There are very few human beings who receive the truth, complete and staggering, by instant illumination. Most of them acquire it fragment by fragment, on a small scale, by successive developments, cellularly, like a laborious mosaic.
A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government.
In some far place, where all the lovely things
Of earth are born, the gods no longer weep.
She has returned to them. And what she brings
We lose, but always keep.
—Mary Pinchot (Meyer)
(From her poem “Requiem”)1
A CHILLY OCTOBER wind sent leaves scudding across the cobblestones of Washington’s elegant Georgetown streets as Mary Pinchot Meyer set out on her customary early morning walk to her art studio. She was lithe and feminine, radiant with a beauty that still turned heads. On that day, too, she was almost ageless with grace. Her svelte frame belied the strength within her, fed perhaps by a rare reservoir of spiritual intensity. It was Monday morning, October 12, 1964. Two days later would be her forty-fourth birthday, the first without the man she had come to love, and with whom she had shared her hope for a world in pursuit of peace.2
In spite of the raw autumn temperature just above freezing that signaled winter’s approach, there was the promise of an impending sun’s warmth. Still, the weather called for several layers of clothing in anticipation of the longer walk along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal that had become her daily ritual each afternoon after she painted. The walk from her Thirty-Fourth Street home took less than ten minutes. Her artist’s studio, a converted brick garage with two skylights in its tin roof, was located in the alleyway behind her sister Tony and brother-in-law Ben Bradlee’s N Street house, itself a poignant reminder, only because its location was just seven doors away from where her lover, the president, had lived before moving into the White House in 1960. That morning, however, she may have pondered the recent estrangement from her sister and brother-in-law. Months earlier, a schism had developed, primarily involving Ben, whom she had come to distrust. “Since his first marriage was a failure,” she told her friends Jim and Anne Truitt, “he’s trying twice as hard with Tony. One and a half would be enough.”3
The capital city was still reeling from the unfathomable trauma that had taken place eleven months earlier in Dallas. It had left a deep wound in the fabric of America’s soul and identity, and in the meaning of civilization across the globe. Festering, the wound wasn’t about to heal, or even recede. That would require, among other things, an elixir called truth, not its subversion in the form of the so-called Warren Report that had emerged three weeks earlier from Supreme Court justice Earl Warren’s commission on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. For Mary, the report may have been further evidence of the infection that had already taken hold, long before the nightmare in Dallas. Like a viral cancerous army, rogue elements within the highest levels of the American government had usurped the hope and vision she and Jack had shared and nurtured, ending America’s dream for the president’s new trajectory toward world peace. She wasn’t about to let the Warren Commission lie go unchallenged. She had made her decision to stand up and be counted.4
Since Dallas, Mary had experienced a rough year of adjustments, with no real end in sight. For months, she had attempted to retreat into her discipline as an artist. She was by now an established painter in the Washington Color School. Her dream of recognition as a contemporary abstract painter had started to be realized just five days before the horror in Dallas had struck. Her first solo art opening at the Jefferson Place Gallery in Washington had been a solid success. Reviewing her paintings on November 24, Washington Post art critic Leslie Judd Ahlander heralded Mary’s artistry, writing, “Her work has always shown a quality which made one want to see more. Now she is working very hard and the results are gratifying indeed.” Describing Mary’s tondo (circular canvas) approach using acrylic paint, Ahlander had praised her presentation as “luminous and carefully thought out…. a lyrical and emotional statement rather than a cooly [sic] calculated one. It is easy to see that the artist has brought a great deal of thought to bear on the adjustment of areas and colors.”5 The recognition was an affirmation of the creative path she had long desired.
Mary’s painting had provided some respite in the wake of the president’s assassination and eventually led to a second 1964 exhibit in May with the Pan American Union’s Nine Contemporary Painters: USA exhibit in Washington. Three of her most recently completed works, Fire Island II, Clearing, and Foxglove, had been included in the show. Overall, the exhibit had been even more successful than her first. In November, it was due to be shipped to the Museum of Modern Art in Buenos Aires for an international opening, her first worldwide public exhibition—one she would not live to witness.
Tormented since Jack’s death, Mary had refused to accept the lies being peddled to the public. At times despondent, she had asked her friend and fellow artist Bill Walton, a Kennedy insider who had escorted her many times to White House functions that included stolen moments with the president, “why Bobby wasn’t doing more about what had really happened to Jack in Dallas.” Bobby did have a plan, Walton told her, to attempt to retake the White House, but time would have to pass first. Best to keep throwing herself back into her work, Walton counseled, as Walton himself was doing.6
It wasn’t enough. She would take matters into her own hands, she had finally decided.7 Throughout the past year, she had made it her business to learn what had really taken place in Dallas that late-November day. Like most Americans, Mary grieved over the violent death of her president; for her, however, his departure had also been uniquely personal. She and Jack had not only been lovers, but had also grown into the deepest of allies—kindred spirits in the pursuit of peace for the world. It hadn’t been Mary’s first attempt at such a feat. Nearly fifteen years earlier, she had worked tirelessly with her then-husband, war hero Cord Meyer, to promote a world government structure that might maintain the hard-won, fragile peace of a postwar nuclear world. But Cord had ultimately chosen a different path and, in doing so, had foreclosed on their marriage. With Jack, Mary had finally prevailed. Everything, at least for a few moments, had looked so promising. And that was really what she wanted—to give peace a chance.
Her prior access to Jack and his White House coterie had allowed her to quietly interrogate the few who would talk about that day in Dallas. She had read and collected some of the various reports and articles that questioned the falsehoods that had been propagated and were now worming their way into the public mind. Those writings occupied a special place in the bookcase in her bedroom, next to her diary, the final repository of reflections and analysis of what she had come to understand.8
The past year had also been a grueling duel with despair. It had taken a huge toll. “What’s the use?” Mary bemoaned to her dear friend Anne Truitt before she had left for Japan earlier that year. “Everything I love seems to die.”9 Melancholy had periodically opened the wounds of past losses in Mary’s life: her half-sister Rosamund’s suicide in 1938; the death of her father, Amos, in 1944. Neither, however, had prepared her for the unspeakable horror of losing her son Michael in 1956. That tragedy had propelled her into an emotional typhoon that she struggled long and hard to resolve. While scar tissue might stop the bleeding, the wound of such a loss (as every mother either imagines or knows firsthand) never really healed.
With her friends Anne and Jim Truitt having left for Tokyo in early 1964,10 Mary had recently, perhaps mistakenly, spoken to another woman she knew only peripherally, not realizing the woman had been sent to find out what Mary had learned about the dastardly deed in Dallas and its orchestration. Mary wasn’t going to sit by and let it happen all over again, she told the friend, who suggested that it might be better to leave well enough alone.11 The cover-up had reached its final public crescendo with the release of the Warren Report on September 24, about three weeks earlier. Mary had bought the abridged paperback version and read it with her trained editor’s eye, making numerous notes in the margins and turning down page corners for markers. Sensing it had been crafted as the final narcotic designed to deaden any serious inquiry or public scrutiny, she had furiously confronted her ex-husband, Cord Meyer, a CIA honcho who in turn had informed his close friend and colleague Jim Angleton, also the longtime godfather to her children.12 Of course, it hadn’t been the first time she’d openly spoken out against their beloved Agency. During the preceding years, Mary—unlike other CIA wives—had been outspoken at cocktail and dinner parties, “always making wisecracks,” one Agency wife remembered, about what the CIA was doing in the world.13
The art studio was cold when she entered it. Her morning ritual included turning on the electric space heater, pouring coffee from her thermos, and lighting up a Salem, so as to begin. The transition into painting allowed her to quiet, if only for a while, the challenges she knew she would soon ace.
The hour was approaching noon as she stepped back from her morning’s meditation—a tondo focus of unprimed canvas containing “swaying velvety semicircles of color” so rich in vivid acrylic pigment.14 Whether that morning’s endeavor was further informed by her recent thematic, ongoing analysis of peace and harmony wasn’t known, but Mary’s former intimacy with artist Ken Noland in the late 1950s had given her a particular vantage point for her evolving exploration. Noland’s “target” paintings had influenced her, as they had expressed a distinct commentary about war. She had taken this target circular device in her most recent painting, Half Light, and expressed the four elements—fire, wind, water, and earth—using color to underscore harmony with the earth, and the universe itself. Her “one-world” harmony in the past year may have been an homage to Jack and their shared vision for world peace. It was, after all, only a vision—perhaps her vision, or their vision—of where mankind should always be focused now and in the future. There was still purpose to be explored, and she would continue to fight, even without Jack. Seven years later, someone by the name of John Lennon would sing a song called “Imagine,” capturing where Mary had been headed.15
While Mary’s work that morning may have echoed her recent painting Half Light, something within Half Light’s conception of one-world harmony might have died in order to be reborn. Hope and despair in the end had been engaged in an epic battle, and not just in her life alone. Stepping back from her morning’s work, she might have thought of naming the painting Lost Light, or just No Light at all. The title would eventually emerge—as it always seemed to—however private the artist’s meaning for the world to see. Her mother’s discipline, from which she had built her own, would ensure it.
The day beckoned her to be on her way. Her usual long walk after a morning’s artistic focus was another workday ritual she always looked forward to. The paint was still damp on the circular canvas. Having positioned an electric fan toward the wet painting, she collected her Mark Cross leather gloves and her sunglasses and pulled on her blue cable-knit angora hooded sweater over a lighter sweater and white oxford cloth shirt.16 There was no need to take her purse; she liked to walk freely with no encumbrance. Her paint-spattered PF Flyer canvas sneakers likely squeaked across the wooden floor as she pivoted out the door.
The October breeze suggested the cooler days ahead, bringing welcome relief from Washington’s oppressive humidity, which sometimes lingered well into September. Even so, by noontime the day had already warmed. Circling the block to N Street, Mary walked down the steep incline of Thirty-Fourth Street toward the C & O Canal towpath. Crossing the inevitable M Street traffic, she found herself face-to-face with an approaching limousine, the long, black, official kind with government license plates that at an earlier time could have been taking Jack to some official function or meeting.
“Good-bye, Mary,” yelled Polly Wisner, one of Washington’s more aristocratic women. The wife of Frank Wisner, one of the founding fathers of CIA covert operations, Polly was preparing to fly to London without Frank, whose descent into a labyrinth of depression, mania, and compulsive talking, or logorrhea, had finally ended his intelligence career in 1962. Mary would never know that a year later, in 1965, Wisner would be found dead, an apparent suicide, a small-gauge shotgun his final companion. His daughter would wonder whether her father had suffered some kind of delayed guilt reaction over the CIA’s recruitment and shelter of a number of high-level Nazis after the war.17 But the small-gauge shotgun somehow kept emerging as “the final companion of choice.” Just a year earlier, in August 1963, Mary’s friend, Philip L. Graham, owner-publisher of the Washington Post, had allegedly embraced such a firearm for himself. There would be others, too, all unbeknownst to Mary. In 1977, the CIA asset George de Mohrenschildt, once in charge of keeping Lee Harvey Oswald positioned in Dallas, would also appoint the small-bore shotgun as his final companion—immediately before he was to be interviewed by an investigator for the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA). Mary would not survive to witness the self-destruction that would explode in the years to come. She passed Polly Wisner, undoubtedly waving in response to Polly’s greeting, and moved onward toward the canal towpath. Polly would be the last acquaintance to see Mary alive.18
As she continued walking, Mary might have cheered herself with thoughts of Thanksgiving and the anticipation of being reunited with her two boys, Quenty and Mark, due home in a little more than a month from their respective boarding schools, Salisbury and Milton Academy. She had been to Salisbury the preceding academic year to visit Quenty, the handsome son she’d called “mouse” when he was younger. There were those in the extended family who privately felt Quenty had been scarred by his father, Cord, and, of course, by the death of his brother Mikey. Like his father, Quenty had been known to exhibit a cruel disposition that was often visited on those more vulnerable and defenseless in their immediate and extended family. The meanness was a phase that Mary hoped he would grow out of, as children sometimes did. At Salisbury, Quenty was coming into his own, his athleticism in basketball and tennis readily apparent. During Mary’s visit, his schoolmates had gawked at her the entire time, later telling Quenty his mother was “incredibly beautiful.”19
The towpath was nearly deserted that Monday as Mary proceeded westward from Georgetown out to Fletcher’s Boat House, a distance of about two and a quarter miles. Still, there was one young couple up ahead walking in the same direction as Mary. Just as they disappeared around the first bend, a young man wearing red Bermuda shorts ran past her on his way west. He was probably a student at Georgetown University, whose Gothic Healy Clock Tower soared above the tree line on a bluff overlooking the canal.
Once doomed to be replaced by a freeway, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal had been saved through the efforts of Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas. Douglas had led protest hikes the entire length of the canal in 1954, wanting the most perfectly preserved example of America’s canal-building era to be designated a national historic park. He had personally undertaken the campaign in the spirit of his boyhood hero, Gifford Pinchot, Mary’s uncle and a pioneering conservationist who had twice been elected governor of Pennsylvania. In 1905, Gifford Pinchot had been appointed the first head of the U.S. Forest Service by President Teddy Roosevelt, his close friend.
While the C & O Canal itself had been declared a national historical monument under President Eisenhower, efforts to make it a national park had failed until President Kennedy took office, only because, according to one source, Mary had lobbied hard for the proposal.20 Jack was, according to one insider, amused by Mary’s entreaties; he found them endearing. Eventually, however, he came to rely more on her, convinced that her counsel had critical value on even more important issues.21
After Dallas, Mary’s towpath excursions had become a sacred refuge, even in inclement weather. Not a drinker like so many of the other women in her circle, and willing to face the fury within, she had made walking an antidote for her agitation. But about a month or so after Jack’s assassination, she later told her friend Jim Truitt, she had set out on the towpath one day in wintry weather, determined to sustain her fragile equilibrium, only to confront further anguish instead of the solace she’d sought. A short but violent snow squall had materialized, making visibility difficult, if not impossible. Coming toward her through the blinding snow was a ghostlike chimera taking form as it neared. It wasn’t until she was nearly face-to-face with the person, she said, that she recognized Jackie. The two fell into each other’s arms, crying and consoling one another in embrace, as only women know how to do.22 Mary’s discretion was always paramount, her capacity to comfort someone else even amid her own deepest anguish somehow readily available when called for. Jackie was adrift. Her life—and all of history—dramatically, irrevocably shattered, she needed as many anchors as she could find.
“Jackie kept repeating how happy she and the President had been in the White House,” Mary later disclosed to Truitt about that day.23 She hadn’t disputed Jackie, although she easily could have, in view of the life she’d enjoyed with Jack. Mary had understood his conflicted hunger as perhaps only a uniquely enlightened woman could, viewing his sexual “wanderlust” for what it was—a symptom of his patrician hatred of the rejection he had been forced to endure from an empty, cold, and distant mother.24 She wasn’t threatened by it. “In addition to art, Mary was an acute judge of masculine character,” her friend Anne Truitt would remark years later.25 Historian Herb Parmet, in a groundbreaking biography of Jack, had interviewed a close confidential source who knew the score. The source had observed that Jack enjoyed a very different, and very special, life with Mary. “He could talk in ways she understood and their trust was mutual,” Parmet would write in 1983. “When he was with her, the rest of the world could go to hell. He could laugh with her at the absurdity of the things he saw all around his center of power.”26
Mary continued walking in her customary westerly direction, as the October noonday sun warmed the morning chill. Throughout the past year, there had been several incidents of someone intruding into her home.
The incidents started in January, only weeks after Dallas. Then, after being away for some time that summer, she was sure someone had been inside her house while she was gone. In another instance, she had found the heavy basement door, which was impossible for her to move even with the help of her two sons, ajar. But the finale had been seeing somebody leaving her house as she had walked in. She was sure of it.27 What were they after?
As an artist, Mary’s philosophical perspective had undergone a major transformation when she embarked on a journey of personal exploration of mind-expanding potions in the late 1950s. So profound had been her journey that it allowed her to see her world in a way she had never before envisioned or experienced.28 It may have also allowed her some deeper resolution about her son Michael’s death, though nothing would ever dishonor his spirit in her life. Nonetheless, despite Michael’s departure, Mary’s awareness had expanded into the recognition of the connectedness of all living things, the breathing atomic structure of everything physical, all coexisting peacefully in harmony with one another. Here, cosmic joy was real, a blessing given to all who were willing to surrender. And here, within a sublime expanded consciousness, such exploits as domination and war lust were seen as infantile—mere vestigial reminders of an arrested evolutionary history.29
What if world leaders—those political titular heads of state—could experience the sacred connection of life force in harmonious coexistence, just as many artists and poets had envisioned? The pace of human evolution itself might take a giant step forward, ending the rampant Cold War madness, she told Timothy Leary in 1962.30 At first, it had only been a pipe dream, something she imagined mostly within. Yet fate somehow kept managing to place her across Jack’s path—or was it Jack across hers? She had sought Leary’s counsel, but her discretion once again erected the boundary. She would never name names, never reveal her real plan. He had kindly given her some tools, suggestions for how to guide others through the psychedelic Garden of Eden. She had shared her emerging experience with a small group of eight women who were willing to engage a few powerful men in Washington. Leary, unaware of what was really taking place, said he would continue to periodically make himself available to help her.31
Mary had decided she’d take it in steps, and so one hot summer night in July of 1962 she and Jack smoked marijuana together in the White House residence. She was curious as to how he might react. At first, he had become “hungry” for food—”soup and chocolate mousse”—before their amorous embrace that evening, where she might have held a more tender man. The connection may have frightened him initially, but her self-assured presence and trust likely conveyed that he was, however momentarily, safe—safe in her arms, safe in her love, even safe in his own realization that it might be possible for him to face the sordid, fragmented sexuality that kept him from his own redemption.32 Like Mary’s ex-husband Cord, Jack too, was broken; and unwilling, or too frightened, to confront his world of wounded vulnerability—ironically the gateway from which real intimacy often sprang.
Later on, she had admittedly made “a mistake in recruitment” in her small psychedelic group of eight women. “I was such a fool,” she had anxiously told Timothy Leary in Millbrook, New York, in September 1963. “A wife snitched on us. I’m scared,” she’d blurted out, then burst into tears.33 Discreet as ever, Mary never mentioned names to Leary, but she had feared the worst at the time. With her husband dead, Katharine Graham now wielded more power in Washington than ever before. Mary had considered Katharine’s husband, Philip L. Graham, whose name she never mentioned to Leary, to be “a friend of mine,” a friend whom she described as “losing the battle, a really bloody one. He got drunk and told a room full of reporters about me and my boyfriend.”34Leary hadn’t realized at the time that Mary’s “boyfriend” was the president. But the worst part was that Phil Graham had just allegedly committed suicide, another detail she kept from Leary, who couldn’t quite fathom why the usually bold, courageous Mary was so upset. That day with Leary at Millbrook, she had voiced her worst fear, that even her own life might be in danger, finally asking whether, if she showed up unexpectedly at some point, he would be able to hide her. Yes, he could, he reassured her. But nothing had happened. There had been no repercussions. Maybe Phil Graham did commit suicide after all, she may have thought as she kept walking, perhaps not realizing that her paranoia had in fact been a case of heightened awareness.
The Potomac River was to her left as the towpath also veered left, narrowing a bit as it paralleled the elevated Canal Road to her right. Mary approached the narrow, thirty-foot-long wooden footbridge that spanned the shallow spillway drainage. It was almost the halfway mark to Fletcher’s Boat House, her usual destination before turning back. The path ahead was empty. She stepped into a dense arbor of mature black cherry trees, river birch, and box elders, its wildness protruding beyond the city’s boundary. It was likely one of her favorite parts of this particular route because of its comforting solitude. Dappled by sparking sunlight, the Potomac could be seen through a scrim of branches down a steep embankment and beyond a thicket of fire-scarred trees. But for the intermittent drone of passing cars above and to her right, she was alone with her thoughts and all of nature.
Unaware that she had been under surveillance for the past several weeks, and oblivious that day to the fact that she was being stalked, Mary might well not have heard the footfalls gathering speed behind her.35 She had no reason to be concerned. Park Service police regularly patrolled the area, though for some reason they weren’t present that day. Other pedestrians, bicyclists, and the fishermen and boatmen who frequented the river almost guaranteed the towpath’s security in daytime. Mary had never feared for her safety in this place, or any other for that matter, despite the concerns her friend Cicely Angleton would later express that day. “Besides being one of the prettiest girls in the world, Mary had great courage,” recalled her Vassar classmate Scottie Fitzgerald Smith, the daughter of author F. Scott, remembering their days as apprentice journalists in New York. “I wouldn’t go down into those subways at night, but Mary was never afraid. ‘Oh nothing will happen,’” Scottie remembered Mary saying.36
The towpath was an unlikely venue for an assault in broad daylight, yet Mary was abruptly seized from behind. Her assailant wrapped her in a close, hard embrace, pinning her arms against her side. Immobilized, the vigorous, athletic woman came alive as she fought hard to escape the lock of an aggressor she probably couldn’t see. Squirming, groaning, trying to break free, she realized the strength of her attacker, and instinctively yelled out, “Somebody help me!” Again and again, she called out beyond the three-foot retaining wall of the canal to the passing automobiles on Canal Road less than 150 feet away.37 A muffled explosion sent a ringing, echoing roar through her ears. She must have smelled the stench of burning flesh and gunpowder as something hard and hot seared into the left side of her skull just in front of her ear. A gush of wet warmth poured down her face, soaking the collar of her blue angora sweater, turning it red.
With a desperate lunge, Mary broke away, stumbling across the towpath to the wooded embankment border. Seeking refuge somewhere at the border’s edge, holding onto a nearby birch tree, she brought her gloved hand to her left temple, only to draw away great smears of blood that darkly stained the leather glove. Assaulted by waves of nausea and weakness, falling to her knees and fighting to retain consciousness, she braced herself from falling farther, clinging to the smooth birch tree trunk. Failing to kill her with his first shot, the assailant seized her again, even more roughly. This time, he dragged Mary from the embankment clear across the towpath, out of the shadows and into the sunlight toward the canal’s edge, her paint-spattered PF Flyers vainly seeking traction against the pebbled dirt, leaving parallel tracks that would mark the last path of her earthly life. Still, she struggled. But she didn’t scream again. As she lost strength, her voice may have been quieted by both pain and fear. Or perhaps she silently beseeched the passing cars above, before something hard was pressed against her body over her right shoulder blade.38
Mary likely didn’t hear the second explosion. There was only the hot path of metal that tore through her chest, severing her aorta. As the last echo of gunfire faded, death forced her final surrender and she fell upon the grassy ledge at the water’s edge.