The author of Once Upon a Secret, Mimi Alford, had an affair with President John F Kennedy before she was old enough to vote. Having kept this story under wraps for almost 50 years, Alford now sets off a firestorm of gossip about its sordid details. There is much to tsk-tsk about in Alford’s account of her wide-eyed innocence and the president’s particular brand of cruelty toward her. But there’s not a lot of news, so the fuss should soon die down. When it does, Once Upon a Secret can be better appreciated for what it really is: the strangest memoir about secrets and lies since The Politician, by Andrew Young, exposed the delusional arrogance behind John Edwards’ presidential campaign. Like Young, Alford seems to have little idea how badly her stories reflect on herself. Nor does she have a very wide frame of reference. She recalls a proper, preppy upbringing on a New Jersey farm, in the kind of farmhouse that had seven fireplaces and a ballroom. She describes life as a debutante nicknamed the Monkey. And she writes of attending Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Conn, where in 1961 she had the idea of interviewing a famous alumna, or “Ancient”: Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.
Alford, then Marion Beardsley, didn’t get as far as the first lady. But she got to Washington, impressed Letitia Baldrige, the first lady’s social secretary, and wrote a school newspaper article that made Baldrige mindful of Clare Boothe Luce and Madame de Staël. A year later she had a 19-year-old’s impressionability and a summer job as a White House intern. If there is one question that Alford’s story poses, it is this: How did she end up in bed with the president on her fourth day at work? This may be the hardest part of her adventure to imagine, but it’s what she explains best in the half of this book that reconstructs a 19-year-old’s thinking. She was invited to swim at lunchtime in the White House pool. She couldn’t say no. The president arrived unannounced, asking, “Mind if I join you?” She couldn’t say no to that, either. That afternoon she was invited to what she thought was a “welcome-to-the-staff get-together” that turned out to be in the White House’s family quarters. “Would you like a tour of the residence, Mimi?” the president asked. And then, ushered into Mrs Kennedy’s bedroom to admire the décor, she was a goner. The president who could so comfortably talk the language of Miss Porter’s effortlessly steered her into bed. Alford’s account of her own mental processes is remarkable for what it misses. She did not think of confiding in anyone. She did not think this was an extramarital affair. (“I was merely occupying the president’s time when his wife was away.”) What she especially didn’t think about was the steep price she would pay for her actions. Sure, she began to notice that other White House staffers resented her. And she realised that, as a student at Wheaton College in Massachusetts being whisked off to Washington for weekends during the school year, she didn’t have a life of her own. But Alford was so bewitched that she continued to think of honesty “as a defining aspect of my personality, a core value,” even as she learned how to lie to everyone she knew.
Once Upon a Secret includes a couple of truly vile episodes in which the president humiliated Mimi by telling her to service other men sexually. But the first part of the book mostly presents her as a willing, star-struck participant who appealed to the president’s snobbery. “He just couldn’t resist a girl with a little bit of Social Register in her background,” she writes. It is only when she begins a courtship with a college boy that her meltdown starts. Alford, put to the test, was willing to pre-cheat on her future husband, Tony Fahnestock. And he married her even after he learned about this betrayal. They stayed married for more than 20 years. From the wedding onward Once Upon a Secret becomes increasingly crazy and sad. Alford gives up on the idea that one day she and Tony will laugh about her youthful indiscretion. They settle into an angry, joyless union. What now? Serenity, of course. Alford claims to be completely purged of guilt, grief and baggage by the cleansing process of acknowledging past mistakes. And she describes a happy new marriage, albeit in the strangest terms. She describes working for a church without being religious. She writes about weekly budget-balancing with her husband as if it were more fun than lolling around in the president’s bathtub. And, most astoundingly, she ends the book with an inspirational account of how she and her husband visited the Kennedys’ graves at Arlington National Cemetery. (New York Times)
About the Book
Once Upon A Secret
Author: Mimi Alford
Published by Random House