After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, David Ormsby Gore became Jackie's confidant – as Felix Pryor discovered on opening a locked despatch box
For an archivist, the next best thing to a sealed tomb in the Valley of the Kings is a locked despatch box. Two of these have just come to light during the final stages of cataloguing the contents of the Harlech house, Glyn Cywarch. The two boxes, clothed in ministerial red morocco and stamped with the royal cypher, belonged to David Ormsby Gore, later 5th Baron Harlech, and were issued to him when he was a minister in the Foreign Office. He was later British Ambassador to Kennedy's White House. He had been an intimate friend of the president for many years; indeed, during the time he spent at the White House, he became one of Kennedy's most trusted advisers. He saw him more frequently than even the President's brother Robert. Ormsby Gore and his wife Sylvia ('Sissy') were, as Robert himself put it, part of the family.
So what would these boxes contain? Sometimes one opens a tomb, only to find a grave robber's discarded pick-axe and some sandwich papers. Would Lord Harlech's boxes contain old school reports and correspondence with the gas board? There was no way of telling: no one could open them. As a general rule, there are more orphan keys in an old country house even than mice. But nothing worked. A locksmith was called. But he couldn't open it. The confidentiality of the minister had been well protected. The sale deadline was fast approaching, so drastic measures were called for. With exceptional care – and, it must be said, causing minimal damage – the locksmith sliced through the hasps of each obdurate case.
"Yes, wonderful things" (as Howard Carter is said to have said on another occasion) – here indeed were the Kennedy papers that everyone knew must have existed but no one could find. First up were letters by Kennedy himself, letters such as could only have been written to a close friend: in one drolly confessing that he had committed the blunder of referring to one notorious Asian dictator as "the George Washington of his country". There were letters, too, by other members of the Kennedy circle, as well as White House passes, photographs, and even the order of service for Kennedy's funeral.
Best of all was a run of letters by Jacqueline Kennedy. The earlier of these letters are on White House stationery and testify to the depth of affection between the Kennedys and the Ormsby-Gores: one, written when Jackie was a little tipsy on Martini (or so the heading claims), discusses a yachting holiday to watch the America's Cup; another tells David that Jack was "furious" at his suggestion they send the Indian Ambassador a Peter Sellers record.
Then come the letters on black-edged paper, written after the assassination. In them we can see what was to become the legend of Camelot beginning to form. But tragedy stalked both families. In 1967, Sissy Harlech was killed in a car smash. Jacqueline wrote to her widower: "Your last letter was such a cri de coeur of loneliness – I would do anything to take that anguish from you ... Sometimes I think I must sound to you like Bobby did to me a couple of winters ago – when he had gotten better & I hadn't yet."
That autumn, the former First Lady was sent to Cambodia on a goodwill mission. Harlech accompanied her. And the world's press took notice, the Chicago Tribune declaring him 'The Man Most Likely to Win Jackie'.
It was not to be. The devastated Harlech later wrote to her (keeping a copy of the letter in the box): "All the pathetic plans I had brought with me... including one for a secret marriage this summer – plans which I saw us eagerly discussing, calmly and with complete frankness as we did at the Cape and in Cambodia for the next wonderful ten days – all had become irrelevant trash to be thrown away within a few hours of my landing in New York".
Nevertheless, the correspondence continued. After the summer that saw the murder of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, she wrote: "I keep thinking of what Jack used to say – 'that every man can make a difference & that every man should try' – (it was Bobby who said it about what Jack believed) – and I hear it now with that terrible twist of horror... Anyway we must go down fighting – Dont laugh – but I am going to fight for the Negroes – Bobby fought for all Jack's things – but they were too big for me to fight for – But that is what he left undone – and I can do something about that in so many little ways...".
The last letter of all is dated from the Onassis yacht, after her marriage: "You and I have shared so many lives and deaths and hopes and pain – we will share them forever and be forever bound together by them... If ever I can find some healing and some comfort – it has to be with someone who is not a part of all my world of past and pain – I can find that now – if the world will let us...".
Felix Pryor is Manuscript Consultant to Bonhams Book Department, his books include The Faber Book of Letters and Elizabeth I: Her Life in Letters.
Sale: Contents of Glyn Cywarch – the Property of Lord Harlech
Wednesday 29 March at 10.00am
Enquiries: Harvey Cammell +44 (0) 20 7468 8230