I heard many “s” words this past week that characterize what I’m calling the “Alford Affair,” the bombshell revelation of President John F. Kennedy’s 18-month-long sexual liaison, some 50 years ago, with a 19-year-old White House intern, Mimi Alford (born Marion Beardsley). According to Alford, Kennedy took dips with her in the White House swimming pool, then first seduced her in Jackie Kennedy’s bedroom.
Sex; secret; sensational; self-absorbed; self-esteem; superficial; seamy; sad; sordid; shocking; selfish…the list goes on.
These words combined reveal the sexual immaturity of our society and shine a bright light on many of our deep sexual fault lines, which never seem to go away: politicians behaving badly, teenagers being swept away, age imbalance in relationships, failure to understand the elements of healthy relationships, breaking marriage vows, unwillingness to use protection, the inability to talk sensibly about sexuality, the celebrity/sex connection, using sex to sell everything, and the media’s insatiable appetite for stories about sex (the steamier, the better).
Yet I didn’t hear the word “sympathy” much at all during the media’s hurricane-strength coverage of the affair, which included a giant photo in Times Square of Mimi as she looked 50 years ago. I admit it is hard to apply sympathy to the Alford Affair, because when compared with the real, pressing issues of the day, it seems trivial and pointless.
I have little sympathy for historian Robert Dallek—the original public source of this miserable, tell-all drama—because he revealed Kennedy’s relationship with Alford. In An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963, he wrote about Kennedy’s affair with a beautiful teenage “intern”—a revelation that was based on an oral memoir by Barbara Gamarekian, released in 2003 by the JFK Library and Museum.
Why, I wonder, did he need to reveal the affair? Did he feel that history would suffer if he did not, or did he hope the sensational tidbit of gossip would help sell books?
I have little sympathy for both Kennedy and Ms. Alford, and I wonder what drove him to take the huge risk of having an affair in the White House, beginning it in his wife’s bedroom. It is unimaginable to me that the president of the United States would possibly compromise his marriage and his status in the world with such a dalliance. But according to Ms. Alford in her new memoir, Once Upon a Secret: My Affair with President John F. Kennedy and Its Aftermath, that is exactly what he did.
I find it morally reprehensible that a 45-year-old married man in the public eye would start and engage in a fairly lengthy relationship with a teenager, and start it after only the briefest of introductions. His wife and historians have said that he was able to “compartmentalize” his feelings, so that working to solve the Cuban Missile Crisis while calling Ms. Alford at her college using the code name “Michael Carter” never troubled him.
As I watched Ms. Alford “unburden” herself this past week during her media appearances, I thought her story belonged in a psychiatrist’s office and not on national TV, because she could find no better excuse for why she suddenly was “telling all” than that she had suddenly found “my own voice.” If one holds onto a secret for 50 years, what is the point of revealing it so many years later? She claims it was to “unburden” herself. But does that justify the pain she might be causing members of the Kennedy family?
The day after she lost her virginity to Kennedy, Ms. Alford was right back in the White House swimming pool with him. Was the relationship so unbalanced that she couldn’t have stopped it? I think the truth of the matter is that Ms. Alford, who seemed to have low self-esteem then as well as now, very much enjoyed her affair with the president.
She underlined that truth in one interview when she said, “I didn’t say no. It was almost what I was supposed to be doing. … It was almost as if I was pulled by a magnet… It felt very natural.”
But Ms. Alford deserves some sympathy, because the president, at age 45, should have known better than to begin an affair with a 19-year-old. Although she assured her interviewers that she was “not forced” to have sex, she quite correctly said there was an “imbalance of power” in the relationship. I think she is still genuinely confused and troubled by the affair. She admitted that its saddest aspect was that although “we had fun, we had a good time…it didn’t teach me how to have a relationship with a man.”
Most troubling to me was that not once during the two conversations did Ms. Alford—whose breathy voice reminded me instantly of Jacqueline Kennedy’s—show any remorse about the First Lady. Ms. Alford also showed no understanding of how her revelations might affect the living members of the Kennedy family, especially Caroline and her three children.
Caroline Kennedy’s resiliency is remarkable. She has suffered through the deaths of her father, mother, and brother, and seemingly emerged only stronger. Perhaps, like her father, she is able to “compartmentalize.” If so, she will be able to walk on while this latest story disappears into the mist of time.
Although she may not need it to weather the aftermath of the Alford Affair, I offer her the “s” word that is so lacking in this revelation: sympathy.
As for the other “s” word, “society,” I hope parents and educators will use this story as the huge teachable moment it is to discuss our sexual fault lines and try to improve and change our many troubling attitudes and behaviors about our sexuality.