Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Book Review: Once Upon a Secret, by Mimi Alford (2012)

The cover of Once Upon a Secret, by Mimi Alford, 2012.

Mimi Beardsley, circa 1962. She was an intern in the White House press office during the summer of 1962, and worked at the White House again during the summer of 1963.

President John F. Kennedy. He wouldn't have been smiling if he had ever had to field questions from the press about his extramarital affairs.
John F. Kennedy once said that the reason we read biographies is to answer the question, “What was he like?” That’s certainly the reason that Kennedy still intrigues people more than 50 years after his tragic death. Personally, I find JFK to be one of the most interesting Presidents, so I was fascinated by Mimi Alford’s excellent 2012 book, Once Upon a Secret: My Affair with President John F. Kennedy and its Aftermath. Alford, then known by her maiden name as Mimi Beardsley, was a 19-year-old college student and intern in the White House press office during the summer of 1962. On her fourth day on the job, presidential aide Dave Powers invited her to go swimming in the White House pool during lunch. She said yes, and joining her for the swim were two White House secretaries and the President. At the end of the day, Powers invited Beardsley to a party for new White House staffers. She accepted, and once again, President Kennedy was there. Later that evening he took her on a tour of the private residence and had sex with Alford in First Lady Jackie Kennedy’s bedroom. Mimi Beardsley lost her virginity in 1962. To John F. Kennedy. While he was President. In the White House. Wow, now that’s a story.

Kennedy seduced many women, both before and throughout his Presidency. He once said 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.” (President Kennedy: Profile of Power, by Richard Reeves, p.290) Despite his charm and good looks, Kennedy wasn’t known to be a great lover. Actress Angie Dickinson was rumored to have had a relationship with JFK, and this quote has often been attributed to her: “Sleeping with the President was the greatest 20 seconds of my life.” That pretty much sums up John F. Kennedy’s attitude towards sex. It was definitely all about his pleasure, not hers. Beardsley writes that her first sexual experience with Kennedy was brief, but later on she writes “As time went by, he was also more attentive, more gentlemanly than he had been in our first encounter…Our sexual relationship was varied and fun.” (Alford, p.65) 

Kennedy saw Beardsley regularly for the rest of the summer of 1962, and their sexual relationship continued. Kennedy even continued seeing Beardsley after she went back to college in the fall, using a fake name to place phone calls to her dorm, and arranging for her to make weekend trips back to the White House. Beardsley was even in the White House during one of the most tense days of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962. The reason that Beardsley was able to sleep over at the White House so often was that Jackie Kennedy was hardly ever at the White House, which is ironic, since one of the most famous things that Jackie Kennedy did as First Lady was to oversee a remodeling of the White House. But Jackie hated politics, and wanted to ride horses in the country, so she spent most of her time at Glen Ora, the Kennedys’ house in rural Virginia. 

Beardsley also traveled with the President, making several trips as a part of the President’s entourage. I was surprised as I read the book by how much time Beardsley spent with Kennedy. She spent many, many hours in his company during 1962 and 1963, which made me wonder, how deep was their relationship? What would Kennedy have said about their relationship, how would he have defined it? I don’t think that he was in love with her, but he was obviously drawn to her, and there must have been a reason other than sex that he spent so much time with her. For her the relationship was something like a schoolgirl crush, but what was the relationship like for him? Kennedy obviously enjoyed Beardsley’s company; otherwise he wouldn’t have gone to such great lengths to keep seeing her. 

Beardsley continued working in the White House during the summer of 1963, even as she got engaged to Tony Fahnestock, a college student at Williams. Beardsley knew that she would eventually quit working at the White House and stop seeing President Kennedy. The last time she saw Kennedy was at the Carlyle Hotel in New York City on Friday, November 15, 1963. Kennedy gave her $300 and told her to buy something nice, as his wedding present to her. Kennedy told Beardsley, “I wish you were coming with me to Texas. I’ll call you when I get back.” (Alford, p.127) A week later Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.

The second half of Once Upon a Secret deals with how the secret that Alford kept for so long affected her relationships in her life. She told her fiancĂ© Tony about her affair with JFK on the night of November 22, 1963, as they were watching television coverage in the aftermath of Kennedy’s assassination. Tony took the news poorly and made Mimi promise that she would never tell anyone, ever. Their marriage eventually crumbled, and they divorced. Alford writes very well about her struggles on her journey to becoming a woman who is happy with herself and who can love someone on her own terms. She has been happily married to Dick Alford since 2005. Her secret relationship with JFK remained something that she had only shared with a few people until May of 2003. There was a reference to Alford in an oral history that Robert Dallek quoted in his acclaimed biography of JFK, An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917-1963, although she wasn’t named. But soon the press figured out her identity, and reporters were stalking her. Alford made a brief statement confirming her relationship with JFK, but didn’t give any interviews to the press. 

Once Upon a Secret is an excellent book, and I applaud Alford for telling the truth, even when it’s difficult. Her book sheds new light on John F. Kennedy, and he comes off as a very flawed human, but still likeable.

No comments: