Histories of Kennedy Love: A Book Review

April 26, 2012, 2:42 pm

JFK and JFK, Jr. in the Oval Office (AP Photo/Look Magazine, Stanley Tretick)

Christina Haag, Come to the Edge: A Memoir (New York:  Spiegel & Grau, 2011).

Mimi Alford, Once Upon a Secret: My Affair With President John F. Kennedy and its Aftermath (New York: Random House, 2012).

It will be no surprise to even the uneducated reader that the Kennedy family occupies an entire cultural market niche all by itself.  The Library of Congress lists over 400 John F. Kennedy items in its holdings. You can add to this number: books by and about Bobby, Ted and the other siblings; about the generations that preceded the three political brothers; about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and her children (there are over 300 LOC items about John Jr. and 93 by and about the far more productive and well-educated Caroline; about the assassinations of and conspiracy theories concerning Jack and Bobby.

In addition to the books, there are countless movies and made for TV dramas. The literature about Planet Kennedy ranges from serious literary and scholarly work to base, degrading, and money-grubbing books that can be purchased for $22.95 in the store and, like taking a new car off the lot, are worth  about one cent online as you hit the sidewalk with them.

Mimi Alford’s Once Upon a Secret and Christina Haag’s Come to the Edge fall somewhere on the high end of the “tales told out of school” subgenre of Kennedy books. Both were either very well-written to begin with or have been expertly edited, and each woman has an instinct for a good story. However they entered women’s history at distinctly different moments. Haag, an actress who has had a better than modest career on stage, television and film, shared JFK Jr.’s private school world in the 1970s and seems to have come within a hair of being the Mrs. John Kennedy who was killed when John lost control of his plane near Martha’s Vineyard in July 1999. Alford, on the other hand, met President Kennedy as a White House press intern in 1961 and was one of many women to have had a not-so-secret affair with him. Recruited out of the secretarial pool by White House aide and pimp-in-chief Kenny O’Donnell at the age of nineteen, Alford continued to work as an intern while being flown around the country to have sex with JFK, in the White House and elsewhere, for almost two years.

Alford and Haag also have cross-generational similarities that point to how one got close enough to a member of this political clan to end up as a lover (or in Alford’s case, a friend with benefits.)  Each came from a family that was not as wealthy and powerful as the Kennedy clan, but was upper class all the same. They both entered the Kennedy orbit through private school networks. Haag was part of a clique of New York kids who clustered around young John and viewed themselves as a protective social cushion for him. This group of friends became a kind of privileged entourage as he proceeded to prep school, Brown University, law school and New York high society.  Shrewd about the dangers attendant to becoming involved with someone as troubled and charismatic as JFK Jr., Haag was at least as focused on her own career as she was on becoming the next Mrs. Kennedy. This may actually have taken her out of the bridal derby. Jackie — who kept her son on the shortest possible leash and would call Conrans to come and decorate whatever apartment John was living in — also had very formed ideas about what kind of a wife her son should have as he took his place in the public world.

It’s not really clear in the book why the relationship fell apart: this leads me to propose the theory that Jackie, while she came to embrace Haag, ultimately found an ambitious actress unsuitable as a Kennedy wife.  But Haag alludes to serial infidelities, narcissism, temper tantrums and John’s general lack of seriousness about adult life that must have caused her to doubt him.  Haag tells several particularly disturbing stories about John’s penchant for taking physical risks that sets the stage for that final flight to the Vineyard, under conditions for which he was not yet licensed or properly trained. After one incident, in which John nearly killed Haag in a kayak twice on the same day, he “paced the beach muttering something, his eyes wide and to the ground.`Don’t tell Mummy, don’t tell Mummy,’ he repeated like a mantra to no one.”(208)

Alford, several generations older, was far less assertive than Haag, and less able to take care of herself when things got ugly. Enchanted by the Camelot moment, she seems to have drifted into JFK’s bed with eyes both open and shut.  Unlike Haag, she also never planned on becoming Kennedy’s wife, since he already had one. Instead, she lived parallel lives for the duration of the affair, and was shuffled off to Buffalo when she told JFK she had become engaged.

A post-feminist woman, Haag had the advantage of being sexually sophisticated, self-confident and focused on her own career: she appears to have rebuffed a romance with John Jr. several times, insisting that they both formally end relationships with other people before embarking on their own romance. In contrast, Alford drifted naively into an affair with a much older man that was simultaneously exciting and isolating. A visit to the White House facilitated by Miss Porter’s School, also Jacqueline Bouvier’s alma mater, led Alford to a brief encounter with the President. This was followed by an invitation to become a summer intern in the press office, which in turn led to a dip in the pool, a cocktail, a tour of the family quarters and losing her virginity on Jackie’s bed.  It appears that JFK saw Miss Porter’s as a kind of farm team for pretty, well brought-up girls who could be recruited into a discreet, informal, preppy harem. This meant that someone, who was far too well-bred to tell and saw boffing the President as an opportunity not to be missed, was always available for a quickie. The Miss Porter’s alumnae club also included a pair of friends known as Fiddle and Faddle who I had thought were a figment of novelist Jed Mercurio’s imagination.

Apparently not.

In contrast to presidential mistresses like Marilyn Monroe, or Monica Lewinsky, these women were well brought-up and knew never to step out of line when given instructions by a man.  ”In all our time together,” Alford writes, “it never once occurred to me to call him Jack.  Even in our most intimate moments I called him Mr. President….To do otherwise would seem inappropriate.” (77)  Alford would be picked up by an aide, either at the office, her college dorm or in the hotel room where she was stashed on a Presidential trip, and transported to the President for the sole purpose of sexual intercourse. “I don’t remember the President ever kissing me,” she writes, “not hello, goodbye, not even during sex.  Instead, he greeted me with a cheery hello, seeming almost surprised that I was at the door.” (81)

Sounds fun, doesn’t it? What did JFK think he was doing? What would he have said about it if asked? Enquiring minds want to know. Mercurio’s fictional Kennedy believes he can control the symptoms of Addison’s disease — nausea, cramping, bloating, and back pain among others — through frequent ejaculation.  Periodically, he abstains from his normal activities, growing more and more ill until he returns to his regime of sex therapy.

More interesting than the question of what JFK thought he was doing is what this gaggle of sexually liberated but pre-feminist young women thought they were doing.  Passing Fiddle at her desk one day, Jackie noted to a reporter from Paris Match, in French: “This is the girl who is sleeping with my husband.” Did she use the word “sleeping” or something cruder? Did she say “girl” or “slut”? And do we not believe that Fiddle’s Miss Porter’s French was good enough to know exactly what was being said, whatever it was? Only in retrospect does Alford realize that there was a reason why Jackie was rarely in residence at the Frat White House, and virtually never seen in the West Wing.

And yet, this is where Alford’s book is more interesting than I thought it would be.  She freely admits that she had no idea, really, what she was doing. She had been raised, not to choose, but to be chosen — and she had been chosen by the most powerful man in the world. Intoxicated, she pretty much followed directions after that, including fellating Kenny O’Donnell as JFK floated next to them in the pool.  She claims that she later refused similar instructions aimed at helping brother Ted “relax” and that this refusal was “the moment that our relationship truly began to wind down.” (124)

Controlling information about the affair, first on Presidential orders and then at the command of a shamed and enraged man who learned that his fiancee had been shtupping the President throughout their courtship and engagement, is the central theme of Once Upon a Secret.  Alford was finally “outed” in 2003, after her marriage — which began with her husband raping her following the confession — had collapsed. Historian Robert Dallek had dropped a hairpin in a comprehensive biography in that year, and in May Alford came home to find a diligent reporter camped on her doorstep. The memoir was her way to seize control of her own story, and I think she did.

It is anyone’s guess why Haag wrote her book. While Come to the Edge is a good read, it seems only to raise old questions about JFK Jr.:  was he really any more than a charming, handsome, well-brought up ne’er do well with a tragic past and an uncertain future? Although he went to good schools, he took little advantage of them: since he wasn’t a star athlete, taking a post-graduate year at prep school means that his grades were so bad that even being a Kennedy couldn’t get him into Brown without a little penance. There are numerous warning signs in the book (other than the fact that we know from the beginning that Haag and Kennedy never marry) that John’s life is a disaster waiting to happen. For example, after Haag receives Jackie’s stamp of approval, John reports that his mother had lectured him that it was now time for him to “be a man….to grow up, to take charge and protect me.” (140) You’ve got to wonder how worried Jackie must have been about a self-destructiveness and promiscuity that was all too familiar to her, coupled with the charm and good looks that meant no one ever said no to him.

Of the two books, Once Upon A Secret raises the most interesting questions, and not because it is about la vie Kennedy. These questions are about sex and power, and they are conveyed through a devastating portrait of a privileged woman so trapped by class expectations and compulsory heterosexuality that she had no reference point for making her own choices in a White House transformed by the sexual revolution.

Once Upon a Secret also left me thinking that there is a category somewhere in between sexual consent and sexual harassment, as we currently understand these concepts, that no one talks about to this day. Alford had only a vague sense of her own agency, but she wasn’t powerless either. She was very aware of Jackie as a person, but failed to be aware that she was complicit in a dynamic that must have caused the First Lady great pain and embarrassment. Instead, at the time, she rewrote her affair as some version of national service: one of the weirdest moments in the story is when Mimi is flown down from college to offer the President needed support during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

OK, I’ll say it, even though she doesn’t: he treated her like a whore. Alford’s memoir is about more than this, however. It is about the consequences of being treated like a whore, about being persuaded by her husband that she was damaged goods because of it, and her tenacious struggle to become a person who could participate in real intimacy decades later.  Telling her secret (particularly to her daughters, who rallied to her support) and writing the memoir has been part of a healing process that has led Alford to a second, and happier, marriage. ”I am no longer the sheltered nineteen-year-old Mimi Beardsley, who entered a relationship with the most powerful man in the world,” she writes. “Nor am I the scared, emotionally crippled Mimi Fahnstock who spent a lifetime living with and struggling to overcome, the consequences of that relationship.” (9) In fact, when you consider the emotional damage JFK did to a White House intern, you wonder if the story Haag has to tell in Come to the Edge could not have been even a little different if the President had been a better husband himself.

JFK could not have cared less about Alford, although she makes a point of it that he was perfectly nice to her. But the open secret of the President’s compulsive f^cking suggests a radiating circle of contempt for others, including his family. An analysis of this contempt might usefully be turned to thinking about the similar and more ordinary abuses of  power that are enacted through sex, gender and privilege in our own institutions.

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