x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

JFK's affair with young intern shows Camelot still fascinates

Mimi Alford, a 19-year-old intern at the White House press office during the Kennedy administration, claims in Once Upon A Secret that she had a prolonged affair with the US president.

"Everyone has a secret, this is mine," writes Mimi Alford at the beginning of Once Upon A Secret: My Hidden Affair with JFK, her debut work of non-fiction, which in the days since its publication has become a best-selling title around the world.

"In the summer of 1962," she continues in the manner of a barrister delivering an opening statement to a hushed courtroom, "I was 19 years old, working as an intern in the White House press office. During that summer, and for the next year and a half, until his tragic death in November 1963, I had an intimate, prolonged relationship with John F Kennedy."

Later, the author reveals how she was entertained by an aide almost before she had stepped over the White House threshold. Her co-worker would introduce her to the president shortly afterwards and that meeting would become an encounter that became an affair that has now become a controversial new book.

Alford, who was engaged to be married at the time she joined the White House staff, eventually called off her affair a week before the president was killed in Dallas.

In that moment, as she cut JFK adrift, he appeared persistent rather than aware that destiny was about to come calling: "I wish you were coming with me to Texas ... I'll call you when I get back," Alford recalls him telling her, word perfect after all these years.

Her book - which bounds along well enough in the engaging style of a long and chatty magazine feature - could easily be written off as the work of a fantasist, except for the fact that Alford's story appears to be true.

There is no doubt that she was a White House intern in the early Sixties and while she confessed all about the affair to her future husband - they married less than two months after Kennedy's assassination - she also agreed never to speak of her liaison again out of respect for her partner. He was shamed by the realisation her dalliance with the middle-aged president occurred at the same time as their own young courtship was blossoming.

She would remain mute about the matter until divorce and a passing reference to a "tall, slender, beautiful 19-year-old college sophomore" in a more recent JFK biography dredged up the past significantly enough for Alford to unburden herself of the secrets she has kept buried for so long.

Understandably, her book now attracts widespread attention - will the Camelot era ever stop fascinating biographers and historians? - not least for its salacious, scandalous and revealing details. This is not though a work that is expected to significantly change the established and largely reverential narrative of the Kennedy years. Nevertheless, in the light of these revelations, it is hard to understand why the 35th president of the United States remains impervious to criticism or even mild re-evaluation?

The author presents a White House landscape seemingly devoid of a moral compass, where it is perfectly normal for the most powerful married man in the world to seek the affections of a teenage girl. For her part, the author denies any wrongdoing by the president, saying only that she felt the "thrill of being desired" and that she was a willing participant in the affair.

Alford herself sees little wrong with this behaviour ("He was a charmer, a seducer, an insatiable Lothario," she offers as an excuse), and insists she is only "a footnote to a footnote in the story of an American president". But she is more than that and her book might be, too.

In truth, Once Upon A Secret could easily be read as a book about two deaths: the death of a president and the end of a young woman's innocence, snuffed out by a predatory politician who preached of lofty principles but practised a far more sleazy set of beliefs.