“LOOK WHO’S CALLED to visit us!” said Lady Julia, daughter of Caesar Augustus, First Emperor of Rome. “Gnaeus Domitius.”
“I was on my way to Formiae,” said the Priest Domitius from the College of Augers. “I felt I must call upon you, Lady.”
“Do you know my son, Lucius?” asked Lady Julia.
“An honor, sir.” extending his hand toward Lucius. “I took the auspices for your brother Gaius before he left for Syria. They were most favorable. I’ve never seen the liver of a ewe so clear. One could almost see through it. His death is inexplicable to me.”
“And to us all,” added Lady Julia.
A screeching overhead is then heard, as an approaching group of children that includes Claudius and his sister Livilla grow louder with the awareness of eagles fighting above them.
“Mother, Mother, the eagles are fighting! Look out!” A small animal drops from the claws of one of the fighting eagles and lands in Claudius’s lap.
“What is it, Claudius?” asked Livilla.
“It’s a wolf cub!” said one of the other children.
“Mother, it dropped right from its claws,” exclaimed Livilla excitedly. “Let me have him!”
“Leave it be! It fell to Claudius, leave it be!” said the stunned Antonia, mother of Claudius.
“Look at the blood! Ye Gods, what does it mean?” asked Lady Julia. “Domitius, tell us what it means.”
“Lady, I …”
“You know what it means, I can see. Tell us, I beg you!” demanded Lady Julia. “Children, go into the house…”
“No! Let them stay!” Domitius sternly warned. “The sign was given to you all, and given now, perhaps, because I am here to read it. But they must be sworn to secrecy. Who are the gods that watch over this house?”
“Jupiter and Mars,” Lady Julia answered.
“Then do you swear, all of you, by these your gods that no word of what you are about to hear shall ever pass your lips?”
(ALL) “Yes, we do.”
“The wolf cub is Rome,” began Domitius. “No doubt of it. Romulus was suckled by a wolf as her own cub, and Romulus was Rome. And look at it: All torn about the neck and shivering with fear. A wretched sight. Rome will be wretched one day.” Then looking at Claudius holding the wolf cub in his lap, he pauses. “But he will protect it. He and no other,” said Domitius solemnly.
“Claudius as protector of Rome! I hope I shall be dead by then,” Livilla mockingly laughed out loud.
“Go to your room! You shall have nothing to eat all day!” snapped her mother Antonia angrily. “Children, come in. Come inside.”
“May I k-k-keep the cub, please, mother?” pleaded the stuttering, head-twitching Claudius to his mother Antonia. “Please, may I ?” 1
1 From the 1976 BBC Masterpiece Theatre production of I, Claudius.(Based on: I, Claudius: from the autobiography of Tiberius Claudius born 10 B.C. murdered and deified A.D. 54. and Claudius The God, both authored by Robert Graves. New York: Vintage International Edition, 1989, originally published by Random House, 1935.
We plan our lives according to a dream that came to us in our childhood, and we find that life alters our plans. And yet, at the end, from a rare height, we also see that our dream was our fate. It’s just that providence had other ideas as to how we would get there.
Destiny plans a different route, or turns the dream around, as if it were a riddle, and fulfills the dream in ways we couldn’t have expected.
There is no such thing as chance; and what seems to us merest accident springs from the deepest source of destiny.
—Friedrich von Schiller
THAT MARY MEYER’S murder would become “officially” regarded as an erratic, random act of savagery, simply another unsolvable crime, ignored the flourishing multidimensional panorama of her life and the particular network of relationships it had engendered. Far from indiscriminate, her murder was deliberate; and, as the reader will eventually come to understand, precisely motivated. For Mary Pinchot Meyer was in no way ordinary—nor easily intimidated—particularly during the years just prior to her murder in the fall of 1964. That left an unsettling question: Who was she, and how was she unique? What accounted for her perseverance, her courage? And, for that matter, what made her dangerous, and to whom?
In order to arrive at some understanding of why, and how, Mary Meyer’s murder was orchestrated, certain details of her extraordinary life warrant deeper exploration. For her life’s mosaic—the events, the people, the choices she made amid life’s vicissitudes and circumstances—only begins to reveal the complexity and uniqueness of a woman who ultimately came to thrive within the Cold War’s hidden history, a defining moment of which was President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, followed by Mary Meyer’s less than a year later. This remarkable odyssey not only reveals a glimpse of a strikingly rare and exceptional woman, but raises another perplexing question: Why was her demise considered necessary at the time, and by whom?
Achieving a new level of understanding requires one to look a number of heretofore unseen details—events, experiences, and people—that formed the tesserae of a rich, complex mosaic that would finally illuminate Mary’s life and death.
In their seminal 1976 article “The Curious Aftermath of JFK’s Best and Brightest Affair,” Ron Rosenbaum and Phillip Nobile were the first to pay homage to the relatively obscure woman who had made more than a considerable impression in the life of John F. Kennedy. How influential her impact may have been was unknown; but the authors, at the conclusion of their investigation, refer to her as “the secret Lady Ottoline of Camelot.”1 They relied on an unidentified source who, the authors claimed, was “in a unique position to comment authoritatively [about Mary Meyer’s relationship with JFK]” and who, until 1976, had “never before spoken to the press about it.” The unidentified source had “agreed to entertain a limited number of questions about the affair.”
“How could a woman so admired for her integrity as Mary Meyer traduce her friendship with Jackie Kennedy?”
“They weren’t friends,” he [the unidentified source] said curtly.
“Did JFK actually love Mary Meyer?”
“I think so.”
“Then why would he carry on an affair simultaneously with Judy Exner?”
“My friend, there’s a difference between sex and love.”
“But why Mary Meyer over all other women?”
“He was an unusual man. He wanted the best.”2
How and why Mary Meyer and Jack Kennedy became intimately involved during the last few years of their lives is only part of the focus of Mary’s mosaic. Both seem to have been deeply affected by their union, sometimes taking enormous risks, in part for the sake of a better, hopefully more peaceful world in the future. How their paths intriguingly—and repeatedly—crossed, suggests some mysterious force at work: perhaps a trail of destiny, a shared fate, or the engagement of the force of redemption entwined in love.
Was it encoded in Mary Meyer’s DNA to be so independent, strong-willed, even courageous? Quite possibly yes. According to folklore, Mary’s French great-grandfather, Cyrille Constantine Désiré Pinchot, as a nineteen-year-old captain in the French army, had set out to rescue his hero, Napoléon, from the island of St. Helena, where he had been exiled following his defeat at Waterloo. But the plan failed, and young Captain Pinchot escaped on a fishing boat to England.3 From there, he and his father, Constantine, and his mother, Maria, made their way to the United States in 1816, hoping that the New World would be a safe haven. Captain Pinchot’s father immediately reestablished his mercantile business in New York, enabling him to purchase four hundred acres of prime farmland outside Milford, Pennsylvania. Constantine and Cyrille, the father-son team, embarked on a series of entrepreneurial projects that over time brought them considerable wealth and standing, using the crossroads of Milford as their hub.
Mary’s great-grandfather Cyrille Pinchot married and had five children.
His second son, James Pinchot, migrated back to New York during the late 1840s and made a fortune in the wallpaper business. In addition to his business acumen, James Pinchot possessed a highly developed social conscience—he created no slums, fouled no rivers, and accepted no deals with corrupt politicians. He never wasted any valuable resources, nor did he enslave any workers. His philosophy and worldview embraced the utilitarian vision of John Stuart Mill, defining social good as “the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.” James Pinchot had such a deep love and respect for the natural world that he became one of its guardians, sponsoring the first real conservation movement in the United States and endowing the School of Forestry at Yale University. James’s oldest son, Gifford, would later refer to him as the “Father of Forestry in America.”4
Wealthy James had married Mary Jane Eno of New York in 1864, and after their son Gifford was born in 1865, they had a daughter, Antoinette, in 1868, and a second son, Amos (named after Mary’s father) in 1873. Retiring at the age of forty-four, James began concentrating his wealth on philanthropy. The family transformed the town of Milford in the early 1870s “from a fading entrepôt to a booming tourist mecca.”5 The Pinchot money also built the family “a country estate.” In the late 1880s, James Pinchot conceived Grey Towers, a Norman-Breton bluestone manor with a fortress-like exterior, “complete with three 60-foot turrets.” The interior consisted of “a medievalized great hall, 23 fireplaces, and 44 rooms,” each filled with luxurious furnishings that matched those “of the old baronial days.” The manor’s panorama captured the entire village of Milford and the Delaware River valley, stunning any onlooker with the sheer size and scale of the mansion. Referred to as a “summer castle,” it “drew all eyes—tourist and local alike—upward. In lifting them up, James Pinchot acknowledged his own elevation.”6
The sons of James Pinchot—Gifford and Amos—were both Yale educated and members of the secret society Skull and Bones. President Theodore Roosevelt eventually named Gifford Pinchot the first chief of the newly created U.S. Forest Service in 1905, in which post he served for five years. Gifford ran for the U.S. Senate in 1914 as a Progressive, vociferously campaigning for reforms considered radical at the time: a woman’s right to vote; a graduated income tax to be determined by the ability to pay; workers’ compensation for injuries on the job; recognition of labor unions for collective bargaining; and prohibition of the sale and use of alcoholic beverages.
Gifford would lose the senate race against Boies Penrose, but would subsequently become the governor of Pennsylvania in 1922 and again in 1930. In between campaigns, he managed to marry Cornelia Bryce, the daughter of a wealthy and prominent family from Newport, Rhode Island. Cornelia, affectionately known within her family and friends as “Lelia,” was an outspoken woman who greatly influenced her niece Mary Pinchot as she grew up. During Gifford’s campaigns, Cornelia had addressed hundreds of housewives, urging them to demand the right to vote. She also marched in picket lines and supported factory workers and miners seeking safety, decent wages, and job protection in their work.
Writing in the Nation, Cornelia Bryce Pinchot defined herself as a woman who essentially knew no boundaries: “My feminism tells me that a woman can bear children, charm her lovers, boss a business, swim the [English] Channel, stand at Armageddon and battle for the Lord—all in a day’s work!”7 Cornelia was yet another female role model for Mary and her sister, Tony.
Mary Pinchot Meyer’s mother was the journalist Ruth Pickering. Born in New York in 1893, she attended Vassar College and Columbia University, before becoming a journalist in New York, and working mostly for left-wing publications. An ardent, self-styled feminist who wrote for the Masses, the New Republic, and the Nation, she became the associate editor of Arts and Decoration. Ruth, too, came from a family of courageous liberal thinkers. Her paternal grandfather, whom she referred to as Grandfather Haynes, reportedly lost his life in an underground railway while freeing slaves.8
Ruth’s commitment to feminism entailed a rejection of the traditional female culture of the day. She was the kind of rare woman who dared to define herself, resisting the prescribed roles that most women found themselves playing. She became very active in the women’s suffrage movement, and for many years shared a house with political socialist activist Max Eastman, his sister, Crystal Eastman, and Eugen Boissevain, who later married poet Edna St. Vincent Millay.
In 1919, Ruth married Amos Pinchot. She was twenty-six; he was twenty years her senior. Amos was by then a wealthy lawyer who supported a number of liberal left-wing causes. It was Amos’s second marriage; he had divorced his first wife of nineteen years, Gertrude Minturn, who was from a prominent New York family. Whatever the cost to him socially, Amos was apparently willing to bear it in order to be with Ruth. An ardent pacifist, Amos exerted considerable influence in reformist circles and did much to keep Progressive ideas alive in the 1920s. A member of Teddy Roosevelt’s inner circle during the Bull Moose Party campaign of 1912, Amos sometimes exasperated the former president with his moralistic criticism and views on the role of big business in America. He believed that World War I had, in fact, been caused by American and European imperialists, many of whom were bankers.
As a leader of the Progressive wing of the Republican Party, Amos always worked toward industrial and labor reform. He would become one of the founders, along with Norman Thomas and Roger Baldwin, of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 1920. Always outspoken, Amos was a champion of causes, no matter what it might cost him politically or socially. That year, he and Ruth welcomed their first child. Her full birth name was Mary Eno Pinchot; she was born in New York City on October 14, 1920.
The 1920s were a heightened, progressive era for feminism and a wide spectrum of progressive causes. With the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution in August 1920, women were granted the right to vote in all United States elections. Ruth Pickering Pinchot and Cornelia Bryce Pinchot became the grand dames of the Pinchot clan they had married into, shaping their family’s values and mores. In 1926, the Nation invited Ruth, Cornelia, and fifteen other women to explore and comment on the nature of their personal feminism. Cornelia considered herself a “public feminist,” committed to women’s issues from a political and civic perspective. Ruth called herself a “new-style” feminist of the 1920s, though she spoke out when she felt that it was warranted.9
Many of the Nation women, including Ruth and Cornelia, emphasized their privileged status by membership in an organization called the Heterodoxy Club of Greenwich Village, a New York feminist society organized in 1912 by the Unitarian minister Marie Jenny Howe. Virtually every prominent suffragist, activist, and woman professional in New York attended its meetings, including such notables as Agnes de Mille, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Emma Goldman, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Mary McLeod Bethune (mentor to Dovey Roundtree). The Heterodoxy Club’s biweekly lunch meetings became a model for the Women’s Liberation Movement of the late 1960s. At early meetings of Heterodoxy, members would openly risk revealing their deepest feelings about their experiences growing up. Personal sharing and mutual support prevailed, and the resulting gatherings set the standard for the women’s movement’s consciousness-raising sessions of the 1960s and 1970s.10
Mary’s parents were therefore the kind of role models who would encourage her to become as politically and culturally engaged as they themselves were. The Pinchot home environment fostered personal exploration of all kinds. To be sure, wealth and privilege played their parts in this—there were no worries about day-to-day survival, and Mary enjoyed more opportunities to engage her developing self than she might have under more straitened circumstances. But privilege didn’t deserve all the credit; there was something innate in Mary that made her extraordinary. Her mother, Ruth Pinchot, recognized it early on. When Mary was just a toddler playing on a Long Island beach, her mother noted the confidence and sense of self-worth that her daughter possessed. These characteristics would serve her well her entire life. In a letter that Ruth wrote to Amos, she joked that their self-possessed child “is a perfect little bully. She knows she can make Elizabeth cry easily and teases her all the time. She’s an aggressor and the devil.”11
The Pinchot family shuttled between New York City and Grey Towers, the family estate in Milford, Pennsylvania. Women in the Pinchot clan grew up surrounded by an extended “family” of some of the day’s most prominent thinkers and newsmakers: people like Max Eastman, Reinhold Niebuhr, Wisconsin populist and presidential candidate Robert La Follette, and Teddy Roosevelt. Mary was shaped and molded by all of these influences, as well as by her suffragist aunt Cornelia and her mother.
At age twelve, Mary was enrolled in the Brearley School, a posh private school for the WASP aristocracy on the Upper East Side of New York, just blocks from her family’s Park Avenue apartment. Brearley boasted rigorous academics for the daughters and granddaughters of many well-known figures, including Margaret Mead, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Eugene O’Neill, and eventually John F. Kennedy. As a preparatory school for young women, it espoused well-roundedness. Self-expression and exploration were given top priority, complementing and supporting Mary’s family life.
Even as an adolescent, Mary was physically stunning to behold—a blonde nymph from an ethereal dimension, strong and beautifully proportioned, at once athletic and graceful, yet uncompromisingly feminine. In her teen years, her social life was bookended by debutante balls and New York City’s nightlife. At the Ritz-Carlton or the Waldorf-Astoria, Mary was the belle of the ball. Weekends were filled with parties at New England’s elite prep schools—St. Paul’s, Choate, and Groton among them.
At 15, Mary Pinchot was invited to the Choate School Winter Festivities Weekend in February 1936 by William (“Bill”) Attwood, whom she had met during the previous Christmas in New York. Bill Attwood would one day become President Kennedy’s ambassador to Guinea. He would also be at the heart of a Kennedy-sanctioned secret mission in the fall of 1963 to explore a rapprochement with Fidel Castro, behind the backs of the Pentagon and CIA. But in the winter of 1936, Attwood was the guy with the prettiest date at Choate.
Had destiny itself already taken the young and beautiful Mary Pinchot by the hand? Not having yet met Attwood, she had actually gone to the annual 1935 Christmas “Interscholastic Dance” in New York with one of his classmates, Geoffrey Monroe Bruère. There had been dozens of Choaties and ex-Choaties there, and Geoffrey and Bill Attwood, both fifth-formers at Choate, had competed for her attention all evening. Young Attwood’s ardor, however, was impressive, as was his disposition. Geoffrey, it appeared, was too much bluster and peacock strut for Mary’s taste. Bill Attwood, on the other hand, was respectful, though not sycophantic. He had called her the very next day. They realized they both lived on Park Avenue only several blocks apart. Boldness then inspired young Attwood on the telephone that day, for he wasted no time, and no opportunity. He asked Mary if she’d like to go dancing at the Persian Room that afternoon.
Beauty is its own light, and Mary was coming into hers. She recognized that afternoon with Bill as an invitation for exploration. She liked the way he affectionately started calling her “Pinchy.” Before the end of Christmas vacation, the pair went out on several more excursions, the entire city of New York their playground. One outing included a meeting with Bill’s parents who, Mary would learn later, “were satisfactorily impressed.” After that, he asked her to be his date at Choate in February. Mary didn’t mention the fact that Bill’s nemesis—Geoffrey Monroe Bruère—had already requested her favor, but she hadn’t accepted. “That bastard Bruère!” Bill confided to his diary. It had all worked out, though. Pinchy chose Bill, at least for the time being, and he awaited her arrival with excitement.12
By February of 1936, young Jack Kennedy, a 1935 graduate of Choate, was increasingly worried about the state of his health. He was undergoing tests for colitis and being kept for observation at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston that winter. Having already confronted death during his battle with scarlet fever as a child, along with endless chronic infirmities throughout his adolescence, Jack was already facing the possibility of an early demise. Several of Kennedy’s biographers believed this was one reason he became so obsessed, even manic, about giving himself as much sexual pleasure as possible during his adult life.
While he was recuperating in early 1936, Kennedy’s letters to his former Choate roommate Lem Billings bragged of how he was, even in precarious health, “catting about” with nurses, as well as the teenage girls he was dating. “B.D. came to see me today in the hospital and I laid her in the bathtub,” he told Billings in one letter. “The next time I take her out she is going to be presented with a great hunk of raw beef, if you know what I mean.”13 How much of this was just sheer bravado (or wishful thinking) was unknown. But when it came to women, Jack already had a role model in his father. As his sons grew into manhood, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. made clear his views on the real value of female companionship: “A day without a lay is a day wasted,” he told them. The Kennedy males were such a libidinous wolf pack on the prowl that the young wolf cubs, at father’s behest, would deliver female “companions” to the patriarch himself. “He even tried to make some of their [his sons’] conquests his own,” noted historian Ralph Martin.14 Along with their wealth and fine Irish good looks, the Kennedy boys would inherit their father’s penchant for philandering—in addition to the duplicity and chauvinism that went along with it. Womanizing would become a Kennedy trademark.
Despite Jack’s health concerns, he would leave the hospital on weekends to socialize. One event he wanted to attend was his former alma mater’s Winter Festivities Weekend, which Choate allowed to recent graduates.15 Typically, the students would invite girls for the weekend. The girls might stay in Choate’s Memorial House or even in their boyfriends’ rooms, while their dates would sleep on cots in the gym. Often, the boys left secretive, lascivious notes in their beds, hoping their girls would find and read them. The social weekend was filled with athletic events, sit-down formal dinners, and afternoon teas, culminating in a formal Saturday night dance.16
But how far could a tomcat like the young Jack Kennedy navigate the confines of a heavily chaperoned New England prep school dance? And what would a college boy, a freshman at Princeton no less, want with a parochial school function anyway? What drove Jack back to Choate that weekend remains a mystery. But he returned unaccompanied, a stag. Perhaps he thought the homecoming on familiar territory would be good for his self-confidence, which had lagged since being forced to take a medical leave from his studies at Princeton, still in the Class of 1939. Whatever the force that drew him backward (or perhaps forward) isn’t known, but something propelled him; for during the gala Winter Festivities Dance of 1936, he would encounter Mary Pinchot for the very first time, etching into his being an unforgettable moment.
The Saturday night Winter Festivities Dance could have served as backdrop for a Hollywood film portraying a bygone era: tuxedos and tails worn by the young gentlemen, couture dresses for the debutantes-to-be. It was a gala for young people who would grow up to be dubbed “the Greatest Generation” for their service during World War II. Yet in February 1936, life for this crowd was an endless party. A full orchestra played the latest swing hits. Everyone danced.
Anyone could see that Mary Pinchot’s beauty was alluring, and it certainly wasn’t lost on young Bill Attwood. “God, she’s a smooth looking babe,” Attwood scribbled in his diary. “I just hope her success doesn’t go to her head.”17 As the dancing progressed, Attwood unfortunately discovered he had a rival for Mary’s attention. Jack Kennedy tapped Bill’s right shoulder and asked to cut in. It wasn’t the only cut-in he had to contend with that night, but it had to have been one of the more daunting—and it happened repeatedly. The young Kennedy was entranced by Mary’s beauty; he kept coming back. To compound matters, Attwood wasn’t feeling well that weekend. “Frequent trips upstairs to flood my throat with Listerine,”18 Attwood noted in his diary, meant leaving Mary unattended in a sea of potential suitors, and none more aggressive than Jack. Destiny, that evening, seemed to have made its first mark.
How did Mary first respond to meeting Jack? The diary that she kept during that period might offer some clues, but Mary’s descendents have opted not to disclose it, although admitting it still exists. In his 1967 memoir, however, Bill Attwood recalled the 1936 Choate dance and the rival he had in the future president of the United States. Attwood recounted on June 10, 1963, that he was talking with Mary and the president, who earlier that day had delivered his historic American University commencement address on world peace.
I ran into the President at Joe Alsop’s [house]. He didn’t know I was back and suggested I come in for a talk. I remember that we sat in the garden talking about the Profumo case and reminiscing about our school days. Mary Meyer, a Washington artist who’d been my date at a prom twenty-eight years [sic] before, was between us, and Kennedy happily recalled having cut in on her on the dance floor. It was hard, at times like that, to realize he was President of the United States. And it was impossible to imagine that, inside of a year, both of them would be murdered, he in Dallas and she in Georgetown.19
It appeared, however, that the younger Mary had not been immediately smitten with Jack, evidenced by the fact that her relationship with Attwood lasted well into their undergraduate years, his at Princeton and hers at Vassar. All through Attwood’s diary from late 1935 to 1939, he made entries about “Pinchy’s” (Mary’s) impact. “Pinch is really a damn nice babe!” he noted during his freshman year at Princeton. “I like to walk along the street with her for that reason. Makes me feel proud as hell.”20
Three years into her relationship with Attwood, Mary attended the infamous—and rambunctious—Princeton House Parties weekend in April 1939, but it wasn’t clear how deeply their romantic relationship progressed, or whether it was consummated sexually. The following month, Bill received “a very fine letter from Mary today, the kind I expected knowing how outstanding she is.” But the letter contained an update that bothered him. “She’ll be going to Williams [College] this weekend,” Bill wrote in his diary. “I hope it rains the whole time!”21
For a period, Attwood remained undeterred. His father had recently fallen ill, and his mother was afraid and upset. He noted in early June how “the Pinchots are good people and have been a great comfort to mother during this period of stress.” He seemed to find Mary more attainable as a result of her family’s kindness toward his mother. Later that month, Mary invited him to be her guest at Grey Towers. During his visit, he didn’t write about any intimate connection with Mary. Instead, he was “watching Mary and sensing her presence, imagining her to share my own life—swell thoughts couldn’t help intruding upon the present.”22
When activity coalesced around the tennis court, Bill noted that his girlfriend had a particularly aggressive game. “Refreshed, we undertook some tennis after lunch—and I surprised myself by downing Mary,” Attwood later recorded. “She was pretty peeved! Since she was playing far below her par, but I felt quite satisfied. I was at least returning a majority of her shots.” The man who had passed that game down to his daughter was also at the court that day. “We were all criticized by Mr. P who watched from the sidelines.” Attwood seemed to have come away from the weekend feeling embraced by the Pinchot clan, as he “felt so much a part of the family,” adding, “They don’t come any better than that family.”23
After the weekend, Bill, Mary, and her mother drove back to New York together. There was little conversation. In his diary, Bill recalled his experience on the trip back. “I contented myself with looking at her [Mary] as she knitted and listened to her occasional remarks—each one of which enchanted me, for I recognized them as reflecting thoughts which were identical with mine.” Attwood’s insecurity about his sweetheart, however, reared itself in his private musings that day. “Her profile—serene, wholesome, mischievous all at once—left me happy yet impatient. To be able somehow and some day to express my love to her without fear of rebuff—will that ever be possible? Or shall I, like Eliot’s Prufrock, continue to shuffle along, bewildered and dumb for fear of risking what little of her affection I possess?”24 Even in the throes of love, Bill Attwood eventually understood that he and Mary were destined for separate futures. He finally allowed himself to let go romantically, recognizing that it was ever meant to be.
In 1938, Mary’s older half-sister Rosamund committed suicide. Amos Pinchot was so undone by his daughter’s death that he lapsed into a temporary bout of hysterical blindness. It would be the start of a downward spiral into depression from which he would never recover. Rosamund had been the firstborn in his marriage to Gertrude Minturn. Like Mary, she was an exquisite classic beauty. Sixteen years older than Mary, Rosamund was a model of glamour and sophistication, endowed with an uncommon grace. At four years of age, she had learned to ride horseback. By the age of eight, she was entering equestrian competitions at New York’s Madison Square Garden. At thirteen, “she rode five jumpers in one class.”25 In her teens at Grey Towers, Rosamund was given to riding naked on horseback by moonlight. Mary had witnessed her, Godiva-like, late one night. She was in awe of her beautiful and adventurous older sister.
Rosamund was a prolific diary keeper, and by the time of her death she had filled some fifteen hundred pages with private thoughts and recollections that were eventually edited and published by Bibi Gaston, her granddaughter, in 2008. The book, The Loveliest Woman in America, took its title from a compliment lavished on the twenty-three-year-old Rosamund in 1927 by British actress and poet Iris Tree. Rosamund had also been an actress, but her fledgling acting career was largely a flop after only a few films, and the Pinchot girls didn’t take well to failure. No doubt compounding her pain had been a failed marriage, followed by a stormy affair with Broadway theater producer and Hollywood director Jed Harris. When she took her life in January 1938, she was thirty-four years old and had two young sons. The event shattered Amos, and left a scarring impression on Mary and the entire family.
Unlike many in New York’s aristocracy who were untouched by the economic hardships of the Depression of the 1930s, Amos Pinchot was not immune to the downturn. In fact, he feared for the future of his family, often secretly dulling his anxiety with copious amounts of alcohol. The effects of his drinking became known to Mary one evening when she was about to graduate from Brearley. She had returned to the Pinchot apartment with her date. Amos, drunk, became combative and criticized his daughter’s social life. Mary retorted in her own defense, and Amos slapped her across the face. Her companion that evening must have been shocked and embarrassed by the spectacle, yet already the unflappable Mary was not one to back down. It was the beginning of a break with her father.26
Perhaps inspired by Rosamund’s example, Mary became a committed diarist. Starting when she was seventeen—soon after her sister died—she would use the act of writing as a tool for self-realization and reflection, especially in times of emotional crisis, and rely on it throughout her life. As noted previously, most of her earlier diary is still in existence, but its contents are unknown outside the family. However, in 1940, on the second anniversary of her sister’s suicide, the New York Times published Mary’s poem “Requiem,” a remarkable disclosure of verse that divulged a stirring dimension of Mary’s own persona. According to Bibi Gaston, “Requiem” had first been written in Mary’s diary.
I saw her lying there so calm and still,
With one camellia placed beside her head.
She looked the same, and yet, her soul and will
Being gone she did not seem dead.
I thought if one so loved and beautiful
Should wish to leave, perhaps there was a voice
That called her back—and she was dutiful.
Somewhere the gods rejoice.
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. 27
So began Mary’s published authorship, in the New York Times no less, at the age of nineteen, during her sophomore year at Vassar. Around the same time, Amos published his own poignant tribute, “To Rosamund,” in the Herald Tribune.28
While Mary’s initial path led to journalism, she had arrived at Vassar considering a career in medicine. She was drawn to the idea of helping people, but she ultimately preferred the arts and the literary life. Unlike many of her classmates, she frequently chose solitude over the clamor of endless parties, gossip, and Ivy League college weekends. While her beauty ensured she never lacked for attention, she wasn’t attention seeking. Mary had little desire to flaunt her good looks, or her good fortune. Ego gratification wasn’t her objective; her affirmation seemed to come from within. “Mary wasn’t very gregarious,” her Vassar classmate Scottie Fitzgerald Smith told authors Ron Rosenbaum and Phillip Nobile in 1976. “She didn’t mingle about. She was an independent soul. I always thought of her as a fawn running through the forest.”29
Mary’s independence was already a well-established hallmark of her character by the time she entered college. At one point during her undergraduate years, Vassar’s administration abruptly forbade the student body to patronize the drugstore adjacent to campus. No explanation was offered. Mary, in flagrant violation of the new edict, recruited a reluctant classmate and went to the pharmacy—to learn its side of the story. According to the classmate, it appeared that someone at the store—a proprietor or an employee—might have made an unwanted advance toward a Vassar student. Mary’s former classmate had lost the specific details, but her memory of the event remained clear many years later. “Mary was a real rebel,” she recalled. “I was just a fake rebel.” Then she added, “Mary was exceptionally independent, but not a loner. She didn’t need to ‘run with the crowd,’ like the rest of us.”30
Social life at Vassar was as active as Mary wanted it to be. In addition to maintaining a relationship with Bill Attwood at Princeton, she traveled to Yale and Williams for weekend visits with other male friends—none of them flames. It appears that Mary met her future husband, Cord Meyer, during one of her visits to Yale, even though they didn’t date at the time. Cord himself wrote that he only knew Mary “slightly before the war”; in fact, he was a year behind her in college (Yale ‘43), but graduated in December 1942 due to an accelerated wartime academic schedule.31The two did, according to one account, have several dates before Cord went to war.32 During that period, Mary also crossed paths again with Jack Kennedy, but no relationship ensued. It was a time when the patrician class stuck together. “Everybody knew everybody then,” recalled Scottie Fitzgerald Smith, and “everybody” was anybody with a similar social pedigree.33
That did, in fact, include Jack Kennedy, who according to one account, dated several members of Mary’s class at Vassar, though not Mary. However charming, Jack was decidedly a wealthy playboy and always on the make. Mary would have been bored with this kind of man. She thirsted for something deeper, a man with purpose, a partnership of allies. In one of his impromptu campus visits to Vassar, Jack in fact introduced himself to a gullible classmate of Mary’s. The two went on a date, during which Jack, eager to carve another notch, concocted a story that he had recently been stricken with leukemia and had only weeks to live. His gullible date felt so sorry for him, she took pity, and slept with him that night, unaware of the duplicity young Kennedy had employed in taking her for a ride.34 The Kennedy calling card was already in full swing.
One of the most revealing glimpses into Mary’s psyche at Vassar was a short story she authored in the spring of 1941 for the Vassar Review and Little Magazine. Published six times during the college year, the magazine enjoyed an independent circulation beyond the college community. The two-column, three-page short story, “Futility,” depicted a young woman named Ruth Selwyn, attending her friend Beatrice Barclay’s cocktail party in New York. Bored by idle chitchat, Ruth stands away from the crowd, casting a gaze around Beatrice’s recently redecorated living room. She makes a mental note of how “cold and angular” everything is: “… the furniture all chromium and corners, the women chicly cadaverous, the conversation brittle and smart and insignificant.” Ruth can’t wait to leave the party. She is on her way to an operation that will change her life forever. She has pleaded with Dr. Morrison to perform the procedure for weeks. The surgery will connect Ruth’s optical nerves to the hearing part of her brain and the auditory nerves to her visual cortex, “so that everything the patient hears she sees, and vice versa.” Commenting to his nurse, Dr. Morrison irritatingly says, “She wants something new. You know the type: bored with life, looking for excitement at any price—as though life weren’t complicated enough as it is.”
The day after the operation, Ruth is amazed. As she passes the florist’s window, she notices that the orchids have been replaced by a variety of other flowers, and that the display includes two framed paintings, one of which features sunflowers by Van Gogh. At the sight of it, Ruth hears Stravinsky’s “Sacre du Printemps.” The sight of baby’s breath elicits the sound of a calm sea washing up on a beach at night. Roses evoke a slow waltz. And “when her eyes moved along past them to a clear white orchid, the waltz ended in the sharp tinkle of thin glass breaking.”
One dimension of Mary’s story describes what is commonly known as synesthesia. It is, to some degree, a medical condition whereby in certain people and animals, a stimulus in one sense modality involuntarily elicits a literal sensation/experience in another sense modality. For example, the taste of a lime would visually evoke the color blue. The elicited synesthetic experience doesn’t replace the normal experience; it just enhances it. Many artists, for instance, strive to train themselves to become more synesthetic: seeing the colors of sound; hearing some visual perception they wish to communicate; or describing the “personality” of a bedroom’s doorframe.
One irony of “Futility” was that it foreshadowed a significant event in Mary’s later life. The fictional character Ruth Selwyn was having a classic hallucinogenic experience after her operation. The ultimate experience of synesthesia is easily induced under the influence of most hallucinogenic substances, including the psychedelic LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide). As an emerging artist in the late 1950s, Mary would embark on her own exploration of psychedelics, including LSD and psilocybin. This wasn’t superficial thrill seeking on her part; it was more the result of being in the vanguard of a group of people, many of whom were already established artists in quest of greater self-expression. Equally fascinating in “Futility” was Mary’s commentary on orchids: “They look as though they had been grown in damp underground caves by demons. They’re evil sickly flowers with no life of their own, living on borrowed strength.” How ironic that someone would later appear in her life who was obsessed and surrounded by orchids, someone who had presented himself as a friend, before his betrayal.
Yet at its core, “Futility” was an allegory for an issue that Mary would encounter most of her life: the divide between narrowly prescribed cultural roles for women, and her own aspirations. The “chicly cadaverous” women, who had succumbed to a life of wanting for nothing, horrified her; yet all around Mary and her contemporaries, social influence dictated the grooming for such a life. In “Futility,” Mary took aim at what she saw as the vapid existence dominated by the superficial pursuit of elegant, novel redecorating, filled with “conversation brittle and smart and insignificant.” In spite of her social and economic mobility—the plush confines of Grey Towers, a first-class education, the cultural cornucopia of New York City—without a deeper purpose, without some higher calling and sense of inspiration and passion, Mary still risked slipping into the banal, the empty, the insignificant and self-absorbed, making life itself hollow.
By 1940 all of Europe would be struggling against the warlord march of Germany and Adolf Hitler. But that spring, Mary’s life at Vassar continued untouched. Having been selected as one of the twenty-four most beautiful women in the sophomore class to carry the chain of daisies and laurel at commencement, Mary Pinchot had worn the wreath known as the Vassar Daisy Chain, Vassar’s most famous tradition. In September, Germany began the devastating bombing of London—seventy-six consecutive nights of air strikes known as the London Blitz. Life in America was changing. While Glen Miller and Tommy Dorsey pumped out music with time to dance, young men, many of Mary’s contemporaries, were disappearing late at night to enlist. It was just a matter of time. America was going to war.
By the summer of 1942, World War II had enveloped the entire country.
The sophomoric college days of endless parties and gaiety had abruptly come to a halt. With the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, an era—almost overnight—had ended. Academic calendars were curtailed; graduation ceremonies took place in December instead of June, if they took place at all. Everywhere, the preparations and demands of a world at war were becoming all consuming.
But not even war could stop love. Mary had returned to New York after her graduation from Vassar. She found a job as a feature writer for United Press International (UPI), established her own column, and enjoyed rapid success.35 On her own and away from her parents, Mary’s fierce independence and selfconfidence bloomed. Even in wartime, New York was an exciting place for a young woman just starting out on her own. And it was about to become even more so.
Robert (“Bob”) L. Schwartz was a young Naval officer and a journalist for Yank magazine. Hailing from a Midwestern Jewish background in Salem, Ohio, the handsome Schwartz was tall, lean, and intellectually articulate by any standard. One Friday night, sometime during the summer of 1942, Bob was at one of his favorite after-work watering holes, Tim Costello’s Bar in New York. That night, he noticed a woman so alluring, he felt impelled to meet her. The problem was that every other man in the bar felt the same way. Tim Costello, the bar owner, was particularly protective of Mary and operated as a kind of “guardian at the gate,” particularly if the men became obnoxious.36
Schwartz made a move on Mary that evening and Mary let Tim know it was okay. The chemistry between Bob and Mary was instantaneous and mutual. As they began talking, fireworks exploded for both of them. From the bar, they went out for dinner and stayed up into the early hours of the morning, talking about almost everything. From the start, Schwartz recalled, Mary defined herself in terms of her pacifism and hatred of all wars, including the one before them in 1942. Wars and violence were anathema to her, and she wanted Bob to know that at the outset. “Mary wanted to do right by the world and there was no place for war,” said Schwartz. “She had impeccable standards, which for me made her demanding in the sense that I had to choose to meet her at those standards, because she wasn’t interested in trivia, at any level or any sort. She was far more special than I was.” Daunted, Bob still attempted to rise to Mary’s challenge. Never had he laid eyes on such an astoundingly beautiful, complex woman.
Schwartz recalled with great fondness how he walked Mary home that night, how she talked about the nature of the humorous in life. Her sophistication impressed and excited him, and he wanted to share his own sense of humor with her. As they walked past a bookstore window, Bob pointed out a book by an author that he considered very funny. A look came over Mary’s face, Schwartz remembered, and he read from it her aversion to his taste. He might have been projecting, but he began to feel that Mary was thinking she had made a colossal mistake by choosing to spend the evening with him.
After they said good-bye that Friday evening, Bob chastised himself for pointing out the book to such an extraordinary woman. “Almost in tears,” he recalled, he returned, despondent, to his residence at the Sheldon Hotel, convinced that he would never see Mary again. “I spent the entire weekend wondering if I would ever hear from her again, wondering if she would even answer, even if I called her on the phone,” said Schwartz, as though it were yesterday, some sixty-five years later. “Mary was so special, so very special. She was incredibly multidimensional. Of course she was beautiful beyond measure, but she also had a beautiful mind with a standard of interest that defied normal boundaries.”37
That Sunday at his hotel, he received a hand-delivered package. He opened it, only to find the very book he had pointed out to Mary. Inside, the inscription read: “Enjoy !” It was signed: “Mary.” Bob believed it to be a sign. Mary was telling him: “Don’t be put off by my bullshit. I want this relationship as much as you do.” He clasped the book to his heart, and broke down and cried.
Bob Schwartz and Mary Pinchot became nearly inseparable. Mary moved in with him at his residence at the Shelton Hotel. “It was pretty magical,” reminisced Schwartz. “As romances go, it was almost flawless. There was never a day less pleasant than the day before. We had a commitment to each other from the very beginning.” Mary’s intensity was both contagious and alluring. By nature, she required him to show up, and engage. Their connection deepened Schwartz’s sensitivity and prompted them both to explore life’s biggest questions. “She was very committed to her own truths, and they were of a very high order that involved a level of morality beyond normal comprehension,” Schwartz remembered. He and Mary would spend almost three years together.
In addition to revealing more about her pacifism, Mary allowed her spiritual sensibility and the seriousness with which she approached it to be known. “Why are we really here?” Mary once asked Bob. Unable to seize the enormity of what she was asking, he attempted a joke and said, “I don’t know, I’m from Ohio.” Mary didn’t like that. She demanded that he connect on a deeper level, and in time, he learned to meet her there.38
The two shared a passion for sailing. During the war, it was easy to charter big sailboats—yawls and ketches—for sailing on Long Island Sound. Often taking weeklong cruises, both alone and with friends, sometimes exploring the Connecticut River, they found an idyllic peace during wartime on those the trips. When they weren’t sailing, they would spend time at Grey Towers, what Mary called “the country place” and what Bob called “a royal palace.” The pair swam naked in the estate’s waterfalls amid the property’s verdant idyllic acres.
“When I saw that place,” said the smiling Schwartz, “one had to be impressed. It was like meeting Mary. If you’re true royalty, you don’t have to flaunt it, and she never did. I mean, what else would Mary have, if not something like Grey Towers? She exuded royalty but never had to flaunt it.” Some Fridays, the two would ride the Wabash Railroad from Newark to Pennsylvania and Grey Towers. Excited to be together for the weekend, always enjoying a fast repartee, they played with childlike spontaneity. On one trip, they started a raucous pillow fight, chasing each other up and down the aisles. Laughing, feathers flying everywhere, they managed to draw other passengers into the fray.
But it wasn’t all pillow fights and laughter. Even as a young woman, Mary would challenge the status quo of their relationship if she perceived some inequality. Schwartz remembered one weekend at “the country place” when Mary challenged Bob on what he recalled as “a certain failure of citizenship” that bothered her. Alone one evening at Grey Towers, Mary brought up the fact that she was always left in the kitchen to do the dishes after they had dinner, while Bob would habitually retire to the living room to read the newspaper. It wasn’t right, Mary protested. At first, the issue completely eluded Schwartz, oblivious to any problem at all. After all, this was part of the culture of how men lived. “In less than a minute of reflection, I understood,” said Schwartz recalling the incident.
“Jesus, I never really thought about it,” Bob remembered saying to her at the time. “You’re absolutely right. It’s terrible!”
“It isn’t terrible,” he remembered Mary had quipped. “But it’s time you got past it.”
“I’ll get past it!” Schwartz quickly responded. The subject never came up again, because it didn’t need to.
Mary’s mother, Ruth, seemed to approve of Bob, though he often wondered whether Ruth felt that he was worthy of her daughter. Nonetheless, his relationship with Ruth, as Bob described it, was “arms-length but with affection.” In fact, it seems that Bob might have underestimated the esteem in which Ruth held him. Mrs. Pinchot confided to Bob that her daughter’s friendship with a young woman named Liz Wheeler worried her. Liz was the daughter of John (“Jack”) Wheeler, the head of the North American Newspaper Alliance and a major force in the syndicate of independent journalism in New York City. At the time, Jack Wheeler’s stable of writers was impressive; it included Ernest Hemingway, Sheilah Graham, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Liz, along with several other women boarders, had lived for a time with the Pinchots on Park Avenue. She and Mary shared an exceptionally close, intense friendship. Too close, it seemed, and too intense, for Ruth’s taste. She worried that her daughter was having a lesbian relationship. When she confided her concern to Bob, he was stunned. The thought had never occurred to him. He assured Ruth it wasn’t possible; they were just very close friends. “There wasn’t any room for anybody else,” Schwartz remembered telling Ruth Pinchot. He let it be known that he and Mary had a “vigorous” and “fulfilling” attraction to one another. Ruth seemed reassured and the subject never came up again.39
What this anecdote may have demonstrated was that Mary was endowed with an unusual capacity for intimacy. As her life progressed, people often flocked toward her, desiring the possibility of connection she offered. As Bob Schwartz recalled, “Mary never did anything that didn’t have a sense of totality about it. If she made a commitment, she was right in your face with it. Her major dimension was the aesthetics about everything. You’d look at her and you’d see: this is a special woman.” The quality only deepened as Mary got older. Her friend Jim Truitt, who knew her well through the 1950s right up until her death, would recall, “Many of Mary’s women friends, including Cicely Angleton, regarded her as their best friend, as she was to so many.”40
During a transcontinental train trip to California, where Bob and Mary both had journalism assignments, they stopped in Salem, Ohio, to visit Bob’s mother. At one point during the visit, Bob asked his mother what she thought about Mary. Her reply was unabashed. She made it clear to her favorite son that it was obvious Mary wanted to marry him.
“Are you sure?” Bob remembered asking at the time.
“A mother knows,” she said, reassuring him.
Bob looked at his mother and smiled. “You’ve made me the happiest man in the world.”
But Bob Schwartz would never ask Mary to marry him. In fact, it was he who ended the relationship. “I was only an enlisted man in the Navy,” said Schwartz in 2008, considering a decision he had made so many years earlier. “Everything pointed to the fact that I was not socially, or in any way, equal to Mary. I didn’t feel comfortable with everyone always looking at her on the street, but not really noticing me. Mary was a complete head turner. I had credentials of my own, but they weren’t Mary credentials.”41
There was also the formidable shadow of Mary’s mother. Schwartz didn’t believe that he would ever really get Ruth’s “benediction” to marry her daughter. “I began to hear her mother’s voice, not Mary’s voice,” Schwartz recalled. “Ruth Pinchot never said anything affronting about me, but made it clear in other ways that ‘a Cord Meyer would be a better choice,’ though no Cord Meyer had shown up yet.” All the while, however, Mary had been making it clear to Bob how much he meant to her. So had her sister, Tony.
Late one evening at Bob’s Seventy-Ninth Street apartment in New York, Tony Pinchot showed up unannounced at his door. Obviously aware of the impending breakup, Tony had maintained a friendship with Bob throughout the time he had a relationship with her sister. Tony confided to Bob that for years she and the rest of the family had “wearily” watched the endless parade of men that Mary kept dragging home for her parents and family to meet. Tony then emphatically, and in no uncertain terms, told Bob that it was he who was the true standout—the only one she and her mother ever wanted in their family. Even with that benediction, whether Schwartz believed he “needed to be out of his sailor’s suit and a full-fledged adult before he could get married,” something kept telling him his time with Mary had run its course, in spite of the fact that Mary had been so clear about wanting to be with him.
Many years later, Schwartz found himself conferring with a psychoanalyst with regard to his relationship with one of his children. His relationship with Mary, and the memory he had forged of her leaving him, kept coming up. After a bit of work, the analyst confronted him, not believing that it was Mary who ended it, but him. “For some reason you didn’t think it was going to work,” Bob recalled the analyst telling him. Pointing out he had repeatedly “pulled the rug out from under his relationship with Mary,” it became clear the only way to deal with the pain and grief of a breakup was for Bob himself to orchestrate the termination, in a sense saying “you’re not going to hurt me, I’m going to hurt you first.” The breakup was difficult, Schwartz said. “I mean, three years night and day and nobody else, and never being bored for a moment. It was astonishing, and very hard to let go of. It ended with a series of trial separations.”
Yet that was only one part of it. Somewhere within, Schwartz was adamant about the nature of fate and the destiny that accompanied it: “For whatever reason, a Cord Meyer was due to appear. When he did, we both accepted it, but not before we shaped each other’s future. She never could be with anyone who didn’t have some of the things I had, and I could never be with another woman after Mary who couldn’t understand what Mary had been for me. Mary set the standard. She raised the bar for all of my future relationships. It ended with many tears on both our parts.”
Regarding Mary’s murder, Schwartz was shocked by the event. Even in 2008, he remained unsure what to make of it, though he didn’t want to entertain any conspiracy theories. He was adamant about one thing, however: “Her wrestling with her assailant was quintessential Mary. It would have outraged her sensibilities to go down without a fight.”42
Now in his eighties, a connoisseur and lover of ballet, Bob Schwartz ultimately compared Mary Meyer to what he called a prima ballerina assoluta. The term was originally inspired by the Italian masters of the early Romantic ballet and was only bestowed on a ballerina who was considered exceptional, and above all others. The first recorded use of the title was by the renowned French ballet master Marius Petipa when he bestowed it on the Italian ballerina Pierina Legnani in 1894. In the Soviet Union, Galina Ulanova and Maya Plisetskaya were eventually honored as such. Others awarded the distinction included Alicia Alonso from Cuba, and Margot Fonteyn from England. To date, no American ballerina has ever held the rank, though Rudolf Nureyev considered Cynthia Gregory to be deserving of such a title.
“Mary was a prima female assoluta,” lamented Schwartz as he contemplated her murder, a tear rolling down his cheek. “She was what women were meant to be.”43