People who knew her could never forget her. And people who have read about her since her murder have been haunted by her story, which lies at the heart of America’s ultimate undying narrative of romance and conspiracy.
The death of Mary Pinchot Meyer is linked forever to that of President John F. Kennedy, for whom she was one lover among many, but not like the others. And when she was killed on the towpath of what was then a derelict canal at the edge of the nation’s capital in October 1964—a shot in the head and a shot next to the heart—11 months after Kennedy was murdered, her story quickly folded into his as a tragic subplot.
Was her killing a random coincidence, or one more fatal element in a vast conspiracy that stretched from the Grassy Knoll in Dallas to the overgrown edge of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in D.C.? She supposedly had smoked dope with the president, perhaps even dropped acid with him (she was friends with LSD guru Timothy Leary), and she may have learned of JFK’s alleged plans to thwart the military-industrial complex. She may even have encouraged them. After Kennedy's death, was she killed to tie up loose ends?
The Warren Commission had issued its public findings three weeks earlier, insisting Kennedy was the victim of lone gunman Lee Harvey Oswald. Meyer, it is said, did not buy that. Maybe she was planning to speak out.
There was something about her, with her short blond hair and slightly boyish mien, her lanky frame and casual dress, her self-assurance tinged with vulnerability. One of the men who saw her body by the canal would say later “She even looked beautiful with a bullet in her head.”
Mary Pinchot Meyer’s death lingers on the mysterious edge of the nation’s memory, overshadowed by the legally solved but emotionally unresolved murders and attempted murders that defined American politics and celebrity for two deadly decades: President John F. Kennedy, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Sen. Bobby Kennedy, and even the Beatles’ John Lennon, all shot and killed in that long season of American assassinations. Sudden death at the hands of strangers came to seem the price one paid for transcendent celebrity. And always, conspiracy theories followed.
But Mary Pinchot Meyer was not a celebrity. Few outside of Georgetown, D.C., a very small town in the 196os, had ever heard of her before she was killed. She was a well-off divorcée from a Pennsylvania blue-blood family who was struggling to build a reputation as an abstract painter in the nation’s capital. Her social circle included artists, hostesses, politicians, reporters, and quite a few spies.
Apart from her murdered lover, the president of the United States, there was her ex-husband, Cord Meyer (shown with her in the 1945 wedding photo above). He had lost an eye in World War II and espoused socialist causes afterward, but became one of the most powerful figures in what was at the time the still super-secret Central Intelligence Agency. Fresh out of Vassar, she had been a journalist writing for left-wing publications when they met, and both reportedly drew the malign attention of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. They managed to weather that storm before, finally, filing for divorce in 1958. Mary, by all accounts, had grown bored with her role as CIA housewife.
One of Mary’s best friends was Cicely Angleton, another Vassar alumna and the wife of James Jesus Angleton, the obsessive head of counterintelligence for the Agency; Ben Bradlee, the Newsweek Washington bureau chief who would become the editor of The Washington Post, was married to Mary’s sister, Antoinette “Tony” Pinchot. Jacqueline Kennedy, perhaps oblivious to the JFK-Mary affair, perhaps wanting to keep an eye on them both, often invited her to White House events. Mary attended JFK’s 46th birthday party, his last, aboard the presidential yacht Sequoia.
One could hardly imagine a better subject or setting for a tale of espionage and murder. And the aura of conspiracy is hugely enhanced by the fact that Mary Meyer is known to have kept a diary, which supposedly was found, and allegedly destroyed.
Just now, a hundred years after her birth, Mary Pinchot Meyer’s story is being rediscovered.
Variety reports that Soledad O’Brien is working on a podcast about her, possibly in league with Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side). But fiction is a terrific temptation when telling a story like Mary Meyer’s and this year two writers are publishing imagined versions of her disappeared diary.
In JFK and Mary Meyer: A Love Story, veteran journalist Jesse Kornbluth has written a short, elegant tale built around dialogues that are at once human and plausible. Kornbluth’s book is light on conspiracy and rings true on emotions. His Mary shows credible skepticism about JFK’s motives, and her own—as well she might have done at the age of 41, when summoned by a president who had lusted after her when they were in their teens.
Indeed, Jack and Mary had known each other on and off for much of their lives, and been part of the same tightly knit Washington set when Jack was just a senator. They had lived only blocks away from each other on the tree-lined streets of Georgetown.
In Kornbluth’s book, at their first dinner alone at the White House while Jackie is out of town, Mary keeps the president at bay:
Hug. Kiss on the cheek. Home at 9:30
A phrase came to me: lonely as Jack Kennedy.
Bedtime thought: Jack is just back from Newport. I was one of the first calls he made. Maybe the first call. He’s on the hunt.
Bedtime thought: lonely as Mary Meyer.
The other novel, The Lost Diary of M, by Paul Wolfe, is due out at the end of next month and has a less promising version of the second imagined tryst, at least as quoted in the trade magazine Publishers Weekly:
I spent some girlie time fussing over presidential appointment number two, rubbing L’Air du Temps into strategic places... I wondered if he smelled the perfume and considered me some sort of floozy, as I’m usually boringly natural and prefer painting canvases to faces.
Jack asked about my boys, and I was surprised.
Usually he’s either fucking or running the world.
OK. Putting fiction aside, what do we really know about what happened on the C&O Towpath shortly after noon on Oct. 12, 1964?
Several facts are not in dispute.
Meyer frequently took breaks from her painting to go down to the canal, just above the banks of the Potomac, for a long walk. Its preservation was a cause celèbre in Georgetown, but it would not be made a national park until the 1970s and it was not well maintained.
In the early 1960s, as one headed from beneath Key Bridge up toward Great Falls, the woods started to close in on the path very quickly. One of the towpath’s virtues for Mary was, precisely, the illusion that she was far from the city and its cares, and she was the rare woman who would walk there alone, even though the bridges and the undergrowth had become a haven for derelicts.
That cool, sunny October day was especially welcoming. She had just finished a painting. She was supposed to meet a woman friend as she walked down 34th Street toward the river, but the friend didn’t show. Mary went on. She could reassure herself with the fact there had not been a violent crime on the towpath for 20 years.
On Canal Road, which runs behind a wall above the waterway, a mechanic named Henry Wiggins, a black Korean War veteran in his mid-twenties who had served as a military policeman, was working on a stalled car when he heard shouting and a weak scream: “Somebody help me!” Then he heard a shot, and about 10 seconds later a second shot.
Mary had been wounded in the head, but tried to cling to a tree to keep from being dragged into the undergrowth. Then she had struggled toward the water of the canal, but fell down and was killed with a second shot in her back 10 seconds later. The bullet from a snub-nose Smith & Wesson .38 shattered her shoulder blade and tore through her aorta. It was only then that Wiggins looked over the wall.
He saw a black man with a light tan jacket and dark cap leaning over a woman’s body. Wiggins ducked back behind the wall for fear he’d be the next target, then peered below again as the man put something in his jacket pocket, turned, looked up at Wiggins, then walked down the embankment into the bushes and trees.
About 30 minutes later, one of the policemen called to the scene spotted a small black man about 500 feet from where Meyer’s body was found. The potential suspect was soaking wet, with weeds clinging to his white T-shirt. His hand was bleeding, his black pants were torn, and his zipper was open. His name was Raymond Crump, Jr., 25, and he had no regular job. He claimed he had been fishing and fell in the water. He would say later the cards were stacked against him, but it was fairly obvious from the start he was not playing with a full deck.
Wiggins identified Crump as the man he had seen standing over the body, and Crump was duly arrested. Later, a tan jacket and a dark plaid cap would be found nearby and identified as his.
The prosecutor had an open and shut case, he thought. But there was no physical evidence that linked Crump directly to the crime. No murder weapon was found. He’d never been known to own a gun, much less a Smith & Wesson .38. And at his trial in 1965, the brilliant woman lawyer who defended him, Dovey Johnson Roundtree, tore the prosecution case apart. Crump was acquitted; no other suspects were identified or detained, much less prosecuted. And to this day, the murder of Mary Meyer remains officially unsolved.
There have been several nonfiction books about all this. The detailed account closest to the events, The Mysterious Murder of JFK’s Mistress, was written in 1976 by Ron Rosenbaum and Philip Nobile.
Nina Burleigh’s 1998 study, A Very Private Woman: The Life and Unsolved Murder of Presidential Mistress Mary Meyer, makes a diligent and convincing case there probably was no conspiracy.
On the other hand, Peter Janney’s book, Mary’s Mosaic, goes full bore in the opposite direction. Published in 2013 and last updated in 2016, it explores what the subtitle describes as “The CIA Conspiracy to Murder John F. Kennedy, Mary Pinchot Meyer, and Their Vision for World Peace.”
That Janney as a child was the playmate of one of Mary’s sons, who was killed running across a highway in Virginia, certainly influenced his dedication to her case. Janney had just turned 17 when Meyer was murdered, and he had for a long time been obsessed with her the way boys sometimes can be with grown women who are kind and beautiful and caring.
“You had a crush on her, didn’t you?” I asked Janney on the phone a few months ago. “Yes,” he said, without hesitation.
But for Janney there was an added layer of emotion when he realized his father, Wistar Janney, another senior figure in the CIA at the time, might have been in on the conspiracy to kill Kennedy—and Mary Pinchot Meyer as well. Janney says he is sure that was the case.
Mary’s Mosaic became for Janney at once a labor of love and expiation for his father’s sins, and I think it is fair to say that nobody has dedicated so much time and effort to untangling the many threads that feed into and out of the story.
Janney’s greatest interest focused on a jogger who is not named in Burleigh’s book but who claimed in court to have seen a black man—identified as Crump—apparently following Meyer along the towpath.
It took years for Janney to track down Willam L. Mitchell, who changed his legal name to Bill Mitchell, and to establish that he was working at the Pentagon—perhaps with some connection to special ops—at the time he schlepped all the way over to the towpath to run at lunchtime that Monday in October.
In the first edition of Mary’s Mosaic, Janney speculated that Mitchell might be dead. By the third edition, he had found him and persuaded him to be deposed, but Mitchell said—not altogether implausibly more than 50 years after the fact—that on virtually every key point he could not remember the answers to Janney’s questions.
The theory of the case that Janney puts forward is that, yes, there was a vast conspiracy to kill John Kennedy along the lines that Jim Garrison pursued in New Orleans and Oliver Stone immortalized in the movie JFK. And yes, Mary Pinchot Meyer knew too much, and that is why she was murdered. And Janney asserts that Mitchell, despite his denials and faulty memory, was a key figure in the termination of Meyer.
One might offer an alternative theory—that Mary Pinchot Meyer knew a great deal about what Jack Kennedy was thinking in the months before he died, but she did not know what to do with what she knew, and those midday walks along the canal were not just meant to reconsider the Rothko-like geometric abstracts she was working on, but to try to make sense of what happened to her lover and friend, the late president. Then she was killed. And because we will never really know why, we must develop narratives that we can believe are true.
So we keep thinking about that diary.
It took a while for the police to confirm Mary Pinchot Meyer’s identity. She carried no purse, no ID. There had only been a faded laundry tag that read “Meyer” in one of her gloves.
According to a vivid account in Ben Bradlee’s 1995 memoir A Good Life, he first learned Mary might have been killed when Wistar Janney (Peter’s father) called him just after lunch on Oct. 12 to ask if he had been listening to the radio, which he had not. “Next he asked if I knew where Mary was, and of course I didn’t. Someone had been murdered on the towpath, he said, and from the radio description it sounded like Mary.”
By that evening, shock and mourning had set in. And Mary’s best friend Anne Truitt, an artist living in Tokyo at the time, called the Bradlees to encourage them to search for Meyer’s diary.
Cecily and James Jesus Angleton supposedly did not find out about Meyer’s death until late that night or early the next morning. They had gone to a lecture at the Library of Congress by the poet Reed Whittemore, who had been Angleton’s roommate and fellow literary wunderkind at Yale. Anne Truitt eventually reached them as well, and encouraged Jim Angleton to find the diary.
According to Bradlee's account 30 years later, when he and Tony showed up at Mary’s house the next day to search for the diary, they were surprised to discover Angleton already inside, but the journal wasn’t there. Then the Bradlees went to the little outbuilding behind their house on N Street, which Meyer used as a studio—and ran into Angleton again. Eventually, Tony found what they were looking for.
Of about 50 pages, many of which had paint swatches and notes on mixing colors, Bradlee writes that about 10 contained what he called “phrases” about a love affair, which clearly was with JFK.
When Ray Crump defense attorney Dovey Johnson Roundtree read Bradlee's account of the search for the diary three decades after the trial, she was stunned. Bradlee had been put on the stand because he had identified Mary in the morgue. Roundtree did not know to ask about a diary, and Bradlee didn't volunteer anything. All he'd found in Meyer's home and studio, he said, was her purse with her wallet, keys, cosmetics and pencils inside.
"In retrospect," Roundtree wrote in her autobiography, Mighty Justice, co-authored with Kathleen McCabe, "I see myself in that moment like a player at blind man’s bluff, groping for a truth that hovered just beyond reach of my fingertips."
Peter Janney notes another salient point. Bradlee had testified at the trial that he had gone to Meyer's house and her studio (which was in his back yard, after all) and encountered Angleton that same night of the murder, not the next day as he claimed in his book.
According to Ben Bradlee's memoir, after Tony Bradlee had read the diary she gave it to Angleton along with a bundle of papers and asked him to burn them. But he did not.
Angleton told the journalists Rosenbaum and Nobile in 1976 that he had contacted people whose letters were among the papers to see if they wanted them back.
Janney, for his book, talked to people who talked to people who said they had read the diary—or rather the diary, not Mary’s artist sketchbook which Janney maintains was just a ruse. One of those third-hand sources, a CIA operative, had claimed, "She had it all down in there, every bit of the drug use, all kinds of bad things JFK told her as pillow talk, and her inside knowledge of the hit," that is, Kennedy’s assassination. "Not good.”
By this account, she was threatening to talk.
Perhaps. According to Ben Bradlee's version, Angleton eventually gave the paint-swatch diary back to Tony Bradlee and Anne Truitt, and they burned it.
If there was one diary or two, and if copies were made of one or both, all remain secret.
“None of us has any idea what Angleton did with the diary while it was in his possession,” Bradlee wrote in his memoir.
Like so much that touches on the Kennedy assassination, what Mary Meyer wrote about her love affair with the president may never be established as solid fact. It exists now, for better or worse, mainly in the realm of the imagination.
This article was updated on at 9:30 a.m. EST, 21 January 2020, to correct the spelling of the names of Wistar Janney and Dovey Johnson Roundtree, and to add further material about the missing diary or diaries.