By JESSE KORNBLUTH
Boomers understand that the JFK assassination — 59 years ago — is the first and deepest trauma of their lives. Boomers are limping toward their own extinction — when they’re gone, the Kennedy assassination will become like 9/11: an event about which we’re supposed to feel something… and don’t. It’s how we are now: the 24-hour news cycle, with its non-stop violence and fake urgency, crowds out everything else. But as the anniversary of the assassination approaches, maybe a novel — okay, my novel — will spark a memory and suggest some questions.
The JFK assassination echoes now for us in ways that have nothing to do with the murder and everything to do with what we believe are “facts.” After the Warren Commission issued its report, 87% of the public agreed that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, killed the President. By the mid-1970s, according to the London School of Economics and Political Science, four-fifths of Americans believed that more people than just Lee Harvey Oswald were involved — and, in 2019, the LSE reported that around 60 percent still believe that. The JFK killing was only the beginning of a disinclination to believe mainstream media. In late October 2022 — just a few weeks ago — an NBC News poll shows “just 22% of registered Republican voters believe in the legitimacy of Biden’s election, with 65% viewing his election illegitimate.” How did this happen? It’s not the reasons that pundits like to cite: divisiveness caused by partisan media, Internet silos, and opportunistic politicians. No, it started earlier… with the Kennedy assassination.
I was 17 when JFK was killed. Decades later, I learned that Mary Meyer, his last and most serious lover, was murdered while taking a lunchtime walk in Georgetown. And that no one was convicted of her murder. And that she kept a diary. And that it was burned. And I thought: why don’t I read 100+ books and re-imagine her diary? I was pleasantly surprised when New York Times bestselling authors and a writer/producer of an acclaimed political TV series praised my book.. And then the Times published an enthusiastic review twice.
Here’s the full story….
FACT: John F. Kennedy said he needed sex every three days or he got a headache. While he was president, he never had a headache — women streamed into the White House to share his bed, and when he traveled, there was almost always a woman waiting for him. Affairs that became real connections? He wasn’t interested. And yet, from January 1962 until his death, he had one constant lover: Mary Pinchot Meyer, a family friend and a frequent guest at White House dinners. Like his wife, she was expensively educated and socially prominent — but she was more adventurous, opinionated, and sensual.
FACT: On October 12, 1964, eleven months after Kennedy’s assassination and two days before her forty-fourth birthday, Mary took her noon walk along the towpath of the Chesapeake and Ohio canal in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington. A gunman shot her, execution style, in the head and the heart. An African American man was arrested, tried, and acquitted. Her murder remains unsolved.
FACT: That night, Mary’s best friend, then living in Japan, urgently called Mary’s sister Tony and Tony’s husband, Ben Bradlee. “Mary had a diary,” she said. “Please get it and secure it.” There are several versions of the events that followed; the most intriguing has the Bradlees rushing to Mary’s studio and finding James Angleton, head of counterintelligence at the CIA, holding a bolt-cutter. Eventually, Ben Bradlee has written, they found a small notebook, mostly filled with paint swatches, sketches, and shorthand ideas for her art—and no more than ten pages about an affair with an unnamed lover.
The Bradlees quickly understood the identity of that lover. As Bradlee would later write, “To say we were stunned doesn’t begin to describe our reactions.”
The Bradlees burned the notebook.
FICTION: This novel is the diary I imagine Mary Meyer might have written — not the notebook the Bradlees and Angleton found, but a full account of her life from 1961 to 1964. We know the dates she saw the president at the White House, and we know about every White House dinner she attended and the private parties where she and Kennedy were guests. And just enough has been written about a friendship that became a romance for me to imagine what Kennedy and Meyer felt, and when they felt it. [To read an excerpt, click here. To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. To buy the Kindle edition, click here.]
There are indelible scenes of social events: a star-studded lunch at the White House, with Frank Sinatra shouting out to JFK, “Hey, Chickie baby!” as the First Lady grimaces.
There is insider gossip: After the Cuban fiasco, Jackie was going through the President’s suit before sending it out to be cleaned, and she found a folded cocktail napkin in his pocket. On it, JFK had written: DO NOT FORGET — AIR COVER.
There is Mary’s meeting with Timothy Leary: “My idea,” she says, “is to get powerful men to take LSD and see that peace is possible.”
Mary’s assessment of Kennedy before their affair begins: “I get a very cold image, like being in line at a counter. There’s someone in front of you, and you’re waiting your turn, and there’s someone behind you, waiting her turn. And someone behind her.”
Mary’s savvy response to Kennedy at their first solo dinner: “Jack, I’m forty-one… way too old for you. And I’m a friend.”
Their first night together, and her confession: “I also see… someone. Is that a problem?” He replies: “I also see… a few people. Is that a problem for you?”
Kennedy’s chilly take on his wife: “If Jackie hit twenty-five without a husband… she would have started going to Wall Street buildings at noon, taking the elevator to the top floor, and doing her absolute best to meet a guy before they got to the lobby.”
Mary’s take on the Kennedy marriage: “In public, Jack’s proud of Jackie; in private, I’ve seen him treat her as if he’s doing her a favor. It sounds awful, but I think their deepest connection is that they’re out for themselves, and if their marriage helps them get there, she’ll endure his infidelity and he’ll put up with her snobbery.”
After the assassination: “How many times I thought: This will never be. You fool, you risked your heart, knowing that it would end…that he would end it. And then he didn’t leave me. He left himself.”
Her guilt: “If I was any influence on Jack at all…on race and poverty and Vietnam… if I moved him away from safe ideas to dangerous ones… then I am partly responsible for his death.”
In “JFK and Mary Meyer: A Love Story,” the personal and the political stories merge. Two lovers, both shot to death. Two murders, eternally unsolved. Were these murders isolated events: a demented loner in Dallas, a demented loner in Georgetown? Or was his assassination a coup? If so, was her murder just a bit of… housekeeping?
This post was previously published on headbutler.com.
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