Sally Bedell Smith Interview

Grace and Power: The Private World of the Kennedy White HouseSally Bedell Smith discusses Grace and Power: The Private World of the Kennedy White House.

Drawing from 142 interviews and extensive research, Smith writes of the human element behind the scenes. She sat down for an interview prior to an event at Book Passage on May 17, 2004.

Grace and Power brings to life the depth of the relationship between John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jackie. But, there are new revelations about Jack's affairs and how Jackie coped with his infidelity.

In addition, the book examines the roles of influential figures--not just principal advisers but also friends, relatives and even journalists. And there are insights into JFK's method of deliberating in the midst of competing voices.

I asked Smith about the public appeal of Jack and Jackie, and about the chemistry between them.

Grant Howard: They had a certain star power that was different than other presidents, other White Houses, right?

Sally Bedell Smith: Well, they did. They really kind of galvanized the country with their youth and their glamour and their vigor--refreshing vitality. Eisenhower was 71 when he left office. So the contrast was enormous between Eisenhower and the people around him and the generation that he represented--and the Kennedys, who even by today's standards seemed astonishingly young. Jack Kennedy was 43, Jackie was 31. And all but a couple of people around them were in their twenties and thirties and forties.

It's particularly striking when you consider that in the primary race, for example, John Edwards at age 50 really had to struggle to convince people that he was old enough to be president. I guess it is partly a function of the baby boom defining age upward. But they did have a promise of change and new approaches and idealism and commitment to public service.

GH: I picked up a quote from the book that I thought was very interesting: "Kennedy's love of history converged nicely with the artistic appreciation nurtured by his wife." I guess that was in the context of the restoration of the White House?

Smith: Exactly.

GH: But do you think it was larger than that? Did the two of them together bring something?

Smith: I think that she complemented him in very significant ways. And I think that there was some synergy in the two of them that might not have been possible if he had been married to a more traditional kind of woman. Because Jackie, although she behaved very traditionally, had a lot of almost unconventional ideas. And she was different in many ways from the image that she projected. But the thing that I kept having to remind myself of was how young she was. And for that youth, she had such a vision for what she wanted to accomplish in the White House and such a focus on how to go about doing it.

And she too had a real sense of history and love of history, as he did. They had that very much in common. They both read a lot of history--she perhaps more European history than he.

But she also had an appreciation (of American history). I was interested in talking with her stepbrother about the amount of time that she spent in her stepfather's library, reading about the founders. And the first book that Kennedy ever gave her was "The Raven", the story of Sam Houston, which I was amused to see was also George Bush's favorite book.

So the fact that they both did have a sense of history was a very important part of what they set out to do. They had a kind of sense of Jeffersonian ideals that was very much a part of both of them.

GH: I kept wondering in various places, but especially when Jackie gives a tour of the White House--the restoration that got televised--I couldn't figure out whether she really liked being first lady. She obviously enjoyed it some of the time, enjoyed the social gatherings and the projects. But there were other times where she felt completely overwhelmed, right? Where she would have another person go as a surrogate to an event.

Smith: I don't think that was so much the fact that she felt overwhelmed. I think it was the fact that she set out from the very beginning to design her role to suit exactly what her needs were and what her goals were. She wrote about it a little bit in letters to people. She said to Bill Walton, for example, that when she started out in the White House--at the very beginning--she organized her life with the efficiency that would have made Field Marshall Rommel proud. That she wanted to be able to live an unfettered life.

She had her two children, who were a very big priority for her. And she wanted to make time for giving them a semblance of normal life outside the White House. And so she simply didn't want to do the traditional kind of meet-and-greet activities that had been part and parcel of being first lady.

And so it wasn't so much that she didn't like the role. It was just that she wanted to redefine it in her own way. And she knew that she had a whole list of very willing Kennedy in-laws and her mother and Lady Bird who did like to do that.

So it was very easy for her to hand off the things that she thought were expendable--and focus her attention on what she considered to be really important, which was the White House restoration. And she really threw herself into that and gave it a lot of creative thought--and navigated a lot of intricate problems in terms of dealing with competing egos and matters of fundraising. She was very, very engaged in that.

Even when she wasn't physically in the White House, when she was up on the Cape or down in Palm Beach or out in Middleburg, she was sending dictabelts back and writing memos. When she was in the White House she enjoyed what she was doing. And when she was out in Middleburg or up on the Cape, I think she really liked being there. She just didn't want to confine herself to one kind of life.

Actually, the first lady that she most admired was Bess Truman, who was in her own way similarly independent. She used to spend a huge amount of time--she used to just leave Washington and go to Independence, Missouri. She never had anything to do with the press. She wouldn't even do interviews from written questions. And so Jackie kind of modeled herself after that. And she also had a daughter, and she managed to preserve her daughter's private life. So Bess Truman was in one respect kind of a model for her in her independent approach to the office.

GH: But why do you think (Jackie) was overwhelmed to the point of tears after (the restoration special) aired on TV? What was that about?

Smith: You know, I asked Ben Bradlee, and he really didn't know. I think it might have been the pressure. She did, as Tish Baldrige told me, feel overwhelmed at times. Because there were such high expectations on her. She said she felt it was only natural that she would feel that way.

Baldrige said something interesting. She said she didn't think (Jackie) was somebody who got severely depressed or anything like that. She said she was always on steady ground, but that she would feel the pressure. And as Tish said, she would sometimes have a meeting with her and she had circles under her eyes. She could tell that she hadn't slept very well.

GH: So she felt the weight of her role?

Smith: She did, she did. And I think both of them--I mean obvoiusly, he took his role seriously--and she took her role seriously. And he admired what she did. And that admiration grew.

There was a nice moment after she had spent the day--those eight hours taping that CBS special--when they had a group of people over for dinner. And they went into the White House theatre. And the producer from CBS showed them the rushes of the film. And when the lights went up, Harry Wolf the producer recalled for me that he looked over and he looked at the way Jack Kennedy looked at Jackie. And he said he could see a real connection between the two of them. And he could see a look of real love and pride and admiration in what she had been able to do. And I think that did grow over time.

GH: They were genuinely in love, you would say?

Smith: Yes. I think, as one of their friends Robin Duke said, that his love had reservations and hers was total. But I think Jackie understood that well before the White House. She understood going into the marriage that he was somebody who was a womanizer. They had some fairly rocky times during the 50s and had come to an accomodation. And she told several people about her feelings on it, including the fact that she thought that it was part of his character.

As you know from reading the book, she took into her confidence a doctor in Washington, Frank Finnerty, who had never spoken about his friendship with her before. He was outside her circle, and she I guess instinctively found him to be not only empathetic but trustworthy--somebody whom she could, as he recounted to me, say pretty much anything to. And she did speak to him about the pressures of her role. And she did speak to him about her husband's womanizing and sought his advice on how to improve their marriage. And he was delighted that he was able to help her, which is I think the main reason why he decided after 40 years to talk about it.

GH: And these would be phone conversations, right?

Smith: These were all phone conversations. They met at Bobby Kennedy's house, Hickory Hill, when she was playing in a touch football game and injured her ankle. And Dr. Finnerty was there because he was a neighbor of the Kennedys. He treated it. And he was handsome and young and Catholic and a professor at Georgetown. And she just sort of instinctively felt he was somebody she could talk to. And she couldn't go to a shrink or anything like that, and so she improvised.

GH: You mean, that would be embarassing politically?

Smith: I think that politically it was just--there was too much of a stigma at the time. Not that some people didn't go to seek psychiatric help. But for the first lady to go to some kind of counselor would have been extremely difficult. So she used her resourcefulness and took a course that was available to her. And they talked only on the phone. I think he might have met her one more time after the White House.

GH: And was the context of the discussions always her anxiety about the extramarital relationships?

Smith: No, it wasn't all that by any means. It had to do with her role, and how the press felt about her. It was a whole range of issues. Within that, she did talk about the womanizing but many, many more topics as well.

GH: I have to admit I kind of lost count of how many women there were. There were two or three main ones.

Smith: Yes. The one who had not spoken before was Helen Chavchavadze. And she decided, as she said to me, to talk now because she wanted to come out of the shadows. And she felt that it was part of her history and part of who he was. And it was on the one hand a happy memory for her. In some respects it was also somewhat traumatic, because she was under surveillance, she couldn't get a security clearance. She had a breakdown, she came out of it. But she spoke of him with great fondness, not with bitterness.

GH: I actually wrote down a quote from Helen Chavchavadze, where she says: "It was a compulsion, a quirk in his personality. He was out of control."

Smith: Right. And she said it was a shadow...

GH: "...destroying the self."

Smith: "...destroying the self." And she said it was a shadow on me, Helen, and a shadow on Mary Meyer, with whom he was also having an affair, unbeknownst to Helen. Here he was in his typical comparmentalizing fashion; he had Mary in one compartment and Helen in another. And the two kept their secrets from each other, except Helen did confide in Mary ultimately, in the summer of 1963. But Mary didn't reciprocate that confidence, she didn't tell her.

GH: Well, was he out of control? I mean, I guess what I am trying to get at is, what do you think?

Smith: Well, certainly from this distance, it looks as if he was doing some pretty reckless things. For example, in the case of Helen, that he would show up in the middle of the day at her house, across the street from his church in Georgetown, with his friend George Smathers--basically to announce that even though he was in the White House, he was going to be free to do whatever he wanted. And he did have a sense of playing by his own rules.

Now, these women, certainly the ones that I write about in the book--the interesting thing is that he had these extended affairs with women who were part of his circle--Helen and Mary and women who were on the White House staff.

GH: There were "Fiddle" and "Faddle", right?

Smith: Right. Well, they were certainly swimming companions of his. And Pamela Turnure, there was something going on when he was in the Senate. My sense is that that stopped when he was in the White House.

But they were all women who were basically what you would consider, I suppose, upper class women. Well educated, well brought-up. And they knew the rules of the game. And he could count on them to be discreet.

And so you can say from this distance that it looks reckless, driving into Georgetown in his convertible to see these women. But it may not have seemed as reckless to him at the time--because he was being protected by the Secret Service, he was being protected by the press, he was being protected by all the women with whom he was involved who were not talking about it. So the chances of being caught out to him seemed pretty slim.

GH: It is astonishing, though, because I got a sense from the book that he was a very analytical person who could step out of a moment and see the broad implications.

Smith: Yes.

GH: It's amazing to me that there wasn't at least one main adviser who said this is a bad thing to do.

Smith: No, nobody seemed to call him out on it, as far as I could tell. He didn't share it with everybody; there were certain close-in aides. Dave Powers certainly knew, Kenny O'Donnell certainly knew. But he kept it from other friends, and there were certain friends who were in the know. And I'd say there were others who simply averted their eyes. They may have heard things in general, and they just simply didn't want to know.

GH: Or in the case of journalists, just decided not to investigate?

Smith: Just decided not to write about it. And there were many examples of journalists who saw with their own eyes. Bob Pierpoint did--saw Kennedy coming out of a little cottage in Palm Beach with a woman and step into a waiting limousine and embrace as the light went off. And Pierpoint's position on it was that these affairs were personal and private and his own business, and didn't impinge on his ability to perform as President.

GH: It seems like you set it up in the book so that it would happen in real time. In other words, you didn't just devote one chapter to assignations or trysts.

Smith: Right.

GH: It sort of would just pop up over and over, which is probably the way it really was.

Smith: Which is the way it really was. I did in a sense set it up in one chapter. But once it had been established, you could see how these relationships evolved during the course of the presidency.

There was one woman who was quite fascinating, actually, Midge Danko--whom he pursued but she didn't capitulate, although she came close toward the end of his life. You know, he had a sort of different kind of relationship with her. They would talk about spiritual things, which was kind of fascinating.

He had different relationships with different friends, with different colleagues, with different women.

GH: And what about his relationship with the press? He had better relationships with certain journalists than he had with his own press secretary, right?

Smith: Yes. He genuinely loved the company of editors and writers. He was a sort of writer monque. If he hadn't gone into politics, it was a pretty good chance that he might have become a columnist himself, because he loved to analyze politics. And he was a pretty good writer.

So he liked that world a lot, and three of his closest friends were journalists: Charlie Bartlett, Ben Bradlee, and Joe Alsop. And they each played different roles. And beyond that, he was always inviting members of the press in to see him in the oval office. Pierre Salinger, his Press Secretary, would walk in and he'd be astonished--you know, why are these people here? And he was pretty manipulative, he did all sorts of things.

GH: Well, there was that one thing after the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Smith: Which was pretty devious. The missile crisis was basically resolved in a secret fashion, by trading their missiles in Cuba for our missiles in Turkey. But for political reasons with NATO, we didn't want to publicize that fact. And so he pretty much used his good friend Charlie Bartlett to put out some disinformation about (U.N. Ambassador) Adlai Stevenson, to kind of divert attention from anybody sniffing around to find out what the secret solution was. And only a few members of his group of advisers knew what the secret solution was. It really wasn't revealed for several decades. But the way he used Charlie Bartlett--years later, when Bartlett figured it out--stung him. And he tried to be philosophical about it and say, well, presidents have to do that.

But it was really interesting to me to find the two letters that Kennedy wrote to Adlai Stevenson in Stevenson's papers at Princeton. One was the public letter that basically said, I regret that this happened.

GH: Where Stevenson ended up being portrayed as an appeaser?

Smith: That was the whole point of the disinformation that he put out, that Stevenson had wanted to give up everything. And so that was the thrust of this article in the Saturday Evening Post written by Charlie Bartlett and Stewart Alsop. And Kennedy had basically assigned somebody on his staff to feed this information to Bartlett and Alsop. And also, (Kennedy) had cooperated on a background basis with the writing of the article, to the extent that he reviewed the manuscript and made changes. As Charlie Bartlett said, his scribbles were all over the manuscript.

So when this article came out, Adlai Stevenson was furious and defended himself quite vigorously. And Kennedy wrote him a public letter that said: I don't know how these things happened, I have complete faith in you, I want you to continue to serve as my U.N. Ambassador. Privately, he wrote to him saying some of the same things but also vigorously denying that he had anything to do with it or that anybody in the White House had anything to do with it--and that it was just a couple of journalists making mischief. And he disavowed that there was any connection between his friendship with Charlie Bartlett and the way the article was written. All of which was a lie.

GH: Were there other examples of manipulation? I mean, maybe a little more subtle, including the press? I guess any president has the opportunity to manipulate people. Were there other examples of that?

Smith: Well, there were lots of examples of that. I am going to talk a little bit about that tonight. But he was a sort of master manipulator. He was very astute at figuring out people's strengths and weaknesses, and at understanding how to play to those--often to the best advantage.

But he also would maneuver people against each other in the interests of creative tension. There is an example of how he played his Treasury Secretary Douglas Dillon off against his Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, Walter Heller. And he told Dillon that he had to bring in Heller because he needed to have a liberal public image for his economic policy. Basically, his economic policy was quite conservative, and he and Dillon were working at it from almost the day that Kennedy asked him to come and work for him. And he would tell Heller: Oh, well, Dillon's a Republican. You have to be a counterweight to him.

So, that was fairly manipulative.

GH: And I got the sense that there were several times, or more than several, when he would confide in a journalist and say, I am only telling you and then he would tell somebody else.

Smith: Absolutely. He did that with James Reston and Cy Sulzberger, both of whom worked for the New York Times. After the summits in Paris and Vienna he said, now, you're the only one.

He did a lot of that; he would flatter journalists. He read everything they wrote. And he would tell them what he liked and what he didn't like. And he would create this kind of aura of intimacy by inviting them to come and talk to him while he was getting dressed for a dinner party upstairs, or by taking them swimming. And he was also incredibly indiscreet with them.

GH: And crude, even.

Smith: And crude. He was indiscreet, crude, and he would say all kinds of indiscreet things about people.

GH: Including heads of state, right?

Smith: Including heads of state. People like de Gaulle and politicians like Nixon. And he once revealed to Ben Bradlee that J. Paul Getty only paid $500 a year in federal income taxes. And he said jocularly, "It's probably illegal for me to know that, much less to tell you." And Bradlee took it in stride and made note of it in his journal, but he certainly didn't publish it in Newsweek.

GH: Well, I know you are an experienced Washington journalist. So I want to ask you, why was there no conflict of interest for these men? And it was mostly men in those days--Alsop, Bradlee, others.

Smith: I don't think they saw it as a conflict of interest at all. And there was certainly nobody around to call them on it. I was amazed at the number of journalists who routinely offered ideas on speeches, who gave suggestions for political appointments, who sent memos on public policy. Cy Sulzberger gave a memo to Kennedy with advice on how to deal with de Gaulle, how to structure his questions for de Gaulle. And on and on and on. Teddy White would send long memos about Vietnam policy.

The membrane between the press and that particular president was almost nonexistent. It went back and forth all the time. And everybody was doing it, so I don't think anybody was giving it much thought. Charlie Bartlett many years later said quite candidly to me that the most important thing to him was the success of the presidency of Jack Kennedy. And he said, it compromised my role as a journalist.

GH: So he had this aura or something that motivated people to be devoted to him.

Smith: He did. He engendered enormous loyalty. Walt Rostow had some very interesting things to say about that. And I was struck when after Kennedy died, Joseph Alsop said that Washington was a city of male widows. He was, as a lot of politicians are--not in a sexual sense--he was a seducer. And he was very good at seducing people to believe in him and be loyal to him. Loyalty was a very, very important value for him.

GH: I guess there was a downside because after the assassination, some of his closest advisers felt kind of lost, right?

Smith: Oh, they did. I have an epilogue and I talk about what happened to each of them. Kenny O'Donnell really fell apart. William Manchester told me about the time that he was with (O'Donnell) in the Mayflower Hotel in Washington and watched him line 11 screwdrivers on the bar and drink them all. He basically drank himself to death.

GH: Sorensen, also?

Smith: Sorensen was so inextricably entwined with Kennedy that in some respects, he really didn't get over it. His identity was so bound up in Kennedy's. But it's not to say that it disabled him. He was able to go on and return to New York and become a lawyer. He remained very involved with the Kennedy family and wrote speeches for Bobby Kennedy--and kind of performed various consulting duties for them.

Katie Louchheim, who worked in the State Department and was a kind of Democratic Party fundraiser and activist, kept a wonderful journal that had never been used before for a Kennedy book. It was sitting in the Library of Congress and I drew a lot from it, because she offered fabulous fly-on-the-wall sketches of these personalities and various events. She said afterwards that Sorensen "wasn't really bitter, but he was stilled."

GH: In terms of your motivation for writing the book...the book had the effect for me of sort of de-mythologizing that whole period, making it more human.

Smith: Thank you. That's exactly what I wanted to do, to show the human dimension of history--that by exploring these relationships, I could bring the period and the personalities to life in a new way. And also, through their perceptions of the Kennedys, to kind of make them more multi-dimensional than perhaps other portraits have.

But that was it precisely, to humanize them all, and to show not only what they achieved and their talents, but to show their foibles and the ambiguities. It wasn't a static situation. They all were changed by it. Joe Alsop said it was one of the most fascinating things about Kennedy--he was able to capture and change people. And there were changes in the dynamics of various relationships, as you move through the period.

GH: I was curious. I saw the movie "Thirteen Days", and O'Donnell plays this very strong role in the movie. But in the book, O'Donnell and Powers both have this sort of grounded quality. They come from a different background than the Kennedys.

Smith: Completely, yes.

GH: So was that their role, do you think, just to enable him maybe to connect more with ordinary Americans?

Smith: I think that was more Powers' role. I mean, his was more basic. He had that position of kind of the official greeter in the White House. O'Donnell was a little bit more strategic in that he was involved in the scheduling. He was a little bit more of Kennedy's political cadre. But they certainly operated at a different level from say, a McNamara or a Bundy, that crowd.

Ethel Kennedy sent a valentine out shortly after "Thirteen Days" came out. She said, "Roses are red, violets are blue, you have thirteen days to figure out what Kenny O'Donnell would do." And so they were all sort of chuckling about the inflation of his role in that movie, which was really for dramatic purposes.

But O'Donnell did have an important role (during the missile crisis), nothing really having to do with making significant decisions or setting policy. But Kennedy often put O'Donnell in the room, because O'Donnell was very good at protecting Kennedy and making sure that people were doing things as they ought to. And he would just be an observer, often. As Charlie Bartlett said, he would often stand there with his arms folded, grim-faced--kind of taking it all in. And he had a very good memory. And he would be in these meetings, and see what the dynamics were of the men in the debates, and who was making sense and who was panicking.

And so he did perform that function; he would listen and observe and report back to Kennedy on how they were all conducting themselves. Because Kennedy absented himself from a lot of those meetings during the missile crisis for a very specific reason--so they could come to some recommendations without his intimidating presence in the room.

GH: Kennedy had a sort of a great man theory about the world, and he hoped he would fit into that, right?.

Smith: He did indeed.

GH: But on the other hand, he was not known for a lot of original thoughts. He would mine his advisors.

Smith: Right.

GH: So, isn't that kind of a contradiction?

Smith: Well, I suppose in a sense it is. But I think he was envisioning himself as somebody who could shape events as opposed to letting events move him along. I think they all felt that way. And certainly when they were confronted with major events like the Berlin crisis and the missile crisis, he did take a very activist role.

It's a question of what kind of intelligence he had. He didn't seem to have a really original intelligence, but he had a very good synthesizing intelligence. He was good at kind of picking everybody's brains.

I think it's useful to look at how he viewed his means of getting information. He was sort of insatiable. He got it from all different places and didn't want to be spoon-fed. And we're at a moment now in our history when our president is being spoon-fed.

GH: And unlike presidents lately, including our current president, he actually was very skillful at live press conferences, right?

Smith: Yes. He loved them. He wasn't always--at the beginning especially--the paragon of...

GH: Well, nobody had ever done it before.

Smith: Yes. Well, he got more and more articulate as time went on. But there were some critiques of his early press conferences where they talked about how he would meander around--and couldn't find a subject and a verb that agreed. But he got much better at it, and he was particularly good at bantering. At one point Peter Lisagor, who worked for the Chicago Daily News, said we all should have gotten actor's equity cards.

GH: Right. Because it was a gentle treatment compared to today's media.

Smith: Yes it was. I mean, that whole era of confrontational press conferences really began after Watergate.

GH: It's ironic that Ben Bradlee was at the center of that.

Smith: I know.