Film shows outpouring of grief to JFK's widow

Actors read letters of condolence sent to Jacqueline Kennedy

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photoJacqueline Kennedy
photoThis photo shows one of the two pages of a letter that Janis Hirsch wrote to Jacqueline Kennedy in 1964.

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. 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.

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?' "