A (really) private affair
JFK's intern 'Mimi' demonstrates the virtue of oral restraint.
President John Fitzgerald Kennedy seems to have made little effort to hide his affair with 19-year-old intern Marion Beardsley.
Marion, also known as ‘Mimi’, was flown around the world to be on hand for the president’s ‘sexual release’. She was spotted crouching on the floor of his limousine during his 1962 summit with Harold Macmillan in the Bahamas – waiting to be whisked off for a holiday in Palm Beach.
The parallels with Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky are obvious. Yet while the Lewinsky affair nearly brought Clinton down, and their every fumble was subjected to hours of intricate analysis in the media, Kennedy’s girl remained a secret until a few days ago. How did they manage it?
Certainly not because Kennedy’s affair was less juicy – if anything, Kennedy seems to have been far more seriously involved with his intern. And not because Kennedy had fewer enemies keen to see his downfall.
Rather, one explanation is that those who surrounded Kennedy – who, it subsequently emerged, was an enthusiastic womaniser – had a greater loyalty towards him. The people around Kennedy guarded against leaks that might do him damage. Mimi didn’t tell anybody for over 40 years, not even her family. The aides who saw Mimi crouched in Kennedy’s car said nothing.
Barbara Gamarekian, the aide whose testimony sparked the current revelations, had gone on to work for the New York Times, yet she didn’t break the story. ‘It is the sort of thing you don’t discuss, something you profess ignorance of when you attend the inevitable cocktail parties where this is the subject for discussion’, she said. Her recollections had remained sealed for years at the Kennedy library until she agreed to open them up for historian Robert Dallek, who was preparing a book on Kennedy.
By contrast, Lewinsky told her friend Linda Tripp every detail about the man she termed ‘The Big Creep’. Tripp in turn betrayed Lewinsky, by wearing a microphone to tape their phone conversations. Lewinsky has gone on to authorise a revealing book about her relationship with Clinton by Andrew Morton; she has put her name to a handbag business; and recently landed a job as hostess of a TV dating show.
Today, political leaders find it hard to count on the discretion of those around them. Everything from the content of Tony Blair’s cabinet meetings to private civil service emails are continually leaked to the media.
But the Kennedy affair also suggests that then, there was a sense of a clear separation between public and private business. What Kennedy did with Harold Macmillan in the conference room was subject to public scrutiny; what he did with his 19-year-old in Palm Beach was not.
While the Republican opposition and the press used Clinton’s affair ruthlessly against him, Kennedy’s political and media enemies generally turned a blind eye. ‘This is the sort of thing that legitimate newspaper people don’t write about or don’t even make any implications about’, said Gamarekian. (Former FBI director J Edgar Hoover did try to use Kennedy’s philandering to undermine him, but kept to backroom back-stabbing rather than going public.)
While every kiss and present that passed between Lewinsky and Clinton has come to light, Marion Beardsley, now Fahnestock, has little to say about her famous fling. ‘From June 1962 to November 1963, I was involved in a sexual relationship with President Kennedy. For the last 41 years, it is a subject that I have not discussed’, she said in her statement on 15 May. ‘I will have no further comment on this subject, period. I would request that the media respect my privacy and the privacy of my family in this matter.’
This separation between public and private was a healthy one. We should judge public figures on their behaviour and achievements in public – on their professional and political role – rather than their sexual proclivities. Private misdemeanours have little bearing on a president’s ability to run the country. Kennedy’s biographer says that he doesn’t think that either Kennedy’s affairs or his secret health problems had a serious effect on his public performance.
There is something sordid about kiss’n’tell betrayals of public figures, where individuals use a man’s unguarded moments against him. And there is something sordid about the inability of friends and colleagues to keep a secret – and about the public world’s desire to know every last gruesome detail.
Who’d have thought that JFK’s mistress could teach us something about morality?
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