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A Very Private Woman: The Life and Unsolved Murder of Presidential Mistress Mary Meyer

A Very Private Woman: The Life and Unsolved Murder of Presidential Mistress Mary Meyer

by Nina Burleigh


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Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil meets Camelot.”—Washington Post Book World

In 1964, Mary Pinchot Meyer, the beautiful, rebellious, and intelligent ex-wife of a top CIA official, was killed on a quiet Georgetown towpath near her home. Mary Meyer was a secret mistress of President John F. Kennedy, whom she had known since private school days, and after her death, reports that she had kept a diary set off a tense search by her brother-in-law, newsman Ben Bradlee, and CIA spymaster James Jesus Angleton. But the only suspect in her murder was acquitted, and today her life and death are still a source of intense speculation, as Nina Burleigh reveals in her widely praised book, the first to examine this haunting story.

Praise for A Very Private Woman

“Power is so utterly fascinating. Sometimes it’s used for evil purposes, like the kind of power that has silenced the telling of Mary Pinchot Meyer’s mysterious murder for over three decades. In A Very Private Woman, Nina Burleigh has finally told this tragic tale of a privileged beauty with friends in high places.”—Dominick Dunne

“A superbly crafted, evocative glimpse of an adventurous spirit whose grisly murder remains a mystery.”San Francisco Chronicle Book Review

“Proves that every Washington sex scandal is juicy in its own way.”Glamour

“Nina Burleigh has dissected Washington’s most intriguing murder mystery and produced a captivating biography, a thriller, and an insightful portrait of Georgetown in its golden presidential age.”—Christopher Ogden, bestselling author of Life of the Party: The Life of Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman

“Provocative, erudite . . . pure Georgetown noir.”New York Observer

“A rich array of real-life characters.”New York Times Book Review

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780553380514
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/05/1999
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 863,553
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Nina Burleigh's articles have appeared in Time, The Washington Post,The Chicago Tribune, and New York Magazine. She lives in New York.

Read an Excerpt


Anyone wanting to write about a member of the silent generation of women that mothered the baby boom and married the cold warriors confronts a peculiar obstacle: Many of these women believe their lives were utterly unremarkable. The cold war wives review years spent raising children and keeping house, arranging dinner parties for dignitaries, making art, or getting jobs. They find their personal histories bland compared to their husbands', men with war wounds on their bodies and secrets of state in their brains, men whose turf ranged from Havana to Moscow and Paris to Bucharest, and whose work altered world history.

When the woman in question had an affair with a married president of the United States and then died violently, the obstacle of humility is compounded by embarrassment and sorrow. Mary Pinchot Meyer's sister and closest friend say they burned her diary, and a CIA official destroyed her other papers, obliterating her voice from history. Her closest surviving friends made an informal pact not to discuss her. Many people who will talk are persuaded—for reasons that have more to do with Mary's access to powerful men and with the tenor of the times than with available facts about the woman herself—that Mary Meyer "knew things" she wasn't supposed to know, and that her death is somehow related to that knowledge. Still others are quite happy to talk, but thirty years and advancing age have dimmed their memories. The protectiveness of her friends, the shame and sorrow of her family, and the political intrigue during her years in Washington have combined to make her life and death mythic, a part of the Kennedy assassination conspiracy legend.

Most of Mary Meyer's female peers outlived their husbands, men who drank hard and were often addicted to nicotine. These women devoted their later years to creative endeavor. In their seventies, avian and fine as porcelain, they take themselves and their work very seriously. They lived the earlier part of their lives unnoticed in a half-lit world of great refinement and delicate sensibility, eclipsed by the cold warriors and their nihilistic contest of rocket fuel and warheads and plutonium. These women painted or sculpted or wrote poetry or studied and suffered the husbands who strayed or ignored them or drank too much, or whose secret deeds were only revealed by congressional inquiries years later. Their children rebelled and got lost in drugs and the turmoil of the 1960s before coming home. They survived much.

Mary Meyer's death was a tragedy for her two surviving sons and for her sister and close friends. It was a tragedy from which the affected have tried to recover in different ways. One of those ways has been a protective silence. Like high priestesses guarding the Eleusinian mysteries, those ancient Greek fertility rites of blood and sex, her friends have protected the mystery of their lost friend's life, and with it the secret history of their group, once so important and now fading into old age, death, and history. They want Mary's story and the reasons behind a mad scramble for her diary after her death interred with her. In so doing, they protect the living as much as the dead. The image of their once-powerful set shall not be damaged while they live. Their very silence has perpetuated the mystery of their late friend more effectively than anything they might have said. Mary Meyer became a silhouette in her own story.

As the years passed and the secrets of the CIA dribbled out, Americans came to believe the cold warriors were capable of supreme acts of oversight and evil. To some minds the intelligence agency assumed the role of the invisible hand and became a controlling entity behind ever more complicated, interconnected webs of events inside America. This impression was amplified by the excessive secrecy of those times and by the official and unofficial guarding of those secrets over the years. Mary Meyer's name appears in classified documents that are still being released. Among documents relating to Mary Meyer that have been released by the CIA is a completely redacted ten-page document on CIA stationery, probably related to her husband's job. Another is not dated and is titled merely "Background Information." It is "a review of the appropriate Office of Security files" and contains her vital statistics and an explanation of the circumstances of her death. There may be other material on her at the CIA. A Freedom of Information Act request made to the CIA by the author could elicit more results in coming years.

But among the great secrets of the cold war in Washington—and there were many, not the least being the CIA's "family jewels" of assassinations and coups—there was another buried secret: sex. As hard as it might be to imagine it today, Washington was a sexier town in the years of the cold war. Flirtation was an art. Marriage was respected and divorce rates were still low, but the late 1950s and the early 1960s were the dawn of a new era in male-female relations, and traditional relationships were being tested. Experiments were undertaken, hearts were broken. The women of Mary Meyer's generation and class always operated with propriety, though. If their husbands and friends and even they were conducting themselves like characters from a John Updike novel, that was certainly nothing for the historians to note.

Sex is one reason why they feared Mary Meyer's diary. But Mary Meyer's whole life was no more about sex than anyone else's.

In my research and writing, I have tried to give Mary Meyer's life as much respect and dignity as historians automatically grant to important men. The life stories of women throughout recorded history are often the domestic histories of men, and this is no less true of the women of Mary's generation and class. Women figure in the private lives of famous men, in their beds and in the raising of those men's children and the keeping of their homes. More rarely they are compatriots or collaborators in the public sphere. Historians are interested in mistresses for what they reveal about the lives of the important men with whom they consorted. I have attempted to describe a woman, her men, and her times—and the effect of those times and men on her.

Mary Meyer's style was questing. She was an experimental, doubting woman, a woman with a will of her own, and those qualities made her unusual, especially in the convention-worshiping 1950s and especially among her female peers in Washington. Although she was not ordinary in terms of looks and means, her story is one that ordinary women will be able to recognize. It is an arc that many women in her generation experienced: A confident, athletic girl grew up to marry and bear children, became dissatisfied with her life, and embarked on a path toward the beginnings of personal authority and independence. It is an arc that Kate Chopin named in the title of her book The Awakening, and this name is entirely applicable to Mary Meyer's life. But Mary Meyer's own awakening was cut short by murder.

This book is roughly divided into four sections that examine Mary Meyer's life and world through the men with whom she was associated: her father, her husband, her lovers, and finally, the man acquitted of her murder. I did not plan this approach when I envisioned the book. But because her papers were destroyed, parts of her life story must be deduced from clues in the more public lives of the men in her life.

Researching this book, I had some breakthroughs in interviews and other primary research that cut through the fog of mystery and allowed me to glimpse the real woman. Whenever someone remembered a particularly telling anecdote, whenever I spotted a piece of her handwriting, whenever I saw a new photograph of her or one of her paintings, I felt like an archaeologist brushing away at a lump of sand and suddenly finding just a single marble finger or a nose, from which I could try to imagine the rest of the sculpture. These scraps became pieces of a three-dimensional woman that I was constructing in my mind.

Some Georgetown women who knew Mary well did agree to interviews but insisted on being identified as confidential sources. The honesty and memories of several former Kennedy aides were helpful and contained a few surprises. Family letters and papers at the Library of Congress, as well as the Secret Service gate and phone logs at the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, provided other vital clues. It was especially exciting to find various letters in the Pinchot family and Cord Meyer collections at the Library of Congress with a sentence or even a note written in Mary's rounded, back-leaning hand. These little missives were vital. They turned out to be the only primary relics of Mary's own thinking that would be available to me.

I was also shown a small group of Mary's paintings by an individual who preferred to remain anonymous. These canvases showed Mary at different stages in her art, first struggling amateurishly and then painting with more assurance. It was clear that by the end of her life she was just beginning to develop her own style.

Small new details increased my understanding. Mary Meyer's experiment in Reichian therapy, for example, and her fascination with art and styles that were new and even bizarre were keys to how she thought and was perceived. She was not satisfied within the limits of propriety set by her class and she became less so as she matured. Although Mary went to the Reichian therapist for only a few months, the fact that she was willing to try something so controversial and so sex-drenched began to explain what it was about her and her times that her friends were so reticent about. Although the intervening decades saw the proliferation of many nontraditional therapies and a sexual liberation undreamed of in 1959, to Mary's contemporaries this was dangerous stuff.

Early on, trying to discern Mary Meyer's real personality behind the fog of words such as charming and lovely, I grasped at any straw. At one point I fed all my information on Mary—from her handwriting to her childhood illnesses, from her father's personality to her own attitude toward nudity—to John Gittinger, a CIA psychologist now retired and living in Oklahoma, who had for many years assessed the personalities of Soviet agents with just such random bits of information. Gittinger kindly ran the facts through his formula and came up with a personality theory, as he had when the CIA sought to uncover the weaknesses of enemy spies and leaders of nations.

In 1950s CIA acronym-speak, Gittinger said that Mary Meyer was an "IFU" type, meaning she exhibited the personality traits of an "Internalizer, Flexible and Uniform." Decoded, that meant in very broad terms that Mary Meyer was self-oriented and kept her own counsel, was open to experiences but tended to be unfocused, and had difficulty detaching herself from the familiar as a girl, thus needing to develop a close, nurturing relationship early in adulthood. Gittinger also deduced that she may have had some guilt feelings about being an unhappy mother, that she might have had an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, and that she would have at some point in her life rejected the mores she had been brought up with. As it turned out, I was able to confirm some of this assessment.

Of course, the real reason for the embarrassment about Mary, the real trepidation her friends feel when asked to talk about her, stems not from her own personality quirks but from her relationship with President Kennedy. They fear their intelligent, well-bred friend will be tarred with the bimbo brush for history. I sympathize with their fear. Women who have affairs with important men are often relegated to a certain lower status, while the men retain respect, if they do not acquire more veneration than before. It is important to say at the outset that Mary Meyer's relationship with the president was first and foremost a real friendship.

Researching Mary Meyer plunged me into a world new to me, that of the Kennedy myth and its legion of admirers, detractors, and scholars. Before I started this project, I had a very simple and clear idea about President John F. Kennedy. I was three years old when he was shot and I remember that day because it was the first time I ever saw my mother cry. As a child and an adult, respect and sorrow were the main feelings I associated with President Kennedy.

It soon became necessary to wade into the billions of words that have been written about every aspect of President Kennedy, from the magazine glamour to the sober academic histories to the tabloid sleaze and conspiracy theories. I was daunted by the sheer volume of information and surprised by some of the implications about the hidden side of a man and an administration that in my mind had been an idealized legend of decency and hope shattered by hate. I sought out scholars and writers and researchers to help me separate fact from gossip, unfounded conspiracy theorists from the serious questioners. I am satisfied that I found such people.

I decided early on that Kennedy warranted only a single chapter in Mary's life, because it seemed to me that in a full life of forty-four years, there was more to the woman than a relationship with one man, even if he was the president. The more I learned about Mary, the more I realized that was the appropriate weight to give her relationship with Kennedy. Novelists may write volumes describing the events of a few days, weeks, or months, but restricted as I was to the available facts, I feel a chapter is sufficient.

Nonetheless, those who are looking to understand more about Kennedy will find Mary Meyer of interest. In Mary Meyer's attitudes and lifestyle, in her freedom and simplicity and experimentation, we see the seeds of attitudes that came to represent the decade of the 1960s. We may speculate that the president who so enjoyed her company shared some of those attitudes.

Finally, I did not set out here to solve the crime of Mary Meyer's murder, and I have not done so. The acquitted defendant is still alive in 1998, but he says he doesn't remember anything about his arrest near the murder scene. The Washington, D.C., police decided the case was solved and did not save the evidence, so it is impossible to apply new technology to the old bloodstains. The closest there was to an eyewitness is dead. I was able, through police and court records and interviews, to piece together the life story of the acquitted defendant in the case. I found his record interesting, and I believe that his life story, because it intersects so fundamentally with Mary Meyer's, is an important part of this book.

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