44 Years Later, a Washington, D.C. Death Unresolved- page 2 | 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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As real evidence went mute, the public imagination worked on two possible narratives.

The first was what might be called the Oliver Stone Solution—that is, to posit a conspiracy elaborate enough and sinister enough to do imaginative and, as it were, cinematic justice to the murder of a woman with such suggestive, powerful connections. The journalist Nina Burleigh sifted through plot possibilities in her excellent book on Meyer, A Very Private Woman (1998), and quoted the critic Morris Dickstein on the temptations of the 1960s' paranoid style—"a sense at once joyful and threatening that things are not what they seem, that reality is mysteriously overorganized and can be decoded if only we attend to the hundred little hints and byways that beckon to us."

Thus in the Stone Solution, popular on the Internet, Meyer was done in by "the same sons of bitches that killed John F. Kennedy," as one writer, C. David Heymann, claims he was told by the dying Cord Meyer. Another writer, Leo Damore (also dead), argued that Crump "was the perfect patsy, better even than Lee Harvey Oswald. Mary Meyer was killed by a well-trained professional hit man, very likely somebody connected to the CIA"—the idea being that she knew "too much for her own good."

The second scenario might be called the Richard Wright Solution, after the author of the 1940 novel Native Son, whose protagonist, Bigger Thomas, is tormented by the oppressions of poverty and racism: "To Bigger and his kind white people were not really people; they were a sort of great natural force, like a stormy sky looming overhead, or like a deep swirling river stretching suddenly at one's feet in the dark." In this scenario, Crump one day left his home in black Southeast Washington, crossed the segregated city, passing the Capitol and the White House, and entered white Georgetown. And there—on the home turf of mandarins, of Joe Alsop and Kay Graham and Scotty Reston and Dean Acheson—his path intersected for a moment with Mary Meyer's.

You could choose your movie. Solution One drew Mary Meyer into the world of James Ellroy, the grassy knoll, Jim Garrison, the Mafia, Judith Exner, Fair Play for Cuba, Operation Mongoose and so on. Solution Two inserted Mary Meyer by accident into an entirely different story: the primal drama of race in America.

The Oliver Stone Solution regards Ray Crump as misdirection. The Richard Wright Solution regards the conspiracy as misdirection. I don't buy either—the conspiracy theory smacks of the Oedipal paranoid (fantasies of hidden plots by sinister super-elders), and the other doesn't cover the particularities of this act. (At the same time, given what the two witnesses said, and given Crump's alcoholism and mental instability and criminal record before and after the murder, I believe the jury erred in acquitting him.)

In retrospect, the case suggests other movies, ones from Mary Meyer's youth—like the intricate murder puzzle Laura, or else that Greatest Generation favorite Casablanca, with its throbbing moral choices, worked out over endless cigarettes and sacramental booze.

Sometimes, the mere whodunit questions about Mary Meyer's murder seem mechanical. Especially today, in the context of Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, Condoleezza Rice, Nancy Pelosi and others who have enlarged the professional horizons of women, the memory of Washington at the earlier time returns with a certain sadness and sense of waste.

It is less the mystery of Mary Meyer's death—I am used to that—than something complicated and poignant and elusive in her life that I have come to find moving.

I grew up watching my mother and a number of women of her generation (which included Mary Meyer, born two years before my mother) struggling, in different ways, with the dilemmas of marriage and children and power and alcohol and ambition in a city that was politically charged, noisy with controversy and at the same time stunningly dull. There was hardly a decent restaurant in town, and not much theater beyond the pedestrian National Theatre down by the Treasury Department. (The National offered visiting Bulgarian dance troupes, dancing dogs, perhaps, and an occasional Broadway roadshow.) Sunday afternoons seemed to go on for months. Washington was hermetically segregated, ideologically overtriumphant, militarily overpowerful...yet also overanxious, overboozed, overstretched.

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