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The Jackie-Lord Harlech letters: Missives from a more courteous time

Though Jackie’s letters appeared to have shattered Harlech, the important thing is that she took considerable time to not only tell him she wouldn’t marry him but why she felt could not.

In a world where manners and etiquette have become nearly extraterrestrial concepts, where groups of citizens are declared by tweet to be enemies, and where people end intimate relationships by disappearing in every sense short of actual atomic dispersal (an occurrence now called ghosting), the ghost of the usually proper Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis has emerged to show us a more civilized way to deliver unwanted news.

Mary Stanik

The ghost who visits now is not quite the ravaged, angry yet protocol-observing mourner who almost certainly was suffering the early symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder that we saw in the film “Jackie.” Rather, she is the woman who had cast off enough of her often stupefying post-John F. Kennedy assassination grief to accept a marriage proposal from Aristotle Onassis in 1968. The woman who that same year declined a proposal from Lord Harlech, the former David Ormsby-Gore, the intelligent, urbane British politician who served as the U.K.’s ambassador to the U.S. while Jack Kennedy, his very great friend of many years, was president. Declined even though Harlech was the man who most of the world who followed such happenings in 1967 and early 1968 thought certain would be the lucky lord who would at last lift the filmy black veil away from the beautiful young widow.

Even if texting or Snapchat had existed in 1968, it’s doubtful that the fastidious Jackie would have employed such methods to tell Harlech she would not become his bride. No. Harlech received his rejection by handwritten letter, one of a number Jackie wrote him that year, along with several sent in the years after the assassination. The letters, to be auctioned by Harlech’s grandson in March, include at least one penned after her wedding to Onassis, a groom Harlech had made quite clear in his own letter that he did not approve. Her response to Harlech’s criticism was sent about a month after her marriage to Onassis and was written on stationery from the Christina, the frigate Onassis turned into a sumptuous yacht. Even the mostly proper Jackie was not immune from wanting to administer some needle while ostensibly practicing courtesy, especially after someone she apparently still considered a close friend told her she married the wrong man. I guess I can understand, having been told by more than one friend through the years that I was interested in more than one wrong man.

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Given the jet-set lifestyle for which Jackie was famous (which included a November 1967 excursion to Cambodia with Harlech that made many news magazine covers), one does wonder why she didn’t tell Harlech in person that he would not succeed his friend as Jackie’s husband.

At the risk of practicing amateur psychiatry (which I’ll do anyway), the glaring answers that explain Jackie’s wish to do what she felt she had to do by letter instead of in-person meeting may be found in the proposal rejection and in the letter sent from the Christina. “If ever I can find some healing and some comfort – it has to be with somebody who is not part of all of my world of past and pain,” she wrote in the letter turning down Harlech’s proposal. In the post-wedding missive, Jackie told Harlech that “you are like my beloved brother – and mentor—and the only original spirit I know – as you were to Jack.” One can imagine that Jackie, also known for her public persona of unemotional cool, probably did not want to deal with the dreck and muck a personal meeting might have conjured with a man she thought of not only as a brother but a searing reminder of much happier days.

Though Jackie’s letters appeared to have shattered Harlech (judging from the letter he wrote after she shut him down), the important thing is that she took considerable time to not only tell him she wouldn’t marry him but why she felt could not become his wife. She let him know. She didn’t play the ghost.

As it is, in 1969, Harlech married a woman who appeared to be a careful Jackie copy. And Jackie was said to be immersed in sadness when she attended Harlech’s funeral. It’s also been reported that as she lay dying, she regretted not marrying Harlech.

If Jackie and Harlech are friends again in the other world, I imagine they might hope those of us still here might learn something from their correspondence. I’m guessing they would say that if they could communicate difficult things after surviving an assassination and the car accident death of Harlech’s first wife, we are capable of at least as much decency.

Though I do think they might agree that telling someone they are like a sibling is probably not the best thing to say to someone who has proposed. It’s better than ghosting, but still.

Mary Stanik, a writer and public-relations professional, formerly lived in St. Paul. She is the author of the novel “Life Erupted.” 


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