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Once Upon a Secret Reader’s Guide

By Mimi Alford

Once Upon a Secret by Mimi Alford


A Conversation with Mimi Alford

Random House Readers Circle: Before you were first  outed by the press, you had already begun sharing your secret with your family and close friends. What inspired you to write this memoir and share your story with the whole world?

Mimi Alford: Before May 2003, only a handful of friends and two family members knew about my affair with the Presi- dent. As far as I know, all of them kept it a secret. They were doing what I had asked them to do. With  the public outing, you might think that everything changed immediately, but it didn’t. People knew about the affair but no one talked about it. I didn’t talk about it either. In some ways I kept as silent as before. But it became clear that I needed to face it. I needed to understand how it had affected my life and informed my relationships with men. I couldn’t let go of it. It hung around like unfinished business. My happy marriage in 2005 gave me a  newfound  self-confidence, and along with that came  the vision and hope that writing my story would help me to better understand the impact the affair had had on my life, and to unburden myself once and for all. It has.

RHRC: To  what extent has the publication of Once Upon a Secret changed your daily life?

MA: I don’t think about this book every day, but when I do, I feel good that I took on the challenge of writing my story and that I didn’t give up along the way—which I’d considered a few times. If I’d caved in to weakness, I’d still be thinking of the book as something I have to write. Instead, I have the closure that I need. I have been surprised by the readers—women  and men— who have written to me. Though they focus on different parts of my story, almost all of them express a feeling of connec- tion between their  life  experiences and mine—not a  similarity, necessarily, but a  human connection. I recently  got a letter from a young   woman   who says she was very critical of my motives when the book first  came out but when she saw it at a recent   library sale, she decided to buy it anyway. She told me that, now that she has read the book, she un- derstands  and admires me for writing it. And for that I am grateful. It’s good to have gratitude  in your day. Sometimes  something special happens, something I never would have expected. Last Friday—four months after the publication of my book—I took my car to be serviced  at the Previously Loved Subaru dealership in nearby Canaan, Connecticut. When I picked it up early the next morning, the owner, Bill, dressed in his grease-stained friendly-mechanic’s overalls, came over  to explain about the work that had been done on my car. As he handed me the keys, he stopped and looked straight at me with this thoughtful, gentle expression. He said, “Mimi, you have inspired me. Years ago I had some- thing important to face in my life, and for a long time I have wanted to write about it but have been unable to. I am ready to do it now. Thank  you.” I drove back  to Alford thinking,
My book has done something  for someone else. That’s  how my daily life has changed.

By the time your book was published, most of your family already knew about the affair. In your memoir, though, we get to see all the good aspects of your relationship alongside the bad. Has coming out with the whole story changed the way that you and your family talk about the affair? Has it sparked any conversations  with those close to you who may not have known the full  story?

“Family” is always a touchy  area. It’s not easy to change the way family members communicate with each other about difficult things after so many years of doing it another way. But  they’ve  been  uniformly  supportive.  Some feel sad because they had no idea of the pain I was in for so much of my adult life. Others now understand the source of that pain. So it’s opened eyes one way or another.

The  big surprise  has been  how sharing my secret has inspired some family members to share theirs  for the first time, like my older brother, Josh, who finally decided to tell me  a most remarkable story: In the winter of 1987, Josh was out of work and in desperate financial straits. To make ends meet, he took a  job driving a taxicab   in Cambridge, Massa- chusetts. One night he picked up a fare  in Lexington. After the man sat down in the backseat, Josh realized that he rec- ognized him, so he turned around and said, “Good evening, Mr. Powers.” To  which Dave  responded,  “Do I know you?” Josh explained, “I am  Mimi Beardsley’s brother. I met you in the White House in 1963 when I came to Washington to pick up my sister  at work. You even introduced  me to President Kennedy.” Dave paused for a  few seconds, then said, “Oh, Mimi . . . oh, Mimi . . . oh, Mimi . . . When the Kennedys  get their hooks into you, they never let go.”

Josh had kept this  a  secret from me because  he was ashamed of driving a cab. But once he read the book, he finally understood what Dave Powers meant that night in 1987. The  fact that he chose to tell me demonstrates the healing power of sharing secrets—and how it gets others to open up. But it helped me, too: The fact that, twenty-five years after my time in the White House, Dave Powers remembered me in the way he did confirmed to me that in writing my book, I was finally free of the Kennedy hooks.

In a Washington Post article about your memoir, the historian Robert Dallek refers to the book  as a valuable  part of the JFK narrative not because it provides sordid details, but because  it  actually  humanizes the President, who, as Dallek puts it, has become some kind of “rock star, a mythological figure—he’s no longer  a real person.” Was this a side of the President that you hoped to bring out through your memoir?

I’m not the first  person to point out that JFK had many sides, and that he was very selective in what he let other peo- ple see. He was  a master at compartmentalizing. The  side I bring out is  the only one I’m  qualified to write about: the personal, non-public, after-hours JFK, the way he was with women. There’s been gossip and speculation about his wom- anizing, but I think what Dallek is commenting on is that  I’m one of the few to share details.  Some  people have questioned my motives, but honestly, I have no desire to harm JFK or tarnish his memory, but nor do I need to protect him now.

In  your memoir, you write that you live now with a clear conscience, even though President Kennedy was a married man and a father.  How did you come to terms with that aspect of your relationship?

MA: Who among us hasn’t struggled later in life to come to terms with things we did or didn’t do as a teenager?  I was an innocent nineteen-year-old  single  young woman and the President was  a forty-five-year-old married man  and a father. But he was also the most powerful man in the world at the time. I think  the imbalance  in  the relationship, though it doesn’t excuse my actions, makes it clear that the impetus for our relationship came from him. He was always in control. The idea that I would or could seduce the President of the United States is laughable. In writing my book, I tried to be honest and faithful to that nineteen-year-old  as I remember her—and the truth is, I didn’t feel guilty about Mrs. Kennedy or her children at the time. I had some conflicts  about my fam- ily and my growing relationship with my future husband during those eighteen months with JFK, but not about his family. That said, I can see why people want me to express regret or to apologize for my behavior. I got that reaction in spades when Barbara Walters tore into me on The View.  I think she wanted to shame me for writing a story that could hurt  her friend Caroline Kennedy, which seems absurd to me. Far more painful things have happened to the Kennedys than the publication of a book.

Your first sexual encounter with the President—with any man—wasn’t  quite a  fairy-tale moment. How difficult was it for you to write that scene for this  book? Were you ever tempted to sugarcoat events like that, or other ones?

MA: I wonder how many first-time  sexual encounters  actually are the fairy-tale moment   a young woman imagines.  I doubt there are many, or else we’d all be married  to our first lovers. My intention in Once Upon a Secret was to be honest. It never occurred to me to sugarcoat that first  episode or, for that matter, to enhance  it  into  something more sexually steamy. Of course, the earliest reports about  the book focused on the most salacious details, which set up some readers for disappointment. It’s  not a  sexy book. It’s  about the power of secrets. As one reader,  a man, wrote  to me: “Some readers will find they’ve read a better  book  than  they  thought they had bought.”

Were there any scenes you considered leaving out of your book entirely? What made you ultimately decide to include them in your story?

I tried to write about what was most important to the story as a  whole and what would give the reader the most complete picture of this  relationship and my experience. It is  true that I struggled with the unsavory scene with Dave Powers. I took it out of the manuscript several times but al- ways  put it  back  in  because  I wanted  to show how easily I slipped into submission.  It was a  question of needing to please someone who had such power over me. It is still a dif- ficult passage for me to read out loud. It makes me angry and sad at the same time.

RHRC: You often say that your time with President Kennedy had  a profound  impact on your life, even beyond the ramifi- cations of keeping your secret. How do you think  your life would have been different if your time at the White House hadn’t included the affair?

MA: It’s easy to play the “what if ”  game. But it’s not a good idea. First and foremost, I have to accept what  the reality was and the context of the times in which my story took place. I can fantasize  that without the affair and without the secret, I might have   become   a  serious  journalist.  My internship might have been the start of a successful  career—after all, I was smart and I was capable. I don’t know if that would have happened for me, but as one reader so aptly put it in her letter, “[At that time] women were not only meant to look up to the men in their lives but to be led by them if not dominated by their superior ideas. It was shameful  to be different,  or at least one was often ostracized for it. All  of us kept secrets even if they were smaller, just to belong.”

After your first  husband, Tony, found out about your affair, he forbade you to talk about it, which had  a huge  impact  on your relationship and, ultimately, played   a role in ending it. How difficult was it to tell that part of the story honestly?

I’m glad you asked this question. It was difficult to write about my marriage to Tony. We were married for twenty-five years, and in many ways  our marriage never evolved into a wholesome,  balanced relationship in  which we both could flourish.  Was my relationship with President Kennedy  the only reason this happened? I don’t think  so, but it certainly started us off on weak ground.  It is uncomfortable to admit today  that I was always  fearful of Tony.  I never wanted  to make him angry. One friend told me that she feels desper- ately sad for both of us and the diminished life we had to- gether. But we did have two wonderful daughters, who have children  of their  own today,  and for  that I will  always  be grateful.

Was it easier to write about your relationship with President Kennedy or your relationship with your first  hus- band?

Let me start by saying it was easiest to write about my relationship with my current husband, Dick. Maybe it’s just easier to write about  something happy. We  have   a  life  to- gether that begins every morning with laughter. It doesn’t get better than that. As to your question: I had to put myself so far back in time while writing about the President that it wasn’t always easy to connect to the feelings I had as that nineteen-year- old. I spent  a lot of time just trying to remember. I wanted to be as clear and honest  as possible, and not shade those feel- ings with thoughts  and opinions that could only come later, from a much  older woman. One problem I encountered was that I didn’t have anyone to talk to who would have known me on the White House staff during those eighteen months. I think  that’s why I felt such relief when I came across  my name while doing research at the Kennedy Library. I remember saying to myself, I existed; I was there! I wasn’t invisible anymore.

Writing  about my  marriage to  Tony   presented dif- ferent problems. I was careful not to include details that would intentionally hurt  my daughters. This was my story, not theirs—which they made very clear to me. During  the twenty-five years of our marriage, Tony and I lived in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Massachusetts,  Connecticut, and New Jersey. We  had a  lot of friends. Sometimes friends  sense that you are going through a tough   time; sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they are just  too busy with their own lives and they don’t  want to know. I kept a  lot to myself during the most difficult years, and I worried that my book would make some of those friends feel that they had been left out. They would be right, in  a way. They  didn’t  know me completely because I didn’t let them. I feel closer to many of them today. It’s a wonderful relief.

One of the recurring  themes in  your memoir is that secrets  drag us down, and that we can’t truly  come to terms with  them until  we  learn to share them. Has your experience sharing your story inspired any others to share theirs?

MA: Absolutely. Secrets separate you, make it easy to with- draw and disconnect. I’ve  filled two three-ring binders al- ready with letters from readers, and nearly all of them focus on keeping secrets. These letters are from both women and men. I emphasize  this  because  some people  feel that my book is just a “woman’s book.” It’s not true. One man thanked me for encouraging him to have  a more open, loving marriage. The recurring theme in all these letters is that my story deserved to be told, and by telling it, I helped many people feel empowered to share their own. But once the story was out there, it belonged to the read- ers as much if not more than it belonged to me. When I was in New York  a couple  of days after Once Upon a Secret came out, I was walking across Central Park. At the 81st Street entrance on the West Side, I saw a young  woman  sitting on a bench, reading my book. For a split second I was tempted to stand over her and, when she looked up, ask if she was enjoying the book. I wanted to see the look on her face when she recognized me. But  that vanity disappeared  quickly. I realized that I didn’t need the recognition. I didn’t need to hear her say “Omigod, it’s you!” or something like that. She didn’t need me interrupting her private experience of reading the book. It was her book now, not mine. The liberation and release that I received simply from telling my story and telling it honestly was enough for me. Anything else, I could let go.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. The  beginning of Mimi’s  relationship with the President was hardly fairy-tale. In  your opinion, was there anything Mimi could  have done to change this? In what ways did this beginning influence the dynamic of their entire relationship?

2. Mimi  admits that while she was comfortable around  the President, there was always  going to be an imbalance  of power in their relationship, and that, in fact, she never called him anything but “Mr. President.” Do you think  that Mimi would  have been able to overcome this imbalance if she had desired? How do you think  it might have changed her relationship to the President?

3. On several occasions during their relationship the President coerced Mimi into performing acts that she was uncom- fortable with, such as taking amyl nitrate at a party. Mimi attributes this  to the President’s  desire to assert his  power over her. In  what other, less harmful ways did the President assert that same power throughout the course of their relationship?

4. In  one of those instances, Mimi  refused the President’s request, and the matter was dropped. What do you think the outcome would have been had Mimi refused the President on the other occasions as well? Does Mimi seem to take responsibility for her part in these events, or does she seem to view them as having been beyond her control?

5. Mimi  talks about  Dave  Powers with  nothing but affection, and often Powers was the one who provided emotional support for Mimi while she was with the President. Do you think that Powers had an obligation  to protect Mimi, or was it simply his responsibility to do everything he could for the President?

6.  When Mimi  first  told the President about Tony, she de- scribed him as being, on paper, “a  perfect match.” In  what ways do you think Mimi’s relationship with JFK might have impacted the sort of man she would consider to be a perfect match for herself?

7. Do you think that Mimi’s interpretation of the President as intentionally winding down the affair is correct? What might have motivated  him to do this?

8. What do you think  of Tony’s  reaction to Mimi’s  revelation about her affair? In  what ways did Tony’s reaction and Mimi’s acceptance set the tone for the rest of their relationship together?

9. Do you think Tony might have reacted differently if Mimi had told him about the affair earlier in  their relationship? What might have changed?

10. In what ways did Tony’s instruction that Mimi never share her secret with anyone else liberate her, as she describes it? In what ways did it imprison her?

11. Neither Mimi’s  relationship with Tony  nor her relation- ship  with the President was as emotionally healthy as the relationship she found with her current husband. In  what ways were those early relationships similar? In what ways did they differ?

12. When  Mimi  finally  shared her secret with  her cousin Joan, she seemed unsure if she would “ever have the nerve” to talk to anyone else, despite how much better it made her feel. What do you think might account for this?

13. At several points in the book, Mimi describes the act of revealing her secret—to friends, to family, and even having it exposed by the media—as being liberating. In  your experience, has keeping secrets had a negative  impact  on your life? Has sharing them been as freeing  as Mimi describes?

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