Even after sex, she called him Mr. President.
“A lot of people do find it odd,” acknowledges Mimi Alford, author of Once Upon a Secret: My Affair with President John F. Kennedy and Its Aftermath, a memoir that has put her squarely in the global media spotlight.
He never once said, “Call me Jack”?
“Never,” she replies calmly. “Maybe doing that would have put [the relationship]on another level.”
She is prim in her responses, always as polite and sweet as one imagines she was when she was 19 and Mr. Kennedy took her virginity on the canopied bed in his wife’s powder-blue White House bedroom. It was her fourth day of work in the press office as a summer intern. She had been plied with daiquiris.
Her description of what happened – which she acknowledges in the book was not about making love – has led some to suggest that it was rape. But even that possibility doesn’t disturb Ms. Alford’s pearls-and-sweater-set self-containment. “I wouldn’t call it that if it didn’t feel that way,” she explains on the phone from her home in western Massachusetts where she lives with Dick Alford, her second husband.
Born into a large, privileged family, she had attended Miss Porter’s, Jackie Kennedy’s alma mater. It had been her interest in interviewing Mrs. Kennedy for the school newspaper that took her to the White House the first time. Mrs. Kennedy wasn’t available, but Letitia Baldrige, her social secretary, offered herself up as an interview subject. During that visit, she was introduced to Mr. Kennedy. The next year, an offer of a summer internship landed in her lap.
Aside from questions such as whether she looks back on the loss of her virginity with any pride – “I don’t feel that makes me more special,” she demurs when it is pointed out that not many women can claim they were deflowered by the most powerful man in the world – what I’m curious to know is why Ms. Alford, now 68, felt the need to write a memoir about her alleged 18-month affair. She had remained silent about it for more than 40 years. Even when a transcript, which mentioned Ms. Alford, then known as Mimi Beardsley, was unearthed by a Kennedy biographer and leaked in 2003 to the New York Daily News, she confirmed her identity but went underground.
“If I was doing this for money, it was so difficult to do, I would have given up a long time ago,” she says of her decision to write the book, which took her 4½ years.
What she is doing, she says, is reclaiming the young woman of her youth, who may have been naive, but who was high-spirited. She and Mr. Kennedy liked to play with rubber ducks when they shared a bath. “He was attracted to my innocence and my playfulness [as a respite]from the burdens of being a president,” she says. She was even willing to take up his dares. He once suggested to her to fellate Dave Powers, a presidential aide, poolside when he slyly informed her that his friend could use a little relaxation. She did. (Later in their relationship, he asked her to do the same to his brother Ted, but she refused – politely, of course.)
“I was sheltered in many ways because of the culture of the time. But not so shy,” Ms. Alford says. “There was maybe a growing spirit of being able to be self-confident. … In a way, writing the book reclaimed for me those parts of the 19-year-old that had been shut away.”
Ms. Alford was scheduled to accompany Mr. Kennedy on that fateful day in 1963 to Dallas, until Mrs. Kennedy decided to join her husband. At the time, Ms. Alford was engaged to Tony Fahnestock. She loved him but still continued her sexual relationship with the President without telling her fiancé. Distraught over news of his assassination, she blurted out the truth. She and Mr. Fahnestock had never slept together. They were staying in separate bedrooms at his parents, but later that night, he entered her bedroom. He needed to “claim” her as his, she writes with a remarkable display of compassion and understanding, even though she describes the act as “sexual violence.” Asked if she sees it now as rape, she simply says, “I was engaged.” It was her husband who demanded that she never speak a word about her affair.
Keeping the secret caused her to withdraw, she says. They could never be honest with one another. Through 26 years and the birth of two daughters, they barely had an argument before their divorce in 1991.
Remarried at 63, she is happier than she has ever been. “If people could have relationships like this, it could keep wars away. It’s so good.” She attributes her healthy marriage to her ability to know herself and to respect each person’s need for having a voice. “An argument doesn’t destroy … it can be positive.”
The calm detachment, so evident in her voice and in her book, is not just a result of her blue-blood breeding but also of much self-analysis and professional therapy. “There was definitely a feeling of being special,” she says of her relationship with Mr. Kennedy. “I am this middle child of five, and there’s not a lot of attention to go around with that many children,” she explains. “I needed to be good all the time.”
She worried about including some parts of the book – namely, the sexual-favours-for-others requests and an incident in Bing Crosby’s Palm Springs house, when the president forced her to take amyl nitrate, a sex-enhancing drug. But in the end, for her own catharsis, she did. “This is really about my truth … I feel a wholeness, a fullness, now.
“It isn’t my story to comment on his presidency,” she says when pressed about how she looks back on his term in office. “[But]I think that as we grow older, we look back at things that maybe we were in total awe of and maybe we look at them more realistically.”
Ms. Alford may not be a good girl any more – she is telling a Kennedy secret, after all – but she is politely circumspect, knowing what she can say and what she should not. In her own way, she is still trying to do the right thing.