The End of the Affair: JFK and Mary Meyer

Mary Meyer
Mary Meyer crime scene.

“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 baby”). 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.”

Mary Meyer
Mary Meyer, JFK’s friend and lover, in May 1963

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 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 school dance party twenty years before 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.

Light fiction anchored by hard fact is a piquant mix. The footnotes yield fascinating nuggets of New Frontier lore while Kornbluth’s chatty, catty dialogue evoke the New Frontier scene in all of its harsh glamour.  Jackie was a chain smoker but made sure she was never caught on camera. Kennedy’s back pain was so bad he often walked on crutches. JFK was caustic about his friend Ben Bradlee, soon to become editor of the Washington Post. “Ben traded his journalistic independence for access and friendship.” Phil Graham, publisher of the Post went mad and told a roomful of people that JFK was having an affair with Mary. Then he killed himself.  It was a cutthroat world.

High politics woven into social reality make “JFK and Mary Meyer” one of the best books about Kennedy’s presidency that I have read in recent years. It embellishes, in the best sense of the word, the political perspective of Thurston Clarke’s 2013 history,  “JFK’s Last 100 Days.” This is a portrait of a fallible statesman in the eyes of the woman who knew him as well as anyone, fiction with a well-earned sheen of historical truth.

The Subject Is Power

As a Washington novel, “JFK and Mary Meyer” interrogates the subject of power. Mary knows how power works, even if she has little of it.  After a fight with her jealous ex-husband, Cord Meyer, chief of cultural operations at the CIA, she thinks “The closer I get to Jack and Jackie, the nastier he’ll be to me, ” A footnote reveals Cord Meyer was the principal operative of Operation Mockingbird, a secret program to influence the U.S. and foreign press.

JFK at ease

When Mary finally falls in bed with JFK, she’s pleased but matter of fact. “No fireworks and rockets for me,” she tells her diary. “I felt clear-headed. Wide awake. Like we’d just accomplished something.” The footnote cites a dozen books reporting that JFK was a selfish lover interested only in his own pleasure. In Kornbluth’s telling Mary forgives his compulsive womanizing because of eloquence and his “incredible, arresting eyes.”

The issues of the day arise naturally. When Jack and Mary  discuss the pressure on him to escalate the war in Vietnam, she advises him to make it go away. “Not the year before an election,” he replies. The footnote observes that Vice President Lyndon Johnson, Joint Chiefs chairman  Gen. Maxwell Taylor, and public opinion all strongly favored the intervention that JFK was passively resisting.

In the novel, as in real life, Mary encourages JFK’s liberal instincts. When he’s riding high in early 1963, she urges him to spend his political capital on a nuclear test ban, something to give the world hope. Which he did. The footnote adds a fact I did not know. Before JFK proposed the ban on nuclear testing, up to 75 percent of the public supported it. The footnote adds that JFK staked his presidency on a limited test ban, overrode the objections of his generals,  persuaded the public, and won Senate ratification. It his proudest moment as president.

Mary is there when Kennedy gives his famous “strategy for peace” speech at American University on June 10, 1963. The next day civil rights leader Medgar Evers is killed, and Kennedy gives another speech, calling for passage of the Civil Rights Act, something he had resisted out of political realism for two years. “Two great speeches in two days,” Mary observes, “Who was the last president to do that?”

First Lady Jackie Kennedy, a friend of Mary’s since Vassar College days, flits in and out of the story, enigmatic and evasive. While JFK and Jackie make an attractive couple in public, privately they are usually alienated. Jack is both cruel and needy with is wife. When Kennedy returns to Jackie’s side after their newborn son Patrick died in August 1963, Mary observes, “Anyone who doesn’t know them would say: He’s holding her up. I see just the opposite: He’s broken. She’s holding him up.”

Mary feels guilty about the affair and tries to stay away from the White House.  When Jackie goes to Greece in October 1963 to cruise on the yacht of Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis, Mary wonders if Jackie and Onassis are having an affair. (Of course, Jackie and Onassis would later marry). The footnote reveals another buried secret. In October 1963, JFK wrote Mary a three-page note importuning her to come visit while Jackie was away. Kennedy’s secretary never sent the letter.

The day Kennedy goes to Dallas, Mary writes in her diary, “Come back. Come back. Come back.” The affair is over.

JFK and Jackie Kennedy arrive in Dallas,
JFK and Jackie Kennedy arrive in Dallas, November 22, 1963


“JFK and Mary Meyer” is not about Kennedy’s assassination but of course it can’t help but be.  In the novel, as in life, Mary doesn’t believe the official story of a lone gunman. “She may not have learned who pulled the trigger,” Kornbluth writes, “but she definitely felt she knew who paid for the bullets.”

And then she too dies a violent death. On October 12, 1964, Mary took a walk on the C&O Canal near her home in Georgetown when she was accosted, shot, and killed.  No murder weapon was found. The only suspect in the crime, an African-American man, was later acquitted. As with JFK, so with Mary Meyer. No one was ever brought to justice for their wrongful deaths.

In an epilogue, Kornbluth touches lightly on the questions of conspiracy. He cites two other books about Mary Meyer, Nina Burleigh’s excellent A Very Private Woman, and Peter Janney’s more personal memoir, Mary’s Mosaic.

Janney, a psychologist and son of a CIA officer, knew Mary Meyer as a friend of his parents. He argues Mary was killed by CIA men, including her ex-husband. I don’t think Janney’s evidence proves his case. But given the world in which Mary Meyer lived and died, there is room for reasonable doubt.

In closing, Kornbluth observes that he set out to write a book about the relationship of Jack Kennedy and Mary Meyer and wound up writing another book at the same time, a story of “power and institutions and the way they intersect to make power and those institutions permanent. Mary Meyer had an insider’s look at that process. It’s entirely possible she paid for it with her life.”

8 Replies to “The End of the Affair: JFK and Mary Meyer”

  1. Jeff one of the things so many people don’t know about is the inventory of radios isotopes that were building up in the atmosphere, the ambient air, by the early 1960’s.

    I don’t want to get to far into the science but as time sped forward from the 1940’s into the 1950’s science improved testing and the lowest levels of detection went down do to improved technology. Known in science circles as the lower limits of detectibility , it is defined as the lowest amount of activity that can be detected with a certain percentage of accuracy, confidence ~ + or – 5% giving 95% confidence in the derived number quantifying the concentration in a sample.

    This is a rough explanation, but the level of certain radio nuclides in the ambient air was becoming an issue among scientists.

    The ability to detect such things at extremely low levels was kept secret, but this technology allowed the discovery of the U.S. Highly enriched U-235 in Israel and also made certain that the identification of it as coming from the U.S. was a 100% confirmed fact.

    As I have reminded you in the past there were countries that wanted no test ban treaties.

    The planets had aligned and JFK found himself in a bind.

    Thanks Jeff.

  2. LBJ was the son of Rebekah Baines and Samuel Johnson, and grandson by his mother of Ruth Huffman. An Arizona Jewish Life article mentions that “His aunt Jessie Johnson Hatcher, a major influence on LBJ, was a member of the Zionist Organization of America.” And, in an additional note: “The facts indicate that both of Lyndon Johnson’s great-grandparents, on the maternal side, were Jewish. […] The line of Jewish mothers can be traced back three generations in Lyndon Johnson’s family tree. There is little doubt that he was Jewish.”

    the annual Jerusalem Conference announced this week that it will honor Johnson in February 2009. Historians have revealed that Johnson, while serving as a young congressman in 1938 and 1939, arranged for visas to be supplied to Jews in Warsaw, and oversaw the apparently illegal immigration of hundreds of Jews through the port of Galveston, Texas. A key resource for uncovering LBJ’s pro-Jewish activity is the unpublished 1989 doctoral thesis by University of Texas student Louis Gomolak, “Prologue: LBJ’s Foreign Affairs Background, 1908-1948.” Johnson’s activities were confirmed by other historians in interviews with his wife, family members and political associates. Research into Johnson’s personal history indicates that he inherited his concern for the Jewish people from his family. His aunt Jessie Johnson Hatcher, a major influence on LBJ, was a member of the Zionist Organization of America.

  3. As I have pled, ad nauseam, LBJ was “dirty” as well as being a vicious weasel.

    The Presidents Intelligence Check list memo sent to him in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963 by CIA HQ ads to the weight, or the preponerance of evidence that Isreal was in fact somehow involved.

    Once again I plead to everyone to take a real close look at all involved who denied any knowledge of one Lee Harvey Oswald, especially one James Jesus Angelton and the time line for the NUMEC saga and one Zalmon Sharpiro.

    This site deals with facts and only facts and the fact is Israel is never mentioned by anyone but me, that I know of,in any sentence suggesting that CIA had been compromised by them and led their number one fan in American Intelligence to lie through his teeth about what he knew about one Mr. Oswald..

    Fact is what happened at NUMEC was allowed for some reason by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission AND the CIA to happen. CIA obstructed FBI Investigations and FBI gave up after Bobby Kennedy left office of the AG.

    Robert Kennedy is dead and Shirhan Shirhan did not shoot him. WHY?

    Thanks Jeff.

  4. Agreed Robert. After many years of looking at all the disparate facts around November 1963 and the Liberty episode the idea that key leadership of the CIA and the US government was compromised by Israel is one of the more logical conclusions. It is the great unspeakable truth of US politics.

  5. Interesting,

    This issue is much more than a logical conclusion. The logical conclusion is that the truth must come out. And found in that truth will be the speakable trukth about whqat happened to American politics.

    The U.S,. Government miserably failed the U.S. citizen.

    A quick look at the wiki of Gordon Grey who chaired the Grey Panel that voted to revoked Robert Oppenheimers security clearance.

    The NUMEC saga is a long complicated one. As that of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. I like time lines and consistent co-incidental timing of numerous events present a patter of evidence.

    The CIA interfered with FBI investigations at NUMEC, stone walled and withheld documents. It is no secret that Lewis Strauss was an adversary of Oppie.

    Zalmon Shapiro must have had inside help from the USAEC to pull off what he did.

    I have never been comfortable with the mis-information pushed that JFK and Israel were not at odds over Israels possession of nuclear weapons. Kennedy make it abuntdantly clear he thought it should not happen.

    Somehow the context is lost to many here. Kennedy was first and foremost against proliferation and it drove the Israeli power at the time nuts.

    Non-proliferation and test bans – that would have effectively shut down Israels work on getting the bomb even as they were stealing the materials to build one.

    Time was their issue, they needed more time to finish their diversion of U235 from NUMEC. It’s a timing thing. In all likely hood if JFK lived and got re-elected he would has shut the Israeli project down. The Israelis were under no uncertainty of it and they were not happy. If he persisted he had to go.

    JJ Angleton’s being point if contact for Israel at CIA is very significant. A bunch of guys, old OSS hands get radicalized by losing their beloved Allen Dulles after the Bay of Pigs and go rogue, just about the same time. ( a significant timing coincidence ) and CIA has been working Oswald – Angleton was in one hell of a position. He was either already in their corner or they had him blackmailed.

    By 1967 or 1968 I think the diversion from NUMEC had been completed. CIA and the Thompson Foundation had been caught up in suspected money laudering. (SEE Jane Mayer’s Dark Money) Who is running for president, RFK is one and now another potential devastating problem looms on the horizon for the Israelis and CIA.

    If this guy (RFK) gets elected president he will very likely reopen the investigation into his brothers death. The survival of many could be jeopardized by a new investigation. Taking no chances again ,he had to go.

    The CIA IDF Mossad what ever, don’t like taking chances when getting caught could be a result. As with his brother RFK created a common very serious problem for Israel and CIA. Neither could chance discovery.

    One sitting president had been killed, but the trails were still too warm and the likely hood of killing a second sitting president and getting away with it was very slim.

    So it becomes chaos in the kitchen.

    Is much of this speculation, be sure, but lets say educated speculation fueled by common sense, a time line long enough to explain so many desperate acts by so many by it’s numerous coincidences. And the continuous stonewalling and lying by CIA

    I am sorry that I drive Jeff crazy but it is what it is more often than not. I’ve read through volumes of Manhattan Project history, USAEC history and Department of Energy history and much of it is very ugly.

    Our nuclear horror story is even worse on the nuclear power side of the industry.

    But I digress.

    Thanks for caring and thanks to Jeff.

  6. Any one interested in this theory take a long look at McGeorge Bundy’s career from day one to `1961 when he entered public politics and became a JFK adviser.

    While serving as president of Columbia U. McGeorge Bundy -Ike – Allan Dulles – Richard Bissell – George F Kennan all were in a study group working on the Marhalll Plan with Marshall plan that had CIA connections.

    McGeorge enters into public politics 1961 becoming JFK advisor. 1964 Bundy becomes Chair of 303 committee.

    MeGeorge and George F Kennan both had close ties to US Atomic Energy Commission.

    I’m figuring that Teller played hard ball with the still young USAEC and wanted to see to it that Israel received massive help with their nuclear weapons program.

    Something went terrifingly wrong and things got out of control and bada bing bada boom Israel got the thermo nuclear. Once the fission bomb was perfected the so called “Super” was childs play for Teller & co. Talk to a nuclear scientist!

    In doing so Israel had sown a deep divide in US politics that still damages the US every day.

    You see kids few people ever the people involved in this outrage had little understanding of what their actions would lead to.

    Thank you Jeff.

  7. McGeorge Bundy – Yale- Skull & Bones – 303 committee SEE career

    Gordon Grey – 1953-1961 associated with national defense and national security – the Chair of the Grey Board – the kangaroo court that stripped Oppenheimer of security clearance. Friction between Oppie and Teller – I think they needed Oppie gone to free up U235 for Israel and to send a message to anyone critical who might become a problem.

    George F Keenan – was very active in Dulles / Blum circles during their creation of CIA, very active in things nuclear esp. conceiving of the US Atomic Energy commission.

    Dulles, Blum, Richard Bissell who became CIA Deputy Director for Plans – covert operations after the mental breakdown of Frank Wisner.

    September of 1958, NUMEC started operation in 1957 processing nuclear fuel elements. NUMEC had been being planned since 1953.

    Truman was strong supporter of Israel – an used the nuke.

    I would invite everyone to take a close look at the relationship between the very young National Security Council and the very young CIA.

    As events played out the secret plan to give Israel highly enriched U-235 come under scrutiny by a young president who became a very big problem. He and Allen Dulles played chicken with the Bay of Pigs JFK won the skirmish but sealed his fate.

    Who would blame a bunch of Cubans for trying to get even for their loses.

    Remember, the diversion you are ignoring may be part of the main attack. I’d say that the time line for the conception and operation of NUMEC provides as much evidence and the Bay of Pigs attack that many inside CIA believed would fail with or with out air support.

    This is speculation but it all needs to be exposed so we can move on.

    I apologize to Jeff for any transgressions.

    Last line “You see kids few people, even the people involved in the outrage had little understanding of what their actions would lead to, so vague was the understanding of the absolute power of nuclear weapons and the disruption they would cause. Enslaving millions working to pay for their development and deployment.

    And for what? To poison the earth and and terrify millions.

    I apologize to Jeff for my transgressions.

  8. NUMEC was incorporated December 31, 1956, Common Wealth of Pennsylvania by Zalmon M. Shapiro.

    It must be noted that the original site will need a multi-million dollar, taxpayer dollars, clean up if and when the experts develop a safe plan.

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