A VERY PRIVATE WOMAN: The Life and Unsolved Murder of Presidential Mistress Mary Meyer.
Jack Kennedy was a city slicker. “A well-manicured golf course, perhaps, or an immaculate lawn doing double duty as a touch football field” was about as far “as he could comfortably remove himself from the urban amenities without wondering what the hell he was doing, and worrying about making a fool of himself.” Which is precisely how he felt, remembered good friend Ben Bradlee, when he visited the LBJ ranch in Johnson City. Afterwards, Kennedy confided to the executive editor of the Washington Post that he had been appalled when Johnson hauled him out in a limousine to a “carpeted blind to shoot deer that had been driven toward him.” This was no marker of manhood with which the urbane New Englander was comfortable.
He was much more adept at hunting bi-pedal, indoor quarry. His womanizing (rumors of which had led Bradlee’s father, during the 1960 campaign, to ask him if Kennedy was a “fearful girler”) has only gained in legendary status since his assassination (a notoriety that miffed the ever-competitive LBJ; he was at pains to assure friends that he had had more women by accident than Kennedy ever had had by design). This bit of penis envy aside, Jack was nimble. The presidential swinging began at the 1961 inaugural balls: allegedly he slipped away with actress Angie Dickinson – not once, but twice – for a celebratory fuck. Other glam figures of stage, screen, or society – most famously Marilyn Monroe – made their way to his bed (or he to theirs), an obsessive display of sexual energy that stunned pal Bradlee. Of Kennedy’s many reported affairs he later wrote: “I can believe it now more easily than I can understand it. I can see how it was physically possible, but the taste for risk and the belittling of the women involved boggle the mind.”
Imagine just how dumbfounded he was when he discovered that his sister-in-law, Mary Pinchot Meyer – the subject of this new tell-all biography – was one of Kennedy’s lovers. More stunning is the later allegation that she and the president smoked reefer in the White House. (They inhaled – three joints, no less – with Kennedy declining a fourth, purportedly quipping, “Suppose the Russians did something now.”) The Red Menace apparently never entered his mind in 1962, when shortly after one of Mary’s visits with Timothy Leary, the pair supposedly dropped acid prior to a spot of psychedelic sex in the presidential manse. Top that, Lyndon; beat that, Bill.
To this crude, introductory foreplay, journalist Nina Burleigh would object. A Very Private Woman does not depend on or revolve around the salacious revelation, she insists, for “early on” she had concluded “that Kennedy warranted only a single chapter in Mary’s life”; she cut their relationship down to size, because “it seemed to me that in a full life of forty-four years, there was more to the woman than a relationship with one man, even if he was the president.” That’s a virtuous posture, and accurate enough: there is more to this book than the Meyer-Kennedy affair.
But Burleigh’s claim to have written a biography about a woman who just happened to sleep with Jack Kennedy is also a tad disingenuous. As the subtitle suggests, her study depends heavily on our understanding that Meyer had been a “Presidential Mistress.” So does the book’s success at the cash register depend on the timing of publication. How convenient that A Very Private Woman, which officially (and so sensitively) came out on the thirty-fourth anniversary of Meyer’s 1964 murder, hit the bookstores smack in the middle of a most public inquest into why (and how) the current Chief Executive failed to keep his pants zipped. Bantam saw reflective profit in exploiting Clinton’s dirty laundry, and that, I suppose, explains the volume’s rushed feel, cluttered prose, and uneven editing.
There is another, more significant literary reason to question Burleigh’s insistence that hers is something more than a “kiss-and-tell” bio. Even though the Meyer-Kennedy dalliance is not the book’s sole subject, it is at the core of the volume’s organizational structure, and serves as its central narrative device.
Mary Pinchot was born into a family that at least superficially resembled the Kennedys – the Pinchots were socially well-connected, politically engaged, and nicely well-off. In 1920, when Mary was born, her father Amos was deeply involved in leftist movements, underwrote The Masses, and was an ardent proponent of free speech, in the defense of which he helped organize the A.C.L.U.; her mother, journalist Ruth Pickering, ran in the same circles; uncle Gifford, a
Rooseveltian progressive, would soon win election as a reform-minded governor of Pennsylvania. By the late twenties, however, her parents began to shift to the right, a political migration that accelerated throughout the Depression; their growing, rabid hatred of Roosevelt would match Joseph Kennedy’s animus for the President and the New Deal; Mary and Jack had a lot in common.
They shared this, too: inherited wealth sheltered them from the vagaries of the American economy and provided them with the best education money could buy. Mary attended exclusive secondary schools, as did Jack, and appropriately they first met at a Choate mixer; later, while Mary studied at Vassar, they moved in one another’s orbits, though they did not date. Their lives briefly intersected in San Francisco in May, 1945, when they attended the conference that formed the United Nations; Mary’s new husband, Cord Meyer, a wartime hero like Kennedy, was a member of the American delegation. The self-important Meyer (then infatuated with world federalism and soon a player at the newly established C.I.A.) refused Kennedy’s request for an interview, an episode that in fifteen years would lead the once and future president to reject Meyer’s quest for a seat at the Camelot roundtable. But beyond that tiff, how important were these convergences? Not very, except in this respect – they are a literary tease that won’t be consummated until this background moves into the foreground.
When it does so in the book’s lengthiest chapter, “Jack and Mary” (note the ordering of names), the choreography of their coupling is recounted in some detail. Drawing on her reportorial skills, Burleigh scoured White House logs to determine when Mary visited the presidential abode, and under what pretext, then compared these entries with Jackie Kennedy’s travel schedule – et, voilà, the First Lady was out of town when the extra-marital romps transpired. As for the context of the initial seduction, however, Burleigh fails her subject: Mary apparently spurned a presidential advance in early November 1962, but ten days later, “Kennedy’s offer to send a White House limousine to Mary’s townhouse proved irresistible.” A really big car – that’s all it took for her to go supine?
This image of easy virtue clashes with Burleigh’s portrait of Meyer as an exemplar of the emerging New Woman: a person of independence and spunk, who had divorced her pompous and abusive husband and endured the loss of a darling child; an artist who was as experimental with her palette as she was with her life. Kennedy was her conquest as much as she was his.
But Burleigh does not say this, perhaps a sign that she doesn’t quite know what to make of Meyer’s behavior (a casualty of this Age of Lewinsky?). Complicating this interpretative failure is the book’s condescending voice. Rather than take seriously the lives and beliefs of those who crowd her text, Burleigh resorts to easy platitudes that give us little insight into her subjects and by extension is dismissive of them. Burleigh’s less-than exact commentary on Washington’s Color School, with whom Mary was associated both through her art and her affair with Kenneth Noland, and her superficial analysis of therapeutic and spiritual fascinations that swept through the Georgetown elite, are of a piece with some silly declarations about American culture generally. Do we have to be told, all evidence to the contrary, that the fifties were a “convention-worshipping” time?
The trite merges with the truly awful when Burleigh opens her book with an account of Meyer’s murder. No one knows exactly what happened on the afternoon of October 12, 1964, as she walked along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath, nor can anyone articulate what she felt at the moment of death, but Burleigh, like her Bantam publicists who hype Meyer’s demise as “one of the enduring mysteries of the past three decades,” knows no shame:
The first bullet to her head would eventually have killed her but didn’t immediately…. As she lost consciousness she probably saw white. There are so many shades of white – cloud white, shell white, sail white, sand white – but this was like no white she had ever known, more painful than the blinding white of the sun. She fell. The gun was applied to her shoulder blade, and the bullet tore through her aorta, turning everything black in one breath, shutting out color, and leaving her dead body to police and to the speculation of the ages.
The only question I have is why I continued to read on, for I knew on page twelve what I would know 295 pages later: in granting Mary Meyer so little dignity in death, Burleigh makes a mockery of her attempt to recover the life of A Very Private Woman.
Contributing writer Char Miller is a member of the history department at Trinity University.