She lived her life dependent on the kindness of sadists—first Black Jack Bouvier, who got too drunk to walk her down the aisle on her wedding day; then John Kennedy, whose lasting gift to her was a bimbo eruption that won’t quit half a century on; then Aristotle Onassis, who covered his yacht’s bar stools with the skin of whale testicles and hardballed her on the prenup—but she could hold her own, Jackie Kennedy. She never played all her aces. Even in the recently released tape recordings of her conversations with Arthur Schlesinger Jr.—talks that occurred less than four months after her husband’s murder—you realize that she was never playing a short game, that she wasn’t a person who could be crushed by a day or a month or a year of bad news or bad press. She was playing a long game, and against all odds she’s still winning it. She had her eye on what she grandly called History, a concept large enough to encompass both her interest in 18th-century France and the necessity of maintaining a complicated fiction—at once face-saving and humiliating—about the nature of her marriage. It’s not a tissue of lies, but it is a tissue, one that has been rent so many times that it should be nothing more than dust motes by now, but she was a woman who brought every one of her formidable gifts to bear when it came to the subject of John Kennedy; and we’re no match for her.
There she is on those tapes, alive as you and me, with the Babykins voice that her in-laws teased her for, tipsy on cocktails, chain-smoking, whispering at times, giggling at others, eerily composed, understandably adamant about the vastness of her late husband’s mission, but also surprisingly clear on its details. Dean Rusk turned out to be a disappointment at State because he was “terribly scared to make a decision”; Udall had been given Interior because Jack owed him for Arizona, and he had made the most of it—“he really cares about conservation and all that.” Johnson was completely useless, much given to taking boondoggles to irrelevant places; he came home from a tour of Finland with a bunch of glass birds that he passed out as souvenirs, “Lyndon” painted on every one.
Ask Caitlin Flanagan a Question
The author will be online on Wednesday, July 11, at 3 p.m. Eastern time to discuss the Kennedys. Click the link above to submit your questions in advance.
But what she’s really doing on those tapes—the reason they so easily lent themselves to two hours of Diane Sawyer in prime-time ecstasy last fall and the reason that, bundled with their bound transcripts, they made such an unlikely best seller—is telling us a beautiful story, the one that goes with the pictures. You know the pictures. They’re the ones we’re still looking at, still marveling over, the ones that fuse some powerful ideas together and that make us fall in love all over again with a family we’ve never met and specifically with the man at the center of that family, who was apparently willing—eager—to contain the most vital and alluring of his protean energies within it. These photographs have had an outsized effect on our assessment of JFK’s presidency, and our collective feelings about them have served as his magic fishbone, getting him out of one scrape or another as the years pass by and the revelations and reassessments pile up.
In 2011, Caroline Kennedy appeared on the David Letterman show, her first visit, and Dave was thrilled, almost starstruck, to have this singular woman sitting beside him. There were any number of things they could have talked about, but what Dave was dying to do was look at some of those old pictures with her. He’d had two of the most famous of them mounted on black cardboard, and before he held them up to the camera, he apologized for taking up her time with them.
“These are pictures you’ve had all your life,” he said, tapping the stack eagerly and grasping for words. Maybe, in fact, she was tired of looking at them—“but do you mind if I show these?”
“No,” she said graciously, laughing in her easy, appealing way, conducting perfectly the job she was born to and has never shirked; “but everybody else is probably tired of looking at them.”
“These pictures are important to me,” Letterman said with great seriousness, almost offended by the suggestion, “and to everybody in my generation, certainly—and, I think, a larger number than that.”
What were these 50-year-old pictures, the ones that Caroline could confidently predict were thoroughly familiar to his large television audience and that Letterman called so important to him, to his generation, to “a larger number than that”?
Pictures of two children playing in their father’s office: John crouching under the big desk, peeking out from the secret panel; Caroline and her brother dancing on the lush carpet. In the background, their delighted father looks on, clapping his hands, as though nothing on his agenda could be more pressing than these hijinks.
Suffer the little children to come unto me is the unwritten caption of all these saintly images. The Soviets can kiss off for five minutes; the blacks can hold their water. John-John has an adorable new hiding place, and the most powerful person in the world is fully absorbed by it. These pictures represent the pure distillation of what the word father means in the deepest imagination of many people, even (especially) those who have never lived with or even known their own. It’s the father as a person of great importance in some vaguely apprehended larger world where the grown-ups live, and where he takes care of essential and necessary matters but will gladly put all of that aside to spend an extra moment with his precious children.
“There must be a great deal of good in a man who could love a child so much,” is what the Atlanta biddies said, forgivingly, of Rhett Butler when he set out to redeem his reputation by showing off how much he adored Bonnie Blue, his little daughter. Rhett’s sins were many, but no one can resist an alpha male fussing over a small child, and his PR campaign did the trick. JFK’s family photos have done much the same for him over the years. With each new allegation (many of them witheringly well-supported) of risk-taking, womanizing, criminal behavior, overweening self-interest, and/or simple incompetence thrown up against matters of planetary importance, the vast legion of Kennedy fans are rocked backward. But only for a moment. Because by the end of the nightly-news report featuring a heartbroken anchor chewing over the broken glass of the latest bad news, there’s always the same triumphant finish—the montage of photographs of Jack playing with Caroline and John, smiling at his pretty wife, confirming all over again the things that, in our childish and stubborn way, we insist on believing about him.
On the Schlesinger tapes, Jackie describes a man whose deep affection for his children was central among the many pleasures of his life. He liked having them underfoot, and he complained bitterly when Jackie delayed moving them to the White House until their rooms were painted. He was forever opening the door of the Oval Office to them, or catching sight of them playing outside and sneaking them candy. In the morning, as his wife dreamed on in her own bedroom, he would eat breakfast from a tray in his, while the children sat near him, blasting cartoons or Jack LaLanne on the television. He would be in his rocking chair, dressed in his shirtsleeves and boxer shorts as he read the day’s newspapers and briefings, but he would pause to watch them tumble and chatter, not irritated but invigorated by their noisy, energetic presence. He was hugely proud of them, showing them off to people in the midst of important meetings, and he was also fond of them, waking them early from naps to play, making dignitaries at state dinners wait for their first glimpse of the president because he always wanted to have time with John and Caroline at the end of the day. Everyone’s children seem like the most consequential ones ever to walk the Earth, but the two Kennedy kids could lay actual claim to the title; when one of the family dogs nipped John on the nose, Mac Bundy was sent running for George Burkley, JFK’s personal physician—and a Navy admiral—who carefully inspected the pampered little schnoz.
As for the marriage—whatever it may or may not have been, the tapes are persuasive on one point: it clearly was not a cold or mercenary arrangement. Their time together was unsullied by domestic drudgery, enriched by their shared love of reading and gossip, made meaningful by the joy of raising two children and the sorrow of losing two others. Their homeliest routines were those of rich people from an earlier era, and so seem novelistic and appealing in descriptions. He loved to give her gifts of the antiquities and watercolors she adored, and sometimes he’d be so unsure of what to choose for her that he’d have the New York dealers send him 50 different items so she could take her pick. On the night of their 10th anniversary, he’d been in such a swivet about what to give her that he locked himself in his bedroom trying to choose the right gift. In the end he gave her an Egyptian snake bracelet, but he also considered keeping an Assyrian horse bit, because he wanted to try out the ancient artifact on Caroline’s pony to see if it really worked. (The rich are different from you and me.) On the weekends, he would read the New York Times book section and mark the titles he was interested in, and the following week, she would place his order at the Savile Book Shop. She had a wifely sense of loyalty to a man’s dreams and accomplishments, and she nursed grudges he’d long since abandoned. The banked fires of her anger at Ted Sorensen for stealing Jack’s thunder over Profiles in Courage (She knew Jack had written the thing himself! She’d seen the yellow manuscript pages!) keep flaming back to life on the tapes, as does her sadness over the pains and surgeries that had composed such a large part of their married life.
Most of all, you get the sense of a young couple busy with children and with figuring out, as all young couples must, how to occupy and distract them. “You’ve got to get me some books, or something. I’m running out of children’s stories,” he once told Jackie after trying to make up yet another story for Caroline. Another time he asked her to buy some toys for his bathroom, because John would wander in while he was bathing and he had nothing to entertain him with. So Jackie bought some rubber ducks, which led to a fond family story—the bathroom that male dinner guests had use of was JFK’s, causing Jackie to imagine what in the world they would think when they saw all those rubber ducks lined up on the edge of the president’s tub. She laughs prettily when she tells Schlesinger about it, but there’s something heartbreaking in that laugh; when someone you love has died, you are suddenly left with a trove of private jokes that no one else understands.
And it was right then—with the description of the rubber ducks, and the way they evoked the closeness of father and son, the intimacy of husband and wife, and the essential nature of married life—that I got back together with John Kennedy. We had been broken up for a few years, at least; I’d lost track. What busts us up is never a revelation about the bungling and risky behavior that marked so much of his brief presidency; what does it is each new revelation about his womanizing and the way these revelations impugn the photographs for which David Letterman and so many other people—myself included—have such strong feelings. Those pictures make me realize anew what a patsy I’ve been. How could they be anything more than a shrewd campaign, one that plays on the very sentiment—an essentially bourgeois regard for what is nowadays called “the sanctity of marriage”—for which JFK himself had such obvious contempt? I’ll swear to myself that I’ll never backslide again, but then I’ll catch sight of one of those pictures, or—in this case—listen to Jackie’s beautiful story about the well-loved children, the besotted father, the romance at the heart of the operation, and once again, I’m sunk.
And so there I was, back in my happy dream, until, just a scant few months after encountering the Historic Conversations, I read a book that is in many ways its evil twin: Once Upon a Secret. It was written by Mimi Alford, who as a 19-year-old college student began both a summer internship at the White House and an affair with John Kennedy that would last 18 months. The details of this affair reveal that no matter what Jackie may have believed about the inviolability of her refuge—the “hermetically sealed” nature of the compartment John shared with her alone—not one inch of it was sacred to her husband. Not the bedrooms, not the bathrooms. Not even the rubber ducks.
The relationship began on Alford’s fourth day on the job, when she was asked to the Kennedy residence for a new-staffer cocktail party. Dave Powers escorted her up to the deserted apartment, and she kicked around with a couple of other office girls, drinking daiquiris, nibbling cheese puffs, and waiting for the president. Within seconds of his arrival—signaled by the partygoers’ jumping formally to their feet, for this was part of the thrill of being in the inner circle: the fun and debauchery of the endless party, and the awesome formality of the American presidency—Mimi was in his thrall. When JFK invited her on a private tour of the joint she eagerly agreed, and before she knew it they were standing alone together at the open door to Jackie’s bedroom.
“This is a very private room,” John Kennedy said to her, and as she tried to comprehend what he meant by that puzzling remark, he maneuvered her smoothly into it. And then he nailed her—a virgin, a Wheaton sophomore, a girl who wore a circle pin and a side part, and who had ordered two drip-dry shirtdresses from the Johnny Appleseed’s catalog before coming to Washington—right there on his wife’s bed. The one with the horsehair mattress and the stiff board to accommodate his bad back.
The pastel portrait of Caroline looked on silently; the new-staffer cocktail party in the other room quietly disbanded. Kennedy realized that this new girl was a virgin.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said, and so he quickly passed the torch to a new generation and sent her home in a car. But she wasn’t discarded; she was worked into the rotation.
It was in many ways a giddy year and a half, marked by a variety of physical pleasures, and the 35th president schooled Mimi in all the skills a mistress must know, from performing fellatio to making scrambled eggs. He treated her every way it is possible for a man to treat a woman. He was by turns paternal, calling her at college and peppering her with fatherly questions—“What were the courses I was taking? Were the teachers good? What was I reading? Were the girls interesting? What did they talk about? What did I have for dinner?”—and childlike, sitting patiently while she helped him with his shirt, or rubbed amber-colored ointment into his scalp and then brushed his hair just so, while other staffers walked in and out of the Oval Office. He was romantic, sharing late-night dinners with her and putting love songs on the record player, and he was sexually sadistic, asking her to perform sexual services on his friend Dave Powers—the president’s “leprechaun”—which she once did (while JFK stood in the pool and watched), to her everlasting regret. Sometimes he treated her like the debutante she was, begging her to sing a Miss Porter’s School song and teasing her for dating a Williams boy; and sometimes he treated her like the kept woman she had become, peeling off $300 and telling her, “Go shopping and buy yourself something fantastic.”
Above all, she reports, he was playful. The two lovers especially enjoyed getting it on in his bathroom, which they turned into their own “mini-spa,” outfitted as it was with “thick white towels, luxurious soaps, and fluffy white bathrobes embossed with the presidential seal.” But there was something else in that wonderful, elegant bathroom of his that Mimi thinks reveals so much about his true nature, something she wants to tell us about for the unique insight it gives into the man. In addition to all the grown-up accoutrements, he also had his very own collection of—wait for it—rubber ducks! Can you imagine? The president of the United States collected rubber ducks. It turned out a buddy of his had sent them as a gag gift. And Mimi—unlike super-sophisticated Jackie—knew how to have fun with something like that. That was one of the special things she was able to bring to the relationship. She and Jack gave the ducks funny names, and they had bathtub races with them, and it was like a sexy playdate.
Every affair is a series of betrayals, some so huge that the betrayed can barely take them in, others so inconsequential that they would seem the simplest to dismiss when the bill finally comes due—yet in many cases these are the ones that hurt the most. On the one hand, once Jack Kennedy had begun a long-standing physical relationship with this girl, one that began on his wife’s bed and included flying her around the country along with his baggage so that he would have access to her whenever he wanted, telling her a fib about the how and the why of those rubber ducks is hardly a significant matter. Maybe it even constituted a weird bit of loyalty, keeping his wife and son entirely out of things. But I have to say that when I came across Mimi’s gushing account of the ducks, so soon after hearing Jackie explain how they symbolized something significant and lovely in her marriage, my first reaction was “What a bastard.”
“I grew up feeling I needed to protect her,” Caroline Kennedy writes poignantly of her mother in the introduction to Historic Conversations, discussing her own ambivalence about making the Schlesinger tapes public. Releasing them would “expose her memory to one more round of gossip and speculation,” and indeed Caroline had barely five months to enjoy the glowing new light that the tapes shed on her parents’ marriage before the next book to sully the memory came along, and the speculation begins all over again. The same old questions hound us: Just what did Jackie know about her husband’s extramarital life, and how did she feel about it? How did she make peace with the private life she lived with JFK, knowing that so much of it was implicitly mocked by his behavior? These are questions we will apparently be turning over until the end of time.
Throughout the marriage, John always had girls: there were girlfriends and comfort girls; call girls and showgirls; girls on the campaign trail and girls who seemed to materialize out of thin air wherever he was. There was also the occasional wife of a friend, or the aging paramour of his randy pop, for those moments when the fancy ran to mature horseflesh or masculine competition. His penchant for prostitutes demoralized the agents assigned to protect him: “You were on the most elite assignment in the Secret Service,” the former agent Larry Newman told a television interviewer a decade ago, “and you were there watching an elevator door, because the president was inside with two hookers.” Mimi Alford describes a JFK who once asked her to service his friend (and his “baby brother,” Teddy, though she refused), who took her to a sex party and forced drugs on her, and who callously had a functionary line her up with an abortionist when she thought she was pregnant, and yet Janet Maslin can write, accurately, in her New York Times review of Once Upon a Secret, that there’s “not a lot of news” in the book.
Discrediting the ugly stories told by John Kennedy’s women has become a loser’s game. TheTimes had to apologize for its own obituary of Judith Exner (a woman who was the lover, simultaneously, of the president of the United States and of the Mafia boss Sam Giancana), which had suggested, strongly, that she was a fabulist. In the Editor’s Note that appeared a few outraged days later, the paper shamefacedly admitted that—despite its having roundly disparaged her various “allegations”—in fact “a number of respected historians and authors” held the view that the affair had taken place, a view supported by “evidence cited by various authorities in recent years [including] White House phone logs and memos from J. Edgar Hoover.”
The overheated White House swimming pool, painted in a lurid Caribbean theme (its renovation a kinky father-son gift from Joe to Jack), was, according to a number of respected sources (among them Seymour Hersh and three on-the-record Secret Service agents), the locus of endless lunchtime sex parties. Two young secretaries named Priscilla Wear and Jill Cowen—the now infamous Fiddle and Faddle—often left their desks to splash and skinny-dip with Jack, returning to their desks with wet hair so they could go on with their important work of autographing his photographs and wondering how to type. They, like Mimi, were regularly packed along on official trips, apparently so that the president could always get laid if there was any trouble scaring up local talent. Although neither has ever commented on their relationship with Kennedy, their joint interview for the JFK oral-history project is astonishing for the number of trips they casually allude to having taken with him; they were the sex-doll Zeligs of JFK’s foreign diplomacy, their eager faces just out of frame in Berlin, Rome, Ireland, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Nassau, to say nothing of their extensive domestic work in places like Palm Beach and Hyannis Port.
It’s impossible to think Jackie had no idea that any of this was taking place. Once while giving a Paris Match reporter a tour of the White House, she passed by Fiddle’s desk and remarked—acidly, and in French—“This is the girl who supposedly is sleeping with my husband.” Moreover, she was one of the worldliest women of the 20th century, no stranger to the variety of sexual experiences that so often shaped the lives of bored aristocrats. Her father was a chronic cheater, and her mother later became the third wife of a notorious lady-killer. By means of this second marriage, Jackie became a sort of stepsister and a close pal of Gore Vidal, one of the few people who could explain completely the nature of her husband’s sexuality, as it was so much like his own: “Neither [of us] was much interested in giving pleasure to his partner,” he wrote in Palimpsest. “Each wanted nothing more than orgasm with as many attractive partners as possible.” And Jackie was herself a sexual sophisticate. She hung illustrations from the Kama Sutra in the dining room of one of her country houses; she was self-confident enough to include pretty young women on the guest lists of her private parties because she knew they invigorated her husband; she understood that she had married a man with a vivid sexual past, and certainly wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
There seem to have been some limits on the effrontery of his behavior, perhaps resulting from the legendary meeting between Jackie and her father-in-law, when she was so fed up with Jack that she was ready to cash in her chips on the marriage. Joe somehow persuaded her to hang in there—the story persists that he gave her some sort of annual stipend to stay on in the role of wife—and certainly there was a significant brake on JFK’s White House antics. By all accounts, even those of his most searing critics, such as Seymour Hersh in The Dark Side of Camelot, he refrained from humiliating her when she was in residence at the mansion. This is easy enough to believe when you take a close look at her schedule; the amount of time she spent out of Washington is astonishing. In 1962, for example, she spent close to a month in India and Pakistan with her sister Lee, almost all of July in Hyannis Port, and most of August in Italy with Caroline. She spent most weekends at a rented Virginia horse farm that Jack loathed, and she was forever dashing off to New York to spend a rejuvenating few days at their Carlyle apartment—all of these absences giving Jack plenty of time for his hookers and lovers.
It is, of course, possible to see the two of them in a distinctly unflattering light, as a couple of pampered children of very rich men, whose highest calling was toward their own best interests and constant diversion. She was a shopaholic who loved to party and ride horses and vacation in the most happening ports of call, to settle her boyish, perfectly dressed frame into well-upholstered chairs with her pack of Salems and her glass of champagne and to exercise her savage gifts for mimicry and comic malice. She was no fan of Martin Luther King Jr., that “phony,” that “tricky” person. “I just can’t see a picture of him,” she told Schlesinger, without thinking, “That man’s terrible.” Jack had told her of Hoover’s tape of King arranging an orgy (later Bobby also told her “of the tapes of these orgies they have”), a predilection that, tellingly, had scandalized Mrs. Kennedy far more than her husband. Her regard for “that freedom march thing” is clearly low, while her voice thrums with excitement when she’s describing good furniture and good food.
As for John Kennedy—what did he do for us? He started the Peace Corps and the Vietnam War. He promised to put a man on the moon, and he presided over an administration whose love affair with assassination was held in check only by its blessed incompetence at pulling off more of them. (“That administration,” said LBJ—painted birds long forgotten, the mists of Camelot beginning to clear—“had been operating a damned Murder, Inc.”) He fought for a tax break the particulars of which look like the product of a Rush Limbaugh fever dream, he almost got us all killed during his “second Cuba” (writing of JFK and the missile crisis, Christopher Hitchens noted: “Only the most servile masochist … can congratulate [Kennedy] on the ‘coolness’ with which he defused a ghastly crisis almost entirely of his own making”), and he brought organized crime into contact with the highest echelons of American power. More than anyone else in American history, perhaps, he had a clear vision of what his country could do for him.
But most of all, he made us feel good about ourselves; he inspired us. Toward what? Mostly toward him. All these years later—half the time hating ourselves for it—we’re still as thrilled by him as Mimi Alford was. He had a singular masculinity, and his very callousness and recklessness with women don’t blight his appeal; they enhance it. The typical progressive woman thinks she is drawn to him because of his groovy, feel-good work on behalf of civil rights, but that’s an assertion that doesn’t bear 15 minutes’ exploration. John Kennedy voted against Eisenhower’s 1957 Civil Rights Act; he made lofty campaign promises that assured him the black vote but then sat on his hands for all of 1961; his nickname for James Baldwin was “Martin Luther Queen.” The reason so many women love him really has nothing to do with his actual accomplishments and everything to do with his being the kind of man whose every inclination runs counter to their best interests. If history—to say nothing of fictional characters, including the Dons, Draper and Juan—has taught us anything, it is that a significant number of women are desperately, often tragically, attracted to that very trait. Men recognize and respond to this in Kennedy, just as strongly as women do. Even young boys recognize it. Tobias Wolff, in Old School, describes the way the boys in an East Coast prep school felt about JFK compared with that old boob Nixon:
Nixon was a straight arrow and a scold. If he’d been one of us we would have glued his shoes to the floor. Kennedy, though—here was a warrior, an ironist, terse and unhysterical. He had his clothes under control. His wife was a fox. And he read and wrote books … We recognized Kennedy; we could still see in him the boy who would have been a favorite here, roguish and literate, with that almost formal insouciance that both enacted and discounted the fact of his class.
And here is an 11-year-old schoolboy, writing in a condolence book in London four days after the assassination: “I thought that he was a peace loving, brave and kind man. In fact, all that a man should be.”
JFK was a man whose sexual life remained a central fact of his existence, who did not allow it to be diminished by anything—not his political ambitions, not issues of national security, not his Catholicism, not loyalty to his friends and his male relatives, not physical limitation or pain, not the risk of infecting any of his partners with the venereal disease that regularly plagued him, not fear of impregnating someone, not the potential for personal embarrassment, and certainly, certainly, not his marriage.
John Kennedy, that ravishing creature, could spend a morning riding unbroken horses, bareback, in the Newport sunshine with a very young Jacqueline Bouvier, and he could maneuver a 19-year-old Wheaton sophomore into bed within minutes of encountering her at a cocktail party, could groom her so completely to his liking that she could be goaded into giving a blow job to his friend while he stood and watched. We’re not supposed to like men like that; the ones who put in a boorish performance at it, we loathe. But the ones who can pull it off—God help us.
And here is Jackie, Scheherazade from beyond the grave, telling us her beautiful story about the wonderful husband and devoted father, and at the end of the day her personal glamour is only enlarged by what we now know. Jackie makes a point of describing to Arthur Schlesinger the “naps” she and Jack would take together, on those afternoons when they were both in residence at the White House. They would sometimes eat lunch from trays in bed, and then she would open the window for a breeze and close the curtains. To underscore her message, she lets him know that Jack always undressed for these naps, and the point is clear: no matter how many women John Kennedy may have had, he also took care of his own wife too, and he did it in a languorous and elegant manner—the filtered light, the breeze, the marital bed where generations had been conceived—that none of those chippies in the fetid fiesta pool could ever hope to enjoy.
I recently came across a Kennedy photograph I’d never seen before. The family is entering the White House for the first time, John-John wrapped in a blanket in his mother’s arms. JFK’s hands are in the pockets of his overcoat, his eyes glued to the precious head of his new baby boy—and I was gone. Let him have the girls, I thought; he could handle the girls and still put in an ace performance as Father of the Century.
John Kennedy was the kind of guy who could get his PT boat rammed in half by a Japanese destroyer, losing two of his men, and end up not with a court-martial but with a medal. He was a winner, and we like winners. He’ll get out of every scrape history can serve up. All the aging hookers and cast-aside girlfriends with book contracts better take notice: We don’t care about you. JFK is more important to us than you can ever be, so you might as well keep quiet. The cause endures, sweetheart. The hope still lives. And the dream will never die.
This article available online at: