Once upon a Secret: My Affair with President John F. Kennedy and Its Aftermath by Mimi Alford (Random House; 208 pages; $25).
Mimi Alford’s story is almost too unbelievable to be true. If her account had not been part of the historical record, I would discount it as fiction; yet, what Ms. Alford claimed happened did happen. Sometimes truth is wilder than fiction.
Ms. Alford had a secret affair with President John F. Kennedy.
But, in 2003, the jig was up. In that year, the famed historian Robert Dallek wrote An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963. Dallek came across an oral history conducted by a woman who once worked in the White House. The aide was Barbara Gamarekian, and she had a lot to say about the president’s extra-marital relations with the opposite sex. The details were too juicy for Dallek to resist. When Dallek listed women JFK had affairs with, a “tall, slender, beautiful” college sophomore and White House intern was included. She was not named outright in the book. Staff hinted she was not in her position due to her skills: “She couldn’t type.”
Not long after the publication of An Unfinished Life, members of the press dug up details and they discovered the girl’s identity. The secret was out. From 1962 to 1963, Marion (Mimi) Beardsley had an affair with the world’s most powerful man.
Before the affair is discussed, I must mention how Ms. Alford was awarded a coveted White House internship. She attended Miss Porter’s, an elite boarding school for girls, the same school Jackie Kennedy attended, and wrote for the school’s student newspaper, the Salmagundy. Since she wanted to be a journalist, she decided to request an interview with Mrs. Kennedy for the paper. Mrs. Kennedy declined, but her social secretary, Letitia Baldridge, who also attended Miss Porter’s, asked if Ms. Alford might instead interview her. Ms. Alford accepted and went to the White House. While she was there, she met the president.
Ms. Alford must have made quite an impression on JFK. At nineteen, she was offered a White House internship, yet she never even applied. Family connections played no part in the offering: her parents were staunch Republicans.
Ms. Alford began her internship in June 1962. On her fourth day in the White House, Ms. Alford was invited to take a dip in the White House swimming pool by Dave Powers, one of the president’s closest aides. Several people swam that day, including the president.
That night, Powers invited her to a party in the residence. JFK personally escorted her on a tour. While showing her where the first lady slept, he initiated sexual intercourse. Ms. Alford had been a virgin and was very naïve in the ways of men like the president. Looking back on her first sexual encounter with JFK, Ms. Alford writes, “I wouldn’t describe what happened that night as making love. But I wouldn’t call it nonconsensual, either.”
The affair continued. Mrs. Kennedy was gone that summer with her children; the president was often conveniently alone. Ms. Alford often spent the night in the residence, in full view of Secret Service agents and staff. Everyone turned a blind eye, even when she arrived at work in the same clothes she had worn the day before.
The liaison continued when Ms. Alford returned to college in the fall. The president called her in her dorm, using the code “Michael Carter.”
While the affair was ongoing, Ms. Alford was with the president during some important events. She stood by his side in the residence as he called up the National Guard to Ole Miss and during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Perhaps she relieved him of stress? It is just unbelievable the things she witnessed.
Ms. Alford shows how complicated and complex a man JFK could be. He was light-hearted and joking one minute while in the next he told Ms. Alford to administer oral sex to Powers in the White House pool. Kennedy never used condoms. Sure enough, Ms. Alford believed she was pregnant and told the president. He handed off the ball to Powers, who gave her the name and number of an abortion clinic. She never had the procedure as she started her period a few days later. But neither JFK nor Powers ever mentioned it again. At a party at Bing Crosby’s, JFK forced Ms. Alford to inhale a drug that was purported to enhance sex. After taking it, her heart raced and she was terrified. Powers comforted her, not the president. There are many other instances like these. They seem to be a pattern.
Ms. Alford returned to the White House during the summer of 1963. Soon, though, the affair petered out. Mrs. Kennedy gave birth prematurely that summer, and the baby died, taking a toll on both husband and wife. Also, Ms. Alford got engaged to her boyfriend of eight months, Tony Fahnestock.
She last saw JFK November 15, 1963, in New York City, where he gave her three hundred dollars to buy something special for herself. She was supposed to accompany the president to Dallas the following week. Plans changed, though, when Mrs. Kennedy decided to go along with her husband.
The assassination shocked Ms. Alford. Her fiancé noticed. Burdened by the secret for so long and overcome on that particular day, Ms. Alford confessed to him. He was absolutely livid. I wonder what he was angrier about–that his fiancé had premarital sex or that she had sex with the president. Apparently, Fahnestock worried he would not be able to measure up. After they went to bed (in separate rooms), Fahnestock came to her bedroom, pulled the covers back, and got in. He had sex with her that night, almost to erase JFK from her body and mind, Ms. Alford believed. It was almost as if he was laying claim to her.
Fahnestock forbid her to talk about her affair with JFK. That was a condition for their marriage to go through. She complied. Ms. Alford writes that for thirteen years they had a good marriage. But it was doomed from the start. They divorced in 1990. She married Dick Alford in 2005.
Until 2003, Ms. Alford had only told her secret to a few people. Then, Dallek’s book was released and she could no longer keep silent. With Once upon a Secret, Ms. Alford is finally able to tell her story on her own terms and in her own words. I admire her for that, even though this reads like a tabloid and is not well-written. Yet, the book has great value.
JFK surrounded himself with too many yes-men, men who were blindly devoted to him, men who thought he could do no wrong. Camelot is a myth that has long since been shattered. Kennedy had power and he loved to lord that authority over women, especially.
I am not disputing that he was a good president. I believe he was one of the nation’s best. This book tarnishes his reputation (yet again) but not the office of the president.
President’s Day is Monday. Let’s try to always separate the office from the man. Maybe then we will be less disappointed when things like Watergate, Iran-Contra, and Monica happen.
Presidents are men (so far) first and foremost. They are not gods or superheroes. Like us, they make mistakes. We must remember that. Even presidents dress one leg at a time.