Over at Salon today Carina Chocano writes about “the magical moneymaking properties of humiliating self-exposure.” Her cases in point are last night’s ratings grabber season opener of John & Kate Plus 8, and Elizabeth Edwards’ recent, unfortunate, Resilience.
Until recently, standard protocol for handling a humiliating personal betrayal in public was to tough it out. This rule applied mainly to public figures who had no choice but to handle such challenges with all eyes on them, like political wives, who were required to stand by their men in purse-lipped silence, hands folded, eyes cast hellward, or celebrities, who were obliged to pretend to work through their painful feelings in public while carefully drawing the line at revealing anything that might jeopardize future career prospects. In both cases, the same general rule held true: The more painful the humiliation, the greater the need to maintain dignity by refusing to stoop to the humiliator’s level.
But those days are over. Thanks to the increasingly public nature of our lives, the ranks of people who might find themselves having to deal with private humiliations in public have now expanded to include basically everybody. And a surprising number of people recently have trumpeted their private grievances against the bastards who done them wrong, using whatever means are readily available to them.
Which set me thinking about the recent New York Times story by Motoko Rich regarding Mrs. Mimi Beardsley Alford’s budding literary career. The headline was to the point: “Paramour of Kennedy is Writing a Book.”
Mimi Beardsley Alford, a retired New York church administrator who had an affair with John F. Kennedy while she was an intern in the White House, is breaking a silence of more than 40 years to tell her story in a memoir to be published by Random House.
In fact, Mrs. Alford’s story is already a twice and thrice told tale — but one from which only others, to date, had profited. Her long-kept secret first surfaced in Robert Dallek’s 2003 Kennedy biography An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917-1963. The Times’ story explained:
Ms. Alford’s secret was initially divulged six years ago when a biography of Kennedy was published with portions from a 1964 oral history that described the president’s 18-month sexual affair with a young intern named Mimi Beardsley. The Daily News tracked her down and discovered that she was Marion Fahnestock, who was divorced, working for the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church and living in Manhattan. At the time, she gave a short statement confirming that she was “involved in a sexual relationship” with Kennedy from June 1962 to November 1963.
When the definitive Dallek tome appeared, the floodgates of memory opened, and TIME’s presidential maven Hugh Sidey reminisced in his magisterial (and much-missed) Sideyan way (and under the nicely racy headline “All the Way with JFK“):
Yes, America, there was a Mimi, a teenage cuddle for President John Kennedy back in 1962 and ’63. But there was also a Pam, a Priscilla, a Jill (actually, two of them), a Janet, a Kim, a Mary and a Diana I can think of offhand.
The Kennedy sex industry will march on. Sharing the sheets with J.F.K. seems to have become a badge of honor — and perhaps a route to publishing riches. But beware of boasting or true confessions: I’ve never met anybody who was a witness in the bedroom. It is all circumstantial — or was, until Judith Exner, the Mob moll who wrote it down and changed everything.
Mimi Beardsley rings a bell for all of us creaky White House journalists, but it is easy to forget one or more of the young nymphs. They were once described by an astounded British visitor as being like new tennis balls with the fuzz still on them.
Mimi was another slender, pretty, pleasant young thing wandering in the White House corridors, looking for a desk and something to do that did not require shorthand or typing or any other known secretarial skill. How a senior at Miss Porter’s School captivated a swinging and sophisticated President is a mystery not yet solved — or perhaps it is. J.F.K. was captivated pretty easily. Testimony by some of Kennedy’s girls is that he was a lousy and hurried lover, but who cared when it was the leader of the free world, with all the trappings of power like Air Force One and the Lincoln Bedroom?
So Mimi now is Marion Fahnestock, mother of two, grandmother of four, and a church lady with the tony Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City. Actually, many of Kennedy’s girls have done well: wives, mothers, grandmothers, authors, painters, philanthropists, social workers, and there is even one who became a noted Hollywood impresario.
At first, the old White House reporters had a hard time recalling Mimi. But at a monthly luncheon last week, we pieced together sightings of her slipping out of Air Force One and confirmed Gamarekian’s account of the top of a female head being seen in one of the limousines in Kennedy’s motorcade at the 1962 Bermuda summit with British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. When staff and reporters looked in, Mimi was sitting on the floor of the car like a child playing hide-and-seek.
Some gossip out of an earlier summit in Nassau was that Kennedy told Macmillan he had to have sex once a day or he would get a headache. This story has been largely discounted, but now it has new currency. The friends and admirers of Kennedy are disappointed once again. The steady procession of scandal is nibbling away at his credibility as a leader. The excess, the recklessness of his actions stuns almost everyone. Old gossip gets new legs, like the story of the ravishing Indian journalist spotted by Kennedy in the Rose Garden and promptly invited to dinner at the White House. Or the one about a friend’s alluring wife, whom he propositioned at a reception. When she said, “I’m married,” he replied, “So am I. What of it?”
Back then, of course, there were no tabloid-TV confessionals or presidential tapes or paparazzi pictures, just the mysterious comings and goings in and around the White House. So what did a reporter report? Well, we had the Bay of Pigs, the Berlin Wall, the space race, the Cuban missile crisis and Bull Connor in Birmingham, Ala . Never saw one of the girls in the Cabinet Room interfering with the President on how to handle Vietnam. In that pre-Geraldo world, the Mimis were a nonstory.
And yet I suspect Kennedy was living on borrowed time. The media were beginning to change; their fascination with the young President and his family was intensifying daily. Had he lived into a second term, there was a good chance that one of the numberless and heedless stories of sexual indulgence would have broken over his head, embarrassing him and his family, perhaps crippling his presidency. In that case, Mimi might have got into the history books a lot sooner.
Things did indeed change, and with the kind of vengeance that only the taste of a commercial profit can inspire.
The “JFK as horndog” catalog became a growth industry that now includes far less serious works than Seymour Hersh’s harsh The Dark Side of Camelot and Nigel Hamilton’s breathless JFK: Reckless Youth. The serious biographers —Dallek, Reeves— now take these particular proclivities into both account and stride.
The story is already known. There is a surfeit of information. And we already have Mrs. Alford’s oral history.
So do we need a new memoir?
I vote no. There is such a thing as too much information — especially when you already have enough.
I don’t mean to be callous or flippant. Ms. Beardsley, however alert and compliant, was a victim of abuse. And there is no reason not to believe that the effects of keeping the secret were any less traumatic than the circumstances of its unexpected revelation and tabloid exploitation.
But then was then and now is now and, besides, the interests of history have already been served.
Over the last couple of decades, what began as a healthy airing of cupboards spilled over into a sordid displaying of dirty laundry. And in 2009 we’re awash in a degraded and debauched culture of conspicuous exhibition — one in which Mrs. Alford, whatever her motives, will, willy nilly, be subsumed. She will become an object of crass exploitation and prurient interest, and the better she gets at it (the promotion, not the prurience) the more unhappy I suspect she will become. (Her coy working title —Once Upon A Secret—with its attempt to combine a Camelot harkback with an Age of Oprah hook, will be no help, and needs rethinking in any case.)
Back at Salon, Ms. Chocano has a possible explanation for the phenomenon:
“Self-righteousness makes people feel superior,” says Pauline Wallin, a psychologist in Camp Hill, Pa., and the author of the book Taming Your Inner Brat: A Guide to Transforming Self-Defeating Behavior. “People always find a logical reason for what they want to do — like, that company fired me, the world needs to know what they’re really like. We decide emotionally and justify rationally. We decide first, justify later.” In other words, there’s nothing like getting screwed over to bring out the smugness and moral superiority in everybody. And, these days, who isn’t getting screwed over? The fact that we’re all just an angry e-mail, late-night status update, drunken text message or hormonal tweet away from more disclosure (self- and otherwise) only adds to the already considerable anxieties of the age. Technology doesn’t cause lack of impulse control, it just creates a nice, dark, moist and warm environment in which it can thrive.
It’s possible, if improbable, that there could be something healthy in the impulse to take ownership of one’s own humiliation and cash it in for attention and money, if not sympathy. Maybe it’s a sign of idealism, in an endearing belief in the goodness in people and the brotherhood of man that makes people trot out their lowest moments like circus ponies. Or maybe it’s just the result of a long, slow process of indoctrination. As long as there have been formulaic Hollywood movies, there have been scenes in which the bad guy gets his very public comeuppance.