“I’M THINKING OF writing a book about my family,” said the new Roman Emperor Claudius to his trusted friend King Herod.
“What sort of book?” inquired Herod.
“To tell the truth,” whispered Claudius, looking around to make sure no one else was listening.
“Will you tell everything?” asked Herod.
“Everything,” said Claudius emphatically, “as a historian should. Well, not great tales of heroic exploits, like Titus Livius wrote, no. But the plain facts, the kitchen details, even the gossip.”
“Why? Why should you want to write such a book? Why rake it all up?” inquired Herod.
“Because I owe it to the others to tell the truth, to Posthumous and Germanicus,” said Claudius.
“Why?” Herod beseeched.
“Because they’re dead,” said Claudius solemnly. “And a man should keep faith with his friends, even though they’re dead. You see, I’ve been so very fortunate in my life, when they who were born more deserving, have not. I’ve had only three real friends in my life. Posthumous and Germanicus were two – third one is you.”
“Listen Claudius,” admonished Herod. “Let me give you a piece of advice. One last piece and then I’m done. Trust no one, my friend, no one! Not your most grateful freedman. Not your most intimate friend. Not your dearest child. Not the wife of your bosom. Trust no one!”
“No one?” asked Claudius, looking into Herod’s eyes. “Not even you ?”1
1 From the 1976 BBC Masterpiece Theatre production of I, Claudius.(Based on: I, Claudius: from the autobiography of Tiberius Claudius born 10 B.C. murdered and deified A.D. 54. and Claudius The God, both authored by Robert Graves. New York: Vintage International Edition, 1989, originally published by Random House, 1935.
“He was perfect for the CIA. He never felt guilt about anything.”
—St. John Hunt, reflecting on the life
of his father, E. Howard Hunt1
THANKSGIVING VACATION IN the fall of 1964 offered a welcome respite from the rigors of boarding school life in New Hampshire.2 At seventeen, I was full of both testosterone and a lust for freedom that didn’t find much outlet at a New England prep school. I was a “lifer,” as we used to say. I had arrived in the ninth grade, or what was commonly known in the English boarding-school system as “the third form.” I would stay until the end and graduate, but that fall, in my fifth-form junior year, I felt engaged in a Sisyphean struggle to break free: five days off—this year with a driver’s license!—followed by another long slog up the hill. It was 1964. Just a year and half more of this, I kept telling myself, and I’d be out of what seemed like jail. Adolescence, with all of its possibilities, sometimes felt like prison. Dreams and a rich fantasy life were often the only escape.
As the plane began its final approach into Washington’s National Airport, I picked out a number of familiar places stretched out below, including my old alma mater, Georgetown Day School (GDS), the sight of which stirred a flood of memories from my childhood. Something had been lost while I was a student there; and, nearly a decade later, emotional scar tissue still lingered. My best friend and classmate, Michael Pinchot Meyer, had been killed when we were both just nine years old. It had been my first experience with death—losing someone I had been deeply fond of. I didn’t want to think about it.
I consoled myself instead with the promise of freedom that lay before me. It was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. My father would still be at work when I got home, but my mother and my younger brother would likely be around. I would have most of the afternoon to cruise about town with old friends—certainly enough time to sneak a beer or two and a few cigarettes.
My family’s home was a modern architectural marvel for its time. A long, split-level structure, spacious and light-filled, with large picture windows in most rooms, the house was nestled in one of the last enclaves of Washington’s woods, sheltered from the cacophony of distant traffic. At dinner that evening, I looked out from the split-level dining room through the living room’s floor-to-ceiling windows. Beyond the verdant lawn was the concrete swimming pool, half-drained and dotted with logs to prevent winter ice from cracking its walls. I took my usual place at the table facing my brother, Christopher, with my mother to my left and my father to my right. On the wall behind my mother, an original black-and-white Morris Rosenfeld photograph, Spinnakers Flying, announced the family passion—sailing. My parents had met during summers spent on Cape Cod, and they had imparted their love of navigating the open sea to my brother and me. By the age of seventeen, I had already spent long stretches offshore in the Atlantic racing to Bermuda, and from Annapolis to Newport, Rhode Island.
During dinner that evening, my father mentioned that it was not too early to think about racing our sailboat from Annapolis to Newport again in the coming year. Sailing was a rite of passage for me, and I looked forward to continuing to master its intricacies under my father’s guidance. The previous summer had already extended my knowledge and experience with a small group trip down the Dalmatian coast from Venice to Athens on a seventy-seven-foot Rhodes ketch. Its colorful skipper, a gallant, distinguished former World War II Marine combat captain named Horace (“Hod”) Fuller, had been a delightful legend to sail with. An accomplished sailor, he sometimes kindly took me aside for tutorials on some of the idiosyncrasies of sailing in the Adriatic Sea.
There were, however, a couple of instances during the trip that disturbed me. Late one night, I had awakened to the sound of Hod Fuller having what sounded like combat nightmares from his World War II experiences. No one else in our group wanted to acknowledge it. Years later, my father, a career CIA senior official, having had his usual “generous” intake of alcohol one evening, remarked that “Hod Fuller was one of the best damn assassins we ever had….” A bit stunned, I curiously inquired as to how he went about his assignments. In at least one instance, my father said, Hod had taken his victim out in a rowboat and shot him in the back of the head and then dumped him overboard.
But on the evening before Thanksgiving, diving into a sumptuous meal of veal scaloppini, I was happily anticipating the short recess that lay before me, and dreaming about being on the ocean again, a place where my freedom flourished. It was comforting to be home, to have a reprieve from academic pressures and boarding-school life, and to be with my family. Amid the challenges and turbulence of adolescence, hearth and home was still a place I could count on. It wouldn’t last much longer, I soon discovered. I wasn’t at all prepared when the conversation took a sudden turn.
“Mary Meyer died earlier this fall,” my mother said, looking at me. I reached for my water.
“What do you mean?” I asked. Her words bludgeoned me.
“She was murdered while walking on the canal towpath,” my mother explained. “They caught the guy who did it. She was taking one of her usual walks during the day. It was a sexual assault.”
Reeling, I tried to make sense of what she was saying. “How was she killed?” I asked, trying to orient myself over the eruption of pounding in my chest.
“She was shot. It’s very sad for all of us.”
I pressed her for more details but absorbed little. Numbness and shock were setting in. I remember my mother mentioning Mary’s funeral, and then something about how my father and another man had gone to the airport to meet Cord Meyer, who had been away on the day of his ex-wife’s murder. My mother was doing all the talking; my father didn’t say anything. He just sat there, staring vacantly off into space. There was something almost eerie about his silence.
My stomach was in knots. Was it only confusion, or was it fear? After a while, I excused myself from the table, saying that I had plans to go out for the evening. In fact, my only impulse was to go to my room and curl up in my bed. That night, I was in and out of sleep. I wanted to cry, but couldn’t. Memories crashed through my mind like a hurricane’s pounding surf. Seeing Georgetown Day School from the plane earlier in the day had already stirred something in me, and now there was no escape.
I had known the Meyer family since 1952, when I was five years old. My mother, Mary Draper, and Mary Pinchot had been classmates in Vassar College’s class of 1942. My father, Wistar Janney, had met Cord Meyer after World War II, and they now worked together at the CIA. Our families were socially entwined—we went camping together, played touch football, visited each other’s homes frequently. The Meyers had three children: Quentin, Michael, and Mark. Michael and I had been born less than one month apart, and Quentin—or “Quenty,” as we called him—was a year and a half older. Mark and my brother, Christopher, were the same age, about two years younger than Michael and I. By the time Michael and I were seven, we were best friends, and often inseparable. We shared a number of bonds, especially baseball and fishing. We had been in the same class at Georgetown Day School for three years, our desks side by side for two of them.
As I lay crawled up in a fetal position that night, the shock of Mary Meyer’s murder brought back a flood of memories of being at Michael’s house in McLean, Virginia, just a few miles from my own house. One sunny spring day, we had been hunting for copperheads in the backyard forest behind the Meyer house. Brandishing knives like the “young bucks” we thought we were, Michael pulled a long stick out of a hole we’d been investigating. Suddenly, a snapping snake came out right behind it, narrowly missing his face. We pulled back, both screaming, and ran as fast as we could. We finally stopped, both of us shaking with an adrenaline rush and laughing uncontrollably. Regaining a bit of composure, we realized that both of us, out of fear and excitement, had urinated in our pants. Humiliated, a bit defeated, but still giddy from the adventure, we returned to the house. Michael’s mother, Mary, was painting in a small studio just off the patio.
“Mom, a copperhead almost bit me!” Michael announced.
Mary Pinchot Meyer looked up from her canvas. Even then, I distinctly remember feeling that there was something unique about Michael’s mother, beyond her glistening, radiant beauty. She was so unlike any other adult in my world at that time. Calm and still, at peace with herself, she had a presence and demeanor that struck me. Less than a year before, Michael and I had been playing baseball in front of their house when Michael sent one of my pitches zooming off his bat and over the house. I ran around to the back in search of the ball and came upon Mary reading on a blanket. She lay completely naked, her backside to the sun. I was breathless. She hadn’t heard me coming, and I stood there for what seemed to me a very long time, gawking. At the time, I had no words for the vision that I beheld, but I knew that beauty such as hers was something I longed to know better. When Mary finally looked up and saw me, she wasn’t embarrassed or upset, or even startled. She just smiled, letting me know that it was okay; no sin had been committed. I found the ball, ran back to play with Mikey, and felt somehow irrevocably altered, even blessed. But it wasn’t anything I could describe at the time.
I had a similar feeling about Mary the day of the copperhead hunt. Mary’s outer beauty seemed to be a manifestation of her inner freedom and peace. Whatever it was, it made me feel safe, and free. I remember her smiling at us in a prideful way. Here we were—dirty, sweaty, and soaked in piss, to boot—and Mary responded by being tender. She had guessed what must have happened and, laughing, directed us to the laundry room. We slipped out of our soiled clothes, put them in the washing machine, and put on the clean underwear that Mary had given us, along with a pile of clean clothes to wear.
“You two look like little Indians,” she said teasingly. “Where’s your war paint?”
I remembered how Michael’s eyes had lit up with excitement.
“Mom, paint an arrowhead on my face!” he blurted out.
“Go get the watercolors I gave you, and I will!” she said.
We stood in our underwear on the patio under a warm spring sun. Mary made intricate designs that we took to be tribal symbols on our faces and arms while we began emitting loud Indian war cries. While Mary was painting my face, Michael went in search of two Indian headdresses.
Almost immediately, our exuberance erupted. Michael and I made guttural noises, each trying to outdo the other. War paint in place, we danced as we had seen Indians do on television. Flapping our hands over our mouths like trumpeters with plunger mutes, we shrieked louder and louder, jerking our bodies in wild leaps across the room. We strapped our knife sheaths onto makeshift belts, donned the headdresses, and descended into a kind of primal expression of childhood glee and human joy, running barefoot in circles. It was as if Mary’s brushstrokes of “war paint” had transported us into a primal place of wildness that demanded a surrender to the life force itself. In a sudden, simultaneous move that was pure, unbridled innocence, we stepped out of our underwear. Naked now, our playing became even more frenzied. We ran through the woods toward a small barn, chased each other around a riding circle, and back to the patio, waving our knives in flagrant violation of every childhood safety rule known to man. As our excitement subsided, we dropped to the floor, laughing and exhausted from the thrill of what we had just experienced. Peace and serenity returned, but eventually I became self-conscious. Where were my pants? Shouldn’t I have something on? Once again, Mary’s tender gaze delivered me from any embarrassment.
“Mom, do we have anything to eat? I’m hungry!” asked Michael. We were putting on the clothes that Mary had given us, while Mary directed us to cookies and lemonade in the fridge. It seemed like an eternity had passed. A bit disoriented, I was calm—yet also exhilarated by the sense of an unknown powerful life force that had just moved through me. Mary’s quietly spirited presence had made it all possible. It was as if she had extended her freedom to me, giving me permission that day to explore and experience my own boyhood wildness like no other adult ever had.
Mary’s persona contrasted sharply with that of Michael’s father, Cord Meyer. Insensitive and dismissive, Cord was arrogantly patronizing and never fun to be around. One day Michael and I went fishing on the Potomac River with Cord and his CIA friend and colleague Jim Angleton, who was also godfather to the three Meyer boys. I always found myself completely inhibited around Cord. Michael and I took turns climbing out onto a set of rocks that jutted out from the shoreline. There, we snagged herring by casting into a huge school of passing fish with a three-pronged snag hook. Cord’s demeanor that day had been as intimidating as it was uncomfortable. He and Angleton spent most of the time criticizing our techniques. Already self-conscious, I had to watch my every move lest I provoke one of Cord’s or Angleton’s withering stares. Truth be told, I never liked Cord. Michael feared his father, inasmuch as telling me so. His dread of his father was such a contrast to the connection he had with his mother.
Sleep, if it came at all that dreadful night before Thanksgiving, was fitful as I wrestled with Mary Meyer’s death. Ominously, one horrid thought was the realization that Quenty and Mark would now have only Cord, their aloof father. In my agitation, I continually tossed and repositioned myself, hugging a second pillow for comfort. At one point I woke up; it was still dark outside. I was soaked in moisture, then realizing that in my sleep, I had been crying for my lost childhood friend Michael, and the memory of what had occurred on December 18, 1956.
Just before Christmas vacation began, our school’s holiday festivities took place—a Nativity play, Christmas caroling in the Georgetown Day School assembly, and painting ornaments in the school’s art studio where Mary Meyer and Ken Noland sometimes taught together. The Meyer family didn’t have television in the mid-1950s—only because Mary was against it. Her prescience regarding the docile passivity that television engendered was remarkable. But it didn’t keep the two older Meyer boys—Quenty and Michael—from stealing away to a friend’s house to engage the technological marvel. The way home to the Meyer farmhouse required crossing a busy thoroughfare known as Route 123. Two years earlier, the family’s beloved golden retriever had been hit by a car and killed crossing that roadway. The two boys were on their way home, rushing to be on time for dinner. In the waning winter solstice light of Tuesday’s evening rush hour, some cars had not yet turned on their headlights. The agile Quenty made his way across first, dodging cars as he ran from one side to the other. His younger brother wasn’t so lucky. Michael was struck by an oncoming car and killed.
The next day, after returning home early from work, my father and mother summoned me from my bedroom, where I had been playing. I joined them in the living room, taking a chair opposite the fireplace. My mother sat on the sofa and my father reclined into his favorite orange Eero Saarinen Womb chair, his legs stretched out on the ottoman before him. He was sipping his usual first martini of the evening. Our house was resplendent with FAO Schwarz Christmas pageantry—holly, mistletoe, a towering spruce pine that twinkled with lights and ornaments, with colorfully wrapped gifts everywhere. It was an idyllic scene, but I sat with the unease of one who hears his name called and wonders what he’s done wrong. I was braced for some kind of reprimand, but not for what came next.
“We have something to tell you,” my mother said, looking in my direction without making eye contact. “Mikey Meyer was hit by a car yesterday. He was killed.”
Her words rocked me to the core. The disturbance was cellular. The hollow silence of loss opened into my world. I couldn’t contain it.
“That’s not true! Tell me it’s not true!” I shouted, before collapsing into tears.
“It’s true,” she said, trying to remain calm. I turned toward my father as though he might have a different version of the story to offer.
“Daddy, tell me it’s not true, please tell me it’s not true!” Hysterical, I threatened to throw a heavy ashtray through the living-room picture window. “Tell me it’s not true, or I’ll break the window!” I screamed.
I don’t remember what came next, but I eventually found myself in my father’s arms with my head against his chest. Feeling the thumping of his heart against my head helped calm my sobs. I remembered looking up at his face. For the first time in my life, I saw my father cry.
Later that evening, I overheard my parents talking about going to visit Cord and Mary after I went to bed. I insisted—demanded—that they take me with them. I didn’t know why it was so imperative that I accompany them. After some resistance, they relented. During the fifteen-minute drive to Michael’s house, darkness enshrouded everything, overtaking me. There was no moon or stars in the sky that night. Everything and everywhere was dark.
We entered the front door and walked down an unlit hallway into the Meyers’ living room, where their own postcard-perfect holiday scene—the tree, the wrapped presents—seemed out of place. As my mother embraced Mary, I felt this house, so familiar just days before, was now alien to me. In spite of—or, perhaps, because of—the joy I had once felt in that house, it was almost unbearable to be there now. No longer would it be Michael’s house; nothing would ever be the same again. Mikey had left, and a part of me had gone with him. Emptiness now became my new companion.
I was facing Michael’s mother, whose gaze was fixed on me. She looked into my eyes, as she had done so many times before, but this time it was her sadness, not her serenity, that moved me. I was overwhelmed by it and wanted to look away, but she drew me into her arms. In that moment, the child-adult distinction evaporated. We were equals in our grief, connected by the loss of someone we both had deeply loved and cherished. As she cried, I felt no need to recoil in any discomfort. Even as a young insecure boy, I gladly stood to embrace and hold her, as she had done for me so many times before. It was a moment of transcendence at a very tender age—an experience of connection unlike any I had known before. And it would be decades before I understood the deeper gift she had bestowed upon me.
Mary walked me up the stairs to Michael’s bedroom. “I want you to have something of Michael’s to take with you,” she said. “Find something you want, anything. Michael would have wanted that, I know.” She left me alone in his room to contemplate, to face yet another level of the reality of my best friend’s departure. I would never again be in that room with the Michael I had known and loved. Unbearably, I had to begin to face the loss that night.
Michael’s funeral was held several days later in Bethlehem Chapel inside the National Cathedral. I was still perhaps too numb to register details of the service, but I will never forget the sight of Ruth Pinchot, Michael’s maternal grandmother, sobbing on the sidewalk as we left the church. There was something so pure and powerful about her explosion of grief, the kind of public display of emotion that was simply “not done” among her set. But in that moment, Ruth didn’t care what anybody thought, or how she might be perceived. Her honesty and courage were so much like her daughter Mary’s.
Michael’s casket was taken to the Pinchot family’s estate, Grey Towers, in Milford, Pennsylvania, and then laid to rest in the Pinchot family plot in the Milford cemetery. He had always shared with me so much about Grey Towers—its bountiful trout streams, waterfalls, and forests—but it would take me nearly fifty years before I could bring myself to actually visit his grave.
The late 1950s were not an auspicious time to be a grieving nine-year-old. The “in-vogue” thinking at that time was that beyond a certain point, displays of sadness were unbecoming. I was encouraged to accept what had happened and move on. In my attempt to do so, I sometimes stayed overnight with Quenty and Mark at the Meyers’ house, and would wake up crying in the middle of the night. On those occasions, it was always Mary who comforted me. Expressions of sadness were okay with her, even embraced.
Soon, however, everything changed. Quenty revealed that his parents were divorcing, and that everyone was moving to Georgetown. Meanwhile, at my home, my parents were ill-equipped to handle my grief. They sent me to a psychiatrist, who, in true Freudian fashion, kept making a lot of allusions to my penis. During the six years following Michael’s death, I floundered. My selfconfidence eroded. Increasingly, I was impulsive, delinquent, and unruly. Unmoored and untethered, I packed on weight as I turned to sugar in an effort to self-medicate. At fifteen, I left home for boarding school in New Hampshire.
The woman who had comforted me in sorrow and reassured me in so many other ways was now gone forever. Like a volcano, the reality of her death had erupted, and reawakened something awful and inescapable. Why had my parents waited until I was home to tell me, I wondered? As I lay in my bed at dawn that Thanksgiving morning in 1964, the apprehension of uneasiness, even dread, engulfed me. There was something foreboding, something terrible—something I couldn’t possibly know or understand at the time. And that feeling would continue to haunt me for more than forty years.
My father knocked on my bedroom door; it was time to get ready to go hunting. As I dressed, I thought back to what a terrible year it had been for Washington—and the nation. President Kennedy had been assassinated the previous November. In my American history course at school that fall, we were discussing something called the Warren Commission and its final report. I remember that our teacher, Mr. Fauver, had said something to the effect of, “Gentlemen, this is a shining example of what makes our country so great, our democracy so vibrant, a government for the people, and by the people.” Reminding us that America was a republic, not a totalitarian state, he urged us to reflect on how President Kennedy’s assassination would have been handled in a country that didn’t have a democratically elected government.
Two years later, in 1966, New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison was challenging the entire veracity of the Warren Report as a massive cover-up, implicating the CIA in President Kennedy’s assassination. When I brought this to my father’s attention for discussion, he became apoplectic that I should ever consider such a thing.3 Sadly, it was the beginning of a never-to-be resolved rupture in our relationship, and a dramatic separation from my family into adulthood. That fall I entered Princeton as an undergraduate. The Vietnam War was approaching its full escalation, and I made it my focus to begin to understand what was taking place. Further enraging both my parents, I became increasingly vociferous about America’s incursion into Southeast Asia, as well as what the CIA, and my father, were actually doing in the world.
Ten years later, in 1976—twelve years after Mary Meyer’s murder—the National Enquirer broke the story about her relationship with President Kennedy. Awakened, but not yet fully conscious, I began a journey that culminated in this book. Somewhere inside the recesses of my being, I instinctively suspected there was a connection between the assassination of our president, and the slaying—less than a year later—of the woman he had come to trust and love.