JFK and Mary Meyer

The End of the Affair

Photograph Source: White House Archive – CC BY 2.0

“JFK and Mary Meyer: A Love Story” is a most unusual thing: a novel with footnotes. In the 1960s, the New Journalists adopted the techniques of novelists to spice up their reporting. Author Jesse Kornbluth offers a 21st-century variation. He imports the apparatus of academia to give ballast to the true tale of a torrid affair.

The story is the real-life romance of President John F. Kennedy and painter Mary Meyer. As imagined by Kornbluth, a writer for Vanity Fair, the relationship unfolds in her diary.  That conceit is kickstarted by the historical fact that the real Mary Meyer kept a diary (described by her friends as a sketchbook)  that disappeared into the hands of her friend James Angleton, chief of CIA counterintelligence, after her death. People have been speculating about the contents of Mary Meyer’s diary ever since.

Kornbluth recreates the world in which Jack and Mary lived in the early 1960s with deft economy. He captures the dinner parties (“Jackie was licking her lips a lot”), the popular music of the moment (jazz samba), and the masculine banter (“Hey, Chickee”). All the while he gives us the interior narrative of a smart woman navigating a sexist world. After a spat with JFK, Mary observes “In the courtship phase the woman thinks she’s equal—well, more than equal because she’s elevated and he’s rising to her; once the relationship is established, she learns she isn’t equal.”

Kornbluth knows how to evoke the wealthy, cosmopolitan East Coast milieu in which Jack Kennedy and Mary Meyer flourished. He himself attended Milton Academy, the Massachusetts boarding school where Robert and Edward Kennedy had gone–and where one of Mary Meyer’s sons would go. He knows the easy arrogance of a “filthy rich” Irish prince like Jack Kennedy. He intuits the calculated aspirations of a sexy creative heiress like Mary Meyer hemmed in by gender norms.

The footnotes add weight. Mary was an aspiring abstract painter and divorced mother of two falling in love with a charming, ruthless and vulnerable man who happened to be the president of the United States. They had first met at a high school dance and mutual attraction brought them back together. In Kornbluth’s version of the story, they give each other what the other craves. For him, acceptance and freedom. For her, purpose and power. They meet often in bed.

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Jefferson Morley is the author of the forthcoming Scorpions’ Dance; The President, the Spymaster and Watergate, to be published by St. Martin’s Press in June 2022.

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