Documentary Features Ellison Bay Woman’s Letter to Jackie Kennedy

On Nov. 26, 1963, 20-year-old Gretchen Lundstrom, a history major at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., threw a tiny pebble into a raging river.

“And 50 years later, up it comes again,” she said recently.

Today she is Gretchen Farwell, married to Dan Farwell. They live in Ellison Bay.

The tiny pebble she tossed into the raging river of history was a letter on St. Olaf letterhead to Jackie Kennedy, widow of the recently murdered president of the United States.

Gretchen was so upset by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, that she felt she had to do something. So she sat down and wrote a heartfelt letter to Mrs. Kennedy.

Writing the letter was a cathartic act for her. Unbeknownst to her, it was just one of hundreds of thousands of letters grieving Americans sent to the president’s wife after his murder in Dallas on that fateful Friday morning.

“I did it. I don’t know why I did it,” Gretchen said. “We were just enamored with Jack Kennedy. I was in high school during the (1960) election. I couldn’t vote for him. I’m from Rockford, Ill., originally, a very conservative city, but my family was not. There was a small group of us that watched the election returns. The excitement. He came to visit. I can still see him standing at the top of the stairs, getting out of the plane, with that hair. We were sort of groupies or something like that.”

“I think I felt helpless or something. I remember calling my mother, just sobbing and thinking the world had absolutely come to an end. Other than that, we were glued to the television set in the dorm. Everybody that was alive that day and older than 10 remembers what they were doing.”

But the world did not come to an end and life continued for Gretchen. She received a thank you note from Jackie Kennedy’s secretary, and that was that.

Until a phone call came in November 2009 from a researcher asking if she was the Gretchen Lundstrom who attended St. Olaf College and wrote a condolence letter to Jackie Kennedy in 1963.

The researcher was working for University of New Hampshire historian Ellen Fitzpatrick, who had found a cache of condolence letters written to Jackie Kennedy while doing research in the JFK Library in Cambridge, Mass., and after going through thousands of the letters, selected several hundred and tracked down the authors, including the former Gretchen Lundstrom, to include in what became the book Letters to Jackie: Condolences from a Grieving Nation.

“The amazing thing to me still is the volume of letters that came in. I have no idea how my letter ever trickled down through that,” Gretchen said.

But it did. The book was released by HarperCollins in 2010, with Gretchen’s letter. The St. Olaf alumni magazine did a story and that was that.

Until last year when she got another telephone call, this time from someone in the office of Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Bill Couturie (Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam and Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt), who had been commissioned by The Learning Channel to make a documentary about Letters to Jackie to air in November of this year, the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination.

“They wanted me to send pictures and any videos from the time period. I didn’t have any videos and hardly any pictures,” Gretchen said.

But there was black and white footage of the St. Olaf campus in the school’s archives.

“So that becomes the backdrop when my letter is read. Then they switch from the letter to what’s going on (in world events of the time) and back to the letter. It’s very interesting,” she said.

Actors were hired to read letters selected for the film. Jessica Chastain (The Help, Zero Dark Thirty) reads Gretchen’s letter, as everyone will get to see when the documentary debuts on TLC in November.

So the movie’s made and scheduled to show nationally in tribute to the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination, and that’s that.

Until the telephone rings again in the Farwell home on June 13.

This time it was director Bill Couturie, who tells her the film is finished and he’s happy with it, and it has been chosen to open the American Film Institute’s five-day documentary film festival in Washington, D.C., and would she like to attend?

“I said, ‘yes, I think I could.’ There was no time to think about it. I had to buy some shoes.”

So she and her Dan flew to Washington and got the red carpet treatment, along with author Ellen Fitzpatrick, another letter writer, and the husband of a letter writer who died of breast cancer.

The other letter writer was comedy writer Janis Hirsch (Murphy Brown, Will & Grace, ‘Til Death), who was 13 when she wrote her letter to Jackie.

“Janis was 13 at the time and a polio victim and she had just broken her hip,” Gretchen said. “She was bedridden and heard about it. She wrote Jackie Kennedy a letter and said, ‘I’d like to give you some advice. When you’re feeling down, you should sing ‘You Gotta Have Heart’ from Damn Yankees.’ She’s just this great person and now she’s totally embarrassed that that was the letter that survived.”

Gretchen said the movie has amazing editing that juxtaposes the letters with newsreel footage of the times as well as Kennedy family photos.

“Not too long into the film, where the letterhead of St. Olaf College comes up with my handwriting, my husband just grabbed me and I kind of started to shake. It was so weird to see your 20-year-old handwriting on the screen. It was quite an emotional experience.”

“I was rather chuffed, as the English say, or proud and astonished when I saw the full-screen picture of my wife’s freshman picture and graduation picture thrown upon the screen,” said Dan Farwell. “I was proud and amazed.”

Gretchen is still marveling at the resurfacing of her tiny pebble and all it has wrought.

“It still seems so surreal to me. The whole experience has been,” she said.