Monday, February 13, 2012

A Kennedy affair to remember–even in Duluth...

By Jim Heffernan
Still another of President John F. Kennedy’s extra-marital girlfriends – some call them mistresses, quite accurately it turns out – has written a book about their affair that is being published this month.

This one, Mimi Alford, was a 19-year-old White House intern in the summer of 1962, and, according to reports on her book and news media interviews with the author, had been intimate with the president within a week of joining the White House staff.

She kept the secret to herself and a few others for decades, but now has decided to tell all, and, according to reports, she has quite a bit to tell. I haven’t read the book, but only these accounts.

But it’s clear that she and the president had their fling for about 18 months, starting in 1962 and ending less than a week before he was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963. She is now 68.

During that time she reports she traveled often with the president, quietly staying in the background. You wonder if she was with him in Duluth.

In September 1963, just two months before he died, Kennedy visited Duluth, with great fanfare. Thousands of older Duluthians remember that day, but their ranks are thinning. I remember it very well, and have written about my “big” role in the visit in the past. I was a 23-year-old Army National Guardsman, recently returned from boot camp, conscripted along with the others in my unit to “guard” the president.

After he landed at the airport (his limousine – the one he was assassinated in – had been flown in the day before) his motorcade made its way to downtown Duluth where Superior Street was lined with thousands of people eager to catch a glimpse of the president. When he arrived it was evening and raining, so the Lincoln limo had a transparent top attached as it made its way from about Fifth Avenue West to Third Avenue East.

As luck would have it – and it was pure luck – I was stationed on the sidewalk right outside Hotel Duluth (now Greysolon Plaza), where the president stayed overnight, as part of a cordon of Army guardsmen standing shoulder to shoulder to keep the crowd back. Interesting duty. There were perhaps 16 of us, with the rest of the unit standing curbside all along downtown Superior Street in front of the crowd.

So I got within about 10 feet of Kennedy as he stepped out of the limo and walked into the hotel, smiling and waving to the crowd. Wife Jackie was not with him on this trip. Was Mimi Alford? In researching her book at the Kennedy Library she found Air Force One travel manifests for the period where her name appears among the passengers. I suppose somewhere there’s a record of who was on the plane when it flew to Duluth.

Reading about her experiences dredged up some of my long-ago thoughts as I watched the smiling chief executive walk alone across the sidewalk at Hotel Duluth. He was the first president I was old enough to vote for. Just about everybody my age, and plenty of older voters, were gaga over this handsome young leader with the beautiful wife. It took a pretty staunch Republican to resist him, although his victory over Richard Nixon in 1960 was narrow.

At the time it was inconceivable that an ordinary American, like myself, would suspect the president of having an affair, or many affairs, with at least one of his illicit companions still in her teens. Here was a political god whose rectitude was unquestioned at the time. I was surprised when I stood near him that he wasn’t 10 feet tall.

Learning something about this latest paramour in the past few days, I came to realize that at the time of the affair, when she MIGHT have visited Duluth with Kennedy, she was around 20 years old. The president was running around with girls younger than those of my own precise generation? Unbelievable.

It brings to mind a scene from the 1982 movie “Diner” in which a group of street-wise Baltimore boys exiting their teens in 1959 hang around a favorite diner and discuss their drab inner-city lives. In one scene, two of them are walking outside the city along a rural road when they see a lovely, obviously wealthy young woman in riding clothes, trot by them on horseback. “You ever get the feeling that there’s something going on that we don’t know about?” one of the Baltimore boys asks his companion.

Well, as for me, yeah, I get that feeling now and then.

For a look back–when JFK arrived at the Duluth International Airport on September 24, 1963 to speak at UMD the following day (September 25)–check out this News Tribune Attic post of April 21, 2009 HERE.

And... for  more information about the new memoir of JFK's intern, Mimi Alford, check out this NY Times opinion piece by Liesl Schillinger published on February 11, 2012 HERE.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your story. I too was there when JFK visited Duluth. Jackie would still have been recovering after the birth and death of their son Patrick in August. I always hoped the stories of all the affairs were just that, stories, made up by women seeking attention. In 1970 I moved from Duluth to Washington DC , where I remain today. Te things that we have seen in this lifetime!

Jim Heffernan said...

Hi...thanks for writing. Yeah, if you live long enough you absorb a lot of history. Before I retired from the newspaper here, when the new hires in the newsroom were in their early 20s and I was in my 60s, I used to get a kick out of telling them that I was working there at the time of the Kennedy assassination, and worked on our local coverage recalling his visit here just a couple of months before. These young journalists seemed stunned to be talking to someone involved in that coverage. To them it might as well have been the Lincoln assassination. Fun. -- Jim