An honorable human relationship, that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word “love”—is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of redefining the truths they can tell each other.
It is important to do this because it breaks down human self-delusion and isolation.
It is important to do this because in so doing we do justice to our own complexity.
It is important to do this because we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us.
All wars are civil wars, because all men are brothers.
There is no “they.” There is no “other.” It is all one.
(formerly Harvard professor Richard Alpert)
You believe in redemption, don’t you?
—President John F. Kennedy
May 1, 1962
SOMETIME ON MONDAY, October 22, 1962, Mary Meyer was invited to the White House for a small, impromptu dinner party that had been hastily organized by Jackie. The guest list included Jackie’s sister, Lee Radziwill, friends Benno and Nicole Graziani, and Jackie’s dress designer, Oleg Cassini. Mary’s escort for the evening was to be her friend and fellow artist William Walton, a longtime friend of both Jack and Bobby Kennedy who had already functioned as Mary’s partner at previous White House social gatherings. For some unknown reason, however, Mary wasn’t able to attend; Helen Chavchavadze took her place instead.1 Why Mary had inexplicably canceled the engagement remained a mystery, but the fact that Jack had wanted her to be in close proximity that night was noteworthy.
Earlier that evening, before the dinner, Jack had addressed the nation on national television. Six days earlier, on October 16, he had seen detailed photographs from a clandestine U-2 reconnaissance flight that showed a secret offensive buildup of Soviet missile sites under construction on the island of Cuba. The escalating crisis had catapulted the National Security Council into days and nights of secret meetings; it would become known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. With no resolution in sight after six days, the president informed the public of the emerging crisis. “To halt this offensive buildup,” President Kennedy said, “a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated. All ships of any kind bound for Cuba from whatever nation or port will, if found to contain cargoes of offensive weapons, be turned back.”2
Behind closed doors, the president and his most senior advisers sought peaceful ways to resolve the impasse, but the Joint Chiefs of Staff resisted them. So did the CIA. Both wanted to exploit the crisis to invade Cuba to get rid of Fidel Castro, even going so far as to plan a preemptive nuclear strike on the Soviet Union. Secretly, against the president’s orders, the American military and the CIA would engage in a number of activities to undermine and sabotage the possibility of a negotiated settlement. President Kennedy and his advisers ordered a U.S. naval blockade of the entire island of Cuba. Its purpose was to deter any further weapons and supplies from reaching the missile sites under construction. The Cold War hard-liners, however, dismissed it as another “appeasement at Munich,” wanting still to ignite a major conflagration. Finally, after nearly two weeks, masterful diplomatic pressure prevailed. The eventual removal of the Soviet missiles took place without having to bomb or invade Cuba.
In one sense, the Cuban Missile Crisis was a misnomer. It wasn’t just another international political turf war between competing superpowers vying for control. The entire future of humanity itself was hanging in the balance for thirteen days; nuclear holocaust was on the horizon. It was, as author James Douglass rightly tagged it, “the most dangerous moment in human history,”3 as well as possibly the most dramatic event of the entire Cold War. Had it not been for some ingenious, secret back-channel communications and negotiations, the entire planet might well have become uninhabitable.
Crises, however dangerous, sometimes germinate opportunities. In spite of the horror it foreboded, the Cuban Missile Crisis and its ultimate resolution would initiate a major political shift for Kennedy’s presidency. That Jack had wanted Mary in his presence on the evening he alerted the nation to the accelerating calamity suggests a reliance on her counsel. It wasn’t the first time, nor would it be the last. Mary’s longtime commitment to world peace, coupled with Jack’s broadening insight that peace, not armed conflict, was the right path forward, inevitably made her an important asset. After the Cuban Missile Crisis, the president’s evolving political trajectory would increasingly isolate him from his own National Security apparatus.
The crisis had caught Jack off guard. While the Joint Chiefs and CIA pursued a more bellicose strategy vis-à-vis Cuba and the Soviet Union, Kennedy and his Soviet counterpart, Nikita Khrushchev, had been engaged in a secret correspondence that had begun several months after their June 1961 Vienna summit. Khrushchev had initiated the letter exchange.4 Georgi Bolshakov, a trusted Khrushchev aide and KGB agent who often posed as a magazine editor for cover purposes, delivered the first letter—a twenty-six-page missive hidden in a newspaper—to Kennedy’s press secretary, Pierre Salinger, in a New York City hotel room in September 1961. The letter invited a deeper understanding between the two leaders and their countries. At Vienna, Khrushchev had sounded a decidedly different note, touting nuclear war as an option to which he would turn if necessary. In reality, the Soviet leader was exploiting Kennedy’s embarrassment and weakened position since the attempted Bay of Pigs failure. Khrushchev later admitted that in the run-up to the Vienna summit, Soviet hard-liners had pushed him to grandstand. But in his first secret letter to Kennedy, Khrushchev struck a tone of conciliation: “I have given much thought of late to the development of international events since our meeting in Vienna, and I have decided to approach you with this letter. The whole world hopefully expected that our meeting and a frank exchange of views would have a soothing effect, would turn relations between our countries into the correct channel and promote the adoption of decisions which could give the peoples confidence that at last peace on earth will be secured. To my regret—and, I believe, to yours—this did not happen.”
The Soviet premier compared the state of Cold War tensions with “Noah’s Ark where both the ‘clean’ and the ‘unclean’ found sanctuary. But regardless of who lists himself with the ‘clean’ and who is considered to be ‘unclean,’ they are all equally interested in one thing and that is that the Ark should successfully continue its cruise. And we have no other alternative: either we should live in peace and cooperation so that the Ark maintains its buoyancy, or else it sinks. Therefore we must display concern for all of mankind, not to mention our own advantages, and find every possibility leading to peaceful solutions of problems.”5
Khrushchev’s approach disarmed Jack, who responded two weeks later: “I am gratified by your letter and your decision to suggest this additional means of communication. Certainly you are correct in emphasizing that this correspondence must be kept wholly private, not be hinted at in public statements, much less disclosed to the press…. I think it is very important that these letters provide us with an opportunity for a personal, informal but meaningful exchange of views.”6
Since the very beginning of the letter exchange, a full year before the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy and Khrushchev had been building mutual trust. Both leaders were adamant about their commitment to peaceful coexistence. Whether Jack told Mary about the secret correspondence with Khrushchev wasn’t known, but it may have been why Mary had been so outspoken and confrontational with Jack when he decided to resume nuclear atmospheric testing in April 1962.7 Why undo the progress that was being made, she would have argued. Mutual goodwill and hopeful intentions, however, proved no match for the progression of real-world events for both men. For his part, Khrushchev felt betrayed when he learned of the U.S. military’s aggressive planning and lobbying throughout the spring of 1962 for a second invasion of Cuba, this time by overwhelming U.S. forces. At the Vienna summit in June 1961, Khrushchev had told the president that he was “very grieved by the fact” that an attack on Cuba at the Bay of Pigs had taken place. Jack had admitted to the Soviet premier that it had been “a mistake.”
“I respected that explanation,” Khrushchev wrote in another secret communication to Kennedy dated October 26, 1962, toward the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis. “You repeated it to me several times, pointing out that not everybody occupying a high position would acknowledge his mistakes as you had done. I value such frankness. For my part, I told you that we too possess no less courage; we also acknowledged those mistakes which had been committed during the history of our state, and not only acknowledged, but sharply condemned them.”8
The next day, October 27, 1962, Khrushchev wrote: “But how are we, the Soviet Union, our Government, to assess your actions, which are expressed in the fact that you have surrounded the Soviet Union with military bases; surrounded our allies with military bases; placed military bases literally around our country; and stationed your missile armaments there? This is no secret. Responsible American personages openly declare that it is so. Your missiles are located in Britain, are located in Italy, and are aimed against us. Your missiles are located in Turkey.” In closing, Khrushchev pointed out:
You are disturbed over Cuba. You say that this disturbs you because it is 90 miles by sea from the coast of the United States of America. But Turkey adjoins us; our sentries patrol back and forth and see each other. Do you consider, then, that you have the right to demand security for your own country and the removal of the weapons you call offensive, but do not accord the same right to us? You have placed destructive missile weapons, which you call offensive, in Turkey, literally next to us. How then can recognition of our equal military capacities be reconciled with such unequal relations between our great states? This is irreconcilable.9
President Kennedy didn’t want to start a war over Cuba, but as Bobby Kennedy told Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin in a private meeting toward the end of the crisis, “If the situation continues much longer, the President is not sure that the military will not overthrow him and seize power.”10 The Pentagon, led by the bellicose U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff, General Curtis “Bombs Away” LeMay, had pushed aggressively during the first days of the crisis for an immediate surprise-bombing campaign against the Soviet missile sites in Cuba, during the period when the CIA estimated the medium-range nuclear-tipped missiles were not yet operational. This was later followed, within a matter of days, by Pentagon recommendations that a full-scale U.S. invasion follow the air strikes.
What their intelligence had not revealed, however, was that the Russians had more than forty thousand troops in Cuba who were prepared to fight an American invasion. They were armed not only with strategic missiles (the medium- and intermediate-range ICBMs discovered by the American U-2 photography), but, completely unknown to the American military and CIA at the time, also with ninety-eight tactical, or low-yield, nuclear warheads—along with the appropriate short-range missiles and jet bombers to deliver them—which had been placed in Cuba with the specific intent of being actively used to oppose any U.S. invasion of the island.11 Said former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in an interview in 1998: “We didn’t learn until nearly 30 years later, that the Soviets had roughly 162 nuclear warheads on this isle of Cuba, at a time when our CIA said they believed there were none. And included in the 162 were some 90 tactical warheads to be used against a US invasion force. Had we … attacked Cuba and invaded Cuba at the time, we almost surely would have been involved in nuclear war. And when I say “we,” I mean you—it would not have been the U.S. alone. It would have endangered the security of the West, without any question.”12
During the crisis, both the U.S. military and the CIA were secretly operating unilaterally, doing whatever they could to intensify tensions that would ignite a war. On October 28, the Air Force launched an unarmed intercontinental ballistic missile from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, destined for the Marshall Islands in the Pacific. The ICBM test further exacerbated tensions with the Soviet Union. That the president had not ordered the test further aggravated tensions with his own military. At the same time, Strategic Air Command bombers were flying toward the Soviet Union and going past their established “turn around points,” giving the impression that the United States was commencing a preemptive strike.13 In addition, General Thomas Power, head of the Strategic Air Command (and LeMay’s handpicked successor in that role), placed America’s nuclear bomber force at DEFCON-2, one step away from nuclear war, by transmitting two such orders, one a voice command and one a telegram, in the clear, unencrypted, without President Kennedy’s knowledge or permission.14 This open-threat display was intended to provoke the USR into responses that would justify a preemptive nuclear first strike by the United States. Also in the midst of this, the CIA was operating independently, in contravention of the president’s order. Under the command of the CIA’s William K. Harvey, three commando teams of sixty men each were sent into Cuba to destabilize the country in preparation for an invasion. The Agency continued these operations in spite of Kennedy’s order that such destabilization efforts immediately cease and desist.
Eventually, the cooler heads of the two leaders prevailed: Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles from Cuba, and Kennedy agreed that the United States would not invade the island. Secretly, Kennedy also promised the removal of U.S. missiles in Turkey. The American military establishment was furious with the negotiated compromise, while Kennedy’s opinion of the American military establishment hit an all-time low.
The day after the Cuban Missile Crisis ended on October 28, 1962, Kennedy told senior White House adviser Arthur Schlesinger Jr., “The military are mad. They wanted to do this.”15 Two weeks later, the president told Schlesinger, “The first advice I’m going to give my successor is to watch the generals and to avoid feeling that just because they were military men their opinions on military matters were worth a damn.”16 There were no winners or losers in this crisis. “The only victory was avoiding war. For that reason alone,” noted author James Douglass, “Kennedy believed, there must never be another missile crisis, for it would only repeat pressures for terrible choices that had very nearly resulted in total war.”17
In the aftermath of the missile crisis, Mary was officially invited to two White House dinner parties on successive evenings (November 8 and 9). She and Jack may also have spent some time alone, though it’s not known whether they would have done so at Joe Alsop’s house or Mary’s. However, “the most dangerous moment in human history” had taken a huge toll on Jack’s health. With increased infusions of cortisone to combat his stress during the crisis, many of his gastrointestinal symptoms reappeared and became more acute, as did his recurrent back pains. He also became noticeably depressed. Carrying the weight of the world and future of humanity for thirteen days would have easily crushed anyone. Yet, terrible as it had been, an opportunity was lurking on the horizon, something that both he and his counterpart, Nikita Khrushchev, would soon realize.
But in the shadows, evil was very much alive, stalking not only the republic, but the president. Not only were the Joint Chiefs of Staff enraged that Cuba had not been attacked, they were also indignant that Kennedy had made concessions to Khrushchev. The Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961 had already humiliated the military-intelligence establishment. The resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 was yet another cold shower of shame, devoid of American machismo.
Before its end, 1963 would become a defining year for America, and would be forever remembered for one earthshaking moment whose repercussions would be felt throughout the world. The year began with an unobtrusive tiny earthquake of sorts, not even noticeable except to a handful of insider journalists who at the time honored a “gentlemen’s agreement” not to reveal presidential indiscretions. And so, in January of that year, what seemed at first an insignificant event turned out to foreshadow an invisible tsunami, slowly making its way toward destruction. The augury would involve Washington Post publisher and owner Philip L. Graham.
During World War II, Philip L. Graham had trained as an Army intelligence officer. His acumen quickly elevated him to a position close to General Douglas MacArthur in the Pacific theater. There, Phil Graham made connections that would assist him for the rest of his life, including entrée with all of the CIA’s seminal, well-to-do operatives—people like Allen Dulles, Frank Wisner, Richard Helms, Cord Meyer, and Desmond FitzGerald. Being of the same social class, Philip and his wife, Katharine, were accustomed to mingling with CIA heavyweights in Washington, often gathering on Sunday afternoons for an extended cocktail hour before a legendary potluck supper salon. With his marriage to Katharine Meyer in 1940, Philip L. Graham had become a member of the wealthy Agnes and Eugene Meyer family (no relation to Cord Meyer). The family’s crown jewel was the Washington Post. Eugene Meyer had nursed the floundering newspaper ever since he bought it at auction in 1933. In 1946, he made his thirty-year-old son-in-law, Philip, its editor in chief and owner. Having earned some of the highest grades ever given at Harvard, Phil was certifiably brilliant, but also certifiably manic-depressive. Beginning in 1952, the editor in chief of the Washington Post was in and out of psychiatric institutions and intermittently mentally unstable.18
During the 1950s, the CIA initiated Operation Mockingbird, a project designed, the reader will recall, to influence the American media to slant news stories favoring the CIA’s agenda or point of view, particularly those having to do with international events and foreign policy. The program had been started by Allen Dulles’s top lieutenant Frank Wisner, a friend of Phil Graham’s and at one time Cord Meyer’s boss.19 Wisner successfully “recruited” a number of prominent journalists to the CIA, including his friend Phil Graham, who soon helped run Mockingbird within mainstream media outlets. Using newspapers, magazines, radio and television, even Hollywood, the CIA’s disinformation spin machine went to work shaping public opinion and perceptions, undermining the integrity and independence of an indispensable pillar of the democratic process.20
In addition, by late 1962, President Kennedy had appointed Phil Graham head of COMSAT, the new organization that operated America’s communication satellites. The position allowed Graham to access certain classified operations, including the CIA’s secret satellite surveillance system—the CORONA program—which provided aerial reconnaissance of the Soviet Union, China, most of Southeast Asia, and the Middle East.
By 1962, Philip and Katharine Graham’s marriage had come apart and was in freefall. Estranged from Katharine, drinking heavily amid manic-depressive episodes, Phil and his new mistress, Newsweek reporter Robin Webb, were living together and hosting dinner parties for Washington’s social elite. Phil Graham and President Kennedy were also friends. According to some accounts, they had been known to philander together as a team. “The pair of them were sleeping around with the same people,” said Jean Friendly, wife of Post editor Al Friendly. Eventually, both Phil and Katharine Graham became aware of President Kennedy’s affair with Mary Meyer.21
In mid-January 1963, Phil and Robin Webb flew to Phoenix on the Post’s chartered jet. During one intoxicated evening, Graham intruded on dinner at the midwinter meeting of the Associated Press board of directors at the Arizona Biltmore Hotel. Phil proceeded to ask if he could address the audience, at which point he became unhinged. According to David Halberstam’s 1975 account, Graham addressed his audience as “fat bastards” who were “afraid of the truth,” that he “wouldn’t wipe his ass with any of their papers.”22Newsweek foreign correspondent Arnaud de Borchgrave, a witness, said the crowd became “thunderstruck” with disbelief as Graham “singled out various publishers and began to revile them.” Mr. de Borchgrave told author Carol Felsenthal that Graham’s “around the bend” but “brilliant” performance consisted of caricaturing all of the important media people present—including Otis Chandler of the Los Angeles Times, Ben McKelway of the Washington Star, and others, finally accusing them all of “having no balls.”23
But it was author Deborah Davis who, in 1979, based on her interviews with James Truitt, first claimed that Graham had told the crowd, many of whom knew him, that he was going to reveal exactly who was sleeping with whom in Washington, beginning with President Kennedy. It was at this moment that Graham revealed that the president’s “favorite was now Mary Meyer, who had been married to CIA official Cord Meyer and was the sister of Ben Bradlee’s wife, Tony.”24 Davis then claimed that someone at the dinner who witnessed Graham’s outburst called President Kennedy at the White House to alert him. This information allegedly came from James Truitt, who was at Katharine Graham’s house when a call came in for her, allegedly from President Kennedy himself. Katharine at that very moment was meeting with Post executives at her home. They began strategizing how to bring Phil back “forcibly” and commit him to a psychiatric hospital. According to Truitt’s statements to Davis, he himself apparently got on the phone with Kennedy and asked him to send Phil’s doctor, Dr. Leslie Farber, to Phoenix on a military jet.25
Over the years, there has been some controversy as to whether Phil Graham’s “meltdown” that January had actually included his blurting out the fact of Mary and Jack’s affair. Neither Bernard Ridder of the St. Paul Pioneer Press nor Los Angeles Times publisher Otis Chandler, both of whom were present that evening, remembered any such utterances about Mary Meyer by Graham.26 William Shover, a young reporter at the time for the Arizona Republic-Phoenix Gazette, who was also present that evening, did confirm years later that Phil was present at the event, and that he was drunk. “Phil was in the audience and asked if he could speak,” recalled Shover. “He walked up and took the microphone.” Though Shover didn’t remember any specific details, he did recall that “Phil became very emotional, overwhelmed with what he was saying, broke down, and started crying.” Shover also remembered Phil had been on a tirade against many members of the press that evening, but could not recall him talking about President Kennedy or Mary Meyer. He reiterated that position in an interview for this book in 2009.27
Ben Bradlee, who was not present at the Phoenix episode, has always maintained he never heard anything about Phil Graham mentioning the affair between Mary and Jack during the incident, and was adamant that if it had occurred, he and Tony would have come to know about it.28 Anne Truitt also went on record, saying, “James [Truitt] would have told me if Phil had mentioned Mary. It would have worried him terribly.”29 Anne assumed, of course, that Jim was confiding to her all that he knew, and that may not have been the case. The exact story of the event has remained unclear. Unfortunately, Katharine Graham’s own secondhand account of the event in her 1998 book Personal History was superficial and misleading. “No one present that night has ever told me exactly what happened or what Phil said,” Katharine insisted.30
The most intriguing investigation of this event, however, came from Carol Felsenthal in 1993 with the publication of her unauthorized biography of Katharine Graham, entitled Power, Privilege and the Post. Again, the Washington “grand duchess” attempted for a second time what she had done to the Deborah Davis book: She and her “pit bull entourage” tried to stop the Felsenthal publication. Felsenthal recalled “receiving pages of complaints from Kay’s lawyers,” hoping their intimidation might thwart her efforts to publish. It didn’t. They knew she was going to fight it, and so they eventually just disappeared.31
Not wanting to fall into the same pit as Deborah Davis, Carol Felsenthal made sure that her book was not only thoroughly and meticulously researched, but completely scrutinized as well. “Because of what happened with the Deborah Davis book,” said Felsenthal, “this book was vetted and re-vetted. I would have never been able to get away with something that wasn’t thoroughly checked.”32 In 1993, her book was also serialized in Vanity Fair, known for its rigorous fact checking.
Included in the book was Phil Graham’s reference to Mary Meyer and President Kennedy that evening: “Phil announced that he was going to tell them who in Washington was sleeping with whom, and that he might as well start at the top with John Kennedy, who was sleeping in the White House with Mary Meyer. While his audience waited for the next name to drop, he declared, ‘I don’t know what you other sons of bitches are going to do, but I’m going home now and screw my girl.’”33 Based on in-depth interviews with both Jean Friendly (who was not only one of Kay Graham’s closest friends, but also the wife of the Post’s managing editor, Al Friendly) and insider Elizabeth Frank, Felsenthal never received any request for a retraction of this statement, nor was she ever told that her account was inaccurate. In addition, according to Felsenthal, Ben Bradlee read her book and told a journalism class at USC that “he had read every entry [in the book] and he thought it was fair.”34
What was never disputed, however, was the fact that Phil Graham had been forcibly sedated, taken by ambulance to the airport, and flown back to Washington from Phoenix on the day following his outburst. Why was this so necessary? Equally mysterious, the following day, January 18, Phil’s mistress, Robin Webb, called the White House at 6:18 P.M. EST from Phoenix and asked to speak with the president.35 Whether she spoke to him wasn’t clear, but what was the purpose of her call?
Upon his return to Washington, Phil Graham wanted to be placed, according to the Deborah Davis account, at the George Washington University Hospital.36 Perhaps lucid enough to realize he might have been able to leave a university hospital more easily than a private psychiatric hospital, Phil may have become aware that Katharine had obtained a court order committing him to Chestnut Lodge. As early as 1952, Chestnut Lodge, a private psychiatric sanitarium, along with Sheppard Pratt in Baltimore, were regularly used undercover by the CIA. The Agency needed psychiatric facilities to deal with “indiscreet” employees—operatives who possessed or had access to high-level classified information, who were either “cracking up” or otherwise not conforming to established security protocols. According to one former CIA official, “Throughout the 1950s, Agency employees in need of psychiatric care, that I was aware of, either went to Chestnut Lodge or Sheppard Pratt Hospital in Baltimore.”37
Phil remained at Chestnut Lodge for approximately two weeks under the care of Dr. Leslie Farber and Dr. John Cameron. He finally convinced them to release him, whereupon he visited Katharine for one day, then flew to New York with his lawyer, Edward Bennett Williams. There, he plotted to wrest complete control of the Washington Post away from Katharine, changing his will at least twice over a period of several months, giving Robin Webb a controlling interest in his estate.38 All through the winter and spring of 1963, Katharine was both devastated and humiliated by the entire course of events, but determined to prevent the Post from falling into Phil’s control and ownership, even if it meant she had to have Phil declared insane.39
Phil Graham’s Phoenix outburst in January was further destabilizing. Contemplation of such a diabolical deed as the overthrow of an American president would need the kind of trustworthy tentacles that could stretch deep into the grinding wheels of media establishments. Around town, word had gone out: Phil Graham could no longer be trusted.40
Eleven days after the incident in Phoenix on January 28, Mary Meyer signed into the White House residence using her own name. Jackie, who was away at her rented hideaway, Glen Ora, decorating the family’s new Wexford estate, had become aware of the affair. According to Kennedy aide Godfrey McHugh, “Jackie knew about his [Jack’s] women.” She had, in fact, asked McHugh, a man she had once dated, to tell her about her husband’s women.41 Bill Walton, the closest to Jack, Bobby, and Jackie, uncharacteristically let it slip to author Ralph Martin: “You know, in the end, Jackie knew everything. Every girl. She knew her rating, her accomplishments.”42 But Mary wasn’t just another dalliance for Jack, and Jackie knew it. By 1963, Mary had become a fixture in the president’s life, as close a confidante as he was capable of having.
On March 8, 1963, the Kennedys hosted their sixth and, as fate would have it, last White House dinner dance. Mary attended on the arm of Blair Clark, an old friend of Jack’s from Harvard. “I brought Mary to one of the White House parties,” Clark recalled in 1983, and “she simply disappeared for a half hour. Finally I went looking for her. She had been upstairs with Jack and then had gone walking out in the snow. So there I was, ‘the beard’ for Mary Meyer.”43 The bottom of Mary’s dress was muddy and wet, indicating that she had been walking outside. She later told her friend Anne Truitt that she had become “unhappy” and taken a walk. Upon returning, she couldn’t find Blair Clark, and so, according to Sally Bedell Smith, “Bobby Kennedy called a White House limousine, put her in the back and sent her home.”44
During the evening of the final dinner dance, Jackie told her dinner partner, Adlai Stevenson, “I don’t care how many girls [Jack sleeps with] as long as I know he knows it’s wrong, and I think he does now. Anyway that’s all over for the present.”45 A beleaguered, increasingly desperate Jackie, trying to save face, told Stevenson she and her sister had “always talked about divorce as practically something to look forward to.” Then she told him, “I first loved you” when she had met Stevenson in Illinois shortly after she and Jack were married.46
By March, Jackie had not yet announced publicly she was pregnant, but it appeared she had given Jack an ultimatum, just prior to that evening. Had Jack attempted to end the affair with Mary that evening, or had the two staged the contretemps to appear that way? Whether their split that night was real or not, the separation didn’t last long, at least officially. On May 29, Mary would attend the president’s forty-sixth birthday party on the presidential yacht Sequoia.
In April 1963, President Kennedy’s future trip to Dallas, Texas, was discussed privately between himself, Vice President Johnson, and his chief aide, Kenny O’Donnell. On April 23, Johnson announced plans for Kennedy’s trip to Dallas during a luncheon speech to Texas newspaper and radio station executives. The next day, the Dallas Times Herald wrote about the announcement.47
During the Easter weekend of April 13–14, special White House aide Joseph W. Shimon enjoyed the company of his daughter, Toni, who lived on Long Island with her mother. Shimon had worked in the White House at the highest levels. In 1963, he was assigned officially as a “Washington Police Inspector,” though he was also secretly working for the Justice Department and was a liaison to the CIA, having risen up through the ranks through the Metropolitan Police Department beginning in the early 1930s. Shimon had established a reputation for discretion in service to various presidents. He had won the confidence not only of President Franklin Roosevelt, but his successors as well. President Kennedy consulted Shimon regularly. The two were known to have taken numerous walks together on the White House grounds.48
Shimon had one child, a college-age daughter named Toni, with whom he was extremely close in spite of being divorced from her mother. During the 1963 Easter weekend, Shimon and his daughter Toni were walking near Shimon’s North Stafford Street home in Arlington, Virginia, when he revealed something to his daughter that would come back to haunt her. As they strolled together, Toni began to feel a sense of foreboding, suspecting she would soon be missing her father’s company once again. Something else was coming, however, something she couldn’t foresee.
“You’re on the outside and I’m going to hit you with something,” Shimon told his daughter. “Tell me right off the top of your head what you think.”
“Okay,” she said, not expecting to hear what followed.
“The vice president [Lyndon Johnson] has asked me to give him more security than the president,” said Shimon. As they continued walking, Toni’s mood began to darken. There was something ominous in her father’s voice, she remembered feeling.
“What’s he afraid of, Dad?” she asked her father.
“What do you think?” Her father responded, wanting to see if she understood and connected the dots. There was an awkward silence. She knew she was being tested. Toni would remember that moment and the darkness that had come over her that day.
“Something’s coming down, Dad,” she said. “Does President Kennedy know about this?”
“I haven’t mentioned it,” she remembered her father telling her.
“What do you think?” her father asked again.
“Something’s going to happen and Johnson knows about it,” Toni immediately responded.
“Good girl!” said Shimon, proud of his tutelage of his only child.49
Later that spring, Mary returned to Boston for her third visit with Timothy Leary. Without mentioning any names, she reportedly alluded to Phil Graham’s outburst in Arizona earlier that year. “Oh God, where to begin,” Leary recalled her saying. “There’s a tremendous power struggle going in Washington. A friend of mine was losing the battle, a really bloody one. He got drunk and told a room of reporters about me and my boyfriend.50
“It’s really scary,” Mary continued. “You wouldn’t believe how well-connected some of these people are, and nobody picked it up.”51 Mary was alluding to the fact that Graham’s Phoenix outburst had not appeared in any newspaper or media outlet. She urged Leary to keep a lower profile with his psychedelic research. They also discussed the state of world affairs, with Mary telling him, “America doesn’t have to be run by these cold-war guys. They’re crazy, they are. They don’t listen. They don’t learn. They’re completely caught up in planning World War III. They can’t enjoy anything but power and control.”52 Her comments to Leary suggested that Jack might have told her about the July 1961 National Security Council (NSC) meeting in which the Pentagon and the CIA seriously considered a preemptive nuclear attack on the Soviets in late 1963.
Leary invited Mary to Mexico for further training in leading psychedelic sessions. She declined and offered a warning: “If you stir up too many waves, they’ll shut you down. Or worse.” She no longer trusted the phones or the mail, she told him, but said she would find a way to stay in touch. “And do be careful,” she underscored.53
On the sixth of May, 1963, the Harvard Corporation voted to fire Timothy Leary, not for giving hallucinogens to students, but for failing to show up and teach some of his classes that spring. Leary received the news while in Mexico. He appeared to be relieved. His former Harvard boss, Professor David McClelland, the man who originally brought Leary to the university in 1959, thought he had become psychotic; his biographer thought he’d never been happier.54 Five years later, Leary reflected on his firing from Harvard:
I was never able to commit myself to the game of Harvard or even to the game of rehabilitation. Not even to the game of proselytizing for LSD itself. Nothing that doesn’t ring true to my ancient cell wisdom and to that central vibration beam within can hold my attention for very long. From the date of this session it was inevitable that we would leave Harvard, that we would leave American society, and that we would spend the rest of our lives as mutants, faithfully following the instructions of our internal blueprints, and tenderly, gently disregarding the parochial social insanities.55
While in residence that May just north of Acapulco, Leary lamented: “One thing that didn’t happen was a visit from Mary Pinchot. I received a short cryptic note, postmarked Washington, D.C., typed and unsigned.” The note read:
PROGRAM GOING VERY WEL HERE. EXTREMELY WEL!!! HOWEVER, I WON’T BE JOINING YOU. TOO MUCH PUBLICITY.
YOUR SUMMER CAMP IS IN SERIOUS JEOPARDY.
I’LL CONTACT YOU AFTER YOU RETURN TO USA.56
The note, in all probability, was from Mary, but what did it mean? According to author Leo Damore, it was corroborating evidence of a “mild LSD trip” that Mary and Jack had shared at Joe Alsop’s home in Georgetown in May 1963. Sometime after Damore’s November 1990 interview with Timothy Leary, it appeared that Damore learned of this event. When I met with Damore in April 1993, he confided that the same confidential source who had told him about Mary and Jack’s rendezvous in Provincetown, Massachusetts, during the summer of 1959 had later also confided that Mary and Jack had, in fact, taken a “mild LSD trip” together several weeks before Jack’s commencement address at American University, and before his forty-sixth birthday party on May 29. Despite my repeated inquiry about the identity of the source, however, Damore would never reveal it.57
As to the note’s authenticity, it appeared to be legitimate: Timothy Leary was well known to be an obsessive pack rat who never threw away anything. According to his biographer, Robert Greenfield, Leary’s hoarding of his papers, letters, any kind of communication whatsoever, was legendary. “Throughout his life, Tim saved every scrap of paper that had ever crossed his desk,” said Greenfield. “The archive he had assembled was second to none. The sheer volume of the 465 boxes holding his papers was so overwhelming that at his death, they entirely filled a large two-bedroom apartment in the San Fernando Valley.”58
During what would turn out to be the last five months of his life, President Kennedy would further define himself and his presidency. His newfound political trajectory would eventually distance him from Cold War ideology and move him closer to setting the stage for world peace. For years, Kennedy had been quietly nurturing the notion of disarmament. The Cuba debacles had awakened and emboldened the president. Twice burned by both the military and the CIA, Kennedy’s independence became clear. After the Cuban Missile Crisis and for the remainder of his presidency, he sought not only to avoid military and intelligence oversight, but also to evade their scrutiny as well. He was determined to forge a path toward setting the world stage for peace.
Yet despite ongoing secret negotiations with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan of Great Britain and Khrushchev in the early part of 1963, President Kennedy seemed pessimistic about the possibility of a nuclear arms treaty. At his news conference on March 21, when asked about the possibility of a test-ban agreement, he replied, “Well, my hopes are dimmed, but nevertheless I still hope.” On May 20, just three weeks before his historic, unprecedented commencement address at American University on June 10, he was quoted as saying, “No, I’m not hopeful, I’m not hopeful…. We have tried to get an agreement [with the Soviets] on all the rest of it and then to the question of the number of inspections, but we were unable to get that. So I would say, I’m not hopeful at all.”59
Whatever transpired during the latter half of May remains unknown, but something somewhere seems to have made a significant impact. No other presidential address in history would provoke such a remarkable impact on world opinion—or stir the latent hope of mankind—as did President Kennedy’s American University commencement address on June 10, 1963. Kennedy wanted the entire world to believe in the possibility of peace. As Secretary of State Dean Rusk noted after the speech, “The speech was remarkable, I feel, because it had so much of President Kennedy personally in it… And because it reflected his total commitment to peace.”
If some part of his transformation was catalyzed by a horizon-altering psychedelic excursion with Mary Meyer, then so be it. He wouldn’t have been the first iconic figure in human history to partake, nor would he be the last. Stepping out of the proverbial box of normal perception—surrendering to what Timothy Leary once referred to as the “niagara of sensory input”—has, in fact, changed the course of events and perspectives for many respected notables. Dr. Francis Crick, the Nobel laureate and progenitor of modern genetics, reportedly was under the influence of LSD when he first deciphered the doublehelix structure of DNA sixty years ago. Before his death in 2004, he told a colleague that he had often used small doses of LSD to boost his powers of thought. It was reported that “it was LSD, not Eagle’s warm beer, that helped him to unravel the structure of DNA, the discovery that won him the Nobel Prize.”60
Bill Wilson, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, was first introduced to LSD in 1956 by psychedelic pioneer Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World and The Doors of Perception. He emerged completely enthusiastic about the experience, believing that the drug was a kind of “miracle substance” that had the potential to facilitate a deeper spiritual connection with life—something he was convinced was missing for people who struggled with alcohol addiction. Enthralled by his own realizations, Wilson continued his own exploration of LSD well into the 1960s, at one point considering “a plan to have LSD distributed at all A. A. meetings nationwide.”61
The late Steve Jobs, a Reed College dropout and the founder of Apple Computer (now Apple, Inc.), became a veritable New Age Thomas Edison—possibly one of the greatest technological inventors and entrepreneurs the world has ever witnessed. He once told author John Markoff that he “believed that taking LSD was one of the two or three most important things he had ever done in his life,” and that people who had never taken psychedelics would never be able to fully understand him.62
In a televised interview with political commentator and comedian Bill Maher in 2009, acclaimed film director Oliver Stone said of psychedelics: “I wouldn’t be here if it hadn’t been for it. I grew a lot. It opened my mind.” Stone later added, “Those people who stayed human in the platoons [in Vietnam], in the combat platoons I saw, were doing grass [smoking marijuana]. It kept them human throughout a very deadening process.”63
No longer regarded as just a passing fad of the 1960s counterculture, the long-awaited resurgence in psychedelic research has finally resumed. Since 2008, at Johns Hopkins, Harvard, and UCLA, U.S.-government-sponsored studies with the hallucinogen psilocybin have repeatedly demonstrated that subjects who volunteered for this opportunity came to regard their experience as one of the most meaningful, spiritually significant events in their lives. The experience of ordinary people in this kind of research has resembled those recorded in the annals of mystical traditions. Dr. Roland Griffiths at Johns Hopkins now entertains the idea that the human brain may, in fact, be “hardwired” to undergo these kinds of “unitive” experiences.64
Whatever curiosity might have propelled Jack Kennedy to partake of a “mild” psychedelic excursion, beyond Mary Meyer’s example, will probably never be revealed, unless Mary’s diary turns up. In any case, even a minimal dose of a psychedelic like LSD or psilocybin could have chemically catalyzed the opening of Jack’s “hard-wired” capacity for a “unitive” state of consciousness. It would have further set into motion the insights already taking hold in the president for an entirely new political trajectory, away from the Cold War.
The president wrote his American University address with a small cadre of trusted aides who worked hard to keep its contents from the Cold War national security establishment.65 The powerful speech marked an abrupt departure from Cold War bluster and announced a new era of global cooperation and coexistence. Ascending the dais at 10:30 that morning, the president said, “I have, therefore, chosen this time and place to discuss a topic on which ignorance too often abounds and the truth is too rarely perceived—yet it is the most important topic on earth: world peace.”66
The press immediately dubbed it Kennedy’s “peace speech,” and two days later, the New York Times gave it only a tepid response: “Generally there was not much optimism in official Washington that the President’s conciliation address at American University would produce agreement on a test ban treaty or anything else,” wrote reporter Max Frankel.67 This, despite the fact that the speech was perhaps the most visionary, spiritual clarion call of awakening ever put forth across the divide of all nation-states, and mankind.
First, as Kennedy outlined the new direction his administration would undertake, he invited all Americans to examine what the advent of a genuine peace would mean for them: “What kind of peace do I mean? What kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children—not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women—not merely peace in our time but peace for all time.”68 An American president was holding the entire world in his arms. His emerging vision of peace for the planet was no less important than his vision of peace for his country, for in the “unitive” state of consciousness, we are all one.
Unwilling to let his own countrymen off the hook, the president then challenged the notion that if only the Soviets would “adopt a more enlightened attitude,” there would be peace. World peace, Kennedy exhorted, was everyone’s responsibility: “I also believe we must examine our own attitude—as individuals and as a nation—for our attitude is as essential as theirs.” Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. would later assess the remark as “a sentence capable of revolutionizing the whole American view of the Cold War.”69Kennedy’s first invitation urged all Americans to reframe their thinking:
First: Let us examine our attitude toward peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable—that mankind is doomed—that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. We need not accept that view. Our problems are manmade—therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable—and we believe they can do it again.70
The evolution of humanity toward world peace would require, the president underscored, a “gradual evolution in human institutions.” He would go on to say:
Genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts. It must be dynamic, not static, changing to meet the challenge of each new generation. For peace is a process—a way of solving problems.
… Peace need not be impracticable, and war need not be inevitable. By defining our goal more clearly, by making it seem more manageable and less remote, we can help all peoples to see it, to draw hope from it, and to move irresistibly toward it.71
Encouraging all Americans to “reexamine our attitude towards the Soviet Union,” this dramatic oration was as much for the Russian people as it was for America. Kennedy accepted his share of responsibility (much of it manufactured by the CIA) for the destructive Cold War mentality that had so far prevailed, saying, “We are both caught up in a vicious cycle in which suspicion on one side breeds suspicion on the other, and new weapons beget counter-weapons.”
Today, should total war ever break out again—no matter how—our two countries would become the primary targets. It is an ironic but accurate fact that the two strongest powers are the two in the most danger of devastation. All we have built, all we have worked for, would be destroyed in the first 24 hours.72
President Kennedy then reminded his audience of the following:
Among the many traits the peoples of our two countries have in common, none is stronger than our mutual abhorrence of war. Almost unique, among the major world powers, we have never been at war with each other. And no nation in the history of battle ever suffered more than the Soviet Union suffered in the course of the Second World War. At least 20 million lost their lives. Countless millions of homes and farms were burned or sacked. A third of the nation’s territory, including nearly two thirds of its industrial base, was turned into a wasteland—a loss equivalent to the devastation of this country east of Chicago.73
He then called for a strengthening of the United Nations, highlighting the need for the UN to become the final arbiter for world peace crisis and conflict, “capable of resolving disputes on the basis of law, of insuring the security of the large and the small, and of creating conditions under which arms can finally be abolished.” That had been, in 1945, the sanguine vision of Cord Meyer in a postwar world struggling for peace. But it would be his archrival Jack Kennedy who would finally articulate the inspiration that would echo into eternity. “For in the final analysis,” said the president, “our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”74
The president also announced his intention to establish a telephone hotline between the Soviet premier’s office and the White House. Such a phone line, the president told his audience, could help deter “dangerous delays, misunderstandings, and misreadings of other’s actions which might occur at a time of crisis.” Yet the most important, groundbreaking announcement in this address was Kennedy’s declaration that he would not only cease nuclear atmospheric testing immediately, but soon join Prime Minister Macmillan and Premier Khrushchev in Moscow for talks that he hoped would yield the first nuclear test ban treaty: “[T]o make clear our good faith and solemn convictions on the matter, I now declare that the United States does not propose to conduct nuclear tests in the atmosphere so long as other states do not do so. We will not be the first to resume. Such a declaration is no substitute for a formal binding treaty, but I hope it will help us achieve one. Nor would such a treaty be a substitute for disarmament, but I hope it will help us achieve it.”75
President Kennedy’s conclusion was no less dramatic, or unclear:
All this is not unrelated to world peace. “When a man’s ways please the Lord,” the Scriptures tell us, “he maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him.” And is not peace, in the last analysis, basically a matter of human rights: the right to live out our lives without fear of devastation; the right to breathe air as nature provided it; the right of future generations to a healthy existence?
While we proceed to safeguard our national interests, let us also safeguard human interests. And the elimination of war and arms is clearly in the interest of both.76
So stunned was Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev by the magnificence of the Kennedy address, he called it “the greatest of any American President since Roosevelt.” Khrushchev immediately ordered that it be rebroadcast throughout every city in the Soviet Union, an unprecedented event. Three weeks later, on July 4, both Nikita Khrushchev and his colleague Leonid Brezhnev sent President Kennedy a telegram:
DEAR MR. PRESIDENT, On the occasion of the national holiday of the United States of America—Independence Day—we send to you and the American people our warm congratulations and best wishes for peace and prosperity. In our times—the age of harnessing atomic energy and penetration into the depths of the universe—the preservation of peace has become in truth a vital necessity for all mankind. We are convinced that if the governments of our two countries, together with the governments of other states, displaying a realistic approach, firmly choose the road of elimination of points of international tension and of broadening commercial cooperation, then peoples everywhere will welcome this as a great contribution to the strengthening of universal peace.77
In spite of Kennedy’s earlier pessimism for a nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviets, in the wake of his American University address, “John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev began to act like competitors in peace. They were both turning,” wrote author James Douglass.78 Equally groundbreaking was the speed with which the treaty would be drafted and ratified. The moment had to be seized quickly. Kennedy had asked W. Averell Harriman to lead the American team, but it was the president himself who prepared them, making sure they understood the critical importance of what was about to occur. They were all sworn to confidentiality. Once Harriman arrived in Moscow on July 14, Kennedy would be in contact with him three and four times a day. “Spending hours in the cramped White House Situation Room, Kennedy personally edited the U.S. position, as if he were at the table himself,” said historian Richard Reeves. “The Soviets were astonished when they realized the American President had the power to make decisions on a matter like this without consulting any bureaucracy.”79 That was only because Kennedy had taken matters into his own hands. He well knew such a treaty would never occur had he worked through the national security channels of the CIA and the Pentagon. On July 25, just six weeks after the American University address, Averell Harriman put his initials on the Limited Test Ban Treaty in Moscow. It began with the following commitment: “Each of the Parties to this treaty undertakes to prohibit, to prevent, and not carry out any nuclear weapon test explosion, or any other nuclear explosion … in the atmosphere, beyond its limits, including outer space, or under water, including territorial waters or high seas.”80
The following evening, President Kennedy delivered yet another historic address, announcing on American television his delegation’s success in Moscow. “I speak to you tonight in a spirit of hope,” he began. “Yesterday a shaft of light cut into the darkness. Negotiations were concluded in Moscow on a treaty to ban all nuclear tests in the atmosphere, in outer space, and under water…. But the achievement of this goal is not a victory for one side—it is a victory for mankind. A journey of a thousand miles,” the president concluded, “must begin with a single step.”81
June 10, 1963, had also brought with it a small, private celebration. Just before 8:00 P.M., “at the next to last minute,” with Jackie away at Camp David, Jack decided to stop by Joe Alsop’s house in Georgetown. Opting to just “come for a drink,” the president would stay for more than an hour, as guests for the Alsop’s dinner party began to arrive.82 Mary Meyer was already there. If, as Joe Alsop described it, Jack was “in a gay mood” that early June evening, Mary herself must have been ablaze, and not just because flowers everywhere were coaxing her smile. Jack had now ventured where Cord could never have gone. Her mission had become illuminated into her mosaic—a subliminal “peace song” whose emerging, though still faint, melody had just premiered for all mankind earlier that day.
During cocktails in the Alsop garden, Mary sat with Jack on one side and Ambassador William Attwood, her former prep school and college beau, on the other. Attwood would recall four years later that on that evening the three of them had turned to the enjoyable recollection of past events, “reminiscing about our school days,” with Mary as his date at Choate, and how Jack “happily recalled having cut in on her on the dance floor…. it was impossible to imagine that, inside of a year,” wrote Attwood, “both of them would be murdered, he in Dallas and she in Georgetown.”83
However historic and unparalleled, Kennedy’s American University speech became not only a turning point away from Cold War mayhem toward peace, but a watershed moment for the newfound trajectory of his presidency. The very next day, June 11, the president delivered his groundbreaking civil rights address in response to his successful challenge of Alabama governor George Wallace, who had tried, and failed, to prevent two black students from registering at the University of Alabama. In this address, Kennedy revealed the same compassion, warmth, and sensitivity that had been on display a day earlier. He underscored and illuminated that there was a direct link between political equality and freedom and the attainment of world peace. Without the former, there could not be the latter. “This nation,” said the president, “was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.” He continued: “The Negro baby born in America today, regardless of the section of the State in which he is born, has about one-half as much chance of completing high school as a white baby born in the same place on the same day, one-third as much chance of completing college, one-third as much chance of becoming a professional man, twice as much chance of becoming unemployed, about oneseventh as much chance of earning $10,000 a year, a life expectancy which is seven years shorter, and the prospects of earning only half as much.”84
Kennedy called on “every American, regardless of where he lives, [to] stop and examine his conscience about this and other related incidents.” Regarding race relations, America was in “a moral crisis as a country and a people,” and he promised to deliver landmark legislation “giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public—hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, and similar establishments.” He would instruct the Justice Department “to participate more fully in lawsuits designed to end segregation in public education.” Equality and civil rights, the president said, had to begin “in the homes of every American in every community across our country.” But just after midnight on the night of the president’s televised address, Medgar Evers, a prominent leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was shot and killed in his driveway in front of his family by white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith.
During the afternoon of June 12, Mary Meyer called Evelyn Lincoln, the president’s personal secretary, at the White House and was transferred to Jack. They talked for nearly twenty minutes.85 That night, Mary was escorted by her fellow artist Bill Walton to a small dinner party at the White House, hosted by the president and the First Lady. Two nights later, with Jackie at Camp David, Mary returned unescorted to the White House residence.
On June 26, in the midst of Kennedy’s ten-day trip across Europe, more than a million and a half people in West Berlin’s Rudolph Wilde Platz, adjacent to the Brandenburg Gate, turned out to welcome the American president. It would be the largest crowd that Kennedy would ever address, and he would famously declare, “Ich bin ein Berliner!” (“I am a Berliner!”) Kennedy spoke directly to what the people of a divided Germany wanted to hear. He addressed “the right to be free … the right to unite their families and their nation in lasting peace, with good will to all people.” Five months later, the city of Berlin would honor the slain American president by renaming the square in which he had spoken “John F. Kennedy Platz.” He returned from Europe just after two o’clock the morning of July 3. That evening, Mary joined him in the White House residence.86Seven months pregnant, Jackie had retreated to Hyannis Port for the summer with her two children.
Sometime in late June, Mary had reportedly returned to Boston and met Timothy Leary at a downtown seafood restaurant. According to Leary’s account, she chided him in a playful manner for having attracted too much publicity in Mexico. “They’re not going to let CBS film you drugging people on a lovely Mexican beach,” she told him. “You could destroy capitalism and socialism in one month with that sort of thing.” Mary was unusually giddy and happy that day, Leary recalled. She talked as if her “program” in Washington had achieved some major goal, and Leary was keen to know more.87
“Never mind all that,” Mary said, unwilling to disclose details. “While you’ve been goofing around, I’ve been working hard. My friends and I have been turning on some of the most important people in Washington.”88 Again, Mary wouldn’t reveal who these “important people” were; she was always tight-lipped and discreet. Given the timeline, however, it appeared to be another reference to the fact that she and Jack had recently shared a psychedelic experience together. In addition, there was an allusion to someone else, someone other than Jack, and part of the group of “important people,” which will be discussed shortly. Years later, during their 1990 interview, both Leo Damore and Timothy Leary reached a similar conclusion about the identity of this person.89
August augured an ominous event that might have foreshadowed worse things to come. At the end of June, Washington Post owner-editor Philip Graham had finally broken off his affair with Robin Webb and returned to Chestnut Lodge sanitarium. By all accounts, he had been making solid progress when he left Chestnut Lodge on a weekend pass the morning of August 3 to visit Katharine at their Glen Welby estate in Warrenton, Virginia. Within hours, Phil Graham was dead, a small-bore shotgun wound to the head, an apparent suicide.
There were conflicting accounts of Graham’s death, just as there had been about his alleged behavior in Phoenix. According to author David Halberstam, everyone he talked to said Phil had been “getting better; everyone thought he was getting better,” and that was why he had been permitted to leave on the weekend. Regarding the circumstances of his death, Halberstam said only that “Kay was in a different room of the house at the time.”90 In Deborah Davis’s 1979 account, Phil and Katharine “spent some time together, and then Katharine took a nap. Phil went downstairs and sat on the edge of the bathtub and shot himself in the head.”91 In Carol Felsenthal’s “thoroughly” vetted book, based on a number of interviews with people close to Katharine, she and Phil “had a happy morning together.” They played tennis and had lunch. In the early afternoon, Phil said he was going bird hunting. Their estate was well stocked with shotguns used for hunting. At about 1:00 P.M., “Kay went to her second-floor bedroom for a nap.” Phil apparently went downstairs to a first-floor bathroom, “sat on the side of the bathtub, propped a.28 gauge shotgun against his head, and pulled the trigger.”92
According to Katharine Graham’s own 1998 account, the two had lunch on the back porch and then went upstairs together for a nap. There was no mention of Phil talking about going hunting. “After a short while,” wrote Katharine, “Phil got up, saying he wanted to lie down in a separate bedroom he sometimes used. Only a few minutes later, there was the ear-splitting noise of a gun going off indoors. I bolted out of the room and ran around in a frenzy looking for him. When I opened the door to a downstairs bathroom, I found him.”93
Whatever inconsistencies in these accounts, the question arose: Had Phil once again shown his brilliance by having fooled the staff of Chestnut Lodge as to how much he was improving while he supposedly masterminded the plan of his own suicide? Yet suicide would nullify the revisions to his will that he had made throughout 1963, cutting out Katharine. Katharine, after Phil’s death, walked away with complete control of the Washington Post and everything else.
In the three different editions of Deborah Davis’s Katharine the Great, the author never wavered from the view that Phil’s death was a suicide. But in 1992, after the third edition had been published, Davis gave an interview in which she made public the fact that she “got a call from a woman who claimed that she knew for a fact that it [Phil’s death] was murder.”94 To my knowledge, she never followed up on the call. But it coincided with another previously undisclosed piece of this puzzle.
When Leo Damore talked with Dovey Roundtree in 1991 about Katharine Graham, Roundtree told him that a young black woman attorney by the name of Barbara L. Smith had been working in her office in 1963. Barbara was the granddaughter of William Wadsworth Smith, the caretaker of the Graham’s Glen Welby estate at the time of Phil’s death.95 Dovey and her young colleague Barbara had become quite close, she told Damore; when Barbara’s grandfather died, she asked Dovey to speak at his funeral.
“I went with Barbara to her grandfather’s funeral, who was buried on a mountain side that Mrs. Graham gave to him when he was a younger person,” recounted Roundtree to Damore. Katharine Graham and one of her sons had attended William’s funeral, and Katharine had also spoken. “She stood in that pulpit, and talked about her love for this man. And the church was quiet [Dovey’s emphasis]. I mean quiet. Not from grief, but quiet.” Not one to confuse important details, Dovey Roundtree confided to Damore that, according to Barbara, Mrs. Graham had called on Barbara’s grandfather “to go upstairs and bring this man [Phil Graham] downstairs. She called to him and he went up and put him in … Barbara tells it … he took him in his arms and brought him down” after he had allegedly shot himself.96 Although there was never a shred of physical evidence that anyone other than Phil had pulled the trigger, questions lingered. Had he been—in some way—”encouraged” to do so? And if so, by whom and for what reason?
“Anybody can commit a murder, but it takes an expert to commit a suicide,” said legendary CIA asset William (“Bill”) R. Corson, mentor to Roger Charles, an investigative journalist and a former Marine lieutenant colonel, both of whom will figure prominently in a future chapter.97 Corson was never “officially” employed by the CIA, but he often worked closely with Jim Angleton and Robert Crowley, both of whom were deeply ensconced in the Agency’s covert action directorate. The three were also the closest of friends.
By the early 1960s, the Technical Services Staff (TSS) within the CIA, headed by the infamous Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, had a huge arsenal of drugs and other substances that could be clandestinely administered to unwitting victims to create such states as suicidal depression, brain tumors, cancer, or death from natural causes, leaving no trace of any foreign toxin in the body. Under congressional scrutiny in 1975, CIA director William Colby openly exhibited to Senator Frank Church and his committee a CIA-manufactured pistol equipped with undetectable poison darts that would, when silently fired “without perception” at its intended human target, induce a fatal heart attack, leaving no trace of any toxin. Colby’s sham exhibition was just the tip of the iceberg of the CIA arsenal.98
Since the 1950s, highly classified CIA programs—with code names such as MKULTRA, Artichoke, Paperclip, MKNAOMI—often utilized psychiatric facilities, including nearby Chestnut Lodge and Sheppard Pratt. The Agency spent untold millions to find and develop drugs and other methods, both conventional and esoteric, to bring people under various states of control. It’s no secret the CIA was interested in all the ramifications of “mind control”—altering, or erasing, or even remaking a subject’s mind in whatever direction the Agency wanted. Mind “erasure” was of paramount importance for CIA personnel who were no longer mentally stable, and at risk of revealing classified information. Another long-standing CIA obsession was to create a “Manchurian candidate”—a project involving the use of hypnosis, drugs, deprivation, or other means as a way to turn an individual into a programmable assassin, even to take his own life.
If Phil Graham’s death was something other than a suicide, what had been the motive to get rid of him, and who would have benefited? While Phil’s overall prognosis and recovery seemed to have improved by the summer of 1963, his long-term stability remained uncertain. Did that mean there might be more embarrassing episodes of public disclosures about people in high places? Would he still, at some point, attempt to wrest control of the Post away from Katharine? And who would be in charge of the Post’s editorial disposition if Phil was no longer running the paper?
Sometime after the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco, Phil had reportedly had an “acute manic-depressive incident”—prior to his Phoenix, Arizona, outburst in January 1963—during which he had talked openly of “the CIA’s manipulation of journalists” and how they were being used to promote whatever slant the Agency wanted promoted. This finally disturbed him, he reportedly admitted to his friends in the CIA. Increasingly, Graham turned against newsmen and politicians whose code was one of “mutual trust” and silence in order to protect those whose reputations might be compromised by revealing association with the CIA.
“He had begun to talk, after his second breakdown, about the CIA’s manipulation of journalists,” said author Deborah Davis. “He said it disturbed him. He said it to the CIA.” Word had started to go out that Phil could no longer be trusted. 99
If Phil Graham made revisions to his will during the last two years of his life, none of them were upheld after his death. His widow immediately assumed the role of publisher of the Post. Katharine reverted to the policies Phil had set in place before his 1961 disenchantment. That included, according to journalist Michael Hasty, “the supporting of efforts of the intelligence community in advancing the foreign policies and economic agenda of the nation’s ruling elites.”100 FAIR news analyst Norman Solomon was even more blunt in 2001 when he wrote: “Her [Katharine Graham’s] newspaper mainly functioned as a helpmate to the war-makers in the White House, State Department and Pentagon.”101 For years after Phil’s death, the Washington Post continued its tack of employing all kinds of well-known propaganda techniques, as Michael Hasty had pointed out: “… evasion, confusion, misdirection, targeted emphasis, disinformation, secrecy, omission of important facts, and selective leaks.” It was therefore no surprise that Katharine Graham, in a speech at the CIA’s Langley headquarters in 1988, said the following: “We live in a dirty and dangerous world. There are some things the general public does not need to know and shouldn’t. I believe democracy flourishes when the government can take legitimate steps to keep its secrets and when the press can decide whether to print what it knows.”102
Why would Phil Graham have committed suicide at a time when, by all accounts, his condition was improving? In June, with Katharine’s support, he had voluntarily returned to Chestnut Lodge. Well into July, those who visited Phil all spoke of his increasingly stable disposition, of his coming to terms with his illness and making a recovery. Might he have succeeded in returning to his former life and continuing his reign at the Post? Whether he recovered or not, the risk may well have been that the wealthy, powerful media mogul Phil Graham was no longer willing to toe the party line, that he could no longer be counted on to turn a blind eye if needed.
The silent, invisible tsunami was approaching. An excruciating, earth-shattering moment in American history was about to explode in three months’ time. As little as possible could be left to chance. Not only would there be a well-planned, well-executed conspiracy to take out a sitting American president, but an even more critical and insidious conspiracy—a cover-up—had to be successfully, and immediately, orchestrated in the aftermath. That, of course, meant all the major sources of news—newspapers—had to be securely on board, willing to turn a blind eye to the government’s contrived, fictitious post-assassination narrative, as well as Allen Dulles’s appointment to the Warren Commission. In the approaching moments of a horrific calamity, Phil Graham, owner and editor of the Washington Post, had become a problem. Increasingly regarded as a loose cannon, he could no longer be trusted; he had criticized the CIA’s infiltration of the media and its manipulation of news, as well as having ceremoniously told off some of the CIA’s own collaborators—publishers and senior editors of the mainstream media—in person, in Phoenix, in January 1963.
On August 9, Jack and Jackie lost their second child at birth, a boy they had named Patrick Bouvier. Jackie had gone into premature labor two days earlier, and the infant succumbed to complications. Jack reportedly wept inconsolably.103 For Jackie, the loss had to have been compounded by her realization that, in the wake of her son’s death and on the eve of her tenth wedding anniversary, Jack and Mary Meyer were still very much involved.
A month later, Jack and Jackie would celebrate their anniversary in Newport, Rhode Island. Jack would reportedly get down “on one knee, begging Jackie not to go” on a private cruise with Aristotle Onassis.104 She was apparently unmoved by his display; she would spend the first two weeks of October cruising the Aegean with Onassis on his yacht Christina, her sister, Lee, brother-in-law Stas Radziwill, and friends Sue and Franklin Roosevelt Jr. in tow. For Jackie, it was now payback time. The White House would spin the trip as a getaway for Jackie’s convalescence, but Bobby Kennedy was furious; he vehemently detested Onassis. Franklin Roosevelt Jr., no stranger to the rogue Onassis, asked Bobby how he should position himself during the trip. Bobby grimly replied, “Sink the fucking yacht!”105
Peter Evans, author of Ari, the only authorized biography of Aristotle Onassis, later documented in his subsequent book Nemesis that it was on this October cruise that Jackie and Onassis first became lovers. “According to Onassis,” wrote Evans, “Jackie’s susceptibility at that moment was considerable, especially in the context of her hurt at Jack’s continuing unfaithfulness.” Evans’s research had led him to Mary Meyer: “It was this affair, believed one White House insider, that was the final straw that persuaded Jackie to continue with the cruise despite her husband’s objections and pleas to cut it short.”106
Sometime before September 24, Timothy Leary said, he received a late-afternoon telephone call from Mary Pinchot. Leary described her as sounding on the verge of “hysteria.” She had rented a car at New York’s LaGuardia Airport and had driven up to Millbrook, wanting to meet with Leary privately, but not at the estate. They agreed on a more remote location where, as he wrote, the “trees were turning technicolor” with fall’s foliage, the “sky glaring indigo—with the bluest girl in the world next to me.”107
According to Leary, Mary told him: “It was all going so well. We had eight intelligent women turning on the most powerful men in Washington. And then we got found out. I was such a fool. I made a mistake in recruitment. A wife snitched on us. I’m scared.” She burst into tears. Initially, Leary thought her state might have been the result of a bad drug experience; he attempted to console her. She corrected him. Her state of mind wasn’t drug-related at all. “That’s all been perfect,” she told him. “That’s why it’s so sad. I may be in real trouble. I really shouldn’t be here.” Leary asked a second time if she was, at that moment, on drugs.
“It’s not me. It’s the situation that’s fucked up. You must be very careful now, Timothy. Don’t make any waves. No publicity. I’m afraid for you. I’m afraid for all of us.” The gravity of Mary’s concern was still lost on Leary. He suggested that they go back to the house and have some wine, “maybe a hot bath and figure out what you should do.” Mary persisted.
“I know what you’re thinking,” she said. “This is not paranoia. I’ve gotten mixed up in some dangerous matters. It’s real. You’ve got to believe me. Do you?”
“Yes, I do,” he finally replied.
“Look, if I ever showed up here suddenly, could you hide me out for a while?”
“Good.” Mary then pulled a pill bottle out of her handbag.
“This is supposed to be the best LSD in the world. From the National Institute of Mental Health. Isn’t it funny that I end up giving it to you?”108
Timothy Leary watched Mary drive away. It would be the last time he would see her alive.
Mary wasn’t one to be spooked easily by anything. Leary had no idea what other woman in Washington could be causing her such alarm. During the 1990 Leary-Damore interview, however, the Millbrook incident was discussed at some length.109 Both Leary and Damore had come to believe that the woman in question—the woman Mary believed had betrayed her (“A wife snitched on us”)—was, in fact, Katharine Graham. Damore’s theory was that in her desperation to bring her husband under control, Katharine was frantic enough to try anything, including supporting Phil in undertaking a psychedelic exploration. That meant, according to Damore, that Katharine Graham might have been one of the eight women in Mary’s group. His conversation with Anne Chamberlin, a close friend of Katharine Graham’s, may have led him to this conclusion.
Katharine Graham’s biggest influence in this direction, however, likely came from her close friends Henry and Clare Booth Luce, who were, like Katharine and Phil Graham, media moguls. The Luces owned Time Inc. Over the years, Katharine Graham and Clare Booth Luce would become very dear friends.
In the late 1950s, her marriage unraveling because Henry wanted to leave her for a younger woman, Clare Booth Luce, like Mary Meyer, first experimented with LSD. Under the direction of Dr. Sidney Cohen, Clare, at loose ends, further continued her exploration during a time of personal turmoil. In spite of her extraordinarily successful careers, which included writing four critically acclaimed Broadway plays in the 1930s, serving as managing editor of Vanity Fair from 1933 to 1934, becoming a two-term congresswoman in the 1940s, serving as American ambassador to Italy from 1953 to 1956, and finding herself regarded as one of the world’s ten most admired women—Clare described herself as “deeply unhappy.”110 Again, like Mary Meyer and Peggy Mellon Hitchcock, Clare’s psychedelic voyages would turn her into an LSD proselytizer. Starting in 1954 and through 1968, both Time and Life would publish a number of enthusiastic articles about hallucinogens. According to Columbia University historian Alan Brinkley, Clare also believed that her use of hallucinogens had “saved our marriage.”111
Katharine Graham first caught sight of Henry and Clare Booth Luce in 1948. She marveled at “how important they looked—and indeed they were.”112 The two couples fast became friends in 1954. Clare became aware of Phil Graham’s deterioration sometime in 1962,113 the same year that Mary Meyer first introduced herself to Timothy Leary and told him she wanted to bring together a group of women who were involved with politically powerful men in Washington. Following Phil Graham’s death in 1963, Katharine turned to Clare as a role model: “Clare gave me interesting and useful guidance on how to handle myself at work … much of it being about a woman in a man’s world. I took to heart what she said.”114 Years after the Washington Post’s Watergate crisis, Katharine would recall how she had, during critical moments, “engaged in a behind-the-scenes back-and-forth with Clare Booth Luce.”115
With her husband unraveling, it was not only possible, but very likely, that the increasingly desperate Katharine turned to Clare Booth Luce for guidance and advice, her marriage having survived a similar crisis. If Clare believed LSD had “saved” her marriage, she might well have counseled Katharine in that direction. And given Clare’s endorsement of LSD as a cutting-edge therapeutic tool, Katharine may have sought out Mary Meyer for assistance—not only to help Phil, but herself as well.
By 1963, however, it appeared Phil was beyond Katharine’s reach, that he would continue to wrest control of the Post away from her. According to Deborah Davis, “Katharine had pretty much given up on the marriage,” yet was desperate to retain control of her family’s newspaper. In an interview Davis gave in 1992, she told Steamshovel Press editor Kenn Thomas that “there’s some speculation that either she arranged for him [Phil] to be killed or somebody said to her, ‘don’t worry, we’ll take care of it.’”116 While Leo Damore, Timothy Leary, and Deborah Davis never definitively connected all the dots, the “somebody” in this equation, in this author’s opinion, was the same element within the CIA that was orchestrating the assassination of President Kennedy. “Anybody can commit a murder,” said legendary CIA asset Bill Corson, “but it takes an expert to commit a suicide.”
Katharine Graham’s Faustian deal with the devil would give her complete control and ownership of the Washington Post, provided she maintained the same polices and agreements her husband had arranged before his “enlightenment,” post–Bay of Pigs. The deal had to have included Katharine not squealing on anything the Agency wanted kept secret, as well as her revealing any matters the CIA wanted to know about—including Mary Meyer’s influence on the president. Undoubtedly, Mary was aware of the kind of power the CIA wielded, as well as its treachery, and Katharine’s betrayal likely opened up an entirely new can of worms, even perhaps allowing Mary the realization that Phil’s demise might well become a harbinger of hers. Danger was lurking. Only the chosen few knew they were going to go to the source to cut off the head of the snake. Mary would be spared—so long as she made no waves. For Mary, that would eventually become impossible.
On September 24, the president traveled with Mary and her sister to their family’s Grey Towers estate in Milford, Pennsylvania, to dedicate a gift from the Pinchot family to the U.S. Forest Service. It consisted of a large parcel of Pinchot family land, as well as the Pinchot mansion, the former residence of Mary’s uncle Gifford Pinchot. Tony still had no inkling of her sister’s affair with Jack. “There was no sexual thing evident,” she told author Sally Bedell Smith. “He was easy with both of us. I always felt he had liked me as much as Mary. You could say there was a little rivalry.”117
After the dedication ceremony, Jack and the two sisters went to their mother’s house to look at old family pictures. The elderly Ruth Pinchot, once a spirited champion of women’s equality and liberation, was now supporting Barry Goldwater in his bid to unseat Kennedy in 1964. Jack reportedly took it in stride and was jovial throughout the visit.
Unexpectedly, that same day the U.S. Senate ratified the president’s Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom. Much had been done to convince the American public of the treaty’s importance. Under Jack’s supervision, Norman Cousins and the Citizens Committee for a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty had led a successful campaign for public approval. Nikita Khrushchev would sign the treaty sixteen days later. The Soviet premier considered the treaty to be his country’s and America’s greatest mutual achievement. He proposed that the two leaders use it as an opening “to seek solutions of other ripe international questions.” In a letter that followed, Khrushchev outlined certain tasks for immediate consideration, including ratification of a nonaggression pact between the countries of NATO and member states of the Warsaw Pact; creation of nuclear-free zones in various regions of the world; and a ban on the future spread of all nuclear weapons. He closed the letter with the following: “Their implementation would facilitate a significant strengthening of peace, improvement of international relations, would clear the road to general and complete disarmament, and, consequently, to the delivering of peoples from the threat of war.”118
“Khrushchev’s vision, as inspired by the test ban treaty,” wrote James Douglass, “corresponded in a deeply hopeful way to Kennedy’s American University address. In his letter, Khrushchev was signaling his readiness to work with Kennedy on a host of projects. If the two leaders should succeed as they had on the test ban treaty, in only a few of Khrushchev’s suggested projects, they would end the Cold War.”119
With the ratification of the test ban treaty and Khrushchev’s imminent signing of the document, Kennedy had successfully fashioned a new path, bringing the world closer to a “genuine peace.” That he had learned the good news when he was with Mary, and that she, too, had long nurtured the goal of a world moving toward peace without war, had to have been a profound, defining moment between the two. An extraordinary accomplishment had unfolded that day, finally taking place at Mary’s family home. According to Kenny O’Donnell, present that day at the Pinchot estate, Mary and Jack were furtively smiling at one another, the news of the ratification having reached the presidential entourage.120
Also that September, President Kennedy signaled his intention to develop two additional, significant paths toward peace: a plan for a secret rapprochement with Fidel Castro that would eliminate Cuba as a campaign issue in the 1964 election; and a new road map for ending U.S. involvement in Vietnam by the start of his second term as president. With regard to the latter, that September, Kennedy sent Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and General Maxwell Taylor that September on a ten-day fact-finding expedition in Vietnam, the goal of which was to determine America’s exit strategy from the war. Kennedy took the long view, reportedly confiding to his adviser Kenny O’Donnell, “In 1965, I’ll become one of the most unpopular Presidents in history. I’ll be damned everywhere as a Communist appeaser. But I don’t care. If I tried to pull out completely now from Vietnam, we would have another Joe McCarthy ‘red scare’ on our hands, but I can do it after I’m reelected. So we had better make damned sure I am reelected.”121 President Kennedy’s National Security Action Memorandum 263 (NSAM 263) became a testament to his intention to the withdrawal from Vietnam.
In his 1987 book The Twilight Struggle, former ambassador William (“Bill”) Attwood documented that he was a special adviser on African affairs at the United Nations in September 1963. He then mentioned that he was talking to ABC news reporter Lisa Howard about Africa when she casually brought up the fact that she had recently interviewed Fidel Castro. In an interview for this book, Bill Attwood’s wife, Simone, added something more. Simone was adamant that both she and Bill knew of “Mary’s affair with Kennedy. I think a lot of people knew,” she added. According to Simone, after Bill’s return from Africa in June, Mary Meyer had had a hand in persuading Attwood, her former boyfriend, to contact Lisa Howard as a way to begin moving the sour relationship with Cuba toward rapprochement.122 Already, as early as March 1963, President Kennedy had been instructing his staff to “start thinking along more flexible lines” vis-à-vis the island nation and its leader. According to White House aide Gordon Chase, who became Bill Attwood’s White House contact that fall, Kennedy was interested in “quietly enticing Castro over to us.”123
A secret Bill Attwood–Lisa Howard alliance with Cuba’s United Nations representative Carlos Lechuga developed. Lechuga told Attwood that Kennedy’s American University address had impressed Castro, and he invited Attwood to Havana to begin a dialogue with the Cuban leader. The CIA, meanwhile, was taking it all in. The Attwood-Howard effort with Cuba on Kennedy’s behalf became a target of CIA surveillance. According to David Talbot, “In one call to Havana, [Lisa] Howard was overheard excitedly describing Kennedy’s enthusiasm for rapprochement. The newswoman had no sense of the shock waves she was causing within the halls of Washington power.”124
On October 3, Jean Daniel, editor of the French weekly L’Observateur, told Bill Attwood that he was on his way to Havana to see Castro. Attwood arranged for Daniel to meet with Kennedy before he left for Cuba. “When I left the Oval Office of the White House,” Daniel recalled, “I had the impression that I was a messenger for peace. I was convinced that Kennedy wanted rapprochement, that he wanted me to come back and tell him that Castro wished the rapprochement too.”125
On the very day of President Kennedy’s assassination, November 22, Daniel was meeting with Fidel Castro. “I was happy about the message I was delivering. These two men seemed ready to make peace. I am certain about this! Certain! Even after all these years.”126 It was during this meeting with Fidel Castro that both men first learned that President Kennedy had been assassinated. According to Daniel, after a long, shocked silence, Castro had said: “This is terrible. They are going to say we did it…. This is the end of your mission.”127 And it was. The Pentagon and the CIA had been working clandestinely against the president’s efforts to change policies towards both Cuba and Vietnam. Noted author David Talbot: “As the only man in the room who consistently opposed military escalation in Vietnam, the president was compelled to operate in a stealthy fashion to avoid becoming completely isolated within his own government.”128
During the fall of 1963, the Vietnam situation markedly deteriorated, with U.S. officials split over whether to back a military coup in Vietnam to oust the Diem regime. On October 2, journalist Arthur Krock’s column in the New York Times had quoted reporter Richard Starnes, whose interview with “a high United States source” privy to CIA operations in Saigon, had been, by Krock’s standards, unassailable: “The C.I.A.’s growth was ‘likened to a malignancy’ which the ‘very high official was not sure even the White House could control any longer,’” Krock wrote. He added, “If the United States ever experiences [an attempt at a coup to overthrow the government] it will come from the C.I.A. and not the Pentagon. The agency ‘represents a tremendous power and total unaccountability to anyone.’”129
A month later, the Catholic president of Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, and his brother were assassinated by a CIA-funded coup. The event devastated Kennedy. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had been present when Kennedy received the news; he would later say he had never seen the president so upset.130 That afternoon, Jack asked Mary to be with him. It appears this was Mary’s last documented trip to the White House, though it remains unknown whether it was the last time they saw one another.
Mary’s whereabouts when she first heard the fatal news from Dallas are also unknown. At 5:14 that afternoon, hours after Jack’s death, she called his personal secretary Evelyn Lincoln and left her phone number.131 Later, Mary asked Anne Truitt to spend the night with her at her house in Georgetown. “She was so sad,” recalled Truitt. “I tried to comfort her. We cried, but we didn’t talk that much.”132
As Jack lay in the Capitol Rotunda over the weekend, Mary visited his casket. On Monday, November 25, she attended the funeral and sat with Tony, who would years later recall that her sister “didn’t seem very upset. It puzzled me.”133 At the burial at Arlington Cemetery later that day, Mary was seen by one of her former art students, Ariel Dougherty, who had been in Mary’s painting classes at Georgetown Day School in the late 1950s. Alone, solemn, dressed in a long, gold-colored suede coat that belted around her waist, a scarf loosely wrapped around her neck, Mary stood adjacent to the gravesite throughout the entire ceremony.134 As far as their vision for world peace had come, it had been—in one instant on November 22, 1963—completely obliterated.
Four days later, President Lyndon Johnson signed National Security Action Memorandum 273 (NSAM 273), which set the tone for increased U.S. involvement in Vietnam by transferring the burden of increased covert operations against North Vietnam from the South Vietnam to the United States. The following March, Johnson penned NSAM 288, initiating the full escalation of the Vietnam War. Before its end, in undoubtedly the worst and most costly blunder of American foreign policy, approximately 3.8 million people would lose their lives, including more than 58,000 American combat soldiers.
In October 1963, Cuban UN ambassador Carlos Lechuga had delivered an official message to President Kennedy that Fidel Castro desired a lasting peace with the United States. Lyndon Johnson would have no part of it. In addition, he refused to sign the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union, despite its passage by the U.S. Senate in September 1963.
A little more than a week after Dallas, Timothy Leary received a disturbing phone call from Mary Meyer. “Ever since the Kennedy assassination I had been expecting a call from Mary,” wrote Leary in Flashbacks. “It came around December 1. I could hardly understand her. She was either drunk or drugged or overwhelmed with grief. Or all three.”135
“They couldn’t control him any more,” said Mary between her sobbing and crying. “He was changing too fast. They’ve covered everything up. I gotta come see you. I’m afraid. Be careful.”136 Leary later recalled this exchange in 1990. He told Leo Damore, “She was very upset, distraught. Her call spooked me. And I never imagined she’d be killed less than a year later.”137