A lively tale re­vives a cap­i­tal mys­tery

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - Opin­ion by Wes­ley Pru­den

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.

Mary Meyer

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