Does Mimi Alford's New Memoir Finally Mean the Death Knell for the Camelot Myth of JFK?

tags: JFK, Kennedys

Vaughn Davis Bornet is Emeritus Professor of History and Social Science at Southern Oregon University. Among his books are "The Presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson" in the American Presidency Series (1983), "Welfare in America" (1960), and other books on Herbert Hoover, social welfare, radicalism, and unions. His autobiography is "An Independent Scholar in Twentieth-Century America" (Bornet Books, 1995).

Toward the close of the movie version of the Broadway hit Camelot, the suddenly optimistic king who developed The Round Table and its dreams exclaims hopefully to the idealistic boy before him, “What we did will be remembered—you’ll see!”  The audience, teary eyed and let down by the burial of the movie’s hopes and dreams, eagerly associates with the leader’s fervent declaration.   A great refrain has been delivered by the chorus, “Don’t let it be forgot/That once there was a spot/For one brief shining moment/That was known as Camelot.” It was that idealism that so attracted a stunned Jackie Kennedy when in November 1963 she forcefully quoted that famous appraisal, adding  judgmentally at the end, “…and it will never be that way again.” 

I have just reread all the lyrics of that Alan Lerner triumph. Sensitive book buyers who have absorbed the memoir of Kennedy mistress Mimi Alford, Once Upon a Secret can emulate this pleasurable revisit to Camelot. Doing so brings back vividly memory of intended death at the stake for Guinevere for infidelity (with but one man). That death sentence contrasts with the virtual deification that lingers on for unpunished womanizer President Kennedy. Adulation for him lives on even though everybody knows by now of his endless infidelities in real life. Actually, as revealed here, JFK’s misconduct went far beyond betrayal of his wife. As will be seen, the reader of this small book is likely to find the words “reprehensible” and “disgusting” useful and appropriate.

A brief aside: since there are three last names for Mimi during the time covered by her memoir, I have taken the liberty of using her first name throughout.  The last names are successively the family name Beardsley; Fahenstock (her first married name); and Alford (her name from her fairly recent second marriage). Readers of reviews will soon get used to this slight difficulty.

How did this innocent get into the White House in the first place? She was editor of the Miss Porter’s School newspaper and aware that Jackie Kennedy was an alumna, she wrote to her hoping for an interview that could be featured in her Massachusetts pages.  While unsuccessful, she would soon be singled out for the summer appointment. At some point the previous year she had been in a lineup that shook hands with a visiting JFK at her school—no more than that. When assigned to the press room it only took four days for the president to latch onto her.

It was about to be an eventful day in June 1962. Mimi had arrived at the White House four days earlier. Now she was singled out by an aide to swim and meet with JFK in the pool. It proved to be a pleasant interaction. She returned to her desk. Hair still damp, she was invited “upstairs” to join a small group. Then came a personal invitation from the president to join him in “the living quarters.” They had shared daiquiris and were “relaxed.” Very soon the two of them went in a door as he said “This is Mrs. Kennedy’s bedroom.” The bed had two grades of mattress, as Jack had a bad back.  “Beautiful light” he observed. “The next thing I knew he was standing in front of me, his face inches away, his eyes staring directly into mine. He placed his hands on my shoulders and guided me toward the edge of the bed. I landed on my elbows Slowly he unbuttoned…. I couldn’t believe what was happening. … I finished unbuttoning my shirtdress…. He felt some physical resistance and asked, “Haven’t you done this before?” The “no” answer brought, “Are you okay?” He was more gentle. “I was in shock….  He was matter of fact. … Then, “Would you like something to eat?” And as she departed, “I hope you’re okay.” “I’m fine, Mr. President.”  A car took her home. (Subsequent sexual activity during eighteen months of off-and-on interaction seems to have encompassed the full repertory of interaction normally found pleasurable by vast numbers of people worldwide.)

The reader has to sort out among the emotions that arise. “That nineteen-year old youth certainly had a chance to get well acquainted with the primary occupant of the White House!” could be part of an initial reaction. Important: the Daily Mail offers verbatim the book’s entire section treating the initial Kennedy encounter (let’s call it that for now) with Mimi.  During the subsequent eighteen months, some raw episodes appear.

I was trained in historical method and historiography long ago. I tried to bear all that in mind as I devoted several days to a minute reading of this smallish book published by Random House, a company taken very seriously by a great many. It shows every sign of being published with pride, if I may say so. Mimi thanks two editors from the press “for the most intense and thoughtful scrutiny an author’s words could ever receive.” Twenty friends and relatives are praised for their generally supportive conduct over the two-year creative period that helped her complete her arduous task of recreating the past.  I believe the author when she intimates that if she hadn’t been “outed” by Robert Dallek in his 2003 JFK biography (Dallek did not mention Alford by name), she was content to fade into the sunset without ever relating her story.

It’s a bit relevant that I wrote a book-length autobiography and self-published it. It somehow sharpened me up on the art of worrying over every word when chatting within covers about the living and the departed. I can more than sense that Mimi Alford’s prose was escorted through a similar wringer. She often refers to the problem she had in getting just the right story into her manuscript. My own book An Independent Scholar in Twentieth Century Americais more than twice as long, but unlike Mimi I didn’t have to worry during my lonely months of writing and editing that maybe every one of my words was going to be scrutinized (and retold emotionally) by many a skeptical reader.   The very attractive 69-year-old author has been interviewed repeatedly to edify an audience of millions. 

Nearly half of this book comprises a direct rendering of the interaction between a young lady making the transition from her teens into adulthood, and a vastly powerful leader wrestling variably with public issues that included the Cuban Missile Crisis. (Mimi’s interactions with Kennedy spanned June 1962 to November 1963.) There is very little on the official life of the chief executive in action in these pages, so the literature on Kennedy’s administration is virtually unaffected by this new book. The vast literature on the Bay of Pigs, the Berlin Wall crisis, and the assorted partial successes and failures in Congress are essentially untouched by Mrs. Alford’s revelations.

But it does appear that a considerable variety of administration stalwarts got acquainted with a Mimi who was underfoot in White House corridors and in the White House pool a vast number of times. Mimi was a primary presidential companion during those eighteen months. The fact of that JFK/Mimi companionship was astonishingly well-known and, might I say, a bit appallingly disregarded by the Secret Service, fellow aides and assistants, and various hosts (Bing Crosby in his far away Palm Springs home). Mimi’s boss in the Press Room reveals in her oral history at the JFK library that Mimi and JFK were inseparable in innumerable off-hours and went along on trips to remote places, but she ventures no explanation—just transparent jealousy. Mimi never met Jackie—which was just as well, considering.

It is my careful conclusion that Mimi Alford:

(1) Was so deeply affected by a year-and-a-half of pleasurable intercourse with the President of the United States in beds, bathtubs, and swimming pools that fine details of that life were seared into her very being.

(2) It is altogether plausible that she did indeed make the sudden decision the day after the assassination to tell the whole story of JFK and herself to her 23-year-old fiancé, who responded hostilely to the astounding narrative.

(3) She would for decades relive being controlled (pleasantly, but controlled) by John F. Kennedy, cementing this ultimate, single narrative’s precis solidly in her brain.

(4) She had the benefit of dear old friends going over matters of taste and tact in the manuscript.

(5) She confided aspects of her story to intimates off and on beginning in 2003.

And finally, (6) She enjoyed the good fortune of having a reputable publisher who clearly decided at the outset to handle her and her book with taste and discrimination. The publisher surely sensed that the story being told could well sway basic opinions of readers that were formed long ago, and/or build new opinions in new generations of readers. Personally, I had very little trouble believing her, and I should be astonished if down the line I have to eat my words. An array of her friends have chosen to stick by her.

I forced myself to read around two dozen reviews and review essays on the Alford book. Particularly memorable was Barbara Walters—who repeatedly proclaimed rudely (and humorlessly) that Mimi will surely make money from her writing efforts (she makes it sound like a crime). Competent Ann Curry, the charming Today co-anchor who graduated from high school in my home town of Ashland, Oregon, gave Mimi a balanced interview. 

I bought and read the book very slowly in its first week after publication, hoping to get its details firmly in mind. There’s been surprise that most of the book’s revelations stayed secret for so long. One who could have told much in her 1964 Kennedy library oral history was Mimi’s overseer, Barbara Gamarekian. Instead, she clams up entirely when intern Mimi enters the interview stage left. The Press Room executive who was technically Mimi’s boss in summers of 1962 and 1963 leaves the inescapable impression that the relationship of Jack and Mimi was beyond her pay grade.

We don’t expect that one of press secretary Pierre Salinger’s deputies would know the intimate JFK/Mimi details, of course. “He was a sensualist,” declares Mimi looking back.  And he compartmentalized his life. Consider the book’s most appalling anecdote: Toward the end of the summer of 1962, JFK urged her to perform oral sex on Dave Powers, Kennedy’s closest personal employee and Mimi’s frequent guide. It happened this way: “The president swam over and whispered in my ear. ‘Mr. Powers looks a little tense,’ he said.  ‘Would you take care of it?’”  She continues, “It was a dare, but I knew exactly what he meant…oral sex.” She did it.The deed was somehow in “my duties,” she later observed. Much later, having gained in self-confidence and assurance, she refused our president a repeat performance on his brother Ted Kennedy. The vastly repulsive word “pimp” kept coming up in my mind. Mimi observes that she may have been “in thrall” to her frequent lover, who clearly was amusing himself, virtually detached, at her expense.

Kennedy seems to have restrained himself during the key evening of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Whew. In the autumn of 1963, however, Mimi was transported (as so often) to Bing Crosby’s house in Palm Springs.  There, Kennedy, ignoring her protestations, broke open a vial of something called amyl nitrate under the youth’s nose, inducing a violent reaction that sent her reeling from the room. Kennedy took amyl nitrate to relieve his back pain, but for Mimi, it was a horrid experience during otherwise happy months. 

Whenever Kennedy went too far in his excesses, Mimi always credits him with making full apologies. He knew better, but sex obviously made him feel better! It is altogether clear that JFK was totally at home with his private boarding school playmate and relief-giver, first to last. Intimate conversation (not of a sexual nature) was routine.  In this reader’s opinion, credence might be given the idea that JFK to a slight extent considered the young woman (among other things) a surrogate, a familiar substitute, for his absent Jackie. They certainly seemed to resemble each other, at least judging by the photographs. On the other hand, any who seriously entertains that hypothesis should turn to the photos of the long array of other Kennedy mistresses—few of them virgins, some of whom resemble Jackie in no respect.

There is in America an upper class of education, wealth, and heritage; no denying it.  Like the Kennedys, the Beardsleys sat at the top of the country’s social and economic pyramid. There were coming-out parties (a phrase which meant something different among the mid-century upper crust than it does in modern vernacular) and appearances on the society pages of all the right papers. One (modern) reviewer got trapped into saying our Mimi came from a “farmer’s family”! The practice of buying and fixing up a hundred-year-old rural dwelling (common in Main Line Pennsylvania where I grew up) apparently didn’t reach that commentator. Actually, in Mimi’s life neither parent seems to have been consulted, ever, on any aspects of the JFK matter. We have the senior Beardsley commuting to his Manhattan bank (a very farm-like occupation indeed) and sending his daughter to a boarding school—a safe, private, and prestigious educational experience. She was sheltered. Her first husband went to Williams College (no surprise), and she herself attended tony Wheaton (and Kennedy, of course, was a Harvard man). Throw Miss Porter’s School into the mix and we have a portrait of woman born into America’s social elite.

Few reviewers have been inclined to question the authenticity of Mimi’s book, neither in its generalities nor its details. It took me no time at all to accept the routine integrity of even the more unpleasant and reprehensible things I read therein. We’ve all been primed and acculturated by the accounts of JFK’s legendarily famous mistresses (Marilyn Monroe, anyone?).

But there’s an aspect to the Mimi/JFK relationship that I alluded to earlier which troubles me, and it seems to have escaped the attention of many of the book’s reviewers. Never far from Kennedy and Mimi were the Secret Service and assorted aides loyal to one side of this opportunistic relationship. It should make us all uneasy to consider that, “mistress” or not, this immature young woman was forever in the real or potential grip of Kennedy’s minions, whether she considered that to be the objective situation—and whether they gave it a thought or not.  Seldom, it appears, were the two of them in “neutral” hotel/motel rooms, one-on-one. Never were the two of them unguarded.   In addition, there was always a fixer, an arranger, an aide-assistant, who set up the travel, had somebody arrange those comforts (those daiquiris, for example, the right room temperature perhaps, absence from untoward interruption, and the hair oil so favored by JFK, which she so often rubbed happily into his scalp).

I personally hope Mimi Alford continues to overcome once and for all the extreme emotional tension she endured after revealing the Kennedy affair to her angry future husband. She induces and then had to endure a tense first marriage thereafter for several decades thanks to her spouse’s rigid, judgmental reaction to her affair. This is what happened then: Shocked to the roots by news of Dallas, she quickly blurted the whole story of her liaisons with Kennedy. It was the very eve of their wedding.  His justifiably angry reaction, predictably enough, would cast a cloud over their subsequent marriage.

Here’s what happened. “I’m not as innocent as you think,” she began, and the story of those eighteen months poured out.  That the sex claimed to have been fading didn’t impress him. He declared as he departed for his separate bedroom, “I’m going to bed.” He was more articulate next morning—but not more forgiving. Said the 23-year-old pending bridegroom, “You will never, ever say anything to anyone about what you told me last night….  Nobody, ever.” She sobbed. While the dissolution of her marriage years later (after two children but also years of repressed mixed emotions) left huge marks on Mimi, it didn’t destroy her. Her second marriage has turned out splendidly, she takes great pains to point out.

Mimi Alford is a woman who has risen above her affair with Kennedy, his tragic assassination, and her unsatisfying first marriage (For years she has worked in a Presbyterian Church in New York City

The reader of this book who shares my experience of observing innumerable TV interviews of Mimi Alford will be willing to judge that here is a woman who has risen above and gone beyond the true satisfactions of her Kennedy romance, his sad passing, and her untoward first marriage. Her book has clearly helped her healing process, and it’s given us, the public, a reasoned and reliable account of Mimi Beardsley and JFK, an affair that has to be his longest and maybe most satisfying liaison of all during White House years.

Not that this is the only account to date or the absolute final word on Kennedy’s affairs. Judith Campbell Exner, an earlier and very adult companion of several years earlier, gave us the book My Story years ago, but readers got detoured by its varied and colorful characters and the assertions therein about money, mob contacts, and assassination conspiracies. Details on Monroe are scant. The other White House employees with whom Kennedy slept with seem to have left little trace of their happy days.

Mimi has quite deliberately (and a little surprisingly, I think) left out almost all details about her actual lovemaking with Jack. We learn that they doted on being together in the bathtub. (With them were gifted rubber duckies he loved to horse around with.) She seems to have decided early on that any detailed rendering of their intimacy belongs to her alone. So be it. When she reveals that once, for two weeks she and he were upset at the possibility she was pregnant, one does wonder why she wasn’t on the recently approved contraceptive pill, or at least that other barriers were used (granted, the Catholic Church frowns upon them, but the Church also frowns upon adultery).

We can also pause to reflect that Kennedy’s leadership was improved due to his prolific and varied sex life (he certainly seemed to think so, judging by his remarks to British prime minister Harold Macmillan (“I wonder how it is for you, Harold? If I don’t have a woman for three days, I get terrible headaches.”) But in any event, I don’t feel the least cheated to find its author retains something vital to her dignity.

In quick summary: 

(1) John F. Kennedy joined a nineteen-year-old newcomer in the pool for a short time. Within a few hours he escorted her on tour of his living quarters, then took her virginity suddenly on his wife’s bed.

(2) He essentially forced his nineteen-year-old mistress to perform oral sex on one of his closest aides while he watched (though he did later apologize). 

(3) He tried to get her to give oral sex to his brother Ted Kennedy (who later went on to the U.S. Senate), though she in this case refused.

(4) He acted in a cavalier and irresponsible manner with his prescription drugs, which caused a serious medical reaction on the part of Mimi Alford.

Reading all this, and after contemplating every ameliorating factor possible, what is to be an outsider’s verdict on his performance in office?

Just what, in the final analysis, is to be left of Camelot as conceptualized in 1963-64 by a few insiders with various agendas? We are speaking of that mythical society dwelt on happily by a combination of Kennedy lovers, the assassination-shocked, ardent Democrats, and Nixon-hater. And oh, yes: incurable romantics. Well, to summarize, Camelot is kaput. Kennedy misbehaved in truly reprehensible ways. He was a sex maniac with virtually no boundaries.

Chris Matthews has demonstrated in his latest book Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero that if a friend and admirer concentrates entirely on major national and international matters one can, even now, make a case for a positive Kennedy administration. On the other hand, since Seymour Hersch’s well-researched but occasionally unreliable 1997 book The Dark Side of Camelot, a very, very different view of the Kennedy administration has emerged.  Hersh reported the heavy screening of Kennedy paperwork for years after his passing, and the memorializing efforts of his family and cohorts. Those efforts “[were] a problem for us,” noted Lady Bird Johnson her Diary. The Johnson administration did help the image-making by publishing and distributing 32,250 copies of the mammoth Memorial Addresses in the Congress of the United States and Tributes in Eulogy of John Fitzgerald Kennedy: Late a President of the United States—890 pages of fine print.  All of this was to tribute the “life, character, and public service” of the departed. Perhaps nothing is more dated than Bruce Catton’s Four Days, a eulogy for the ages that pays tribute to conceptualized perfection.

Affairs foreign and national during the Kennedy administration are not our subject here—affairs domestic are. It is   evident that when matters of state pressed President Kennedy, he restrained his apparently gargantuan sexual urges.  It was during his down time that Kennedy indulged his appetites. Historians have, on the whole, relished kicking the man Lyndon Johnson and denigrating him for a variety of alleged and documented crudities and his sexual proclivities (of course, Johnson was publicly a much earthier man). They have been horrid to Warren G. Harding for stains on his personal conduct. Humor seems to have been something of a protection thus far for Bill Clinton (surely a glib oversimplification). Eager presidential candidate John Edwards, on the other hand, has had his personal reputation absolutely destroyed for his sins (and considering the fact that we now live in a much more forgiving age, that speaks volumes).  At this late date, it seems pointless and counterproductive to zealously maintain Kennedy’s myth, as well.

It is my opinion that Once Upon a Secret, a very good read, meticulously framed and carefully written, apparently beyond reproach in its general story and numbers of small details—thus enhancing the large ones—marks the beginning of the end of mythology about that exuberant and handsome president, John F. Kennedy. We have for too long given him the benefit of the doubt, in no small part due to his assassination.

Various mythmakers with assorted agendas have gotten away too long with applying the conceptualized purity of Broadway’s Camelot legend to Kennedy. No father in his right mind would let his teenage daughter be alone—even for part of an hour—with the unprincipled sexual animal JFK, especially if there happened to be a bed and bathtub built for two anywhere in the vicinity. 

Once Upon a Secret is an important book. That is because it does make a difference whether a president considered by many to be a figure of heroic stature was at the same time actually a very seriously flawed person. We can put away our pedestals.  This exercise in peering into the private life of one of America’s most popular leaders is now at an end. We can say without much likelihood of contradiction that this handsome sportsman, well-spoken orator, graceful individual, leader among men, and often historic decision maker spent considerable time weekly out of the vast number of his thousand White House days misbehaving and enjoying it thoroughly—totally without public penalty then or ultimate devastating impact on his general reputation as a person. He lived his gratifying and amoral life to the hilt. His conduct was framed in casual defiance of the commonly accepted morality subscribed to by huge numbers of his countrymen. For far too long he has gotten away with it.

Should we, that president’s countrymen, even care?  Yes, if we expect our own children to live lives that respect the rights of others and to behave in accordance with high moral standards. Regardless of whether we bother to downgrade the personal aspects of the Kennedy legend, it is altogether likely that an age-old saying is going to gradually prevail in the case of this well born, charming, historic, and very lucky presidential predator: “The wheels of the Gods grind slowly but surely, and they grind exceeding fine.”

Correction: A previous version of this article identified Max Lerner as the lyricist of the musical "Camelot." The actual lyricist was Alan Lerner. HNN regrets the error.

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