Editor’s Note: Journalist and novelist Jesse Kornbluth’s beautiful and engaging novel JFK and Mary Meyer: A Love Story reimagines the what-might-have-beens between the dynamic young President, John F. Kennedy and the woman long known to be one of his closest friends and perhaps a longtime mistress, the artist Mary Meyer. Here Jesse shares a snippet from the novel, but mostly some of his own thoughts on the relationship and why he framed some of the elements in the way that he did.
by Jesse Kornbluth
Jack Kennedy didn’t know Martha Gellhorn, but he invited her to his inaugural ball. Why did she score that coveted invitation? Somehow he had learned about the season in 1935 when she was befriended by Eleanor Roosevelt and lived in the Lincoln Bedroom. Now he hurried over to ask a single question: How did FDR sneak out of the White House? Gellhorn told him about a back gate. “There’s only one guy in charge of it,” she said. “Roosevelt used to give him money all the time.” Mission accomplished, Kennedy moved on to the next guest.
That anecdote is a snapshot of Kennedy’s Presidency. By day, he was the leader of the free world, who gave great speeches and had a made-for-media marriage. By night — actually: all day, every day — he hunted women.
In the post-Camelot era, it’s become common among Kennedy’s biographers to deal with his sex addiction by describing him euphemistically, as a divided character. The general explanation for his obsession with sex is just what you’d expect: a proudly profligate father, a chilly and distant mother, chronic illness in childhood. And then, to personalize this list, add relevant details: He was rich, handsome, and, he thought, likely to die young. A Leonard Cohen line sums him up: “I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch.”
There’s an additional fact, generally overlooked. Kennedy had a role model. He found him in a book he read when he was very young and very sick: David Cecil’s The Young Melbourne. As he told Jackie when he gave it to her, it was his favorite book. (She gave him her favorite book, a collection of Madame de Staël’s writing. We know he read it; he’s the only President who ever quoted de Staël on Meet the Press.)
Melbourne’s life is a map of clues to Jack Kennedy. William Lamb, educated at Eton and Cambridge, became Lord Melbourne in 1805. He was elected to the House of Commons as a Whig at 27, where he firmly occupied the middle ground; he opposed labor unions and had no interest in helping the working class. As Queen Victoria’s prime minister early in her reign, he was her coach in political affairs. He was haunted by the fear of making a fool of himself in public and never fought with someone he thought could beat him. Because he religiously pursued compromise, he had no great achievements. His wife was Lady Caroline Ponsonby, thought by many to be “the most dynamic personality that had appeared in London society for a generation.” She had a notorious affair with Lord Byron and famously described him as “mad, bad and dangerous to know.” Melbourne’s personal life was also checkered. A historian has written: “Spanking sessions with aristocratic ladies were harmless, not so the whippings administered to orphan girls taken into his household as objects of charity.”
In my novel, JFK and Mary Meyer: A Love Story (Skyhorse), I have Kennedy give Mary Pinchot Meyer the book in 1962, the year they became lovers.
Unlike the other women he bedded, who he often called “Honey” or “Sweetie” because he couldn’t be bothered to learn their names, he knew her well. They met at a Choate dance in 1936, when he was 18 and she was 16. In the 1950s, when she was married to Cord Meyer, a high-ranking CIA official, she was Jack and Jackie’s neighbor in Virginia. A few years later, when she was living around the corner from her sister Tony and Tony’s husband, Ben Bradlee, she was a frequent guest at White House dinners.
Mary Meyer was everything Jackie was not: adventuresome, interested in politics, extroverted, and sensuous. In an Administration with not a single woman in the Cabinet, she was invited to sit in the Oval Office during working hours. At night, her time with Kennedy included discussions of policy, and she lobbied hard for disarmament, diplomacy, and aid to the poor. Although she was Kennedy’s only serious lover during his Presidency — he fantasized about divorcing Jackie after the 1964 election and marrying her — he was far from faithful to her. Among his lovers: a 19-year-old intern who surrendered her virginity on Jackie’s bed.
After Kennedy’s death, Mary loudly criticized the official story of the assassination. This may have been the reason, as she took her daily noontime walk along a Georgetown canal in October of 1964, she was shot, execution-style, in the head and the heart. (An African American man was arrested, tried, and acquitted. Her murder remains unsolved.) That night, her best friend urgently called the Bradlees. “Mary had a diary,” she said. “Please get it and secure it.”
There are several versions of the events that followed; the most intriguing has the Bradlees rushing to Mary’s studio and finding James Angleton, head of counterintelligence at the CIA, holding a bolt-cutter. Eventually, Ben Bradlee has written, they found a small notebook, mostly filled with paint swatches, sketches, and shorthand ideas for her art—and no more than ten pages about an affair with an unnamed lover. They quickly understood the identity of that lover — and the Bradlees burned the notebook.
In JKF and Mary Meyer: A Love Story, I reimagine Mary Meyer’s diary, not as the notebook that was found but as a full account of her life from 1961 to 1964. I have her write about Cecil’s biography:
I did laugh once: “No one ever happened to have coats that fitted better.” Mostly I was interested in Melbourne’s philosophy, which was just like his coats: the world was ruled by vanity and selfishness. Life was one day, endlessly repeated: “Nobody learns anything from experience; everybody does the same thing over and over again.” His goal was to get through life with as little unpleasantness as possible—and the best way to achieve that was to do very little. Of course, he was a Whig — a rich man accustomed to being rich. Like his friends, he believed you could do anything…as long as you maintained decorum. I find him cynical, world-weary, spoiled, seeing every question from many sides and settling on none. And allergic to actual work — politics was a part-time job.
It’s revealing that this is Jack’s favorite book; Melbourne’s public life was glamorous, and the public life was all that mattered. And the public life was basically show business: Personality matters more than policy.
Isn’t that the Kennedys? In public, Jack’s proud of Jackie; in private, I’ve seen him treat her as if he’s doing her a favor. It sounds awful, but I think their deepest connection is that they’re out for themselves, and if their marriage helps them get there, she’ll endure his infidelity and he’ll put up with her snobbery.
At his core Jack is an Irish Catholic kid who wants to be British nobility, so he can misbehave at will.
Jackie also dreams of nobility, only French. Not for the writing and the politics but for the salons and the clothes.
I’m trying to say: they’re not idealists.
When I wrote that, I thought I was channeling Mary, and I admired how clearly she saw her lover. Were I writing for publication under my byline, I would not have so bluntly judged the Kennedy marriage, or explained Jack’s diffidence about advancing a political agenda as an echo of Melbourne’s caution, or considered his philandering as the divine right of English nobility. But it turns out that is exactly what I think: Jack Kennedy aspired to be the young Melbourne, and became him. ◊
Jesse Kornbluth is a New York-based writer. As a journalist, he was a Contributing Editor for Vanity Fair and New York magazines. His books include Highly Confident: The Crime and Punishment of Michael Milken and Married Sex: A Love Story. In digital media, he was editorial director for America Online; he now edits a cultural concierge website, HeadButler.com.