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JFK Diary From 1945 Goes For More Than $700,000 At Auction

Update: The diary sold at auction Wednesday, April 26, for $718,750. R.R. Auction, based in Amherst, New Hampshire, coordinated the sale. The buyer is a Massachusetts-based collector.

In the summer of 1945, between his military service and first campaign for Congress, John F. Kennedy traveled across Europe working as a journalist.

JFK kept a diary during those months on the road. The historical document reveals a future President trying to make sense of a rapidly changing post-war world--and it’s now being put up for bid by a New Hampshire auction house.

For nearly six decades, the leather-bound diary sat in the hands of Deirdre Henderson.

“Senator John F. Kennedy gave me the diary in 1959 so that I could better understand his ideas on foreign policy,” says Henderson, then a research assistant in charge of coordinating one of JFK’s campaign advisory committees.

Henderson, however, couldn’t find the time to read it.

“I shelved it. You had to realize the pace of the campaign,” she says. “I simply said to myself, I’ll read that later on.”

Later on never came. After Kennedy’s election, Henderson found herself with a White House job, and then in a role at the State Department. She was returning to her office on November 22, 1963 when she heard news of the assassination.

Credit Courtesy of RR Auction
Deirdre Henderson, a research assistant, shaking hands with her boss, John F. Kennedy.

After that moment, she says the diary became too painful to consider. But eventually, she pulled the leather three-ring diary from her shelves. In 1995, she published its contents in the book Prelude to Leadership.

The writings reveal a 28-year old JFK sitting in on history. As a journalist for Hearst Newspapers, he attends the opening of the United Nations in San Francisco, covers Winston Churchill's reelection bid in England, and reports on the Potsdam Conference, where he watches Joseph Stalin and Harry Truman interact.

“Here he is this war hero, recovered from his injuries, become a reporter, not yet a politician, and he is intersecting with the giants of the 20th century,” says Bobby Livingston, executive vice president of RR Auction in Amherst, New Hampshire.

The 61-page diary has yellowing pages, some of them typed, others handwritten. The entries are both formal and personal, including his reaction to seeing a bombed out Berlin.

“The devastation is complete,” writes Kennedy on July 1, 1945. “The streets are relatively clear, but there is not a single building which is not gutted. On some of the streets, the stench--sweet and sickish from dead bodies--is overwhelming. People all have completely colorless faces--a yellow tinge with pale tan lips. They are all carrying bundles. Where they are going, no one seems to know. I wonder whether they do.”

On July 31st, 1945, less than three months after the Nazis surrendered, Kennedy describes seeing Adolf Hitler’s bunker. His writes, “He had in him the stuff of which legends are made,” a statement which caused controversy when these texts were first printed.

'The best politician is the man who does not think of the political consequences of his every act.'--JFK

By the end of the diary, there’s a shift from JFK the journalist to JFK the budding politician. He writes of loyalty, ethics and frets over his inexperience.  

“The best politician is the man who does not think of the political consequences of his every act,” he writes.

Throughout the text, historian and Pulitzer Prize winning author Fredrik Logevall says Kennedy comes across as a passionate observer.

“For me, what the diary shows is an inquisitive mind. I think he has a curiosity about the world around him that comes through, and I think is one of his most attractive qualities,” says Logevall, who is writing a biography of Kennedy.  

Those gifts would help him launch a political career, the seeds of which are in this diary. Deirdre Henderson says it’s time to give the document its do.

“This diary is relatively unknown to the world, and I think through this auction, it will become known, and it will find a home that is worthy of its value intellectually,” she says.

The diary, of course, also has financial value. Bidding, which starts at 1pm on Wednesday, is expected to top $200,000.

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.
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