London - Separated by more than 50 years and an ocean of experience, they were the unlikeliest of bosom friends. He was a retired Irish priest - albeit a worldly one - and she was a wealthy, 21-year-old American student who was soon to become the most glamorous woman in the world.
And yet, from their first encounter during her visit to Dublin in 1950, Jackie Kennedy was “enchanted” with Father Joseph Leonard, a 73-year-old friend of a friend, as he chaperoned her around the city, taking her on a trip to the theatre and Dublin’s finest French restaurant.
They were to meet only once more, but in an astonishing 14-year correspondence, she poured out her hopes, fears and secrets to the old priest with a candour she admitted she never extended to anyone else.
In 33 newly discovered handwritten letters, amounting to some 130 pages, the famously tight-lipped Mrs Kennedy writes freely of her suspicions about JFK’s fidelity, her reservations over his frightening ambition and her utter loneliness and anger at his tragic death.
The letters are to be auctioned next month.
In correspondence before and after she joined her husband in the White House, she admitted the rising political star was consumed by ambition “like Macbeth”.
Writing in 1953 - the year they married - she said that politicians were “a breed apart” but admitted that she too was vulnerable to their craving for attention.
“Maybe I’m just dazzled and picture myself in a glittering world of crowned heads and Men of Destiny- and not just a sad little housewife,” she told the priest.
“That world can be very glamorous from the outside, but if you’re in it - and you’re lonely - it could be a Hell.”
It may have taken decades for star-struck Americans to realise their revered president was a ruthless and vain womaniser, but his wife saw it even before she married him.
In July 1952, she had confided to Father Leonard that: “I think I’m in love with... John Kennedy - he’s the son of the ambassador to England.”
She continued: “Maybe it will end very happily - or maybe, since he’s this old and set in his ways and cares so desperately about his career, he just won’t want to give up that much time to extracurricular things like marrying.”
She also admitted that she saw some of the characteristics of her own hard-drinking, gambling and womanising stockbrother father, John ‘Black Jack’ Bouvier, in JFK. Bouvier divorced her mother when Jackie was just ten, and it is said he was so drunk at her wedding to JFK that her stepfather had to step in to escort her to the altar.
Jackie wrote: “He’s like my father in a way - loves the chase and is bored with the conquest - and once married needs proof he’s still attractive, so flirts with other women and resents you,” she told Father Leonard at the end of 1952. “I saw how that nearly killed Mummy.”
If Kennedy ever did ask her to marry him, she mused, “it will be for rather practical reasons - because his career is this driving thing with him”. She clearly managed to overcome her initial qualms, telling her priest friend in 1954: “I love being married much more than I did even in the beginning.”
If she was always forgiving of Jack, she wasn’t always quite so kind about his family. Father Leonard clearly provided an outlet for her to whisper the things she dared not say out loud.
She once wrote witheringly of her mother-in-law, Rose: “I don’t think Jack’s mother is too bright - and she would rather say a rosary than read a book.”
The treasure trove lay undisturbed for 50 years in a safe at the priest’s former seminary, All Hallows College, in Dublin, until being discovered by chance by a visiting book valuation expert. Made available to the Irish Times, they are expected to fetch at least £1-million when they go up for sale next month.
Kennedy experts have been stunned by the haul. For while Mrs Kennedy was privy to some of the most extraordinary years in White House history, she refused to write a memoir or even give an interview in the last 30 years of her life.
Friends who betrayed her confidences were immediately ostracised. Father Leonard, it appears, may have been her only real confidant. “It’s so good in a way to write all this down and get it off your chest - because I never do really talk about it with anyone,” she told him.
She was even ready to criticise God to him after JFK’s assassination in Dallas in 1963, revealing her anger at the Almighty for taking away the man she loved just months after the death of a son [Patrick], who lived for only two days.
“I am so bitter against God,” she wrote in early 1964 on a letter on black-bordered paper. Soon, she wrote again, telling the now 86-year-old priest: “I feel more cruelly every day what I have lost - I always would have rather lost my life than lost Jack.”
But she didn’t want to raise their children “in a bitter way”. She added: “God will have a bit of explaining to do to me if I ever see him.”
But she would keep praying, she said sadly, as “I have to think there is a God - or I have no hope of finding Jack again”. It was one of her last letters to the priest, who died in the autumn of 1964. At his funeral, a bouquet of red roses lay on his coffin - sent by Mrs Kennedy.
As one might have expected with a priest and a practising Catholic, their correspondence had a religious aspect. Father Leonard sent her books about the lives of the saints and she admitted he had rekindled her interest in religion.
In early 1952, she wrote: “I terribly want to be a good Catholic now and I know it’s all because of you. I suppose I realised in the back of my mind you wanted that - you gave me the rosary as I left Ireland.”
She was so smitten with him that it got on JFK’s nerves when the two friends met a second time, this time on a visit by the Kennedys to Dublin in 1955. The couple and Father Leonard were guests at a dinner hosted by Declan Costello, son of the Irish prime minister and his glamorous wife Joan.
Jackie recalled in a letter to the priest: “Our happy marriage was nearly rent asunder because Jack was enchanted with Joan, and I was enchanted with you - but somehow we patched it all up at the movies.”
In letters, she addressed him as ‘Father L’, always signing off: ‘XO’. That, she felt she had to explain to the man of God, meant “hugs and kisses”. One particularly effusive letter ended: “Bushels, barrels, carts & lorry loads of love to YOU - Jacqueline XO”. Another finished with “XXX OOO”.
What was it about Father Leonard that so captivated the young American? The bon viveur and well-read cleric was certainly no ordinary Irish priest. He had spent much of his priesthood in London, teaching in a Catholic teacher-training college in Twickenham.
During World War I, he served as a British Army chaplain on the Western Front, an experience that left him partially deaf. In London, he moved in literary circles, counting playwright George Bernard Shaw among his friends. When he retired to Dublin, he was often visited by friends of a wealthy American couple he had befriended in London - including Mrs Kennedy.
Biographers of Jackie Kennedy have never realised the importance of Father Leonard to her. One biographer noted casually how she enjoyed the company of a priest who ‘embraced a joyous form of Christianity that saw no conflict between religious piety and enjoying the finer things in life’.
But as Mrs Kennedy confided to Father Leonard, he was someone who “loves everything I love - who you can have FUN with... whom you can talk to about anything in the world and know you won’t shock them”.
We may never know exactly what he thought of her because his letters haven’t been found, but we can surmise her high opinion of him was reciprocated, although she reveals how he also accused her of being fickle, calling her a “girouette”, the French for weather-vane.
Perhaps he had in mind her revelation that she almost married someone else - a stockbroker named John Husted - with whom she was so “terribly much in love” in 1952. And yet within months, she was confiding that she had fallen for another man, JFK, and her engagement to Husted was swiftly ended.
When Jackie Kennedy Onassis died in 1994, obituarists noted with regret that she had remained largely a mystery by keeping so silent about her past.
Now, thanks to an unlikely but firm friendship, the curtain has been pulled back a little.- Daily Mail