Jodie Hansen is tired.
The culmination of a project decades in the making sits on the table in front of her, neatly bound and fetchingly presented in 291 pages.
Hansen began this journey decades ago, a letter writing campaign driven by an almost unexplainable compulsion to document a comprehensive collection of memories, reactions and emotions from the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
As she talks, her gaze falls back to the cover of her book, a faded picture of a politicking Kennedy beside Jackie, smiling from inside the top-down convertible in which he will soon die.
Above the image is a graphic built to look like a page torn from a desk calendar with the title, “Nov. 22, 1963.”
Even as she looks at the cover, its image incredibly familiar and impossibly foreign, something out of an alternate version of history, Hansen doesn’t register emotion. Her eyes betray no love for the Kennedys, no sorrow at the fate that awaits the smiling couple just a little further down the road. She pauses to look at it, only for a second before continuing her thought.
But maybe that’s not surprising. Even though the president adorns the cover of her book, released this November on the 50th anniversary of his death, the project and the book it spawned aren’t really about the president at all.
It is about us, all of us, collectively as a country and a species, and the complicated emotions that make us who we are.
What did you do when you heard Kennedy died?
What do you remember?
What did you feel?
These aren’t questions that reveal anything about the man looking up with squinting eyes from the cover of Hansen’s book. These are questions that reveal, instead, the most basic concepts of humanity. They shine a light on our weaknesses, our hopes, our fears and the abstractions that reside within us that make us more than sentient sacks of meat.
It’s that pursuit of deeper meaning that drove Hansen to create a lasting document for the historical record, something that reaches past grassy knolls and conspiracy theories. It delves deeper than the nearly prosaic “Where were you when.?”
In the ’80s, Hansen, a Kentucky native who was then a resident of Union City, Tenn. and now lives in Morristown, was researching genealogy with her mother. But somehow the dusty records and dry documents left Hansen deeply unsatisfied.
What use is it to know how much some distant ancestor paid for the family farm? Or the year they were born? Even the year they died?
Really, what good is that to anybody? It doesn’t tell us how they felt, what they thought or how they lived and died.
Did they cry or scream when Lincoln was killed? Were they scared the country would plunge back into bloody war? Those are the answers that make us human, that reveal the inner workings of a soul.
For someone with Hansen’s particular obsession for history, the property deeds, birth records and obituaries left too many questions unanswered, too many gaps that could never be filled.
That’s the genesis of an idea that began the overriding project of Hansen’s life. There have been others, Hansen is a collector by nature and nurture, but her life’s work was mostly neatly contained in a five-year period straddling the Carter and Reagan administrations in which she sent a questionnaire to everyone, EVERYONE, that might have an interesting or notable story about their reaction to the Kennedy Assassination.
She became something of a celebrity at the post office where letters from movie stars, entertainers, killers, assassins and politicians become the norm.
She got responses from George and Barbara Bush, Jimmy Carter, Nancy Reagan, Gerald Ford and the governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton. The actor Walter Matthau wrote back, as did comedians George Burns and Steve Allen.
Charles Manson wrote back, if slightly off topic, as did James Earl Ray and O.J. Simpson, although when he penned his response, OJ fit in a different category.
Ray and Simpson made the book but Manson did not. Hansen feared he was out for the publicity and didn’t want to give it to him.
Driven by this vision that she was creating something for the historical record, a drive that she struggles to fully articulate, Hansen wasn’t simply motivated by fame.
Many of her favorites are people who on their best days had a relatively low Q-rating and now are essentially forgotten by the popular culture. Others were simply ordinary people who might have a good story to tell.
She sought out the Ma Bell operator working the switchboard that day, dealing with the thousands of calls as people frantically scrapped together as much information as possible and relied on the relatively new technology to do it.
She has ambassadors, spiritual leaders and educators, all neatly organized in a series of blue binders by profession or claim to fame. The book, which was co-authored by Hansen’s daughter, Laura, takes a somewhat simpler alphabetical approach so that astronaut John Glenn is followed by Harry Golden, editor of the Carolina Israelite.
Hansen has a soft spot for the poets, Iron Eyes Cody, the “crying Indian” from the famous Keep America Beautiful ads, wrote a post card about being in the Big Mountains for a week on a vision quest before he heard the news.
“I went on a fishing trip and sang some prayer songs for John, who I knew,” he wrote.
Hansen finished her own quest after five years and moved on to other things, her life, her children, her other collection, a husband battling illness, but there was always the unfinished business of the Kennedy letters.
That’s where Laura comes in. Laura is a graduate of Columbia with a degree in historical preservation. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two sons and has spent her 25-year professional career working to preserve buildings and public spaces.
It was Laura’s drive in the face of the looming 50th anniversary to get the concept of a book in front of publishers to see if any were interested.
Thomas Dunne press took a bite and the result is, to borrow a phrase from Kirkus Reviews, one of the trades that help book sellers select their inventory, “a chorus of fascinating and mostly thoughtful voices reflects on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. . A moving, wistful, uniquely entertaining tribute.”
Still, as she gears up for the promotion of the book, even with support of the publisher and Laura, the end of the journey is taking a toll on the septuagenarian retired ER nurse and grandmother of 11. She’s looking forward to a New York trip to talk to inner city school children about the importance of history.
She also has been asked to participate in a panel discussion conducted by the PBS Knoxville affiliate during a screening of a JFK documentary at the Tennessee History Center.
But even as she is proud and excited to share her hard work with the world, there’s some trepidation. Some of it is clearly the weariness, some of it is the simple fact that she began the project so long ago and the passage of time has blunted some of the mystic wonder of it all, but some of it is also the trauma of letting go, of finally reaching the finish line, of collaborating on a project that was so deeply personal.
Intellectually, she understands the publisher, Thomas Dunne, a division of St. Martins Press, has an investment to recoup and everyone involved would like to make some money, too. She understands that her business was gathering the letters and it is the publisher’s business to make them marketable.
“I am truly grateful that Thomas Dunne has the vision and is secure enough in its decision making ability to take a chance on us,” she said.
However, in a way, she’s a victim of her success all those years ago. There’s no practical way to include all the letters, which are reprinted as Hansen received them, there’s just too many. Consequently, several didn’t make the cut.
But even as Hansen acknowledges that reality, there’s a twinge of realization that she worked awfully hard to get those letters and even if she knows the publisher has made the right choice, she’d still prefer that all of them, maybe except Manson, be included.
But whatever qualms the author has about the ones left behind, the end result is something quite astonishing, an engaging and enthralling window into humanity’s collective soul.
In addition to the raving Kirkus Review, Vanity Fair has reached an agreement to publish a handful of letters on its website to help promote the book as well.
In short, the publishers clearly choose wisely and are throwing their support behind the book.
It is possible to read the book from front to back, entertaining even, but it’s more fun to flip through, land on a page and see who is waiting there to share a story.
The book is available through most online retailers as well as traditional storefront book sellers and at the front office of the Citizen Tribune.
Article courtesy of JOHN GULLION, Citizen Tribune