The liaison between the 45-year-old president and then debutante Mimi Beardsley began in the summer of '62 and continued for the next 18 months. Kennedy would sometimes summon her from Wheaton College in Massachusetts, where she would be picked up in a limo at her dorm, and flown to DC to spend the evening with Jack, before returning to school. Though the particulars are eerily fascinating and some are shockingly yukky, what caught my attention as I watched the interview was what she said about how the affair affected and hurt her: It wasn't the affair itself--no, she didn't feel like his mistress, no, she wouldn't call what happened a rape, no, she didn't think what she was doing was Wrong, yes it was a sexual relationship, not a loving one--but it was telling herself that she had to keep this secret deeply buried forever that hurt her the most.
My ears pricked up when I heard her talk about the emotional damage that secrecy costs. The president's peccadilloes back in the Sixties were off limits to the press, even though the press knew full well about the evenings in the East Wing of the White House and afternoon swims with the attractive intern. The secret service turned a blind eye, and so must have the people in the press office, although the other interns figured out what was up and resented her. The naive 19-year-old told no one. "Blinded by the president's power and charisma, I was fully committed to keeping our affair secret," she writes.
Though she continued to see the president, Beardsley had a boyfriend, Tony Fahnestock, the following year. Her relationship with Kennedy was winding down when they had one last tryst in New York City--shortly before he flew to Dallas, and his death. Alford was with her fiance when she saw the news and the footage of the president being shot, and she freaked out. She fessed up to Fahnestock on the spot. He said he would still marry her, but that she must never tell a soul, and they must never speak of it again. She cut up the photograph of Kennedy he autographed for her rather personally, she pawned the diamond pin and other gifts he gave her. She felt she had to purge the very thought of this affair out of her, and that, she says, is what ate at her through the years. The secret, she says, corroded their lengthy marriage right from the start.
BOTTLING UP BIRTH MOTHER SORROW
I have so often heard that mothers like us, upon relinquishing our children, are told that they must "forget." Forget this child, pretend that he or she does not exist. A friend was told she had to think of her daughter as dead. Parents and siblings never speak of the child, as if she were never born. Forget. Forget. Forget. As if we could. Fortunately, my social worker did not tell me I would "forget" my daughter--quite the opposite. I remember quite clearly when she said that "though you will never forget her, you will go on to have a life...."
Because my parents back in Michigan did not know, I did keep my sorrow bottled up when I went home to visit and heard about the cousins getting married, having kids, one, two, three. My father died two years later and I threw two roses in the ground atop his casket, one for me, one for the granddaughter he would never know. And I wept. I cried during Christmas mass and I swallowed my tears as much as I could. Keep the secret, tamp it down, hold it in--that is what I thought I had to do. It damn near killed me.
I kept my baby secret from my family for close to a decade. It felt like a lifetime. But at least I told my future husband-to-be Number One before I answered whether I would marry him. Telling my mother and my two brothers was like letting go of a 90-pound rock I had been dragging behind me. Make no mistake, letting go of the secret doesn't wash away the indelible pain of the lost child: that's a lifetime reality. But it does make it easier. You can face the world as you know you are, not as people think you are when you inside know differently. You don't have to feel like a fraud. You are who you present yourself to the world as. What a relief. Husband Number Two knew the day we met when he asked what my last book was about. A memoir about giving up my daughter for adoption. By that time, it was even easy to say it.
But because there are still far too many women living the lie that social workers and family members pressed upon them, the last post--about writing a first letter to a first/birth mother--has caused a stir. Some searchers think it is a terrible idea to write one's birth mother instead of phone, because a letter might be intercepted by someone who does not know the secret of the missing child. That secret again.
LETTING GO BETTER THAN ANY LOTION
We have no way of knowing if our writing ever reaches birth mothers still hiding in the closet. They would hardly be Goggling for First Mother Forum, but maybe some do stumble upon us here. Whenever someone writes and says they have become less secretive about their lost child because of us--as someone did the other day--I quietly rejoice. Yet there are still far too many women, even in this day and age when the world is a far different place than it once was, who harbor this secret. They repress their feelings and hide behind an emotional veil. It's got to be awful to feel the need to guard that secret so fiercely. It's got to add years. Letting go would be better than any face cream, no matter how expensive.
Alford, now divorced and remarried, Alford was first outed by Robert Dallek in his 2003 JFK muckraker, An Unfinished Life, as a "tall, slender, beautiful" 19-year-old college sophomore with the pet-name "Monkey", and endured a firestorm of post-Lewinsky media intrusion. She endured notoriety back then, and her current exposure has unleashed more. But history has been written by men for thousands of years, and women’s experiences have been routinely ignored. "Whenever women who have been involved with famous men come forward to tell their stories, there’s always a backlash from those who accuse them of attention-getting, money-grubbing, revenge-seeking, or other unseemly motives—all of which are now being hurled at Alford by countless critics on internet comment threads," writes Leslie Bennetts at The Daily Beast. And it's often other women who are the most critical. (See below.)
Yet with this book, Mrs. Alford, at 68, is taking control of her life and letting go of the secret. “People are sometimes afraid of openness. I don’t know why it scares people, but it did me,” Alford says. “Now I know all of me, and it’s not 100 percent perfect.” If Alford's anthem of self-discovery and freedom from secrecy reaches some first mothers, she may do some good in a way that she never intended or expected.--lorraine
PS: Did anybody catch Barbara Walters' nasty interview on The View with Mimi Alford--Why did you write this book, what about the feelings of Caroline Kennedy, etc? I mean, come on--worrying about everybody's feelings but your own is what leads to keeping the baby the "big secret" that cannot be named.
What about Walter's revealing that she had an affair with Sen. Edward Brooke of MA back in the day in her memoir? Her response that I read somewhere was that Walters asked Brooke if she could reveal it--well, did she ALSO ask his two daughters AND SON, AND THEIR CHILDREN how they felt about it, or was it okay because Walters is famous and so of course Brooke's family will be happy to know he slept with Walters? And Mimi Alford isn't, until now, so she is supposed to keep the Kennedy legend more pristine? Everybody knows who cares that he screwed around a great deal on Jackie, and at last we at least have one story on how it happened. His point man arranged it, poured her two daiquiris, and then Kennedy gave her a "tour" of the private quarters.
The tsk-tsking of some of the interviewers is irritating, but Alford handles it well. I'm glad she spoke up. She has a right to tell her own history. For far too long men have been getting away with a droit de seigneur and the girls are just supposed to take it and shut up.
For far too long women were supposed to shut up about their secret babies, and hopefully that is coming to an end too.