Burying Camelot

The publication last month of onetime JFK mistress Mimi Alford's Once Upon a Secret: My Affair With President John F. Kennedy and Its Aftermath provoked a variety of reactions. I wonder how many people shared mine, which was, "Bon voyage."

Why? Because I figure Alford's book almost has to be The End. The torch has been passed and then some to a new generation of Americans. Few of its members give much of a damn about presidential peccadilloes half a century old. Barring the discovery of Marilyn Monroe's lost diaries, it's not inconceivable that America is finally done with its Kennedy fetish. As the elderly Tolstoy —or was it Sophocles?—once celebrated the loss of his sex drive, "At last I am freed from a cruel and insane master."

There will, needless to say, be other books—most likely, a whole slew of them next year, the 50th anniversary of that day in Dallas. But that's a dimming industry's last hurrah, no longer reflecting any real public craving. Maybe the counsel for the defense would have planned it differently, but Mimi Alford has become the last witness.

And her book isn't bad. No, not so much for its insights into our 35th president—a man she calls "kind" with a stubbornness that reminds you of Tennessee Williams's "the kindness of strangers"— as for its glimpses of a lost world. Namely, the one where, if you were raised genteelly Republican in the 1950s in Middletown, N.J.,  you went to Miss Porter's and hoped for marriage to someone who was just like you except for having a penis. It's an ideal Alford lived up to and later regretted, but only after a king-sized Potomac detour.

Her sense of humor won't cost Chelsea Handler much sleep. But she does have a likable acuteness: "He just couldn't resist a girl with a little bit of Social Register in her background," she writes of JFK. Never forget that the Kennedys were hardheaded Irish parvenus who liked thumbing their noses—well, some appendage, anyway—at a WASP high society that had tried to exclude them. If Jacqueline Bouvier had only been Protestant, her husband might have been besotted with her.

Presumably, most of you are up to speed on the, so to speak, bare bones of Alford's story.  Awarded a White House summer internship, 19-year-old Mimi—who has less sexual experience than a eunuch's handkerchief—travels to Washington in 1962.  Four days into the job, she's invited to join POTUS for his midday swim (his bad back needs the therapy). Then it's up to the family quarters for daiquiris (the First Lady is away).  Suddenly, in Jackie's bedroom—just ponder that—a tipsy Mimi is being deflowered by the Leader of the Free World. He seems mildly intrigued to discover he's taking her virginity.  The whole setup indicates even to Alford that, but for that detail, all this is SOP.

The surprise may be that it wasn't a one-off.  Not only did Mimi spend the rest of the summer of '62 trysting the night away in the East Wing, but the relationship went on—thanks to frequent calls to her Wheaton dorm from "Michael Carter" and summonses to Washington—all through her sophomore year of college.  Then it was back to the White House for another summer, although the affair had begun to wind down. Engaged by then—and her fiance, once filled in, must have felt as if only Joseph was his equal in cuckoldry—Alford writes, "I didn't need to finish up with the President. In his sly and graceful way, he was finishing up with me."

But that's well after the book's ugliest episode, in which the President—in his sly, graceful way—orders Mimi to give head to Kennedy factotum Dave Powers as he looks on. ("'Mr. Powers looks a little tense,' he said. 'Would you take care of it?'") In hindsight, Alford is shrewd enough to figure out that she wasn't the only one being "debased," making JFK's later request that she do the same for brother Ted—after Alford was engaged, too—even creepier psychologically. That time, she refused, but did the youngest Kennedy brother need a reminder that it was Jack from whom all blessings flowed? Since Alford doesn't record his reaction to the offer, maybe Teddy was callous enough to think being fellated at the president's request was a swell idea.

Alford attributes these and other instances of repellent Kennedy behavior to JFK's "dark side" coming out, a formula that might be less trite if she'd tried to connect it with other aspects of his personality. She doesn't, though; the odd amyl-nitrate incident aside, he's still a swell guy in her now 69-year-old eyes. Similarly, she writes with undimmed affection about Dave Powers—not only her companion in humiliation, but the president's ever reliable procurer and a man whose "brute practicality" comes out when he briskly phones Mimi to put her in touch with an abortionist soon after she confides to JFK that she may be pregnant. (False alarm, it turns out.) Since presidential staffers are good guides to their boss's character—it's their job to approximate it, after all—the most memorable line in Once Upon a Secret may be this one: "Where the President was involved, I don't believe Dave Powers's first impulse was to distinguish right from wrong."

Her story certainly flakes the last bits of gilding from Camelot's private side. Still, beyond the addition of a few sordid details, is anyone truly surprised, let alone shocked? Given how these things usually work, especially where the Kennedys are concerned, it's revealing that no one’s had fainting fits, and few if any attacks have been made on Alford's credibility. Robert Dallek, the most sobersided of JFK biographers—and the one whose brief mention of a nameless White House intern among the president's dalliances eventually led to Alford breaking her silence—has said he doesn't doubt her story. Barbara Walters assailed her on The View for trying to make money off her Kennedy connection, which is pretty funny coming from Walters but not the same thing as calling Alford a liar.   

Interestingly, the constellation of people who make it their business to protect the Camelot legacy has largely kept quiet. Just last year, they waxed indignant enough over Joel Surnow's mildly revisionist The Kennedys miniseries—sight unseen, naturally, and indeed before a frame had been shot—to get it booted off the History Channel. But this time around, most of them seem to have said, "Oh, the hell with it. Even we can't pretend it matters anymore." My hunch is that, by and large, that's true of the rest of us as well—and about time, too.

Comments

I was one of several late Baby-Boomers/early Gen-Xers who lived in fanciful delusion about the days of Camelot. Spurred on the by optimism of the Dick Van Dyke and other popular TV reruns from that time, we truly believed that the world was a more simpler place, in which America still retained its image as a moral beacon for the rest of the world.

Sadly, the disillusionment of this as we get older only adds to our disillusionment with life.

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