THERE IS NO WAY Mimi Alford’s book Once Upon a Secret: My Affair With President John F. Kennedy and It’s Aftermath (Random House, 2012) could be anything but a best seller. Even after 60 years, Americans still lap up everything JFK. Few men have cast such a long shadow over our imaginations. That is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a major blessing for Random House. But for Ms. Alford it is, if not a curse, at least a mixed blessing. She has been called a gold digger, or an opportunist who is trading on the Kennedy aura. Barbara Walters, on The View, pilloried her for not taking into account the feelings of Caroline and her family (conveniently forgetting how Walters’ own autobiography detailed a long affair with a prominent and very married politico: did he not have surviving family?). Yes, she will sell a lot of books. But this obscures what is, at bottom, a sincere, well-written story of a woman’s life after years of reflection about how harboring a deep secret scarred her for decades.
In 1962, Marian “Mimi” Beardsley worked on the newspaper at a posh private girl’s school that boasted among its alumna Jacqueline Lee Bouvier, now known to the world as Jackie Kennedy. Mimi wrote to Mrs. Kennedy hoping to be granted an interview with the president’s beautiful wife, and traveled to Washington only to be disappointed. Ms. Kennedy was not available, but she sent one of her aides, who also was an alumna, and Mimi got quite a “scoop” (yes, that Lois Lane term was still around in those days!). She may not have met the gorgeous first lady, but she did meet her charming and handsome husband, Jack. And, as was the case with many in the nation, he had her at hello.
The details of her seduction by JFK, and the more lurid details of his shocking special “requests”, have been fodder for the major networks since the book came out, and there is no need to recount them here. They are not important. What is worth our time is the larger question of how a young woman from good moral stock and with a highbrow education could so easily fall into bed with this man. We all know now that she was not alone, that the President had more willing women than cats have kittens; but Mimi didn’t really fit the mold. Most of them had been around the block plenty of times. Mimi was different.
The early sixties were not yet the sex-obsessed decade it would become later, and was actually little more than the tail-end of the fifties of Ozzie and Harriet and I Love Lucy. She writes:
There was no nudity in movies, television was chaste and wholesome; advertising was corny and square by today’s coarse standards…among my crowd, boy crazy as some of us were, the topic of sex was taboo. There was something of a cult back then about maintaining our virginity as long as possible, hopefully until our wedding night.
Yet, after four days in the White House press office, good-looking John Kennedy, with only the mildest of encouragement, took Mimi’s virginity in his wife’s bedroom and brought her back to the White House many times over the next eighteen months.
How did she succumb? To this day, she still doesn’t have the answer, but she is quick to point out that it was consensual (although she does acknowledge the imbalance of power inherent in their relationship). Like most nineteen-year olds, she possessed a sense of immortality and was quite frankly enjoying herself. She felt little guilt about the fact that her lover was married (Jackie’s many and lengthy absences from the White House raise questions about the real nature of the first couple’s married life). Alford writes, “If he wasn’t troubled about his wife, why should I be?”
…I was a heedless girl, blinded by the President’s power and charisma….I didn’t appreciate that I was too young, that I was out of my depth, that the dazzle of an affair fades with time, that it’s not healthy to be at the perpetual beck and call of a married man, that there would be consequences to what I was doing. I wasn’t even capable of imagining life at a twenty-five; I was nineteen and having fun and living in the moment. Twenty-five seemed to be a million miles away.
Ms. Alford’s story can be corroborated in part, due to the availability of oral histories. But much of what actually transpired between her and Jack cannot be, obviously. Some of it rings decidedly true. Those of us who lived during the Kennedy presidency remember a famous comedy LP that became a best seller called The First Family. This contained comic vignettes poking fun at the Kennedys, with the voice of JFK provided by comedian Vaughan Meader. In one scene, the President is explaining to the nurse which toys in the bathroom are Caroline’s and which are John-John’s. The President (Meader) concludes, “The rubber swan is mine!”
Kennedy got a kick out of that, and when a friend later presented him with a rubber duck as a joke, the President kept it in his bathroom. There, Mimi writes, he and she spent hours luxuriating, making love–and playing with his rubber duck! When she related this to a friend forty-five years later, the friend observed, “You didn’t have an affair with the President…. You had a play date!”
In her telling, JFK cared for her. That may or may not have been the case, but there is no question that she cared deeply for him. But the effect on her life has a sad ring to it. Instead of participating in the things that college aged girls did, she spent her weekends in a limousine going to the White House to have sex with the President. Her life wasn’t her own, it was his. She is quite clear that this was her choice. Something about the man made it worthwhile for her. She has little bad to say about JFK, other than to point up his darker moments that sometimes left her aghast. You walk away with the sense that she loves him still, even after all these years and all the psychological effects that the relationship had on her.
She is not alone. JFK left thousands in his thrall, even those from generations who weren’t born until years after his death. Furthermore, we have been looking for another JFK ever since. Savvy politicians know this all too well. How many times have you seen a politician slide his hand down into his jacket pocket, a la JFK? Do you think that isn’t deliberate? Ms. Alford’s memorandum won’t change that. Jack’s peccadilloes have long been a matter of record, but his memory has obscured them the way the morning sun makes evening storms fade to nothing.
Okay, she’s going to sell a lot of books. But that doesn’t take away from what is a down to earth memoir of a decent, if misguided young woman who, much too late, came face to face with the consequences of choices she made under the spell of a man who so easily captured the hearts and minds of millions.
Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris