And We Thought Email Posed a Privacy Threat

We worry these days about compromises to our privacy thanks to the internet, social media, digital cookies and search engines that track and record our activity. Is your email secure? Will someone you know read it? Will someone you don’t know hack it? Will some super-user at your email host be snooping? Is the NSA scanning and storing it? All of these reasons to be concerned…


These are NOT Jacqueline Kennedy’s letters; they are just an illustration.

Ah, the good old days of paper and pen, letters tied up with a ribbon in a shoebox in the bottom of a closet.

But wait! What if someone finds those paper letters after you die, and decides that they are sensational enough, or even dubs them a “treasure trove of information,” and sells them, perhaps to someone who will publish them for all the world to read?

Jaqueline Kennedy thought she was writing confidential letters to her pastor and dear friend and confidante when she penned 33 deeply personal letters to Father Joseph Leonard, a Vincentian priest, between 1950 and 1964. Writing about her insecurities, her marriage, her despair after her husband’s assassination, her faith and sometimes her crises of faith, and more.

The letters are in the possession of All Hallows College in Dublin, Ireland, where Father Leonard lived while corresponding with Kennedy. The letters will be sold at auction on June 10.

Mrs. Kennedy was a deeply private person. In her obituary on May 20, 1994, the New York Times noted this about her, saying, “She almost never granted interviews on her past – the last was nearly 30 years ago – and for decades she had not spoken publicly about Mr. Kennedy, his Presidency or their marriage.” In a subsequent article following her funeral, New York Times writer R.W. Apple, Jr. wrote, “In keeping with Mrs. Onassis’s passion for privacy, it was a modest, 11-minute ceremony, with fewer than 100 people standing near the grave in the midday sun.”  He prophetically said, in 1994, “In a vulgar era when celebrity is something to be cashed in on, she seemed to many to symbolize a more refined and more ordered way of life.”

Yet All Hallows College sees fit to sell her most intimate correspondence to the highest bidder without regard for how the letters will be treated. In a Daily News article, the school defends this gross violation of the deceased woman’s privacy, saying it does not have the resources to appropriately preserve the letters. Hmmm. Does this mean that they are justified in selling them to highest bidder, literally? Or would it be more moral, more respectful, to return the letters to her estate or donate them to the Kennedy Library.

Alas, All Hallows College seems to have lost sight of the very premise upon which its name is based, i.e., “Hallowed: holy, blessed, sacred, revered, highly respected” – which is what personal correspondence between a person and their minister should be.

The school argues that the contents of the letters are not protected by priest-penitent privilege because Father Leonard wasn’t acting in the capacity of Kennedy’s priest during these correspondences, and that her feelings and reflections were not expressed in the forum of confession. Alas, it’s the old argument of legal versus moral. Just because there is no rule against it, does that make it right? What happened to judgment, sensitivity, and discretion? This from an institution of faith.

I was encouraged yesterday when I read the headline, Court Issues Injunction Over Jackie Kennedy Letters.

But no, the court will not block the sale of the letters. Rather the restraining orders were issued against Eoin (Owen) Felix O’Neill, a rare books expert who was at the college at the time the letters were discovered, and who has since reportedly falsely represented himself as the owner of the letters.  The court orders were sought by Sheppard’s Irish Auction House, which has been commissioned to sell the letters for the college at auction. The plan was for the college’s identity as owner and seller to be kept confidential. Oh, well. So much for confidentiality.

Sheppards Auction House acted against Mr. O’Neill on the basis of concerns that he may have photographed some of the letters and may have been behind the publication of some of the letters by the Boston Globe last week. O’Neill reportedly is due a commission on the selling price of the letters, but apparently he is now unhappy with the commission agreement, and has decided to go rogue in publicizing them.

The auction house was already leaking excerpts of the letters to the Irish Times with the hopes of building up excitement (attention from high bidders) in advance of the sale. Auction house spokesperson Philip Sheppard called the letters “the dream find of a lifetime for an auctioneer,” and in fact it was he that dubbed the letters “simply astounding fresh insights that transform our understanding of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.” He said: “They are, in effect, her autobiography for the years 1950-1964.” But if Kennedy had wanted to publish an autobiography or cooperate with an authorized biography she would have done so. She steered clear of that and maintained a great level of privacy for someone of such fame.

Last week, writing about the letters with many direct quotes, the Boston Globe ironically and misleadingly says, “Kennedy, who was elegantly mysterious for so long, divulges in great detail some of her most intimate feelings.” As if she suddenly, now, 20 years after her death, she decided to speak out.

We communicate very little on paper today; correspondence with friends and family and business associates is largely digital via email and social media. Thoughtful people realize the ease with which their information can be shared, and yet many still do put highly sensitive thoughts, feelings and even images into these correspondences. What is happening to Jacqueline Kennedy now should be a wake-up call to all people: never assume your correspondences are “private” or “confidential.” If you put it in writing, it is possible that all the world may be able to read it someday.

Since All Hallows College seems determined to exploit Mrs. Kennedy’s letter for its own financial gain, I can only hope that a multimillionaire with a passion for privacy buys Mrs. Kennedy’s letters and treats them with the sensitivity and dignity they deserve.

About Wendy L. Goldstein

A career communications professional with a deep interest in communications theory, traditional communication, social media and emerging communications technologies, Wendy L. Goldstein offers public relations, marketing and business communication services through WLG Communication,
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