Smoke and Mirrors

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Looking south along Madison Avenue from 63rd Street. 10:30 PM. Photo: JH.

Thursday, February 27, 2020. Yesterday in New York was  rainy and chilly with temps in the low 40s most of the day.  This has been the least wintry winter I’ve ever seen in New York.

I spent the morning reading my friend Jesse Kornbluth’s new novel JFK and Mary Meyer; A Love Story. I rarely read a book in the morning plus I’m a slow reader (but it’s a thin volume — 173 pages). Its contents are the author’s imagined re-creation of Mary Meyer’s diaries about her relationship to Jack Kennedy. And it’s a fast read (page-turner)!

Click to order JFK and Mary Meyer: A Love Story.

Her full name was Mary Pinchot Meyer. The Pinchot family were a socially prominent name in the Northeast. Her uncle was a two-term Governor of Pennsylvania, and a famous conservationist. Her father was a prominent New York lawyer who was active in national politics. Her mother, before she married, was a journalist working for The Nation and The New Republic.  

Mary grew up with her family here in New York, where in the 1930s she attended the Brearley School which is just the across the street from me on East End Avenue. Mary and her sister Antoinette (known as Tony) grew up socially amidst intellectuals and national political figures such as Louis Brandeis and Wisconsin Senator Robert LaFollette. In 1942 she graduated from Vassar and went to work as a  journalist for UPI (United Press International). 

When she was 24, she met and married a Marine Corps lieutenant Cord Meyer. Both bride and groom were politically active. After his military service Cord Meyer went to work as an aide to Harold Stassen, who was working under President Eisenhower as Director of the US Foreign Operations Administration. In 1951, he was recruited by Allen Dulles to join the Central Intelligence Agency, and the couple moved to Washington.

In the early 1950s, the young Meyers were moving in the high circles of social Washington, on the dinner circuit of  people like Joseph Alsop, Katharine Graham, Clark Clifford and, of course, the newest couple, Jackie and Jack Kennedy. A close friend and Vassar classmate of Mary’s was Cicely Angleton, wife of James Angleton, head of the CIA. Mary’s sister Tony married Ben Bradlee.

Mary Pinchot and Cord Meyer (19th April, 1945).

In the early 1950s when Senator McCarthy was doing his House of UnAmerican Activities Committee investigations, Cord Meyer was accused of being a Communist and Mary was investigated by the FBI.

For those who are unfamiliar with Ms. Meyer, she is mainly remembered as a friend and neighbor of Jack and Jackie Kennedy. In 1958, after 13 years of marriage and three children, the Meyers divorced. After the birth of her first two children (sons), she had turned her outside interest to art and attended classes at the Art Students League here in New York. By the time she was living in Washington, and divorced, she had her own studio (in her sister’s garage) and had embarked on the life of a single mother of a certain age (38).

For reasons we aren’t privy to, Mary, after her divorce, was wire-tapped and at one point even accused of being a Communist. What she most apparently was, was a well educated, independent-minded young American woman who had been tied up in a marriage that had ended. She was serious and she obviously wanted to enjoy herself.

She had first met Jack Kennedy when he was a senior at Choate and she was a freshman at Brearley, at some school’s dance. Jack was a friend of Mary’s date. Whatever her impression of him, or his of her at the time, is not known. However 20 years later and the young Kennedy couple were friends of Mary and spent time in her company.

Mary Pinchot Meyer at JFK’s 46th birthday Party on the presidential yacht Sequoia, May 29, 1963. Photo: Robert L. Knudsen – JFK Library

After he was elected President, in the first full year (1961) it was believed by some within Mary’s social circle that she was having an affair with the President. I obviously never knew or saw Mary Meyer in the flesh, but this photo of her above at President Kennedy’s 46th birthday party in May 1963 gives one a sense of the woman. Not a beauty quite, but good looking and most especially bright-faced and warmly friendly. Her body language is relaxed and her natural energy lights her up. She’s nine years older than her friend Jackie, more mature so to speak, and open. 

Book cover detail: JFK and Mary Pinchot Meyer.

Jack Kennedy, as most people are aware — if they’re interested — had fairly frequent liaisons with a variety of women during his short lifetime as well as his time in the White House. This was never publicly recorded or broadcast but a large number of people including this writer often heard references to it. One of his aides once told me that his nickname among his (male) staff and friends was “Jack the Zipper,” so frequent were his dalliances. Wham, bam, Thank You Ma’am.

Although this knowledge about JFK’s intimate life was widely known in the political world and both parties, such activity, and frequency, is/was regarded as commonplace in that world of politics (as well as a lot of other worlds). Explanations, as well as laughs for it were rife as well. However, in the case of Jack Kennedy there is also another explanation for his “activity.”  

Just a few years ago, I was interviewing Robert Pennoyer about his wonderful memoir “As It Was” when he recalled a time in 1960 when he and his wife attended a cocktail at the home of Judge Learned Hand here in New York. Another guest was a man from Boston named McGeorge Bundy. Mr. Bundy was at that time working as a consultant on the Presidential campaign of Senator John F. Kennedy. In telling the Pennoyers and the Hands about his candidate, McBundy reported off-hand how the candidate had serious lifelong back problems that were very painful. He took medications that not only alleviated some of the discomfort but also seriously enhanced his libido. Judge Hand’s response on hearing, said, “I’d like to get some of that drug!” and everyone had a good laugh over it.

Laughter aside, back in 1961, Mary Meyer and President Kennedy had not only re-connected  from their school days but evidently were seeing each other socially for dinner (with and without Jackie) at the White House. There are handwritten messages from the President inviting her company. It is said that they shared conversation about the world and the state of things. And that they also had an affair.

A four-page letter President Kennedy had written weeks before his assassination in 1963 believed to be intended for Mary Meyer.

The evidence was that he pursued her with his will and wit. You can imagine that Mrs. Meyer, the divorcee,  Vassar/Brearley and Liberal/Progressive thinking parents, married to a CIA man,  had a few opinions of her own about the ways of the world and the men who ran it. What a flirt that could have been for Jack Kennedy who clearly liked her company and liked her company.

And so it was. Until November 22, 1963.  And after that, nothing was. On October 12, 1964, three weeks after the Warren Report on the Assassination came out, Mary Meyer was taking her daily walk along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath in Georgetown when she was accosted by a man and shot twice, once through the head and once in the back. Someone heard her cry for help and the police were called. But it was too late. Mary Pinchot Meyer died two days before her 44th birthday.

The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath in Georgetown where Pinchot Meyer was gunned down.

Her death was immediately reported to family as well as government. It was revealed by her brother-in-law Mr. Bradlee that she kept a Diary. Her sister and brother-in-law acquired it and it went into the hands of her friend Mr. Angleton. And eventually, whenever that was, it was destroyed.

Why was the Diary destroyed is the question. The answer could be many things. People protecting people’s reputations, even Jack Kennedy’s reputation, or matters so personal to Mary Meyer that her family was protecting her and her family from gossip. Or other matters unknown to us now and forever. 

So what was in those Diaries? Jesse Kornbluth, sympathetic to the romance of the woman and the man in her life, researched the matter over time, got a sense of the woman and the life she led, and covered the days in those crucial years from January 1, 1961 through October 11, 1964. 

What happened? Who did it? Why? An African American man named Ray Crump was accused but after a trial was found not guilty. The rest is buried in the past sixty years on …

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