John F. Kennedy is the man whose picturesque presidency launched a thousand coffee-table books. When the late conservative writer William F. Buckley Jr. was asked to explain Kennedy’s enduring appeal, he said, “His sheer beauty.”
Mimi Alford’s account of life at the White House as a 19-year-old intern who caught the president’s eye is a vividly personal portrayal of the ugliness behind the alluring images. Alford’s belated tell-all, Once Upon a Secret, should be assigned in women’s-studies classes as an illustration of the power imbalances in employer-employee sexual liaisons, especially those involving commanders-in-chief and their interns.
It’s not news that JFK had an, ahem, active personal life. But a certain romance has attached to it. Marilyn Monroe’s famously breathy rendition of “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” is redolent of knowing, sophisticated fun, of adults in on a seductive secret.
The reality wasn’t as magical. Within her first week as an intern, JFK’s friend and procurer Dave Powers invited her to a midday swim with the president and some of the gals from the secretarial pool. At the end of the day, the rising sophomore at Massachusetts’ Wheaton College was invited to a get-together in the family residence. She was plied with daiquiris, then the president peeled her away from the group with an invitation to a private tour of the residence.
Alford lost her virginity on the fashionably elegant Mrs. Kennedy’s bed. “I wouldn’t describe what happened that night as making love,” Alford writes. “But I wouldn’t call it nonconsensual, either.”
That double negative captures the entire relationship, if that’s not too glorified a word. Alford says she was thrilled by JFK’s attentions; it made her feel “special.” He was playful and gentle with her, supposedly called her at school, and opened up a world of power and glamour unimaginable to the average college senior, let alone a sophomore.
Ultimately, though, she was a plaything at the sultan’s court. He never kissed her. Once, as she was smuggled along on a trip with JFK, Dave Powers made her sit on the floor of his car to hide from the White House staff — unsuccessfully. During a White House swim, she says, JFK commanded her to perform oral sex on Powers, and, to her humiliation, she complied. Later, he prodded her to do the same for his “baby brother,” Teddy.
No one can confirm what happened in JFK’s pool so many decades later. But as The New Republic’s Timothy Noah notes, “The likelihood that Alford is making this story up is extremely remote.” Alford didn’t write her book until she was outed by a JFK biographer and an enterprising journalist. If the broad outlines of her book accord with what we already knew about JFK, the details suggest he wasn’t just a standard-issue womanizer but a loathsome creep.
For Kennedy worshippers, this is outweighed by . . . what? By the fact that he was their first political love. By his martyrdom. And by “his sheer beauty.” MSNBC host and author Chris Matthews, who is all too willing to perform the journalistic and historical equivalent of Mimi Alford’s services, is the perfect archetype of the baby boomer who started out smitten by Kennedy and has never stopped.
He calls his recent hagiography Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero. The search for what it is in JFK’s record that justifies the adulation is just as elusive. Ordinarily liberals wouldn’t be so forgiving of a president who was cautious on civil rights, whose administration surveilled Martin Luther King Jr., who began our involvement in the Vietnam War.
According to Alford, JFK was obsessed with his hair. He let her administer his daily hair treatment, insisting on products only from Frances Fox, and on a brush, not a comb. When they broke up after she got engaged, he gave her gold-and-diamond pins — and a photograph of himself, at the helm of the yacht Manitou. It’s a terrific photo, of a man who was a handsome lie.