'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.AP 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.

"It got so complicated because some the letters were written by children, some of them had moved, some of them were written by women who got married and changed their name," Fitzpatrick said. "It was incredible detective work to find these people."

Of the roughly 250 letters Fitzpatrick selected, her team found all but 20 of the letter writers or their relatives. Only five people declined to give their permission.

When Couturie approached Fitzpatrick in 2010 about turning her book into a film, they worked together to select a group of letters that were eloquent but also could be used to visually illustrate Kennedy's presidency. In order to use the letters in the film, the team had to re-ask permission from the original letter writers or their living family members.

One condolence letter that struck a chord with both Couturie and Fitzpatrick was the "I am but a humble postman" letter, written by Henry Gonzales of El Paso, Texas, in 1963. In it, Gonzales, a Mexican immigrant, identifies with the affluent Kennedys by drawing parallels between their two families.

"It really captured a central theme, a strong identification Americans had with Kennedy... despite the obvious differences in their background," Fitzpatrick said.

To tell his story in the documentary, Couturie said he spoke with Gonzales' son, who gave him some of his family's old home movies.

"And so I found these scenes that perfectly mirror what you saw on the Kennedy's home movies," Couturie. "And that was one of those things that was just pure luck, that the guy who wrote that letter had filmed all these home movies and his son had kept them tight all these years."

At the heart of the documentary is what Couturie called the "incredible irony" that Kennedy was forced to take a stand on civil rights after Mississippi Gov. George Wallace's hate-fueled denouement of desegregation, but that Congress couldn't pass the civil rights bill until after Kennedy was assassinated.

The George Davis letter, read by Oscar-winning actor Chris Cooper in the documentary, addressed those issues. Born in Montgomery, Ala., Davis wrote to Jackie Kennedy in 1963 that he had procrastinated in writing the president a letter of support, and in that way, had failed him.

"Multiply my procrastination by that of thousands in the Southland who much have sympathized with his efforts, and our neglect takes on the proportions of tragedy -- especially now," Davis wrote.

"The George Davis letter punctures that Deep South, anti-segregation sentiment and so I love that letter," Couturie said.

Couturie chose a number of Hollywood A-listers to read letters for the film, including Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Allison Janney, Viola Davis, Michelle Williams, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo and Cooper, among others.

The director said he wanted to use professional actors to read the letters, not just to help boost the film, but also because they understood how to read with appropriate emphasis -- some of the letters were edited down for time, but were otherwise read as written.

"[Reading the letters are] a tricky thing to do because you have to get emotion into it but you don't want to be too dramatic... or too in your face," Couturie said. "It's got to come to life and move you and it takes really great actors to do that."

Couturie said he selected specific letters for certain actors based on their age, gender and diction -- every actress from the "The Help" read for the documentary. Fitzpatrick, who sat in on Cooper's recording session in Boston, said hearing the letters read in the film was very moving.

"Reading some of the letter out load is an interpretation, really, but when I first heard the actors, the professional actors, I was absolutely blown away," Fitzpatrick said. "It was extremely powerful."

"It's wonderful to see somebody take a piece of work that you have done and do what they want to do with it and feel you both sort of arrived at the same place," she added.

Both Fitzpatrick and Couturie said the Kennedy family had no influence over the book nor the film, other than the Kennedy Library granted them access to the letters. Both Couturie and Fitzpatrick hope their work will help people better understand why Kennedy was such a beloved president at a heated time in our country's history.

"Many people felt that [Kennedy's assassination] was a historical event and that it was life changing, that life was one way before it happened and another way after," Fitzpatrick said. "The letters really belong to the American people now, as they should."

Learn more about the AFI Docs film festival