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

Mary's marriage to Cord Meyer would reflect Washington's gender dramas. (Bettman / Corbis)
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You saw those traits in Georgetown, which seemed to house half the hierarchy of the State Department and the CIA and the journalistic establishment, many of whom gathered for argumentative high-policy dinner parties on Sunday nights ("the Sunday Night Drunk," as one regular called it). Men from Wild Bill Donovan's old OSS and Allen Dulles' CIA and other cold warriors out of Groton and Yale and Princeton would drink too much and shout and might even, toward one or two in the morning, go for one another's throats. They would send a note of apology next day. The expensively educated had styles of cluelessness and overcompensating machismo that would come to grief at the Bay of Pigs.

Mary Meyer was a 1940s-50s American housewife (postwar marriage, suburbs and children in the Eisenhower years) who plunged headlong (with an aristocratically concealed recklessness that was a trademark of hers) into the '60s and into her private new frontiers. After her divorce, she had moved to Georgetown, become an artist (and longtime lover of the painter Kenneth Noland), experimented with drugs (in part, it seems, under the tutelage of Timothy Leary, who, in a book many years later, claimed that Mary wanted to turn Camelot into a peace-and-love acid trip). Mary climbed the back stairs of the White House to have her affair. Then she died on the towpath—woman interrupted. By unhappy irony, the questing, independent woman would be known after her death not as an artist, but as Kennedy's girlfriend.

Washington was a small town. My parents' cast of characters and Mary Meyer's cast of characters overlapped sometimes. I played touch football on Saturday mornings at the playground field at 34th and Q streets, near Mary's house, with Bobby Kennedy and his cronies, with Byron "Whizzer" White and others. John Kennedy sometimes came to watch, leaning on crutches.

It was a masculine town. Joe Kennedy was known to remark that if his daughter Eunice had been born male, "she would have been a hell of a politician." Bobby Kennedy became furious in a football game when his wife, Ethel, about six months pregnant, dropped a pass. The drama of the transformation of Washington women began with gunshots to the head—Philip Graham's suicide in August 1963; John Kennedy's assassination in November 1963; Mary Meyer's death in October 1964. Katharine Graham, the formerly suppressed wife (mousewife/housewife, by her own account) of Philip, took over his job running the Washington Post after his death. She became a national force. It was Kay Graham who decisively ended the after-dinner ritual of having the ladies go off by themselves to powder noses and discuss women's things while the men had coffee and cognac and talked about the cold war. She simply balked at this one night at Joseph Alsop's.

The Washington gender dramas had been going on for a long time, with different casts and styles. Kay Graham had an interesting predecessor, Cissy Patterson, editor of Hearst's old Washington Herald in the '30s and '40s. She was a stylish drinker, imaginative newspaper editor and occasional hell-raiser, an heiress of the McCormick-Medill-Patterson newspaper dynasty who in her heedless youth had gone off and married a Polish count. Cissy once said most men thought of women editors as Samuel Johnson had famously regarded women preachers: "Sir, a woman preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all."

But women like my mother, or like Cissy Patterson, or like Mary Meyer, enjoyed the surprise and the delight that they were able to elicit in men—a little like the effect Marlene Dietrich achieved in Blonde Venus when she came on stage dressed in a gorilla suit and slowly removed the head to reveal her taunting, spectacular self. They knew the uses of electrical currents, erotic jolts that were lively with a cross-grained politics of sex. Exceptional women of that era were more interesting, more vivid, more dramatic—if sometimes more troubled and vulnerable and prone to folly—than some of the ironclads that emerged in Washington later on, after Mary's death, evolving through the generation of Barbara Jordan and Bella Abzug and on into the accession of Hillary Clinton or Condoleezza Rice. The political success of women—still only partial—sometimes has the perversely flattening and narrowing effect of making them (much like male politicians) a little dull, a little relentless and charmlessly self-important. Although Sarah Palin, of course, proved to be, for better or for worse, not dull.

Kennedy did not treat Mary Meyer as one of his mere sexual conveniences. He cherished a quizzical respect for her originality and independence. He told Ben Bradlee, more than once, "Mary would be rough to live with." Bradlee, her brother-in-law, agreed.

My mother, Elise Morrow, wrote a syndicated column called "Capital Capers" that appeared in papers around the country. She had an extravagant admiration for Cissy Patterson, though she disapproved of Patterson's anti-FDR isolationism. My mother's column worked the after-dark borderline between Perle Mesta's territory (parties, ladies, gossip, Embassy Row, the things that senators and congressmen said at night after several drinks) and the men's world of power and cold war.

My mother was a small woman who looked a bit like Ingrid Bergman and affected a knowing Mae West swagger. I have a photograph of her posed behind her Smith Corona, wearing long black evening gloves, with a glass of white wine on the table beside her. She knew how to drink like a man, and how to cuss like a man as well, a talent that Lyndon Johnson found hilarious. She could always get his attention.

One night at some political dinner at the Shoreham Hotel she sat next to Richard Nixon, then a young congressman. They both got a little drunk. My mother told Nixon he should get out of politics because he did not understand people and if he did not get out, things would end badly. The next day Nixon telephoned my father at his office at the Saturday Evening Post, where he was an editor, and said, "Hugh, can't you control your wife?" The answer was no.


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