A Window Onto An American Dynasty
As the record-breaking viewership of the current season of Netflix’s The Crown tells us, we are endlessly fascinated by what goes on behind the closed doors of the world’s royals.
And as much as we bandy about the term “American royalty” to apply to sports or movie stars, there will never be another family that comes as close to actual royalty in this country as the Kennedys have. Wealth, political power, social prestige, and an ample air of untouchable, restrained mystery have set them on a pedestal that no amount of ungenerous speculation has been able to topple. In our Important Winter Auction we offered a set of correspondence to a Kennedy family friend that both gives a window onto what it was like to be a part of their private social circle, and marks the occasions of their most public celebrations and tragedies.
The recipient of the letters in our auction, Binky Van Laer, was a close friend of the Auchincloss family, into which Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s mother married after she divorced Jackie’s father in 1940. The longest of the letters in the collection are from Nina Auchincloss Straight, Jackie’s step-sister and the maid of honor at her wedding a year earlier to John F. Kennedy. In the letter, “Nini” (as she signs herself) gives us a colorful depiction of what it was like to be a young woman of the Kennedy/Auchincloss/Bouvier stripe in the 1950s. Yale v. Army football games, boys who went to Groton, weekend visits from the junior Senator “Jack” and Jackie - the privileged youthful exuberance practically jumps off the page.
The Kennedy wedding party. Nina Auchincloss, maid of honor, is the first woman on the left.
The letters from Nina Straight - who would go on to marry the confessed ex-KGB informant Michael Straight - were written during one of the many health crises suffered by JFK that the Kennedy family did their best to minimize on his political journey to the presidency. Kennedy suffered terrible digestive issues throughout his childhood and young adulthood, which were eventually diagnosed as Addison’s disease. One of the experimental treatments he was given to combat chronic colitis was corticosteroids, administered as a tiny tablet he would insert under his skin with a little knife. Unknown to doctors at the time, one of the side effects of high doses of corticosteroids is bone degeneration. By the mid-1950s, JFK suffered from such severe lower back pain from osteoporosis that he could barely walk.
In October of 1954, when Nina was writing to Binky, JFK was in the hospital after a spinal fusion surgery - one of his several back surgeries. At Nina’s urging, Binky wrote a letter to Jack while he convalesced, his grateful response to which is also included in the collection. His signature on that letter to Binky, which includes a personal note, is extremely rare. According to Leland Little Historical Director Rob Golan, increasing use of the autopen in mid-century America has made signatures in the actual hand of public figures hard to come by.
John and Jackie Kennedy after his back surgery in 1954.
The rest of the correspondences to Ms. Van Laer are remarkable artifacts, commemorating the marriages, births, and deaths of Kennedy family members - moments of not only personal, but national importance. They include Ms. Van Laer’s invitation to the wedding of JFK and Jackie, and their acceptance to a party held in her own honor. These come on letterhead from Jackie’s family homes - Merrywood, in McClean, Virginia and Hammersmith Farm, in Rhode Island, where the reception after the Kennedy’s marriage ceremony was held.
John and Jackie Kennedy at Hammersmith Farm after their wedding ceremony.
Jackie and her children leaving John F. Kennedy's funeral.
The next letter, on White House letterhead, marks the beginning of the heartbreaking turn in Jackie’s time as first lady. A note from Jackie’s personal secretary in August 1963 thanks Binky for her condolences - at the beginning of that month, Jackie gave birth to her second son with JFK, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, who would live for only two days. Just three short months later, John F. Kennedy was assassinated. A black-bordered note from January 1964 thanks Binky for her sympathy following that historically tragic event.
Through the course of the next few notes we follow Jackie Kennedy as she becomes Mrs. Aristotle Onassis and through the loss of several other family members. A note from Jackie’s mother, Janet Lee Auchincloss, makes clear the affection that the family had for Binky as the years wore on. As those of us on the outside can only imagine, the close circle of company kept by those whose affairs become so public must be dear to them. Because for all the pomp and circumstance of a royal kind of life, joy and pain come to us all, and even the Jackie Kennedys of the world are only human in the face of it.

The Important Winter Auction
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Saturday, December 5th
9:00am (EST)