John F. Kennedy was a charming, energetic and very attractive man, who had grown up in a highly sexualized atmosphere. His father Joseph P. Kennedy was both a devoted father and a notorious womanizer who thought nothing of bringing his current mistresses into his own home, or making passes at his son’s girlfriends. And from the time he was a teen-ager, his son Jack showed the same pattern, as discovered in the 1970s by Joan and Clay Blair, Jr., who interviewed many male and female friends from his youth for their book, The Search for JFK. He was lively, handsome, and sexually compulsive—and few people who met him ever forgot him. “I fell in love with him,” one young woman who met him in 1945 said; “No, I didn’t. I think the main thing was that when he talked to you, he looked you straight in the eye and his attention never wandered. It was undivided attention. I was the most envied girl in the room. He had a way with women. There’s no question about it.” “Jack had more of an Englishman’s attitude toward women,” said an English tennis star who met him in 1945. “He really didn’t give a damn. He liked to have them around and he liked to enjoy himself but he was quite unreliable. He did as he pleased. I think he was probably spoiled by women.” One of his more serious girlfriends, Inge Arvad—a Swede who at one point had been suspected of being a German spy, but who evidently was not—later told her son that Jack would frequently insist on taking a break for sex before going out, even if they had only ten or fifteen minutes to spare. Other women commented that he obviously enjoyed a romantic challenge and always wanted to see if he could measure up. He was most disappointed in 1945 when he could not persuade the actress Olivia de Havilland to break a date and go out with him. It was not in the least surprising that he was not married until he was 36—and that his marriage did little to alter his pattern of behavior. There might have been another reason for all this. Jackie in her oral history revealed her husband to be somewhat more religious than one might have thought—he never missed Mass on Sunday and said a prayer every night—and he may well have taken the prohibition against masturbation seriously. He once told British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (who himself was virtually celibate) that he got headaches if he went several days without having sex. Many men can well imagine how important women might have become in their youth had they neither married nor masturbated.
Mimi Beardsley, then, was one of literally dozens of playmates to whom Kennedy attached himself over the years. Her story is confirmed in many ways by the much earlier account of Judith Campbell, a Hollywood beauty and sometime Mafia moll whom Kennedy met in 1960 through Frank Sinatra and met in New York and later at the White House. Her White House visit also began with an invitation for a swim with Kennedy and Dave Powers, but she declined because she did not want to mess up her hair. Mimi’s story originally came out thanks to a more senior female aid, Barbara Gamarekian, who told it in an oral history (recorded, significantly, by another woman) in 1965. The oral history interviewers were encouraged to go into such matters, and Ms. Gamarekian was one of the few who evidently rose to the bait. “I understand that people do want these interviews to be candid and to discuss all aspects of the presidency and his life,” she told her interviewer Diana Michaelis, and she identified Mimi and referred obliquely to Priscilla Wear and Jill Cowan—a.k.a. Fiddle and Faddle—as young women who often traveled with the President and clearly had a relationship with him. She also revealed that Jackie evidently had some idea of what was going on. A French reporter from Paris-Match told her that Jackie had given him a tour of the White House and encountered Priscilla Wear in the President’s secretary’s office. “This is the girl who is supposedly sleeping with my husband,” she said in French, perhaps feeling unusually liberated by the change of language.
Fiddle and Faddle had in fact been introduced to the nation in the January 2, 1962 issue of Look magazine. Fifty-six pages of the issue reviewed the first year of the New Frontier, and they rated three of them and seven photographs. “You have to read the papers really through every day,” Fiddle said, “because you never know when the President will ask you about something in them.” “Though no classic beauties,” the unsigned article read, “they have such youthful dash and vigor that everyone in Washington seems to know Fiddle and Faddle.” They assured the interviewer that they had no interest in running for office themselves, that “lady Senators and Congresswomen” were “too hard-bitten.” They also did a joint oral history for the JFK Library early in 1965 with William Van den Heuvel, and although they did not reveal the full extent of their relationships with Kennedy—which had begun in the 1960 campaign—they made it clear that they had toured the country with him, and a casual reader of the interview would certainly be struck by how well they seemed to know his thoughts on political and other matters. Unlike Mimi, Priscilla and Jill were genuine political junkies, and knew, for instance, how angry Kennedy had been to find himself campaigning in New York instead of California just a day or two before the election, given that New York was safely in his column and California, which he ultimately lost by the narrowest of margins, was not.
Kennedy evidently relied on the company of many women for important relaxation and emotional support, even in the most difficult moments of his Presidency. Reading Once Upon a Secret, I had a brief moment of doubt when Mimi described being flown to Washington on the last, critical Saturday of the Cuban missile crisis, the day before Khrushchev suddenly announced his agreement to withdraw his missiles. Kennedy, she said, eventually found time for her in the middle of Saturday evening, when with a small group of advisers he decided to tell Khrushchev that the U.S. was going to withdraw its missiles from Turkey shortly if the Soviets would pull out theirs—although this time they did not have sex. I was shocked because Jackie, in her interviews, said emphatically that she had insisted on remaining with her children at her husband’s side that week, even when the wives of some cabinet members were leaving. Mimi’s dalliances had invariably taken place in the absence of the First Lady—whom she never did meet—and something was wrong somewhere. But a check of contemporary newspapers proved that Mimi was right. When the crisis was mercifully over early Sunday afternoon, Kennedy took a helicopter to his rented country estate in Virginia and was greeted with hugs from his wife and children. Jackie, as she often did, had gone to the country for the weekend, and the President did not want to be alone.
Moreover, Kennedy wanted to have more than one woman available on many occasions. Mimi complains in her memoir that when she was flown out to join him on a trip she had to spend most of the time waiting to be summoned from a lonely hotel room. One such trip took her through the western states in the early fall of 1963, where the President dedicated a couple of dams. That trip began with a visit to the Pennsylvania home of the Pinchot family, whose scion, Gifford Pinchot, had been a symbol of the conservation movement in the Teddy Roosevelt Administration. Pinchot’s grandchildren included Toni Pinchot Bradlee—journalist Ben Bradlee’s wife and a frequent dinner companion, with her husband, of Jack and Jackie—and her sister Mary Pinchot Meyer, wife of CIA man Cord Meyer, who was in the midst of a secret affair with the President herself. Bradlee continued the tour with Kennedy across the country, and as he mentioned in Conversations with Kennedy, he was first invited, and then uninvited, to a small party with the President in Jackson Hole. Bradlee did not discover his sister-in-law’s affair until after her death, by murder, on the C &O canal towpath in the year after Kennedy’s assassination, and as he recountsed decades later in his autobiography, he only then realized why the invitation had been withdrawn. He also knew that Kennedy had strong feelings for Mary’s sister, his own wife, but she was evidently among those who managed to resist his charms and turned him down.
The President, in short, was in the middle of something very like the court of Louis XIV, surrounded by servants of various types, politicians who represented the modern equivalent of leading noblemen, and a bevy number of mistresses. Writing advice for his own son, Louis XIV recommended that he never allow his mistresses any influence over policy, and that certainly seems to have been JFK’s rule as well. But there was in addition a truly incestuous aspect to what was going on inside the White House. This included, of course, Mimi’s most sensational revelation—that during one of their swims, the President suddenly remarked that Dave Powers seemed a little tense, and suggested that she do something about it. She immediately understood what he meant—a blow job—and performed as requested. (Afterwards Powers became angry at JFK, who apologized to them both.) Very young women who have become aware of their sexual power often find it difficult to resist a dare, and so it was in this case—although months later, on one of the last occasions that she saw JFK, Mimi refused to perform the same service for his brother Ted. Barbara Garamekian commented on the same phenomenon more generally in her oral history, referring to Mimi, Fiddle and Faddle.
The thing that amazed me so was that these two or three girls were great friends and bosom buddies and gathered in corners and whispered and giggled, and there seemed to be no jealousy between them, and this was all one great big happy party and they didn‘t seem to resent any interest that the President or any other men might have in any of the girls. It was a marvelous example of sharing, which I found very difficult to understand as a woman! I just think that I would have found it difficult to enter into this kind of a relationship if I had been at all emotionally involved without having some very normal feelings of jealousy and possessiveness. But apparently this didn‘t enter into the relationship. They were the best of friends, and they all seemed to share the same—the same—
MICHAELIS: (interviewer)World outlook!
GAMAREKIAN: Yes. Apparently.
Perhaps the girls found a certain safety in numbers. Mimi saw Kennedy for the last time at the Carlisle Hotel in New York, when she was already planning to be married. He gave her $350—a very substantial sum in those days—to buy herself a wedding present, and announced his intention to call her even after her marriage. She was approached about making the trip to Texas with him in late November, but Jackie decided to go instead.
While the lives of Jacqueline Kennedy, Mimi Beardsley, Jill Cowan and Priscilla Wear and all the rest undoubtedly have their own interest, they are all now known to history because of their relationship to an extraordinary man, John F. Kennedy. I too have been enormously affected by him without ever having met him face to face in at least three ways. His appointment of my father as Ambassador to Senegal changed my life; he was the great political figure of my youth; and much later, I spent over a decade writing two long books about his Presidency and his assassination, and by the time those were finished I felt I knew him very well indeed. And thus I inevitably return to the question of what all this means about him as a man and a President.
Undoubtedly Kennedy, like so many politicians—including his two greatest rivals and successors, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon—suffered from profound emotional problems. One of the Blairs’ most interesting witnesses was another young woman, Betty Spalding, who met Jack while rooming with his favorite sister Kathleen in Washington early in the Second World War. Like another great politician, Franklin Roosevelt, Kennedy was intensely social yet almost incapable of genuine intimacy. “Jack and I had a warm brother-sister relationship,” she told the Blairs. “This was a rare relationship, I think. He was not the kind of person to have self-revealing conversations. Jack had a total lack of ability to relate, emotionally, to anyone. Everything was so surface in his relationships with people. . . .His friends—the people around him—were followers and worshippers.. . .his satellites. They were all servile and subservient. . Nobody gets involved with that many girls on anything but a superficial basis.” But Spalding said Kennedy became a more vulnerable and open person emotionally after the birth of his daughter Caroline. He was certainly devastated in 1963 by the death of his third child Patrick immediately after his birth. He sat with Mimi reading condolence letters as tears rolled down both their cheeks, and the only time Ben Bradlee ever saw Jack and Jackie give each other a passionate hug was when they were reunited in Newport after Patrick’s death and burial. He died before the emotional explosion among the postwar generation that changed the United States forever beginning in the mid-1960s. The target of that explosion, I am convinced, would have been different if he had lived, since I believe he would have refused, as he already had on numerous occasions in 1961-2, to involve the United States in a war in Southeast Asia, but it would have happened all the same. Certainly I believe that he might have maintained more a connection to my generation than did Johnson or Nixon.
But, many people are now wondering, was such a man unworthy to be President? Was he not too irresponsible, and too disrespectful of his marriage and of women (as many of today’s feminists might argue), to hold high office? To these questions I must answer with a resounding no. Like Louis XIV and Napoleon, he clearly was not affected by these aspects of his personal life in performing the duties of his office, and he deserves not to be judged by them alone.
Again and again, those who knew Kennedy—from Mimi Beardslee to Ben Bradlee to his closest political and policy adviser Ted Sorensen (the one Kennedy intimate, by the way, who seems to have made Jackie intensely jealous)—return to the same word: compartmentalize. No one could divide the different parts of his life and himself better than John F. Kennedy. In his personal life he was simultaneously greedy and reserved. As President he was careful, almost entirely unflappable, courageous, and never unafraid to assert his own judgment over his advisers’. He changed the tone of American and world politics, projected a marvelous image of the United States abroad—especially in the Third World—and managed to move from nearly disastrous nuclear confrontation to the beginnings of real détente in the last year of his Presidency. He, not Lyndon Johnson, introduced what became the great Civil Rights Act of 1964, even if he did not live to see its passage. And the evidence of all this is now more than ample, thanks both to books like my own and to the tapes he made of deliberations in the oval office. During the missile crisis, which we can now follow in great detail in The Kennedy Tapes, edited by Ernest May and Philip Zelikow, he was consistently one or two steps ahead of his leading advisers both in anticipating where the crisis would go and how it might end. He rejected their almost unanimous advice to begin war in Southeast Asia in 1961. His policy persona, indeed, is rather brilliantly captured in a recent documentary, Virtual JFK, written by the political scientist James Blight, which shows him privately and publicly at his calm, careful, reassuring and thoughtful best. Kennedy had read about high politics from his earliest childhood and observed it close at hand by the time he was 21. And he put all this training to superb use in his thousand days in the White House.
Kennedy was not only compartmentalized, but scheduled. As I noted in American Tragedy, he lived what looks like a relatively normal life as President. He reached the office between 9:00 and 10:00, worked (usually in meetings) until about 1:00, and then disappeared for 2-3 hours for a swim, a nap, and other forms of relaxation about which we now know more. Then he went back to the office for a few more hours and socialized in the evening. He spent nearly every weekend away. His predecessor Ike had also found ample time for relaxation; his two successors, on the other hand, were hopeless workaholics. It did not make them better Presidents.
For the last 45 years we have increasingly focused upon the personal lives of our leaders at the expense of their performance of their responsibilities. That trend, in my opinion, has contributed mightily to the deterioration of our political life. Many modern political leaders both in Europe and the United States have had significant emotional problems and hyperactive sexual habits without these problems impairing their official functions. Political leadership is an extraordinarily demanding job, so much so that normal, relatively happy and well-adjusted people rarely even try for it. How our leaders perform their tasks is pre-eminently our business; how they meanwhile meet their own emotional needs is not. This was the accepted view for the first two-thirds of the twentieth century—an era of great political struggles and achievements-- but it has become unfashionable in our own less heroic time. It will represent a new stage of American political maturity when, and if, we ever return to it—and it will also restore the possibility that we once again be governed effectively, as we were for the middle third of the twentieth century when an earlier generation established a foundation so secure that even now, we have not fully managed, after 40 years of effort, to tear it down.