LOS ANGELES — Veteran TV comedy writer Janis Hirsch is used to her words entertaining millions of viewers. But the letter she scrawled in early 1964 as a hospitalized teenager was intended to comfort an audience of one: bereaved first lady Jacqueline Kennedy.
Hirsch’s note, among some 800,000 sent to Mrs. Kennedy in the two months after President John F. Kennedy’s Nov. 22, 1963, assassination in Dallas, is featured along with about 20 others in the moving, finely wrought documentary “Letters to Jackie: Remembering President Kennedy.” It airs at 9 p.m. EST Sunday on TLC.
“I know you too have problems, so I will tell you my remedy for smiling and happiness. Always sing ‘You Gotta Have Heart’ (from the Broadway musical ‘Damn Yankees’) and I think you’ll be happy,” Hirsch wrote, signing off with “Most respectfully yours.”
Based on Ellen Fitzpatrick’s book, “Letters to Jackie: Condolences from a Grieving Nation,” the film by Bill Couturie calls on actors including Viola Davis, Chris Cooper, Jessica Chastain, Demian Bichir, Octavia Spencer, Allison Janney and Channing Tatum to bring the words to life.
The tender expressions of support offered to Kennedy’s widow are woven into a whole with his presidency and the tenor of the times. Snapshots of the writers are mixed with videos and photos marking his up-and-down course as U.S. leader, with the glamorous Jackie at his side.
In the wash of projects marking the 50th anniversary of his death, it’s among the more intimate efforts. The heartfelt correspondence also stands in sharp and dismaying contrast with the cynicism Americans express toward politicians of all stripes today.
Hailee Steinfeld reads Hirsch’s letter, written when the 13-year-old from Trenton, N.J., was recovering from a broken hip that was part of the continuing fallout of the polio she contracted in infancy.
“After the assassination, I was scared, sad, mad and confused like everyone else in the country,” recalled Hirsch in a recent interview. It was about two months after the shooting that a TV report about Mrs. Kennedy’s grief prompted Hirsch to act.
“Thinking that Jackie, this young, beautiful mother of two was still sad, I just had to make her happy,” said Hirsch, who went on to work with a number of hit shows including “Frasier” and “Will & Grace.”
She remembered writing the letter — which elicited a White House acknowledgment that thrilled a mail carrier with its return address — but was “floored” by her gall in doing so when author Fitzpatrick contacted her about it.
“When Ellen sent me a copy of the handwritten, horribly spelled letter I wrote, it took my breath away,” Hirsch said. “Who on earth did I think I was telling this woman ... to sing along with ‘You Gotta Have Heart?”’
In a statement, Couturie said the “strength and wisdom of the nation, coming out of profound tragedy, rings clear in these letters.”
A wide cross-section of Americans felt compelled to share their grief with Mrs. Kennedy. The letters, whether typed or penned, carried distinctive voices and candidly painful messages.
“I know words can be of little comfort now for I lost my husband on June 12th in the same way. The entire world shares your great loss and sorrow,” wrote Myrlie Evers, the widow of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers.
Another came from El Paso, Texas.
“I am but a humble postman and I realize the many letters you have received, which is but deserving to you,” Henry Gonzales wrote in December 1963. “Please try to find in your heart that we Texans of Mexican descent had a great love for all of you. We do hope that you will not think all of us Texans were bad, there is bad in every kind of people and good in every sort of people as you well know.”
Lynn Elber is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. She can be reached at lelber(at)ap.org and http://twitter.com/lynnelber .