All the President's Girls
May 18, 2003
I too was an intern in the J.F.K. White House. I was. This is not one of those humor pieces where the writer pretends to some experience related to the news in order to make an "amusing" point. It was 1961, and I was hired by Pierre Salinger to work in the White House press office, the very same place where Mimi Beardsley, later Fahnestock, was to work the next year. And now that Mimi Fahnestock has been forced to come forward to admit that she had an affair with Kennedy, I might as well tell my story.
I notice that all the articles about poor Mimi (whom I never met) quote another woman in the press office, Barbara Gamarekian, who fingered Ms. Fahnestock in the oral history archives at the Kennedy Library. Ms. Gamarekian cattily pointed out, according to the newspapers, that Mimi "couldn't type." Well, all I can say to that is: Ha. In fact, Double Ha. There were, when I worked there, six women in Pierre Salinger's office. One of them was called Faddle (her best friend, Fiddle, worked for Kennedy) and her entire job, as far as I could tell, was autographing Pierre Salinger's photographs. Fiddle's job was autographing Kennedy's. Typing was not a skill that anyone seemed to need, and it certainly wasn't necessary for interns like me (and Mimi, dare I say), because THERE WAS NO DESK FOR AN INTERN TO SIT AT AND THEREFORE NO TYPEWRITER TO TYPE ON.
Yes, I am still bitter about it! Because there I was, not just the only young woman in the White House who was unable to afford an endless series of A-line sleeveless linen dresses just like Jackie's, but also the only person in the press office with nowhere to sit. And then, as now, I could type 100 words a minute. Every eight-hour day there were theoretically 48,000 words that weren't being typed because I didn't have a desk.
Also, I had a really bad permanent wave. This is an important fact for later in the story, when things heat up.
I met the president within minutes of going to "work" in the White House. My first morning there, he flew to Annapolis to give the commencement address at the Naval Academy, and Pierre invited me to come along with the press pool in the press helicopter. When I got back to the White House, Pierre took me in to meet the president. He was the handsomest man I had ever seen. I don't remember the details of our conversation, but perhaps they are included in Pierre's reminiscences in the Kennedy Library. Some day I will look them up. What I do remember is that the meeting was short, perhaps 10 or 15 seconds. After it, I went back to the press office and discovered what you, reader, already know: there was no place for me to sit.
So I spent my summer internship lurking in the hall near the file cabinet. I read most of the things that were in the file cabinet, including some interesting memos that were marked "top secret" and "eyes only." The file cabinet was right next to the men's room, where one day the speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn, got locked in. Had I not been nearby, he might be there still.
From time to time I went into the Oval Office and watched the president be photographed with foreign leaders. Sometimes, I am pretty sure, he noticed me watching him.
Which brings me to my crucial encounter with J.F.K., the one that no one at the Kennedy Library has come to ask me about. It was a Friday afternoon, and because I had nowhere to sit (see above) and nothing to do (ditto) I decided to go out and watch the president leave by helicopter for a weekend in Hyannisport. It was a beautiful day, and I stood out under the portico overlooking the Rose Garden, just outside the Oval Office. The helicopter landed. The noise was deafening. The wind from the chopper blades was blowing hard (although my permanent wave kept my hair stuck tight to my head). And then suddenly, instead of coming out of the living quarters, the president emerged from his office and walked right past me to get to the helicopter. He turned. He saw me. He recognized me. The noise was deafening but he spoke to me. I couldn't hear a thing, but I read his lips, and I'm pretty sure what he said was, "How are you coming along?" But I wasn't positive. So I replied as best I could. "What?" I said.
And that was it. He turned and went off to the helicopter and I went back to standing around the White House until the summer was over.
Now that I have read the articles about Mimi Fahnestock, it has become horribly clear to me that I am probably the only young woman who ever worked in the Kennedy White House whom the president did not make a pass at. Perhaps it was my permanent wave, which was a truly unfortunate mistake. Perhaps it was my wardrobe, which mostly consisted of multicolored dynel dresses that looked like distilled Velveeta cheese. Perhaps it's because I'm Jewish — don't laugh, think about it, think about that long, long list of women J.F.K. slept with. Were any Jewish? I don't think so.
On the other hand, perhaps it's simply because J.F.K. somehow sensed that discretion was not my middle name. I mean, I assure you if anything had gone on between the two of us, you would not have had to wait this long to find it out.
Anyway, that's my story. I might as well go public with it, although I have told it to pretty much everyone I have ever met in the last 42 years. And now, like Mimi Fahnestock, I will have no further comment on this subject. I would request that the news media respect my family's privacy.
Nora Ephron is a writer and director.