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BOOK REVIEW

‘Once Upon a Secret’ by Mimi Alford

Am I the only woman over 50 who didn’t sleep with JFK - or at least claim to have slept with him?

The latest kiss-and-tell memoir comes nearly half a century after the president’s death: “Once Upon a Secret: My Affair With President John F. Kennedy and Its Aftermath’’ by Mimi Alford.

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In 1962, Mimi Beardsley was a 19-year-old White House intern when, as she tells it, she was picked out of the press-office pool to have sex with the president when Jacqueline Kennedy was out of town. When she returned to Wheaton College in Norton that fall, she writes, the president would ask her to accompany him on trips, or summon her to the White House.

ONCE UPON A SECRET: My Affair with President John F. Kennedy and Its Aftermath

Author:
Mimi Alford
Publisher:
Random House
Number of pages:
198 pages
Book price:
$25

By the second paragraph, the memoir’s major weakness begins to surface. Alford says that she had “an intimate, prolonged relationship’’ with Kennedy. What she goes on to detail, displaying a stunning lack of self-awareness, is little more than booty calls arranged by White House aide Dave Powers.

The affair starts just four days after she arrives in Washington, she writes, an innocent debutante and graduate of all-female Miss Porter’s School, which the young Jacqueline Bouvier had also attended.

Early in the day she receives a surprising invitation for a swim with the president and a couple of other staffers. Later Kennedy would ask: “Would you like a tour of the residence, Mimi?’’ Throughout the affair, she continued to call him “Mr. President.’’

Alford stresses how naive she was about boys and sex; she hadn’t even had “the Conversation’’ with her mother or older sister. In 1962, women who had premarital sex - especially with a married man - were “sluts’’ or worse. It would be decades before “sexual harassment’’ became a household term.

The imbalance of power between the middle-aged president and a teenage girl was enormous, and I sympathize with the 19-year-old Mimi. But she is 69 now, a grandmother. Does she have anything of consequence to say besides “I slept with JFK’’?

I admit, I came to this book with a bias: Can no one keep a secret anymore? Even for her own good? According to Alford, she wrote it to rid herself of the emotional weight of it all. But that rings a bit false, as she had already been “outed,’’ as she puts it, when the affair was revealed in the New York Daily News in 2003.

In the first chapter, she writes: “I do not want the public face of this story - the one where I will be remembered solely as a presidential plaything - to define me.’’

But that is precisely what her book does. Alford offers little insight into the affair and its aftermath. At the end, she says she wants to talk to that 19-year-old woman “but I’m not sure I have anything profound to say or even if she would listen to me.’’

The best memoirs offer some growth, some analysis, some empathy for the supporting cast. One wishes for Alford’s sake, as well as the reader’s, that she had some. But she doesn’t. “I’m not ashamed of what I did,’’ she writes. “I’m just trying to make sense of it now, fifty years later.’’

Also baffling is that the young woman didn’t get that she was actually part of an extramarital affair. “In my nineteen-year-old mind, I wasn’t invading the Kennedys’ marriage. I was merely occupying the President’s time when his wife was away.’’ If Kennedy “wasn’t troubled about his wife, why should I be?’’

Though Alford shares some benign anecdotes about her forays with Kennedy, his darker side, as she calls it, could emerge. When Kennedy asked her to perform oral sex on Powers, in the White House pool - in front of the president - she complied. When he asked her to “take care of’’ his little brother, Teddy, she finally refused.

The second part of the book deals with the fallout of the affair on Alford’s first marriage, which ended in divorce, and her more recent, happy marriage to a man who sounds like a saint.

If JFK is the one who put her in a compromised position 50 years ago, it is Alford herself who is responsible for doing the same today.

Bella English can be reached at english@globe.com.

An earlier version of this story named Kennedy’s White House aide “Dave Powell.” His name is Dave Powers.

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