Snapshot of a mourning nation: ‘Letters to Jackie: Condolences From a Grieving Nation' inspired documentary showing locally
Ellen Fitzpatrick is a presidential historian who grew up in Amherst and graduated from Hampshire College. A new documentary, "Letters to Jackie: Remembering President Kennedy, is based on Fitzpatrick's 2010 book about the public's response to the president's assassination. (AP photo) Purchase photo reprints »
Ellen Fitzpatrick, then an 11-year-old living in Amherst, caught a glimpse of President Kennedy when he visited Amherst College in October 1963. Fitzpatrick says the experience of seeing the president, and his sudden death a month later, helped shape her decision to become a historian. Purchase photo reprints »
The cover of Ellen Fitzpatrick's 2010 book, "Letters to Jackie," featured photos taken in Dallas, Nov. 22, 1963, by a local resident who had come to the airport to greet the Kennedys.
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In 2010, shortly after publication of her book, “Letters to Jackie: Condolences From a Grieving Nation,” historian Ellen Fitzpatrick got an email from filmmaker William Couturié.
In his note, Couturié said he’d like to talk with her about making a film based on her book about the reaction of ordinary Americans to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas.
“And so began a longer conversation,” Fitzpatrick said in a recent telephone interview.
Fitzpatrick, who grew up in Amherst, graduated from Hampshire College and teaches at the University of New Hampshire, said she instantly recognized Couturié’s name.
As a producer, writer and director, his credits include “Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam,” an Emmy Award-winning 1987 documentary that captured the Vietnam War through the words soldiers set down on paper and mailed home. He also won an Academy Award for his 1989 film “Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt.”
Couturié, who lives in San Francisco, says he discovered a visceral immediacy in Fitzpatrick’s material, similar to the intense emotion he’d explored in previous projects.
“I immediately saw,” he said, “that the letters in Ellen’s book had the same qualities of intimacy and emotion that war letters have — they’re fresh and wholly truthful. People spill their guts in letters in ways they rarely do in an interview.”
From the outset, Couturie said he had one overriding goal for the Kennedy project: “What I wanted the audience to understand was how people felt at the moment of his death.”
1.5 million letters
Fitzpatrick had spent several years reading thousands of letters written by Americans — young and old, black and white, rich and poor, highly educated and barely literate — after the assassination.
Of the 1.5 million letters that Jacqueline Kennedy received — a staggering 45,000 were delivered to the White House on the Monday following the assassination — Fitzpatrick had selected about 250 of them to include in her book. As the first historian to bring the condolence letters to light, Fitzpatrick saw them as “a snapshot,” as she put it, complex and textured, of what Americans were thinking about in 1963, and what the president’s sudden, violent death meant.
Three years later, the result of that first contact between the historian and the filmmaker is a new documentary, written and directed by Couturié and based on Fitzpatrick’s book.
“Letters to Jackie: Remembering President Kennedy,” released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the president’s death, will have its sole showing in this area on Oct. 24 at 7 p.m., at the Amherst Cinema. Fitzpatrick will attend and will hold a Q&A session after the screening.
Fitzpatrick said Couturié and his colleagues have done a masterful job of adapting the written word to the screen.
“He made the letters come alive,” she said.
A recent review in the Los Angeles Times called the film “a superb time capsule ... a rich, tender, enormously stirring portrait of one of America’s most beloved presidents.”
Funded by Discovery TLC, “Letters to Jackie” was shown last month to a packed house at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston — where the condolence letters are stored — and is being shown at selected sites around the country. It airs nationally on TLC on Nov. 17 at 8 p.m.
Couturié and his colleagues winnowed the 250 letters in Fitzpatrick’s book to 20.
They’re read off-camera by A-list actors, including Viola Davis, Allison Janney, Laura Linney, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Cooper, Octavia Spencer, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain and Frances McDormand, among others. The voice-overs are accompanied by archival film footage from the Kennedy years, some of it rarely before seen, that spans the news events of his presidency and scenes with family and friends. The film also features photos of the letters and most of the writers.
Fitzpatrick provided invaluable assistance, according to Mark Brewer, the project’s editor, who lives and works in California. The film’s small crew relied on her expertise frequently, he said, to check and double-check facts and time sequences, and to confer about questions of tone and context.
The movie’s impact reflects the whole package, Brewer said — the words, the visuals, the music. But without doubt, he said, the actors who lent their voices made an immeasurable difference. “You feel like you get to know these people,” he said. “I felt like I was listening to the real person.”
Fitzpatrick said she was invited to spend a day in a Boston studio, listening to actor Chris Cooper read the letter written by George T. David of St. Petersburg, Fla. — not once but 17 times until he was satisfied with every pause, every nuance.
“It was absolutely amazing,” she said. “For the first time in my life, I really appreciated what extraordinary acting was.”
Raised in the rigidly segregated South, Davis told Mrs. Kennedy that he supported the president’s push for civil rights — and deeply regretted not having written sooner to let him know. Like him, he wrote, “there were others in the Southland who must have sympathized with his efforts, and our neglect takes on the proportions of tragedy — especially now.”
Davis was one of many, Fitzpatrick said, whose letters reflected the painful, often violent days of the civil rights movement, and the poisonous hated surrounding it. The film accurately reflects the “very, very profound” divisions in the country of that time, she said.
Brewer, the film editor, said one of the most moving letters was written by a Mexican- American living in El Paso, Texas, that reflected Kennedy’s ability to connect to others, despite vast differences of status and wealth.
“I gained a lot of insight about how deep that went with people,” said Brewer, who lives in the Los Angeles area. “They saw the Kennedys as this young family, and that resonated with people.”
“I am but a humble postman,” Henry Gonzales wrote, “and I realize the many letters you have received, which is but deserving to you, throughout this wide world.”
Like her husband, he too had served in World War II, he said. He and his wife married the same year the Kennedys had, and he and his wife also had young children.
“President Kennedy was adored in our house by all of us here. ... I am not ashamed to say how terrible we all felt at this tragedy and even our five year old girl cried that day.”
Brewer said the filmmakers contacted Gonzales’ grown children, who gave them photos and home movies that are used in the film. Actor Demian Bichir’s reading of the letter, Brewer said, coupled with the images on screen, make for some of the film’s most compelling moments.
“My eyes tear up every single time,” Brewer said. “And I’ve seen it a thousand times.”
‘A vivid, searing memory’
The assassination remains, Fitzpatrick wrote in her book, “a vivid, searing memory for millions of Americans who still recall precisely where they were when they learned of the President’s death.”
Fitzpatrick was an 11-year-old sixth grader at the Marks Meadow School in Amherst. A month earlier, in October 1963, she and her best friend had seen the president when he came to town for the dedication of the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College.
“We pushed our way as close to the front as we could,” she wrote, “and then saw a shock of his chestnut hair, heard his distinctive voice, and glimpsed the American President.”
On the morning of Nov. 22, in the library at school, she heard the president had been shot. “I came home after an early dismissal to find my parents staring at the television set as they would until late Monday evening. My father, especially, was deeply distraught. ... I understood that something of tremendous moment had occurred.”
It taught her, she wrote, “how quickly a lived present could recede into the past. These events, without question, shaped my decision to become a historian.”
Bill Couturié’s experience was quite different. “Like everyone around on that day, I remember everything about it,” he recalled. “Unlike most people’s recollection, mine was not of people crying. I was a freshman in high school, in a very conservative neighborhood [outside Los Angeles]. We were in PE when the news came across the PA system. Many of the boys cheered. I was shocked. Being only 13, I hadn’t really thought much about politics up to that point. But in that moment I realized I was a Democrat.”
Next week, when “Letters to Jackie” is shown at the Amherst Cinema, Carol Johnson will be there for personal and professional reasons.
Johnson is the theater’s manager and, at age 13, wrote a condolence note to Jacqueline Kennedy.
“It was a time of impossible sadness,” she said. “Presidents were thought of so differently then — they were revered and respected. The sermon in our small Kansas church that Sunday helped us have faith that the country would continue, but the loss of this young leader was a terrible shock. My father was a World War II veteran, and a very tough bird. That morning was the first time I’d seen him cry.”
Johnson wrote her note on blue paper, “that thin crinkly stationery we used for Air Mail — I don’t remember the words. It was short, but heartfelt. It seemed like the only way we really had to tell Mrs. Kennedy how sad we all were and how sad we were for her.”
Kennedy still has a hold on the public imagination, Fitzpatrick said — despite the passage of time, despite the more detached assessments that have come along, despite the revelations about his personal life and relentless womanizing.
His record is indeed mixed, she said. Slow to embrace the cause of civil rights, she said, he finally, clearly defined racial injustice as a moral wrong. He was a Cold Warrior who nonetheless wanted to scale back the arms race. He stepped up involvement in Vietnam, while also expressing reservations about the mission there. The examination of his record will continue, she said: “Historians aren’t done with John F. Kennedy yet.”
When Americans are asked about their most admired presidents, Kennedy still polls well. Fitzpatrick said she believes that’s because the late president “tapped into a call to service, a spirit of idealism. He sought to invigorate the country, to tap the potential and promise of our society. That’s not trivial.”
Historian Michael Kazin put it best, Fitzpatrick said, when he wrote of the ongoing interest in Kennedy:
“Perhaps we still care so much about JFK because we yearn for a good, vigorous, and sensuous ruler, one who can make the old dreams live again, if only in words and pictures. There he is, our JFK, peering back at us from book jackets, old videos, the pages of Vanity Fair, and websites: the upswept hair, the decisive gestures, the buoyant grin. He will always be glancing toward a future that never arrives.”
Suzanne Wilson can be reached as email@example.com.