Uncertain and all of 19, tall and striking Marion “Mimi” Beardsley rode the train from Trenton, N.J.., down to Washington, D.C. in the summer of 1962 to intern at the White House. The Wheaton College undergraduate was puzzled as to why she’d been chosen for the internship—she hadn’t applied. Beardsley had, however, written an article for her all-girls boarding school, Miss Porter’s School, about one of its most famous alumnae, the first lady. A trip to the White House had led to a chance meeting with the president. And a year later, there she was, on her way to one of the cushiest posts available to a young woman whose parents frequently consulted the Social Register.
What happened over the next week—and continued for the following year and a half—forms the body of Once Upon a Secret: My Affair With President John F. Kennedy and Its Aftermath. Alford, now 69 and a grandmother of seven, reveals that from the first week of her internship in the summer of 1962 through November 1963, she conducted an affair with President Kennedy, spending nights with him in his private bedroom, traveling to be with him at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and seeing the president for the last time shortly before his fateful trip to Dallas. In this memoir, part confession, part hagiography, Alford divulges the intimate details of the time she spent with one of America’s most beloved presidents.
The First Week
Alford remembers being overwhelmed by the glamour of the White House in her first week, being greeted by Press Secretary Pierre Salinger, and being put to work among the secretaries in the press office. “The men were in charge,” Alford writes. “The women assisted them.”
On her second day, Mimi was given one of the anonymous gofer tasks familiar to most interns. She wasn’t to endure such drudgery for long. Shortly before lunch on her fourth day of work, she received a call from David Powers, a special assistant to the president and later curator of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
“Want to have a swim?” Powers asked.
Powers picked up Mimi in her office and walked her to the White House swimming pool, where she found two other female staffers and, after a few minutes, the president himself. She returned to work after small talk with the president in the pool, only to receive another call from Powers. Would she join the president and some other staffers for a cocktail around 5:30?
Mimi accepted, and Alford, her eyes opened somewhat by age and experience, writes of her younger self as being dazzled by the company she suddenly found herself in. After daiquiris, the president asked Mimi if she’d like a private tour of the White House.
She was led by the president into Mrs. Kennedy’s bedroom, and there, Alford writes, he undressed her and made love to her, assuring her, “This is a very private room.”
“Would you like something to eat?” he asked her when all was over. “The kitchen’s right there.”
While a steady stream of histories and exposés have ensured that Kennedy’s philandering is now public knowledge, Alford writes of the extent to which she herself was shocked by the president’s willingness to travel on official business with her in tow. Some trips were close to home, such as afternoon cruises on the president’s yacht. These trips often included David Powers and other prominent government officials, and while Mimi’s presence was never explained, it was never disguised, either.
“The atmosphere was like a polite fraternity social event,” Alford writes. “There were more men than women, and the women were not necessarily married to the men they boarded with.”
More spectacular were the trips taken across the country in the company of the full presidential caravan, to California and Colorado and South Dakota, all with young Mimi Beardsley along for the ride. Assigned a room three doors down from the president’s on one stop, she was told to wait in her room until Powers fetched her.
“I knew that we didn’t have a partnership of equals, and that my love would go unrequited,” Alford reflects. “He was the leader of the free world, after all. And I wasn’t even old enough to vote.”
Calls From 'Michael Carter'
At the end of the summer, Beardsley had to return to school. Unlike other students, however, she got a sendoff from the commander in chief. Mimi, who did not reveal her relationship with the president to her parents, pleaded with her mother and father to allow her to drop out of Wheaton and stay on in Washington.
Kennedy was more playful about their forced separation, Alford writes, playing Nat King Cole’s “Autumn Leaves” and drawing her attention to the lines “But I miss you most of all, my darling, when autumn leaves start to fall.” Most astonishing, though, is that while any number of teen romances fall prey to the end of the summer months, this one did not.
After she returned to school, Alford writes, Kennedy began to call her at her dormitory under the assumed name of Michael Carter, a name that she says sounded like “Cotta” in his thick Boston pronunciation.
“Mimi Beardsley,” the message would be yelled down the Wheaton dorm halls where other girls got calls from beaus in Cambridge or New Haven. “Michael Cotta for you.”
The president would ask her about her classes and friends, Alford writes, then end with one question: “When can you come to Washington?”
Her Cuban Missile Crisis
Beardsley made several trips to the White House from Wheaton, the second of which occurred in October 1962, just as events were escalating in the buildup to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Alford writes that she remembers the president being tense during this visit. Days later, the first lady left town and the call came through to Mimi that she should come down for another visit. “I’d rather my children red than dead,” Alford recollects the president saying.
Alford recalls withdrawing into the president’s bedroom while Kennedy met with his brother Bobby to discuss worst-case scenarios. Only later did she come to understand the difference between her experience of the crisis and what the rest of the country felt. “Here’s how I remember it,” Alford writes. “As President Kennedy met with the fourteen men he had chosen to handle the crisis, including ‘best and brightest’ figures such as Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, I was sleeping like a baby, wrapped in soft linens, in a bedroom on the second floor of the White House.”
High Times in Hollywood
It was a passionate but not a loving affair, Alford reflects. She and Kennedy never kissed, and she always referred to him as “Mr. President.” While for the most part she was drawn in by Kennedy’s playfulness and charisma, Alford writes of a number of moments when she saw Kennedy’s “darker side.” On a trip west with the president during the winter of her sophomore year, Mimi accompanied Kennedy to a party at Bing Crosby’s house in Palm Springs, Calif. With the president surrounded by “a fast Hollywood crowd,” someone offered him amyl nitrite, or “poppers.” When Mimi refused to try the drug, Kennedy made her inhale the fumes anyway.
In the Company of Other Men
During a noonday swim, with David Powers sitting at the edge of the pool while Kennedy and Mimi splashed around, the president said to her, “Mr. Powers looks a little tense. Would you take care of it?” Understanding that she was being instructed to give Powers oral sex, Mimi obliged.
Kennedy asked her to do the same for his younger brother Sen. Ted Kennedy months later, Alford writes, but this time, with the affair winding down, she refused.
Powers, who is portrayed in the book as the president’s friend, confidant, and relentless fixer, was often the one to fetch Mimi for his boss. Sometimes Powers had to deal with the sort of problems that are raw material for lurid tabloid headlines. “I can only imagine some of the distasteful duties he had to carry out at the President’s behest,” Alford writes, “because I know what he had to do when his duties involved me.” A few weeks into her fall semester in 1962, Mimi, who never used birth control during her affair with Kennedy, reported during one call from “Michael Carter” that she was afraid she was pregnant. Powers called hours later with contact information for an abortion doctor in Newark, N.J. Abortion was still illegal in 1962. “There was no talk about what I wanted, or how I felt, or what the medical risks of an abortion might be,” Alford writes. “Which is just as well.” A few days later, she had her period.
The Last Visit
The last time Beardsley saw the president was in mid-November 1963. She had by this time become engaged to a young man named Tony Fahnestock, who would become her first husband. Their courtship and engagement all took place while she was conducting her affair with Kennedy. Amid plans for her wedding, Mimi visited with Kennedy at New York’s Carlyle Hotel on Nov. 15, a mere week before he was assassinated in Dallas. Alford hints that she could have been in Dallas with him had Mrs. Kennedy not decided to go along for the trip.
“I wish you were coming with me to Texas,” Kennedy said to her. “I’ll call you when I get back.”
When Mimi reminded him that she was getting married, Kennedy told her, “I know that. But I’ll call you anyway.”