I knew that John F. Kennedy was a compulsive, even pathological adulterer, given to taking outlandish risks after he entered the White House. I knew he treated women like whores. And I knew he had more than a few issues with his father about toughness and manliness and all that. But before I read in the newspaper that Mimi Alford’s just-released memoir, Once Upon A Secret: My Affair With President John F. Kennedy And Its Aftermath, described giving Dave Powers a blow job at JFK’s request and in his presence, I didn’t know that Kennedy had an appetite for subjecting those close to him to extreme humiliation.
The likelihood that Alford is making this story up is extremely remote. She didn’t come forward on her own. She was outed, partially in a 2003 Robert Dallek biography, and then by name by the Daily News, as “JFK’s Monica,” because when she began her affair she was a White House intern and a 19 year-old rising sophomore at Wheaton College. (In the book Alford reveals that Sally Bedell Smith was actually the first journalist to contact her--by phone, about a year before the Dallek book came out--and that she declined to speak to her then.)
Alford’s story is entirely believable. She was an attractive, naive recent graduate of Miss Porter’s School. Miss Porter’s was also the alma mater of Jacqueline Kennedy and of a slightly older White House secretary named “Fiddle” with whom Kennedy was also having an affair, or so the First Lady believed--there was also a purported dalliance with Fiddle’s close friend “Faddle,” a secretary in the press office--and it isn’t lost on Alford that this descendant of Boston’s lace-curtain Irish had a thing for Social Register girls. Her fourth day on the job she was invited upstairs to the private residence. Kennedy led Mimi into his wife’s bedroom (the First Lady was away), unbuttoned her blouse, touched her breast, pulled down her underwear, dropped his pants, climbed on top of her, and fucked her. When she told him she was a virgin he became a bit more compassionate, but neither in that sexual encounter nor in any other did he ever kiss her on the lips.
This part of Alford’s story doesn’t really add anything to what we already know about Kennedy. Nor does it really change my opinion of the 35th president. But this part does:
Dave Powers was sitting poolside while the President and I swam lazy circles around each other, splashing playfully. Dave had removed his jacket and loosened his tie in the warm air of the pool, but he was otherwise fully clothed. He was sitting on a towel, with his pants leg rolled up, and his bare feet dangling in the water.
The President swam over and whispered in my ear. “Mr. Powers looks a little tense,” he said. “Would you take care of it?”
It was a dare, but I knew exactly what he meant. This was a challenge to give Dave Powers oral sex. I don’t think the President thought I’d do it, but I’m ashamed to say that I did. It was a pathetic, sordid, scene, and is very hard for me to think about today. Dave was jolly and obedient as I stood in the shallow end of the pool and performed my duties. The President silently watched.
Afterwards, Alford says she was “deeply embarrassed,” and as she climbed out of the pool she “could hear Dave speak in as stern a tone as I ever heard him use with his boss. ‘You shouldn’t have made her do that,’ Dave said. ‘I know, I know,’ I heard the President say. Later, a chastened President Kennedy apologized to us both.” Alford believes that Kennedy showed “his darker side ... when we were among men he knew. That’s when he felt a need to display his power over me.” Kennedy didn’t just have a thing for Social Register girls; he had a thing for humiliating Social Register girls. He also had a thing for humiliating his fellow Irishman, Dave Powers.
Maybe Kennedy wasn’t this much of a creep all that much (though Alford also tells of him once forcing her to take an amyl nitrite “popper” in Bing Crosby’s living room). But the poolside ritual of humiliation is not easy to reconcile with any kind of worldly tolerance for Kennedy’s peccadilloes. Perhaps the fairest conclusion to make is that Kennedy did some good things in his public life (and also some bad), but that he was capable of monstrous cruelty that’s hard to forgive and also hard to equate even with that of successors like Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon (or with any in his less polished younger brother Ted, whose own private life had plenty of dark moments but whose public accomplishment ultimately outshone JFK’s). Clinton shared many vices with President Kennedy, but I can’t imagine him ever doing anything like this. I don’t usually say this about scandal stories, but Alford’s tale ought to occasion further reassessment of a president we already knew to be morally compromised.