44 Years Later, a Washington, D.C. Death Unresolved- page 1 | History | Smithsonian
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Mary's marriage to Cord Meyer would reflect Washington's gender dramas. (Bettman / Corbis)

44 Years Later, a Washington, D.C. Death Unresolved

Mary Pinchot Meyer's death remains a mystery. But it's her life that holds more interest now

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On a perfect October day in 1964, Mary Pinchot Meyer—mistress of John Kennedy, friend of Jackie Kennedy and ex-wife of a top CIA man, Cord Meyer—was murdered in the rarefied Washington precinct of Georgetown.

It was half past noon. I was a cub reporter on the Washington Star. In the classically scruffy pressroom at police headquarters, I heard the radio dispatcher direct Cruisers 25 and 26 (which I recognized as homicide squad cars) to the C&O Canal. I alerted the city desk, drove to Georgetown, ran to the wall overlooking the canal and saw a body curled up in a ball on the towpath. Two men who had been changing a tire nearby told me they had heard a shot...a cry for help...a second shot...and had called the police.

There were no cops with the body yet. But in the distance, between the Potomac and the canal, I saw the lines of the police dragnet closing in along the towpath from west and east.

Because I had played there as a boy, I knew there was a tunnel under the canal a few hundred yards west of where the body lay. I knew the killer was still at large and might also have known about it. But the tunnel would be the quickest way for me to get to the other side of the canal, to where the body was. I pushed aside the vines at the tunnel entrance and hurried through, heart pounding, and burst into sunshine on the other side. I approached the body of Mary Pinchot Meyer and stood over it, weirdly and awkwardly alone as the police advanced from either direction.

She lay on her side, as if sleeping. She was dressed in a light blue fluffy angora sweater, pedal pushers and sneakers. She was an artist and had a studio nearby, and she had gone out for her usual lunchtime walk. I saw a neat and almost bloodless bullet hole in her head. She looked entirely peaceful, vaguely patrician. She had an air of Georgetown. I stood there with her until the police came up. I held a reporter's notebook. The cops from the homicide squad knew me. They told me to move away.

The police found a man in the woods down by the river. His name was Ray Crump Jr., and he was black. His clothes were wet. He had cut his hand. He gave the police a couple of stories. He said he had been fishing and had dropped his fishing pole and gone into the river to retrieve it; he said he had been drinking beer and went to sleep and fell in. The two men who had heard the shots told the police they had seen Crump standing over the body. He was booked for homicide. The police found his jacket and cap in the river. His fishing rod was in a closet where he lived, on the other side of the city. The murder weapon was never found. It may still be at the bottom of the river. Crump eventually was acquitted for lack of evidence.

That October day rests in a corner of my mind, a vivid and mysterious curio. I pick it up from time to time and examine it in different lights. I have not figured it out, though I have theories. I thought of Mary Meyer's murder again during the presidential campaign, when the drama of a black man, Barack Obama, and two women, Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, in a race for the top places in American government took me back over a distance of time to a city that was then, for black people and for women, a different universe.

When Mary Meyer died, no one knew about her affair with John Kennedy, or about her ex-husband's job managing the CIA's clandestine services. In newspapers, Cord Meyer—wounded World War II hero and young idealist who helped found the United World Federalists—was identified as an author, with a vague government job. The papers noted that Mary, 43, was a Georgetown artist, born to a wealthy Pennsylvania family, daughter of Amos Pinchot, the Progressive lawyer, and niece of Gifford Pinchot, the conservationist and Teddy Roosevelt's chief forester. Her younger sister, Tony, was married to Ben Bradlee, then of Newsweek, later of the Washington Post. It was Bradlee who identified the body at the morgue.

Then other news supervened. There was a presidential election coming, Johnson (who had recently signed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution) versus Goldwater (the warmonger, according to the 1964 narrative). Khrushchev was deposed. China exploded its first nuclear bomb.

But over the years, sensational fragments of the story (JFK, CIA) turned up. Inevitably, conspiracy theories emerged. Who killed Mary—really? Was Ray Crump set up? By whom? Why?

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