them never seen, but a few that already had been widely published-go back to times before there was a Kennedy mystique.
"It's Jack and Jackie Kennedy in Georgetown, in their doorway, a sunny place," said Sidey. "It makes your heart ache when you look back."
The future President and First Lady were not yet celebrities when many of the photographs were taken. One shows them having coffee, unrecognized, in an Oregon diner in the fall of 1959.
Lowe's favorite photograph showed John Kennedy, brooding on a wharf in Coos Bay, Oregon, after a rough meeting with longshoremen. That photo was one of the famous ones, Sidey said. "He just looked depressed. He looked like a guy that said, you know, 'What am I doing here?'"
"We've exhibited six hundred images," said Ms. Lowe. "Three hundred of them have never been seen. And being able to see the contact sheets, you see the image that came before and you see the image that came after. And you get a sense of time."
"He got more intimate pictures of Jackie than anyone," Sidey said. "Has there ever been a more beautiful woman in public life, in our public life?"
Lowe continued to accompany John and Jacqueline Kennedy after Kennedy's election to the presidency. But Lowe no longer had such exclusive access, and eventually moved on to other projects. He was so shaken by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in 1968 that he left the United States for Europe.
"And with this book I thought, we won't be beaten," said his daughter. "It's the closest I'll ever get to hearing my father's stories and putting them together with the photographs, and for a moment imagining what it might be like or what it might have been like for my dad to be there."
Another book, published this fall, expands and changes the view of the months following the Kennedy assassination, and the impact it had on his wife and family.
It was an unexpected comment from a priest that opened that new chapter of history for Newsday writer Thomas Maier, who was researching a book on the Kennedy family and their Irish-Catholic roots titled The Kennedys, America's Emerald Kings.
In a taped phone conversation in late 2000, Maier asked Father Richard McSorley, who died in October, 2001, about how McSorley had counseled the Kennedy family in the wake of the assassination of John Kennedy. "Did the children ever ask why … if there's a loving God, why … this could happen to somebody like the President?"
"The children never asked me," Father McSorley replied. "Jackie Kennedy asked me."
"It was very clear that it was a very extraordinary chapter in American history," Maier said, "the exchange between this priest and the bereaved First Lady."
The exchanges occurred not as part of a confessional, but over tennis lessons at Robert Kennedy's estate, Hickory Hill, Virginia. They also included letters from Jacqueline Kennedy that are now in a collection at Georgetown University and are publicly examined for the first time in Maier's book, adding depth to the history of how the nation and the former First Lady struggled to recover from the assassination.
"For 40 years we have admired Jackie Kennedy as this very brave, incredibly courageous First Lady who was stoic and had all this great strength when the nation in many ways was shattered by the assassination," Maier said. "And yet in the months and weeks after, we see the private side here."
In 1963, the year her husband was assassinated, Jacqueline Kennedy also had lost a son, Patrick, who was born prematurely. In his recorded conversation with Maier, McSorley said: "One of the things that she…asked, was, 'Does God know everything?' And I said, 'Yes. God knows everything.' … 'Did God know that my husband was going to be killed?' … And I said, 'Yes. God knew it ahead of time.' She said, 'Well, then why did he take my son Patrick … if he knew my husband was going to be killed?'"
"She really expressed her great grief and her anguish and her thoughts of suicide," Maier said. "She talked about even Marilyn Monroe, that it was good that she was able to find a way out of her grief."
According to Father McSorley, Jacqueline Kennedy also asked if God would separate her from her husband if she killed herself. McSorley prepared a detailed argument on the church's position against suicide.
Maier recalled how McSorley described Mrs. Kennedy's response. "She finally interrupted him and said, 'Father, I understand, I know it's wrong, I wouldn't do it. But it's so lonely out there.'"
McSorley also described a request from other members of the Kennedy family that he advise Jacqueline to move to New York with her children, John, Jr. and Caroline, to get away from the memories in Washington. He received this letter from her after her move:
"Just the idea of moving to a new place and creating new lives for my children there will be good for me and stop me brooding…If you want to know what my religious convictions are now, they are: to keep busy and to keep healthy so that you can do all you should for your children. And to get to bed very early at night so you don't have time to think."
Catholic theologians contacted by 20/20 agreed that Father McSorley had not broken the sanctity of the confessional in keeping records of his informal conversational exchanges with Mrs. Kennedy. One theologian, however, questioned whether McSorley had a moral obligation to protect the privacy of the exchanges. "There needs to be a good reason for telling people these things," he said.
"I think he was aware after her death that this was an important part of history," Maier said, noting that the records which are kept at Georgetown University were opened to him as a scholar. " I think that he decided that we could learn from this, from a historical standpoint-how this extraordinary figure in American history … dealt with some of the basic questions of life [and] of God."
How would Jacqueline Kennedy have felt about McSorley's records? "I doubt that she would have wanted this information known," said Maier. "Her letters are still … in the JFK library, with the stipulation that they not be opened to historians for many, many years to come. But I think there was, nevertheless, the awareness that they will be eventually opened by historians, just like…McSorley's private unprocessed papers at Georgetown."
McSorley came to visit Jacqueline Kennedy in New York several times, and took John Jr. to the 1964 World's Fair, and to a nearby museum. According to McSorley's account, one night, as they put the young boy to bed, Jacqueline Kennedy asked McSorley to sing the Irish ballad Danny Boy to John Jr. His father used to sing it to him, she said. McSorley did his best, and afterwards, John, Jr. asked for another song — this one, from his mother. He wanted to hear America, the Beautiful.
"It's quite extraordinary, that scene," said Maier. "It's the scene of a family with the pictures of their father, their husband up on the walls-trying to mend."