Friday, August 10, 2012

Sex and Politics in another time

During the last year, two remarkable books have appeared dealing with the personal life of John Fitzgerald Kennedy: one by his wife, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, consisting of oral history interviews that she did with Arthur Schlesinger just a few months after his death, and the second, more recent one by Mimi Beardsley Alford, who became his mistress in the summer of 1962 while working at the White House at the age of 19. Both reveal a great deal about the women and mores of a particular time and generation, and both of course also tell us quite a bit about the personal life of one of our most fascinating Presidents. Even readers of a certain age will scratch their heads at how much times have changed on the marital front after reading these books, especially Jackie’s, and younger readers will encounter a different world, the real world of Mad Men. They deal with a time when institutions were more important than personal feelings—not least, the institutions of marriage and politics. Because for the last forty years we have adopted the opposite view, they give us an interesting picture against which to measure ourselves and the very different times in which we live today.

Jackie’s interviews were among the first of the JFK oral history project, and they can be heard, as well as read, in the book and CD package released last year. Together with the equally lengthy interviews with Robert Kennedy, they were the foundation of the project, and they are historical documents of very great interest. In her case their importance relates to social more than political history: the interviews are the most revealing portrait I have encountered of the wife of a powerful man a half century ago. While Jackie had her own life, she completely accepted the idea that her husband’s life came first and that she was there to make his life happier and easier. She knew what he wanted to talk about and what he did not, what kinds of people he wanted around, and what he wanted to discuss. Since he liked to bring up today’s columns by leading journalists, he expected her to know what he was talking about. She took the hint and did her best not to be caught short. She wanted to provide him with the children he loved, and she timed their naps so that they would be ready to see him for half an hour when he came to the residence from the White House office. The lesson is clear: for better or for worse, they don’t make wives like that any more.

Again and again, she explains to Schlesinger that she knew little about the details of policy because Jack, who had worked intently on them all day, wanted to put them aside every evening. Robert and Ethel Kennedy almost never came to dinner at the White House for that very reason; the President preferred his journalist friends like Charles Bartlett, Joseph Alsop and Ben Bradlee (who contributed an equally revealing portrait 35 years ago in Conversations with Kennedy), or intellectuals like John Kenneth Galbraith and Schlesinger, who had been a White House aide himself. On the other hand, Kennedy freely shared his personal reactions to his subordinates, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, most of whom he disliked, Secretary of State Dean Rusk whom he planned to replace, and many others. He was even franker about foreign leaders such as British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan, of whom he became very fond, and French and German leaders Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer, with whom he had much more difficulty. But—and this is a powerful recurring theme in the book—he almost never allowed his personal feelings to carry him away. Jackie, like so many wives of that period, was fiercely protective of his husband and found it difficult to forgive a slight. Jack told her again and again to control her feelings, reminding her that in politics today’s enemy is often tomorrow’s friend, and refusing to hold any grudges or overlook the needs of other politicians, which might conflict with his own.

Jackie repeatedly says that their years in the White House were their happiest together—that nearly for the first time, she felt she could be of real help to him. She had married him in 1953 when he had just been elected to the Senate and was already planning an eventual run for the Presidency, and he had suffered some major illnesses and traveled constantly in subsequent years. She had campaigned a good deal in the 1960 primaries, and comments rather strikingly about the coldness of Wisconsin voters and the warmth of much poorer West Virginians, who indeed gave Kennedy a much larger victory over Hubert Humphrey and indisputably made him the front runner for the nomination. But by the time of the general election campaign she was very pregnant and mostly stayed at home. In the White House, of course, she immediately became an international celebrity in her own right, and embarked upon the restoration project for which she is still famous. “Suddenly,” she told Schlesinger, “everything that’s been a liability before—your hair, that you spoke French,. That you didn’t just adore to campaign, and that you didn’t bake bread with flour up to your arms—you know, everyone thought I was a snob and hated politics”—in the White House, “all the things that I’d always done suddenly became wonderful because anything the First Lady does that’s different, everyone seizes on—and I was so happy for Jack, especially now that it was only three years together that he could be proud of me then.” She also gave him some critical assistance with his back, which flared up again during his first year in office. Kennedy, as she explains, had relied since the late 1950s on novocaine to dull the pain in his back, and the frantic campaigning of 1959-60 had kept him active and his muscles loose. But Jackie—who had developed a healthy distrust for doctors after watching so many of their attempts to help him failed—realized that his first six months in the White House, when he rarely got up from his desk, had weakened, and therefore stiffened, his muscles. Novocaine was no longer doing the trick, and she insisted on getting him some new medical advice, focusing on physical therapy and exercise instead. They worked, and he was healthier in his last two years in office than he had ever been in his adult life. (Meanwhile, Jackie loyally sticks to the myth that her husband did not have Addison’s disease, as Lyndon Johnson’s minions had put about—correctly—during the Democratic convention in 1960.)

Meanwhile, the former first lady leaves no doubt that her husband was an extraordinarily compelling person to be around, and, in his own way, a very affirming one. “The luckiest thing I used to think about him, you know, when we were early married and then later,” she said in their first conversation, “was whatever you were interested in, Jack got interested in,” whether it was drawings, or horses, of Louis XVI and Louis XV furniture, or, “when I was reading all this eighteenth century, he’d snatch a book from me and read and know all of Louis XV’s mistresses before I would.” Jackie had her own serious intellectual interests and a very genuine gift for foreign languages, and at the beginning of their marriage, when the French war in Indochina was at its height, she read a number of French books on the subject and summarized them for him when he came home at night. (Kennedy read voraciously all his life, and he had educated himself on many historical and contemporary topics in the same way.) When the Kennedys visited Paris in June 1961, Jackie astonished de Gaulle with her knowledge of Louis XIV’s court, and once again her husband was correspondingly proud of her.

The ability to be interested in whatever his interlocutor was interested in was a function of John Kennedy’s enormous curiosity, and the secret to his interpersonal success. No one was ever better at making some one feel that he or she was, for these few minutes at least, the only person in the world who counted. And that explains a great deal about his personal life. One could only maintain that skill, perhaps, by continually honing it with different people, not merely the same ones. And that perhaps helps explain why, for the whole of their married life, the Kennedys spent so many short periods apart. “He’d always send you away,” Jackie says, “when he knew you were tired. And then you’d come back so happy again.” During their White House years she spent many weekends visiting her sister, or at the country estate they rented in Virginia where she could ride, or even on her own trips to Europe and Asia. And that is where Mimi Beardsley comes in.

Marion “Mimi” Beardsley was born in 1943, on the boundary of two generations—the Silent and the Boom—to a moderately well-off, socially prominent Republican family living in northern New Jersey. In 1958, when she was 15, her parents sent her to Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Connecticut, which by a fateful coincidence was the alma mater of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. By early 1961 she was the editor of the school paper, and conceived the idea of going to Washington to interview the First Lady, now the school’s most famous alum. Jackie’s social secretary Letitia Baldridge—also a Miss Porter’s alum—replied that that would be impossible, but invited her to the White House anyway in late March 1961to interview her about the First Lady. She accepted at once. Upon her arrival she was introduced to yet another Miss Porter’s alum, Prscillia “Fiddle” Wear, and her roommate Jill Cowan, now known as Faddle, who also worked in the press office, but who were fairly seasoned political operatives who had worked on the 1960 campaign, sometimes traveling with the candidate. Then the President himself came by for a dip and chatted with Mimi and the other girls for a while. He immediately identified Mimi by name—suggesting to me that she had made a strong, if brief impression on him in the previous year, and that that was the reason she had been invited to work in the White House in the first place. Then, several days later, she was invited to a late afternoon get-together, again by Powers. This time she found Fiddle, Faddle, Powers and another aide, Kenny O’Donnell, and accepted a daiquiri. Then the President showed up again, and suddenly invited Mimi on a private tour of the residence. This in turn led to a bedroom—Jackie’s bedroom, he said—and before she knew what was happening, he was undressing her and himself, and they were having the first sexual experience of her young life. “Are you all right?” he asked her when it was over, having earlier ascertained that it was her first time, and she said she was. Several days later, she got another invitation—the real turning point in their relationship, since she now knew what she was getting into. She accepted and their affair lasted all summer and persisted during the following year after she had returned to Wheaton.

During her sophomore year Kennedy actually called her on her dorm phone, using the alias Michael Carter, to ask all about her courses, her teachers, what she was reading, and her fellow students. She was also invited by Powers to fly to meet the President on various trips for the last eighteen months of his Presidency, and she never said no, even though she was also dating the Williams undergraduate she would soon marry. In a charming commentary on those distant days, Mimi says that she would have been more than happy to push her necking sessions with her boyfriend to full consummation, but did not dare do so for fear of raising questions about previous experiences. At this point, however, it behooves us to take a step backward and place her story in a broader context.

(I will post the conclusion of this article tomorrow--DK)

1 comment:

galacticsurfer said...

Woman's role in society is very interesting in terms of generational analysis. I read The Mill on the Floss (1860) and am reading now Tess of The Durbervilles(1893) to My son. I had started reading myself Portrait of A Lady (1882) and Tender is the Night (1934) and will probawbly read them to him. The atmosphere of political and social expectations in these times are so clear when one knows about genearational theory that it really helps to understand literature. 1890s like 1970s with a feel of a clear mandate for women'S rights in a tract like book as in Tess or The Mill on the Floss being repressive to women but not bothered about any change similar to the 1940s or Portrait of A Lady atmosphere seeming to me similar to early 60s you focus so much upon. Unfortunately the schizophrenic wife and dysfuncional life of Fitzgerald'S characters will fit more into our times of hopelessness and social decay.