- - Friday, March 9, 2012

By Mimi Alford
Random House, $25, 198 pages

Even if you have a low tolerance for kiss-and-tell books about famous people, as I do, you might want to take a look at this one. The story it tells is undeniably sensational and the facts tawdry. In the hands of a salacious writer trying to cash in on notoriety, it would be a most unsavory dish.

But while Mimi Alford does not soft-pedal the details of the affair that she had with President Kennedy, which began when she was a 19-year-old intern in the White House press office, “Once Upon a Secret” is just as much about the burden the relationship - and keeping it a secret for so long - put upon her. Her memoir is a hard-won, earnest quest to discover how she could have done such a thing and how the consequences of it doomed her marriage and hobbled many relationships in the decades following it.

It’s an interesting fact that, for all Kennedy’s legendary womanizing, so few actual partners have come forward over the past half century. Ms. Alford probably wouldn’t have been among that select group had presidential historian Robert Dallek not quoted from an oral history by a White House staffer mentioning “a tall slender and beautiful nineteen-year-old college sophomore and White House intern” as among Kennedy’s conquests.

The scholarly professor did not mention Ms. Alford’s name in his 2003 book, but a New York tabloid was not so gentlemanly and outed her well and truly. Soon she was besieged in her apartment, unable to venture out but inundated with offers, ranging from wads of cash shoved under her door to offers of millions for a tell-all book. She gave the cash to her church and declined to cash in then. What she has given us now is a sober, low-key account. What she sacrificed in lucre she has more than recovered in credibility and dignity.

There was a joke going around in early 1960s Washington that Kennedy was doing for sex what Eisenhower had done for golf. Ms. Alford’s portrait of the freewheeling atmosphere of the White House back then is fascinating.

Interns and office staff with no visible clerical skills were invited for swims with the president in the White House swimming pool. In Ms. Alford’s case, this soon led to drinks with a trusted presidential adviser who seems to have acted as a kind of pimp as part of his duties and, with amazing rapidity, to sex with the chief executive in his wife’s bedroom. Her story of how this brutal but, she insists, consensual seduction evolved into an affair lasting the remaining years of Kennedy’s life is surprisingly generous - and tasteful.

This must have been a very difficult book to write. That one senses this throughout is key to accepting it, admiring the author for having the strength to do it - and to carry it off with such grace. Ironically, the quote that kept running through my head as I read “Once Upon a Secret” comes from the woman whom the teenage Alford thought so little of wronging when she slept with the president in her bedroom: Jacqueline Kennedy.

Meeting her in 1980, the poet Stephen Spender asked the former first lady “what she considered her greatest accomplishment in life. ‘Oh,’ she said, I think it is that after going through a rather difficult time, I consider myself comparatively sane. I am proud of that.’ “

Blithe as she was back in the heady early ‘60s, when she took her fateful plunge, Ms. Alford had to struggle for nearly half a century with the aftereffects of what she had done. It is clear from what she writes that this was difficult and costly in countless ways. She is surprisingly kind and forgiving toward those she now realizes took terrible advantage of an innocent young girl. She is far more gentle about them than about her youthful self.

But her attitude now toward both them and herself shows that she has come through the terrible crisis and its aftermath. If Ms. Alford cannot be proud of what she did back then, she has recovered her sense of balance, and she, too, can take pride in emerging from it all sane.

• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.