To this day, Mimi Alford doesn’t think it was rape. Even though she was a guileless 19-year-old who’d been sequestered at an all-girls school before landing a plum internship at the White House, even though she does not think she could have stopped President Kennedy that day in 1962 when he forced himself — ”he had maneuvered me so swiftly and unexpectedly, and with such authority and strength, that short of screaming, I doubt if I could have done anything to thwart his intentions” — she doesn’t refer to the crime by its name. No, all these years later, you can hear the I-must-have-asked-for-it misgivings in every scene: the night at Bing Crosby’s house when JFK forced her to do amyl nitrate against her will, the day he asked her to perform oral sex on an aide in the White House pool while he watched. That Alford is still conflicted about what happened comes across on every page. But neither her ambivalence nor the schoolgirlish gait of her prose can diminish her story, which is painful to read.
What Alford is describing in Once Upon A Secret, of course, is an affair engineered by a sexual predator, a man who used his position of power and influence to hold a starstruck young girl in thrall. But Alford is hard on herself — blunt about the way she must have looked to the other women working in the press office, who dismissed her as a ”presidential favorite” who ”had no skills,” and frank about the ways the poisonous 18-month-long relationship, which partially overlapped with her engagement, later corroded her marriage.
Biddable and meek though she was, Alford did finally manage to assert herself all those years ago. When JFK asked her to perform oral sex on his brother Teddy — ”Mimi, why don’t you take care of my baby brother. He could stand a little relaxation” is how he put it — she refused. It marked the beginning of the end of the relationship. And even though Alford doesn’t seem to entirely grasp the full extent of what happened to her during the whole sordid affair, any compassionate reader certainly will. B