WASHINGTON — More than you wanted to know? A new book shares explicit details about a 50-year-old presidential sex scandal between JFK and a White House intern.
“Once Upon a Secret: My Affair With President John F. Kennedy and Its Aftermath,” by Mimi Beardsley Alford, chronicles the 18-month relationship, which ended when Kennedy died in 1963. The memoir is getting a lot of advance buzz — including a prime-time NBC interview with Meredith Vieira — because of Alford’s credibility and her graphic descriptions of encounters with the president, whom she always called “Mr. President” and never kissed on the lips.
Why do we need more salacious details about Kennedy’s sex life? Beyond the prurience, it once again raises legitimate questions about the character of our leaders. “If presidents represent the best of America, then there’s quite a gap between that and their behavior,” historian Robert Dallek told us Monday. “Presidents — all of them — hide things.”
Alford, then 19, had just completed her first year at Wheaton College when she started a job in the White House press office in the summer of 1962. Within days of her arrival, the beautiful young blonde was invited to join the president for an afternoon swim — and later that day, lost her virginity to him in the first lady’s bedroom, according to excerpts published in the New York Post, which snagged an early copy. “I wouldn’t describe what happened that night as making love, but I wouldn’t call it nonconsensual either,” she wrote.
More graphic stuff: Drugs with the president, and the sex act she was urged to perform on presidential aide Dave Powers as JFK watched. Alford tells NBC she should have felt guilty but didn’t because she was swept up in the Kennedy aura. “I’m not going to say he loved me, but I think he did like me a lot.”
As in most books involving private affairs with public officials, most of the principals are dead. Unlike many of JFK’s rumored encounters, this one has grounding in historical records.
In 2003, Dallek included a passing reference to a “tall, slender, beautiful nineteen-year-old college sophomore” in his acclaimed biography, “An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963.” More details about the intern came via an oral history by Barbara Gamarekian, a former press aide to Kennedy. Mimi, she said, had a “sort of a special relationship with the president. . . the sort of thing that legitimate newspaper people don’t write about or don’t even make any implications about.” Alford kept the affair a secret but confirmed it in 2003 after reporters tracked her down.
Dallek, who has not read Alford’s book, finds her “entirely credible” and the Powers incident “disgusting.” The value of her book is not in the dirty details, he said, but in balancing the historical perception of JFK, who’s become some kind of “rock star, a mythological figure — he’s no longer a real person.”
Dallek told us he originally wrote about Mimi — though in a mere 38 words — because he was interested in the changing social mores of the country. Journalists knew about Kennedy’s adultery but never wrote a thing; 35 years later, no detail of Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky went unreported.
Which is why he found Newt Gingrich’s attack on CNN’s John King for asking about alleged affairs so fascinating — and probably unwise.
“You’re not going to put the genie back in the bottle anymore,” said Dallek. “This has become part of the public discourse.”