(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, February 29.)
When the first accounts started seeping out decades ago about President John F Kennedy’s philandering, they scarcely seemed credible.
The world had unquestioningly bought into the fairy-tale portrayal of the White House during the Kennedy years as a latter-day Camelot occupied by a dashing, charismatic young president, his coolly elegant wife and their photogenic children.
It was an era when a respectful news media didn’t pry into the private lives of politicians, least of all the president. It was only after Richard Nixon and the disgrace of Watergate in the 1970s that American journalists collectively decided that presidents could be deeply flawed human beings, like the rest of us, and no longer entitled to be immune from scrutiny.
Coincidentally, it was at about that same time that the media began carrying the first accounts of JFK’s clandestine love life. These stories were so much at odds with his popular image as the devoted Catholic husband and father that at first, many people were inclined to dismiss them as scurrilous libels.
But as the reports multiplied – not just in tabloid scandal-sheets but sober, conservative newspapers and magazines – the truth about Kennedy’s compulsive philandering became impossible to ignore.
What made the revelations even more sensational were the women he was romantically linked with. It’s now generally accepted that he had a fling with Marilyn Monroe, although whether the emotionally fragile star’s infatuation with Kennedy was a factor in her death in 1962 is impossible to confirm.
Another of Kennedy’s mistresses was Judith Exner, who was simultaneously having an affair with gangster Sam Giancana, the head of the Chicago Mafia. (Kennedy was supposedly introduced to Exner by Frank Sinatra, who had Mob connections.)
It was common knowledge among Kennedy’s aides and Secret Service minders that he had a ravenous sexual appetite. All this information trickled out long after Kennedy’s death as former associates of the president came forward with stories of his dalliances.
Yet even after all that, the recently published memoirs of Mimi Alford provide an astonishing new insight into Kennedy’s predatory behaviour.
Alford was recruited from an exclusive Boston girls’ school to work as an intern at the White House in 1962. Just 19 years old, she was a virgin, but she wasn’t to remain one for long. Kennedy had sex with her on her fourth day in the job.
It happened in Jacqui Kennedy’s bedroom after Kennedy offered to show Alford around the White House. Judging by her account, it was perilously close to rape: she didn’t resist, but neither was she given much opportunity to consent. She writes in her memoirs: “The experience was so wholly unexpected and surreal that, as I was driven home in a limo afterwards, I wondered if it had all been a dream.
“Could I have done anything to resist? I doubt it: once we were alone in his wife’s bedroom, he’d manoeuvered me so swiftly and unexpectedly, and with such authority and strength, that, short of screaming, I don’t think anything would have thwarted his intentions.”
Perhaps the most striking thing about this encounter, if it happened as Alford describes, is the sheer, brazen audacity of it. Clearly, Kennedy was supremely confident that he could force himself on a vulnerable young woman – and in his wife’s bedroom – and get away with it.
That to me suggests not just a rampant sexual appetite (Kennedy reportedly once told British prime minister Harold McMillan that he suffered headaches if he went without sex), but massive hubris and a huge sense of entitlement. This may have been the product of his upbringing in a wealthy, privileged household headed by a father infamous for his ruthlessness and ambition.
The other significant aspect of the incident in Jacqui Kennedy’s boudoir is that it seems to have been immaterial to Kennedy whether his partner got any pleasure from the sexual act. That’s consistent with my amateur psychologist’s theory that he simply felt entitled to take whatever he wanted.
Interestingly, JFK’s nephew Christopher Kennedy Lawford, interviewed last weekend by Kim Hill (though not in connection with Alford’s disclosures), referred to that generation of Kennedy men as being misogynists. Certainly the record indicates they were users of women.
To be fair, Alford’s account shows that she subsequently entered willingly into a continuing sexual relationship with Kennedy. Not surprisingly, she was hugely flattered by the attention of the most powerful man on earth. Their affair lasted until his death 18 months later, though she never doubted that he had other lovers.
A peculiar aspect of the affair was that he never kissed her, which seems to suggest (I’m playing the amateur psychologist again here) a fear of emotional intimacy. I mean, how can anyone carry on a sexual relationship without kissing? It doesn’t seem natural.
Alford also saw a much darker side to Kennedy’s personality when he prompted her to give oral sex to his loyal aide Dave Powers when the three were together in the White House swimming pool. Again, you get a sense here of a manipulative man enjoying his power over others. Alford called it callous and unforgiveable.
Kennedy later tried to persuade her to do the same with his younger brother, Ted, but by that time she had the confidence to refuse.
That Alford fell under Kennedy’s spell is hardly surprising. Powerful men have always attracted women. Henry Kissinger, an adviser to Nixon, famously described power as the ultimate aphrodisiac.
The qualities that make men natural leaders – confidence, ambition, ego and often a generous dose of testosterone – are the same ones that make some of them compulsive womanisers. They don’t even need to be handsome: British prime minister David Lloyd George was no Adonis, yet he was known as “the Goat” on account of his busy sex life.
In the case of Kennedy, it wasn’t just power that made him attractive, but good looks and the force of his personality as well.
Judging by Alford’s account, he was also a risk-taker – another attribute that some women find irresistible. Notwithstanding the protective aides and Secret Service men around him, he lived dangerously by engaging openly in illicit liaisons. Perhaps he just felt bulletproof.
The picture Alford paints of Kennedy adds yet another dimension to one of the most complex personalities of the 20th century: idealistic, visionary and inspirational, yet personally decadent to the point of being almost amoral, and very much concerned with satisfying his own needs and desires. It’s a tale that can only further stain his already tarnished image.