A lively tale revives a capital mystery
History is bunk, old Henry Ford famously said, and it’s true that a lot of what we’re told is history is certainly bunk. “Movie history” can be bunker than most. The history we think we remember can be the bunkest of all.
There’s a buzz on the Internet about a new movie, “An American Affair,” which opened Feb. 27 in Washington and New York. The movie doesn’t pretend to be history, but an imagined tale of a precocious 13-year-old boy coming of age in Washington against the backdrop of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
The boy becomes fascinated with the beautiful blonde divorcee next door, an abstract painter who often lies nude before her open bedroom window, and fascination becomes something else when she hires him to work in her Georgetown garden. The boy sees and hears things he doesn’t understand. But he figures out a lot, particularly when he watches President Kennedy emerge from a limousine one night and slip into the neighbor lady’s house.
The buzz about “An American Affair” is harsh and angry. People are protective of what they remember, particularly of the myth of Camelot. Reviewers who want a recitation of history as they remember it often forget that a storyteller is, after all, out to tell a good story. Archival newsreel footage conveys verisimilitude, not veracity, to a tale of fiction. (Full disclosure here: Alex Metcalf, who wrote the original screenplay, is the young man I have regarded as my son since I met his mother when he was 8 years old.) Alex grew up in Washington, surrounded 24/7 by politics, politicians, artists, editors, writers and all the players who make the snap, crackle and pop of the nation’s capital such a fascinating — and often infuriating — place to watch, to listen, to absorb.
The buzz over his movie illustrates how quickly remembrance becomes telescoped and inevitably distorted. One reviewer is outraged by the “implicit suggestion” that the woman portrayed in the movie as JFK’s mistress must be Marilyn Monroe: “We all know the film star had a special relationship with JFK, don’t we? The role contains the perfume of Marilyn, which appears to be entirely intentional.” Some of the younger moviegoers in the preview audience this week in Washington guessed the woman in the movie was either Marilyn or Judith Exner, the mistress JFK shared with Sam Giancana, the Chicago mafia figure.
Bemused older moviegoers said, “No, no, she was obviously Mary Meyer,” described by The Washington Post as “a beautiful socialite who, like [the character portrayed by] Gretchen Mol lived in Georgetown, married and divorced a CIA agent, was the sister-in-law of former Post top editor Ben Bradlee, had highlevel affairs, kept a detailed diary and died under mysterious circumstances.”
Mary Pinchot Meyer was divorced from Cord Meyer, a high CIA official in the Kennedy administration, and became a painter of well-regarded abstract paintings in a garage studio at the home of her sister, Toni, and her husband Ben Bradlee. Nina Burleigh, her biographer, described her as “a well-bred ingénue out looking for fun and getting in trouble along the way.” The late James Jesus Angleton, the longtime chief of counterintelligence at the CIA, was a friend who occasionally took her two sons fly-fishing.
Her friends understood that she conducted a long-running affair with JFK, who dropped in for occasional visits. She kept a diary and told friends that she and JFK had had “about 30” trysts. One day in October 1964, 11 months after the assassination and just after the Warren Commission concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, was the assassin, Mary Meyer took a walk on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath just below Georgetown. A passerby on M Street Northwest heard a woman cry for help, and said he saw “a black man” standing over the crumpled body of a white woman. She had been shot twice, once in the back of the head and once in the heart, at point-blank range. Though she was well known to editors at both The Washington Post and the old Evening Star, she was identified only as the former wife of a government official. A black man named Raymond Crump, a day laborer, was arrested and put on trial the following year for her murder, and quickly acquitted. The jurors heard little of who she was.
Mrs. Meyer kept a diary of her trysts and her sister Toni found it and turned it over to Jim Angleton. He later returned it to her, and she burned it before a witness. Speculation was rife with conspiracy and counter-conspiracy theories, some plausible and some not: The CIA killed her. No, the KGB did it. The murder remains officially unsolved.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.