TC's Reviews > Once Upon a Secret: My Affair with President John F. Kennedy and Its Aftermath

Once Upon a Secret by Mimi Alford
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's review
Feb 26, 2012

it was ok
bookshelves: memoir
Read from February 26 to March 01, 2012 — I own a copy

No one can resist a good story about politicians and sex, even one about Kennedy (which at this point is cliche)--because this one is just beyond bizarre. A 19-year-old sheltered preppy blueblood college sophomore comes to DC for a summer internship in the White House, and before her first week is over, she's lost her virginity to the President of the United States--on his wife's bed, no less--after just an hour of being plied with daiquiris and Kennedy charm. She's then an intimate part of his inner circle for nearly 18 months, playing shrinking violet college girl during the week, then being whisked away on the weekends by private car to cavort with him in the White House or accompany him on official state trips--admit it, you already want to read every juicy word.

But once you've gotten that out of your system, you're left with the last third of the book, where the author leaves Camelot, the White House residential quarters, and Air Force One, and takes us on a quotidian journey of kids, jobs, marital strife, divorce, middle-aged single-hood, lots of hand-wringing "where did I go wrong" prose, and a whole lot of otherwise undistinguished living that no one in their right mind would publish as a biography worth reading.

What emerges from this isn't something insightful about Kennedy, but we are left with, I think, an unflattering picture of the author. A natural question is: why did this affair happen? The author tries to explain why she let it happen; but, concludes that she was sheltered and 19. She tries to come up with reasons Kennedy did it, that are more than just "because he was a slime," but she eventually admits, she'll never really know. So neither will we.

Or will we? We may not know what Kennedy saw in her besides a pretty teenager he could charm, but after listening to the author talk about nothing but herself and rationalize her every bad decision, it seems clear: she thinks of nothing but herself. She worries about revealing her secret while it's going on--because she doesn't want it to end. She worries about revealing it afterwards because she doesn't want to lose the security of her marriage. She has no guilt about Jackie, and her greatest regret about her husband is that her confession didn't cause him to reach out to her, but instead drove a wedge between them--how selfish of him.

Her great turning point in her post-marriage life was when she was utterly rude to a first date whose crime was apparently not spending enough time letting her talk about herself. She's so exhilarated by this "self-assertion" she calls her sister and gushes about it. Even her current marriage that she claims is a happy one, sounds like it's working only because her husband has made an effort to make it all about her.

Maybe I should give her a pass and say, this was what happened when she was damaged by this affair at such a young age. But maybe it happened in the first place because she never really thought of anyone but herself then, now, or at any time in-between.

In the end I'm left feeling that both her and Kennedy were two peas in a pod--two self-absorbed hedonists who lived their lives centered on themselves. This doesn't excuse Kennedy seducing a 19-year-old intern, and I am sure it would be hard for anyone in her position to have been strong enough to put it to finish. But she makes it clear she doesn't feel a victim. The biggest problem this seems to have caused her was having to keep it a secret. Her greatest healing seems to come from having finally confessed it.

As for us, her confession gives us a nice political sex scandal that has no doubt already been optioned for a TV movie (complete with Mad-Men-era vibe). I guess if I take the author's cue and think of nothing but myself here, I enjoyed the salaciousness of it and can consider it a guilty pleasure. But, suffice to say, I think we're all the worse for it.


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Reading Progress

02/27/2012 page 30
02/29/2012 page 143
69.0% "The President is dead, her finance has told her never to speak of this, and now she's married."
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