A Very Private Woman: The Life and Unsolved Murder of Presidential Mistress Mary Meyer
A Very Private Woman: The Life and Unsolved Murder of Presidential Mistress Mary Meyer
In 1964, Mary Pinchot Meyer, the beautiful, rebellious, and intelligent ex-wife of a top CIA official, was killed on a quiet Georgetown towpath near her home. Mary Meyer was a secret mistress of President John F. Kennedy, whom she had known since private school days, and after her death, reports that she had kept a diary set off a tense search by her brother-in-law, newsman Ben Bradlee, and CIA spymaster James Jesus Angleton. But the only suspect in her murder was acquitted, and today her life and death are still a source of intense speculation, as Nina Burleigh reveals in her widely praised book, the first to examine this haunting story.
Download (epub, 3.35 MB)
Send-to-Kindle or Email
EPUB, 1.73 MB
Praise for A Very Private Woman
“Mary Meyer, CIA wife, mistress of President Kennedy, murder victim, has long been a story waiting for the right author. In this book, with its incisive, unsensational but fascinating reporting, Nina Burleigh really delivers…. Fine, well-judged work.”
—Anthony Summers, author of Goddess and Official and Confidential
“A scintillating true story [Burleigh] relies on well-documented evidence and recollections. An astute observer of the political scene.”
—New York Post
“A compelling story … of a woman who lived at the edges of power, influence, and history.”
“A sensitive study of a time, place, and woman … A Very Private Woman is a wonderful read.”
—The Weekly Standard
“Burleigh provides an intriguing look into the mythology surrounding the Kennedy White House and the Cold War era, when secrets were a way of life.”
—The Knoxville News-Sentinel
“Burleigh’s biography is an excellent study of both its subject and its time.”
“A Very Private Woman is elegant and evocative… Burleigh weaves a good tale. She’s terrific on a Georgetown that no longer exists.”
—The Washington Post Book World
This edition contains the complete text of the original hardcover edition.
NOT ONE WORD HAS BEEN OMITTED.
A VERY PRIVATE WOMAN
A Bantam Book
Bantam hardcover edition published 1998
Bantam trade paperback edition / October 1999
All rights reserved.
Copyright © 1998 by Nina Burleigh
Top photo by Toni Frissell courtesy of Vogue. Copyright © Vogue 1935 (renewed 1963, 1991) by the Condé Nast Publications, Inc.
Bottom left photo by Cecil Stoughton, U.S. Army Signal Corps photographer on active duty assigned to the Office of the Military Aide to the President.
Bottom right photo copyright © Washington Post by permission of the D.C. Public Library.
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 98-6731
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
For information address: Bantam Books.
Bantam Books are published by Bantam Books, a division of Random House, Inc. Its trademark, consisting of the words “Bantam Books” and the portrayal of a rooster, is Registered in U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and in other countries. Marca Registrada. Bantam Books, 1540 Broadway, New York, New York 10036.
MURDER IN GEORGETOWN
JACK AND MARY
About the Author
Anyone wanting to write about a member of the silent generation of women that mothered the baby boom and married the cold warriors confronts a peculiar obstacle: Many of these women believe their lives were utterly unremarkable. The cold war wives review years spent raising children and keeping house, arranging dinner parties for dignitaries, making art, or getting jobs. They find their personal histories bland compared to their husbands’, men with war wounds on their bodies and secrets of state in their brains, men whose turf ranged from Havana to Moscow and Paris to Bucharest, and whose work altered world history.
When the woman in question had an affair with a married president of the United States and then died violently, the obstacle of humility is compounded by embarrassment and sorrow. Mary Pinchot Meyer’s sister and closest friend say they burned her diary, and a CIA official destroyed her other papers, obliterating her voice from history. Her closest surviving friends made an informal pact not to discuss her. Many people who will talk are persuaded—for reasons that have more to do with Mary’s access to powerful men and with the tenor of the times than with available facts about the woman herself—that Mary Meyer “knew things” she wasn’t supposed to know, and that her death is somehow related to that knowledge. Still others are quite happy to talk, but thirty years and advancing age have dimmed their memories. The protectiveness of her friends, the shame and sorrow of her family, and the political intrigue during her years in Washington have combined to make her life and death mythic, a part of the Kennedy assassination conspiracy legend.
Most of Mary Meyer’s female peers outlived their husbands, men who drank hard and were often addicted to nicotine. These women devoted their later years to creative endeavor. In their seventies, avian and fine as porcelain, they take themselves and their work very seriously. They lived the earlier part of their lives unnoticed in a half-lit world of great refinement and delicate sensibility, eclipsed by the cold warriors and their nihilistic contest of rocket fuel and warheads and plutonium. These women painted or sculpted or wrote poetry or studied and suffered the husbands who strayed or ignored them or drank too much, or whose secret deeds were only revealed by congressional inquiries years later. Their children rebelled and got lost in drugs and the turmoil of the 1960s before coming home. They survived much.
Mary Meyer’s death was a tragedy for her two surviving sons and for her sister and close friends. It was a tragedy from which the affected have tried to recover in different ways. One of those ways has been a protective silence. Like high priestesses guarding the Eleusinian mysteries, those ancient Greek fertility rites of blood and sex, her friends have protected the mystery of their lost friend’s life, and with it the secret history of their group, once so important and now fading into old age, death, and history. They want Mary’s story and the reasons behind a mad scramble for her diary after her death interred with her. In so doing, they protect the living as much as the dead. The image of their once-powerful set shall not be damaged while they live. Their very silence has perpetuated the mystery of their late friend more effectively than anything they might have said. Mary Meyer became a silhouette in her own story.
As the years passed and the secrets of the CIA dribbled out, Americans came to believe the cold warriors were capable of supreme acts of oversight and evil. To some minds the intelligence agency assumed the role of the invisible hand and became a controlling entity behind ever more complicated, interconnected webs of events inside America. This impression was amplified by the excessive secrecy of those times and by the official and unofficial guarding of those secrets over the years. Mary Meyer’s name appears in classified documents that are still being released. Among documents relating to Mary Meyer that have been released by the CIA is a completely redacted ten-page document on CIA stationery, probably related to her husband’s job. Another is not dated and is titled merely “Background Information.” It is “a review of the appropriate Office of Security files” and contains her vital statistics and an explanation of the circumstances of her death. There may be other material on her at the CIA. A Freedom of Information Act request made to the CIA by the author could elicit more results in coming years.
But among the great secrets of the cold war in Washington—and there were many, not the least being the CIA’s “family jewels” of assassinations and coups—there was another buried secret: sex. As hard as it might be to imagine it today, Washington was a sexier town in the years of the cold war. Flirtation was an art. Marriage was respected and divorce rates were still low, but the late 1950s and the early 1960s were the dawn of a new era in male-female relations, and traditional relationships were being tested. Experiments were undertaken, hearts were broken. The women of Mary Meyer’s generation and class always operated with propriety, though. If their husbands and friends and even they were conducting themselves like characters from a John Updike novel, that was certainly nothing for the historians to note.
Sex is one reason why they feared Mary Meyer’s diary. But Mary Meyer’s whole life was no more about sex than anyone else’s.
In my research and writing, I have tried to give Mary Meyer’s life as much respect and dignity as historians automatically grant to important men. The life stories of women throughout recorded history are often the domestic histories of men, and this is no less true of the women of Mary’s generation and class. Women figure in the private lives of famous men, in their beds and in the raising of those men’s children and the keeping of their homes. More rarely they are compatriots or collaborators in the public sphere. Historians are interested in mistresses for what they reveal about the lives of the important men with whom they consorted. I have attempted to describe a woman, her men, and her times—and the effect of those times and men on her.
Mary Meyer’s style was questing. She was an experimental, doubting woman, a woman with a will of her own, and those qualities, made her unusual, especially in the convention-worshiping 1950s and especially among her female peers in Washington. Although she was not ordinary in terms of looks and means, her story is one that ordinary women will be able to recognize. It is an arc that many women in her generation experienced: A confident, athletic girl grew up to marry and bear children, became dissatisfied with her life, and embarked on a path toward the beginnings of personal authority and independence. It is an arc that Kate Chopin named in the title of her book The Awakening, and this name is entirely applicable to Mary Meyer’s life. But Mary Meyer’s own awakening was cut short by murder.
This book is roughly divided into four sections that examine Mary Meyer’s life and world through the men with whom she was associated: her father, her husband, her lovers, and finally, the man acquitted of her murder. I did not plan this approach when I envisioned the book. But because her papers were destroyed, parts of her life story must be deduced from clues in the more public lives of the men in her life.
Researching this book, I had some breakthroughs in interviews and other primary research that cut through the fog of mystery and allowed me to glimpse the real woman. Whenever someone remembered a particularly telling anecdote, whenever I spotted a piece of her handwriting, whenever I saw a new photograph of her or one of her paintings, I felt like an archaeologist brushing away at a lump of sand and suddenly finding just a single marble finger or a nose, from which I could try to imagine the rest of the sculpture. These scraps became pieces of a three-dimensional woman that I was constructing in my mind.
Some Georgetown women who knew Mary well did agree to interviews but insisted on being identified as confidential sources. The honesty and memories of several former Kennedy aides were helpful and contained a few surprises. Family letters and papers at the Library of Congress, as well as the Secret Service gate and phone logs at the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, provided other vital clues. It was especially exciting to find various letters in the Pinchot family and Cord Meyer collections at the Library of Congress with a sentence or even a note written in Mary’s rounded, back-leaning hand. These little missives were vital. They turned out to be the only primary relics of Mary’s own thinking that would be available to me.
I was also shown a small group of Mary’s paintings by an individual who preferred to remain anonymous. These canvases showed Mary at different stages in her art, first struggling amateurishly and then painting with more assurance. It was clear that by the end of her ufe she was just beginning to develop her own style.
Small new details increased my understanding. Mary Meyer’s experiment in Reichian therapy, for example, and her fascination with art and styles that were new and even bizarre were keys to how she thought and was perceived. She was not satisfied within the limits of propriety set by her class and she became less so as she matured. Although Mary went to the Reichian therapist for only a few months, the fact that she was willing to try something so controversial and so sex-drenched began to explain what it was about her and her times that her friends were so reticent about. Although the intervening decades saw the proliferation of many nontraditional therapies and a sexual liberation undreamed of in 1959, to Mary’s contemporaries this was dangerous stuff.
Early on, trying to discern Mary Meyer’s real personality behind the fog of words such as charming and lovely, I grasped at any straw. At one point I fed all my information on Mary—from her handwriting to her childhood illnesses, from her father’s personality to her own attitude toward nudity—to John Gittinger, a CIA psychologist now retired and living in Oklahoma, who had for many years assessed the personalities of Soviet agents with just such random bits of information. Gittinger kindly ran the facts through his formula and came up with a personality theory, as he had when the CIA sought to uncover the weaknesses of enemy spies and leaders of nations.
In 1950s CIA acronym-speak, Gittinger said that Mary Meyer was an “IFU” type, meaning she exhibited the personality traits of an “Internalizer, Flexible and Uniform.” Decoded, that meant in very broad terms that Mary Meyer was self-oriented and kept her own counsel, was open to experiences but tended to be unfocused, and had difficulty detaching herself from the familiar as a girl, thus needing to develop a close, nurturing relationship early in adulthood. Gittinger also deduced that she may have had some guilt feelings about being an unhappy mother, that she might have had an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, and that she would have at some point in her life rejected the mores she had been brought up with. As it turned out, I was able to confirm some of this assessment.
Of course, the real reason for the embarrassment about Mary, the real trepidation her friends feel when asked to talk about her, stems not from her own personality quirks but from her relationship with President Kennedy. They fear their intelligent, well-bred friend will be tarred with the bimbo brush for history. I sympathize with their fear. Women who have affairs with important men are often relegated to a certain lower status, while the men retain respect, if they do not acquire more veneration than before. It is important to say at the outset that Mary Meyer’s relationship with the president was first and foremost a real friendship.
Researching Mary Meyer plunged me into a world new to me, that of the Kennedy myth and its legion of admirers, detractors, and scholars. Before I started this project, I had a very simple and clear idea about President John F. Kennedy. I was three years old when he was shot and I remember that day because it was the first time I ever saw my mother cry. As a child and an adult, respect and sorrow were the main feelings I associated with President Kennedy.
It soon became necessary to wade into the billions of words that have been written about every aspect of President Kennedy, from the magazine glamour to the sober academic histories to the tabloid sleaze and conspiracy theories. I was daunted by the sheer volume of information and surprised by some of the implications about the hidden side of a man and an administration that in my mind had been an idealized legend of decency and hope shattered by hate. I sought out scholars and writers and researchers to help me separate fact from gossip, unfounded conspiracy theorists from the serious questioners. I am satisfied that I found such people.
I decided early on that Kennedy warranted only a single chapter in Mary’s life, because it seemed to me that in a full life of forty-four years, there was more to the woman than a relationship with one man, even if he was the president. The more I learned about Mary, the more I realized that was the appropriate weight to give her relationship with Kennedy. Novelists may write volumes describing the events of a few days, weeks, or months, but restricted as I was to the available facts, I feel a chapter is sufficient.
Nonetheless, those who are looking to understand more about Kennedy will find Mary Meyer of interest. In Mary Meyer’s attitudes and lifestyle, in her freedom and simplicity and experimentation, we see the seeds of attitudes that came to represent the decade of the 1960s. We may speculate that the president who so enjoyed her company shared some of those attitudes.
Finally, I did not set out here to solve the crime of Mary Meyer’s murder, and I have not done so. The acquitted defendant is still alive in 1998, but he says he doesn’t remember anything about his arrest near the murder scene. The Washington, D.C., police decided the case was solved and did not save the evidence, so it is impossible to apply new technology to the old bloodstains. The closest there was to an eyewitness is dead. I was able, through police and court records and interviews, to piece together the life story of the acquitted defendant in the case. I found his record interesting, and I believe that his life story, because it intersects so fundamentally with Mary Meyer’s, is an important part of this book.
MURDER IN GEORGETOWN
Who wants to read about a bunch of unhappy women?
A PROMINENT WASHINGTON ATTORNEY
October 12, 1964. The sky over Washington was crisp as a blue flag snapping in the breeze. Viewed from above, the city was verdant. Great swaths of parkland, tended gardens, and traffic circles gave the urban landscape an elegant southern flavor. After the steaming summer, the foliage had been slow to turn. The tall, imposing dome of the Capitol faced the Washington Monument across the Mall, two white chess pieces on a green board.
At 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the president’s house was still a symbol of the tragedy of John F. Kennedy’s assassination less than a year before. From the turrets and widow’s walks of embassies, from the Truman Balcony of the White House, from the Capitol and the top of the Washington Monument, the city below was all trees and marble. “The City of Magnificent Distances” was what someone had called Washington in the nineteenth century. But this postcard view did not reveal everything. Obscured by the spreading treetops, dwarfed by the monuments and federal architecture, down on ground level Washington was a poor city. Whole sections of it were crumbling under decades of poverty. Many black people who were part of the city’s majority lived in slum houses erected almost a hundred years earlier by black refugees from the Civil War. This Washington was one tourists rarely saw. Some black families remained without plumbing or electricity. Few had telephones. Crime, rats, and tuberculosis infested the hidden city.
Two bridges at Q and P Streets linked old colonial Georgetown with the federal city of Washington. The spans, resting on concrete arches that soared hundreds of feet above Rock Creek, were reminiscent of ancient Rome in their scale and whiteness. On the narrow streets of Georgetown, civility ruled. Important men slept here and worked by day across the bridges. The old cobblestones and red brick sidewalks were quiet and vacant but for a maid or a woman visiting friends. Along the walls of the townhouses and mansions, light quivered against leaded glass panes and disappeared in pools of shadow behind draperies shielding Russian icons, African wood carvings, Persian carpets, and Chinese prints the occupants had collected on their global forays. Late roses bloomed; vines of ivy and bamboo stalks shared space against the old stone walls.
It was an ideal day for walking. In a converted garage studio behind the red brick house owned by journalist Ben Bradlee, a woman was painting. She had short blond hair, full lips, and blue eyes quick to see humor. She was two days short of her forty-fourth birthday, but she usually passed for at least a decade younger. Her two teenage sons had recently moved back to their boarding schools in New Hampshire and Connecticut. Divorced and with children away at school, she was alone again in her house. Free to choose her companions, she sought out artistic, vivid people. The night before, she had entertained British theater director Peter Brook, who was in Washington to direct the hit play Marat/Sade1 But inside her studio was where she felt most alive. The shelves were lined with paint and tools, her collection of music boxes and other small objects, stones and leaves and sometimes a flower from her garden. She could run her hands along the rough edges of her work table and down to the silky head of Mommacat, an alley cat who gave birth every six months. Her latest kittens mewled from a box in the corner. It was time to tack up another Free Kittens sign on the door. Looking out the window, she registered the blue of the sky and filed the color in her mind. This morning she had poured pale blues and grays onto an unsized canvas on the floor in a style that other painters were making so famous it eventually got a name: the Washington Color School.
Around noon she propped up the painting before a fan to let it dry. She put on a gray mink-and-lambswool sweater, then a light blue angora sweater over it, donned her Ray-Bans, pulled on a pair of kid leather gloves, and in her paint-specked canvas sneakers and pedal-pusher slacks set off for her daily walk on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath. She left the little studio in the alley off N Street and strolled down the cobblestoned hill toward the Potomac River, passing rows of trim townhouses with their red and gray doors and brass knockers.
As she crossed M Street a long black car with official plates slowed and the rear window rolled down. One of the capital’s most prominent women, Polly Wisner, wife of Frank Wisner, head of the CIA’s worldwide covert operations for many years, waved and called out a greeting in the refined accent of a 1930s movie star, all broad a’s and dropped r’s—“Good-bye, Maahry.” The car passed on. Polly was on her way to London, where her husband would be stationed for a few more years with the agency. She would be the last friend to see the artist alive.2
Soon the woman was on the canal towpath. She passed below the old brownstone trolley car garage that the CIA had turned into a site for training third-world police forces.3 She passed a white male jogger who worked at the Pentagon. She continued walking farther away from Georgetown and civilization until she encountered someone near a small cottonwood tree. Two mechanics working on a disabled vehicle on the street high above the path heard her screams and her last words: “Someone help me.”4 Before they could look over the stone ledge and down into the woods, two shots rang out. The first bullet to her head would eventually have killed her but didn’t immediately; bleeding from the wound, she clung to the small tree and tried to fend off her attacker with her free hand. As she lost consciousness she probably saw white. There are so many shades of white—cloud white, shell white, sail white, sand white—but this was like no white she had ever known, more painful than the blinding white of sunlight. She fell. The gun was applied once more to her shoulder blade and the bullet tore into her aorta, shutting off the blood to her heart, turning everything black in one breath, shutting out color, ending her life, and leaving her dead body to police and to the speculation of the ages.
The National Cathedral is built of gray stone at the highest point of Wisconsin Avenue, overlooking Georgetown. Light streaks its echoing nave, pouring in through stained-glass windows that depict the history of America from the Indians to the astronauts. The construction of the cathedral took a century, and parts of it were still unfinished in 1964, when two hundred mourners gathered inside the cathedral’s Bethlehem Chapel to pay their last respects to Mary Eno Pinchot Meyer on what would have been her birthday, October 14, 1964. It fell to her brother-in-law to do much of the funeral planning. Ben Bradlee hired the undertakers and arranged for the organ music at the service. The altar was framed by white lilies and chrysanthemums, and their heavy scent filled the air in the crowded chapel. The coffin was draped with a flag. Some of the deceased artist’s friends felt the journalist had overdone it a bit, given Mary’s taste for simplicity. But the setting was appropriate to the mourners, many of whom were accustomed to official pomp.
Most of the men and women at the service that day were members of Washington’s upper echelon, consummate insiders and veterans of the social scene swirling around the Kennedy administration. The mourners were as accustomed to wending their way across third-world tarmacs to waiting planes as they were to undergoing psychoanalysis, attending private clubs, receiving White House invitations, and dressing for dinner. They placed monogrammed match-books in the crystal ashtrays at their homes. The women were witty and conversant in the latest political gossip, and they wielded power decisively with the guest lists for their dinner parties. Their men were some of the nation’s most influential fixers, lawyers, diplomats, politicians, spies, and journalists. Family money made their government salaries superfluous. Many of them lived in Georgetown.
The Potomac River, not politics and statecraft, initially gave colonists a reason to settle at what became Georgetown. Slaves, ice, and coal were all shipped and unloaded at the waterfront in the early years, but tobacco was the port’s mainstay. In the eighteenth century tobacco was shipped up the river from southern plantations and stored in Georgetown warehouses on its way to England. The tobacco trade conferred prosperity on many a local merchant. The “George” of Georgetown was England’s King George II, but the name might as well have referred to Scottish merchant George Gordon, owner of the port’s largest wharf warehouse.
In 1871 Congress annexed Georgetown to the newer federal capital city of Washington. A few decades later its separate name was officially erased. But Georgetown retained its identity long after it became part of Washington. Residents always listed addresses in “Georgetown” without mentioning the District of Columbia. For years Georgetown was considered a slum, but by the 1960s the area was beginning to have a certain status. It was on its way to being Washington’s Beacon Hill. A restoration effort begun in the 1930s had transformed the neighborhood into a white upper-class enclave within a city. The change was rapid and sweeping. Blacks made up twenty-two percent of the neighborhood in 1940, but by 1960 they were less than three percent. They were replaced by white men returning from World War II and their families. With the advent of the cold war, a generation of elite young men who might previously have gone back to the family business or to Wall Street were attracted to Washington. The old townhouses in Georgetown were conveniendy located, charming, and cheap. Real estate agents bought whole blocks and sold them to the new white arrivals. Soon the only vestiges of the black community in Georgetown were a few churches, to which parishioners traveled every Sunday from their new homes across town.
Georgetown in 1964 was a cozy place where people left their doors unlocked. But the community was home to too many important people to be truly quaint, and too full of classified information to be called friendly. Dean Acheson, Allen Dulles, Robert McNamara, and Frank Wisner were among the powerful men with addresses in the little colonial village. A new being, the national media celebrity, was also an inhabitant: Joseph Alsop, Ben Bradlee, Walter Lippmann, Rowland Evans, and Art Buchwald were among them. The professional intimacy among the spies, policy makers, and journalists reflected a social continuity. They dined at each other’s homes, wrote letters of introduction for each other’s children and wives traveling abroad, and recommended each others sons to Harvard, Yale, or St. Paul’s School.
By October each year, Washingtonians who summered in the country—Maine, Maryland, and Virginia were favorite retreats—had returned. Georgetown women and children traditionally left the city during the summers, which were so uncomfortably humid before the age of air-conditioning that diplomats received hardship pay if they were posted to the American capital. The men stayed in the sweltering city to attend to affairs of state or to run national magazines and newspapers. Summers in midcentury Washington were such a men’s club that one of the Georgetown women who stayed behind was designated head of “The Wives’ Protective Association” by the other wives.5 They were half serious. The capital’s moral tone was set by Congress, where in the secretly swinging 1950s and early 1960s senators and representatives were accustomed to the occasional assignation with a willing woman from the typing pool or reception desk. Private morality rarely matched public appearance.
Mary Meyer’s murder stunned the little community. While she was not one of the city’s premier hostesses, Mary was a well-liked member of a social group that had formed around the cold warriors and the Kennedy administration. She was from a prominent family and related by marriage to one of the city’s highest-profile journalists. Her ex-husband was one of the top officers at the CIA. She had been a fixture at the Kennedy White House and—a fact known to a few—one of the late president’s lovers.
After the mourners filed in and took their seats, after the whispering and sniffling sounds of grief had died down, another Yale graduate, dressed in the white and red vestments of a suffragan bishop in the Episcopal Church, walked to the altar. Bishop Paul Moore was a family friend who had known Ben Bradlee, Mary Meyer, and her ex-husband, Cord Meyer, since the 1930s. He spoke of Mary’s “honesty, her friendship, her rare sensitivity, that beauty which walked with her and which flowed from her into each of our lives.” He then called for forgiveness in a six-minute oration. “We cannot know why such a terrible, ugly irrational thing should have happened. We can only sense that it was in some way bound up with sin and sickness of the entire world somewhere perhaps in a pattern invisible to anybody else except God Himself,” he said. Then Moore asked for prayers for “that demented soul” who caused the “senseless tragedy.”6 But many were not prepared to forgive the murderer, and the less liberal members of the crowd were incensed at the minister for bringing politics into the chapel by trying to portray the alleged killer as a victim and the killing as an act perpetrated by poverty and injustice.
There was much quiet murmuring in the cathedral that afternoon about the accused. Some people did believe the police theory—that Mary was the unlucky victim of an assault randomly committed by a twenty-five-year-old day laborer named Ray Crump Jr., who was arrested not far from the murder scene. Others were uncertain. Mary had been a sometimes reckless woman with access to the highest levels of the American government. There were so many spies at her funeral. It was less than a year since the assassination of President Kennedy. The Warren Commission’s report concluding that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone in shooting the president in Dallas had been released just two weeks before Mary’s murder. Most people didn’t question its conclusion, at least not yet. But this murder, coming so soon after the assassination, was disquieting. “It was strange, especially the way the police and newspapers rushed to judgment about who did it. It felt wrong,” said one of Mary’s friends.7
One man sobbed unconsolably throughout the ceremony. Cord Meyer was a wounded World War II hero now overseeing a network of CIA front groups, and until that day many in Georgetown had not realized how much he still loved the woman who had divorced him seven years before. Meyer was a tall man whose boyish handsomeness had hardened into a gray statue of itself. The glass eye that replaced the one destroyed by shrapnel from a Japanese grenade stared always straight ahead. He was a man who had started life with a map, and only in middle age had he begun to realize that the map didn’t fit the terrain. Instead of the life of public service and acclaim he had envisioned for himself, he was buried deep in the secret bureaucracy of the CIA, his service to his country forever classified. Throughout the early 1960s, including in newspaper articles about his ex-wife’s murder, when Cord Meyer was mentioned he was always referred to simply as a “government employee.” Within a month of her death he left on a trip abroad, identifying himself on his passport application as a “writer” on a “pleasure” trip. There was some truth to the cover. Cord Meyer considered himself a writer whose novels were forever delayed by the demands of his government job. The passport application had also required him to answer the question “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” He typed “No.”8 Well-bred and intelligent, Cord was known around town as a confrontational man whose worldview was growing more hawkish by the day and who sometimes drank too much and disrupted dinner parties with his arguments. His passionate need to win every disagreement was legendary. He was also a collector of modern art who could recite the poetry of Stephen Spender.
Cord Meyer was comforted at the funeral by two men from the top of the CIA. Richard Helms, a thin, impeccably mannered man who would eventually head the CIA, had taken the day off to attend the service. He and Cord Meyer were colleagues but also warm personal friends. Cord Meyer had sponsored Helms and his wife for membership in the Waltz Group, which hosted dinner-dances for the Washington elite several times a year. The two went back more than a decade in the CIA and had weathered many crises together.
The fact that Mary’s death concerned the CIA bigwigs is noted in a declassified, heavily redacted FBI memo regarding the rescheduling of a meeting between CIA director John McCone and Helms and FBI officials. The reason for the meeting is not stated in the memo, which was written by an FBI agent named William C. Sullivan, J. Edgar Hoovers number-two man. “On 10/14/64, Helms advised the Liaison Agent that it will be impossible for CIA officials to meet with me and Supervisor [name redacted] on 10/14/64, and suggested that the meeting be held at 10:00 a.m. 10/15/64. Helms explained that both he and Angleton have been very much involved with matters pertaining to the death and funeral of Mrs. Mary Pinchot Meyer. She is the woman who was murdered on the canal towpath near Georgetown on 10/12/64. She was the former wife of Cord Meyer, a CIA official.”9 In an interview, Helms could not recall exactly what personal involvement the memo noted beyond his attendance at the funeral.
The “Angleton” referred to in the memo was Cord Meyer’s closest friend and fellow Yale graduate, James Jesus Angleton, second only to J. Edgar Hoover as the nation’s greatest collector of personal secrets. Angleton had been personally close to Mary as well. He occupied the post of CIA counterintelligence chief, charged with deciding which of America’s spies might be traitors. Half Mexican, half Anglo-Saxon, Angleton was stooped and cadaverous, with fingers stained yellow from years of heavy smoking. Angleton’s passions included Italy and anything English, dry-fly fishing, and raising orchids. He had a reputation for paranoia. He never opened the blinds in his office and kept the drapes pulled on top of them. He was rarely seen. CIA official David Atlee Phillips said Angleton was so reclusive, Phillips mistook another man for Angleton for fifteen years. His pronouncements were taken seriously. Some called him “the CIA’s answer to the Delphic Oracle.”10
Among his many responsibilities in the fight against global Communism, Angleton made it his business to stay on top of the private affairs of the denizens of Georgetown, men and women with complicated lives so intimately connected to the heart of the national government that they seemed obvious targets for any enterprising Communist looking to do blackmail or, worse, recruit a traitor. On the day of Mary’s funeral Angleton already had in his possession the diary and letters that told the story of Mary Meyer’s personal life. They had been handed to him by journalist Ben Bradlee in an act motivated equally by family embarrassment and patriotic duty. Later Angleton would boast that he had also bugged Mary Meyer’s telephone and bedroom.11
Angleton served as an usher at Mary’s funeral, leading the mourners to their seats in the chapel, but he felt Bradlee had devised the funeral more to impress social Washington than to honor the dead woman. He smiled when he saw one of Mary’s close friends, Otakar “Kary” Fischer, a Czech immigrant who edited a scholarly journal of Soviet studies called Problems of Communism. As he walked Fischer to his seat, Angleton surveyed the gathered members of Georgetown society and whispered in disdain, “We were her true friends, you know.”12
Cord Meyer oversaw a large staff at the CIA, which accounts for the presence of so many spies at the funeral. In the two decades after World War II, the CIA had grown far beyond its initial executive charter, and nearly beyond the will of the men who created it. The agency operated from a new building in Langley, Virginia, and its huge budget and vast projects were unknown to the American people. The responsibilities of the labyrinth they had constructed were already starting to drive some of the men mad, many to drink, and more to cut moral corners.
In ten years many of the men involved in the CIA’s early years would become sinister figures in the public mind as revelations about secret plots tainted their images. But as the pews filled for Mary Meyer’s funeral, these figures from the agency were still in the fullness of their power and were aware of many things the American public would learn only years later. They knew of the CIA’s attempts to assassinate Castro and other foreign leaders. One of these leaders, Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, had already been killed with American-supplied weapons. They were aware of the CIA’s drug experimentation on unwitting civilians, carried out in the mistaken assumption that the Communists had already developed “mind-control” drugs of their own. They were secretly influencing the politics of countries across the planet, from Iran to Italy and much of Latin America. Cord Meyer had most recently been organizing phony labor strikes and student protests in Brazil and the Dominican Republic to thwart Communists. Angleton knew that the CIA was illegally opening the mail of American citizens corresponding with people in Communist-controlled countries. In fact, as he would defiantly tell congressional investigators a decade later, he was overseeing the operation.
Journalists also filled the pews at Mary Meyer’s funeral. Many had been personally close to John F. Kennedy, and they would soon become household names thanks to television or best-selling books. They would flourish for decades. These newsmen often knew more than they could print. Chief among them was Mary’s brother-in-law, Ben Bradlee, the son of a Boston banking family and a rising star in national journalism. He was Harvard-educated and spoke French fluently but camouflaged his pedigree behind a streetwise front. With his macho manner, savvy, and profanity, he epitomized the finger-snapping cool of the Hollywood Rat Pack, a style much favored by the late president. On first meeting Bradlee, one male acquaintance thought that Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief was a bookie.13
Mary’s younger sister, Tony, was Bradlee’s second wife, and he was her second husband. Together they were raising six children in a big red brick house on N Street. As a golden couple during the Kennedy years, they had frequently dined alone with the president and his wife, Jackie, in the White House. Tony was an ethereal blonde like her sister, but she was taller, more angular, and more reserved than Mary. A careful and sometimes even spectacular dresser, she was more restrained and formal than her older sister. She had been particularly close to Jackie Kennedy, as both women had so often been together in the background while one of their men made history and the other recorded it. At the funeral Tony sat next to her mother, Ruth Pickering Pinchot, a New Yorker and former journalist herself, whose reclusiveness would increase after the tragedy of her older daughter’s death.
Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, recently widowed and still new in her powerful role, came to pay last respects. Rowland Evans, the newspaper columnist, and his wife, Kay, a close chum of Mary Meyer’s, were in the chapel. Like Mary, Kay Evans had been a favorite guest at White House parties, and the two women had, on at least one occasion, shared a table with the president. Columnist Joseph Alsop Jr., an influential figure, attended the funeral with his wife, Susan Mary. His letters of foreign policy advice to Kennedy were taken as seriously by the White House as Alsop himself took his wines and eighteenth-century French furniture. White House correspondent Charles Bartlett, who worked for the Chattanooga Times, was extremely well connected in Washington and also came to the funeral. He and his wife, Martha, had introduced John F. Kennedy to Jacqueline Bouvier. Kennedy aides Arthur Schlesinger and Mc-George Bundy were also in the pews.
Many of the mourners were artists who knew Mary from gallery openings and cultural events. One of Mary’s former lovers, abstract painter Kenneth Noland, had traveled down from New York, where his career was, as he would say later, “in ascendancy,” and where he was being introduced to fame by the formalist art critic Clement Greenberg. Noland’s affair with Mary had coincided with one of his most productive periods. The funeral was the first and last time Noland met Cord Meyer, whom the artist later recalled as “very spooky.”
The Assistant Director of the Washington Gallery of Modern Art, Alice Denney, who had exhibited Mary’s work several years before, was in the chapel, along with her assistant Eleanor McPeck. The two women were horrified by the murder, but the presence of all the intelligence agents at the funeral intensified the sinister undertone for them. They had never seen this side of Mary’s world. “It seemed terribly inappropriate,” said Eleanor McPeck. “It was unlike Mary. I never would have thought of her in a cathedral, much less going to church.”
Poet Reed Whittemore, a college friend of James Angleton’s at Yale and now poetry consultant to the librarian of Congress, was there with his wife. Mary had been expected to attend a Whittemore reading on the night of her murder. William Walton, a former war correspondent and artist who had been a close friend of Ernest Hemingway’s in Europe, was in the pews. He had been rewarded for running Kennedy’s New York campaign with entree to the White House, where he advised Jackie about the mansion’s decor. He had served as Mary Meyer’s “walker,” in the parlance of the times, the man who escorted her to intimate evenings in the White House on the pretext that she was his date. Artists who were wives of famous Washington men also attended the funeral. Arthur Schlesinger’s wife, Marian Cannon Schlesinger, was a portrait painter who had played tennis with Mary at the White House. She came, as did V. V. Rankine, who was married to a British diplomat and writer stationed in Washington and had shared a studio with Mary.
A tight-knit group of women in the chapel were Vassar graduates who had spent their college years in the early forties with Mary beneath the old oaks and maples on the campus in Poughkeepsie, New York. They were a refined, elegant lot with the confidence conferred by old money. Most of them were wives of World War II veterans, and mothers, and Mary’s independence, divorce, and slightly Bohemian lifestyle had been a source of light, vitality, and amusement to them. Clustering at the funeral, they still could not believe their vibrant friend was dead. The group of Vassar women “sat together in a daze,” recalled Mary Skidmore Truesdale.14
The Vassar women kept apart from the other Georgetown wives, the ones to whom the label “socialite” might be applied without giving offense. In high school and college the Vassar women had enjoyed that lifestyle, but afterward they had eschewed it as shallow. Many had been debutantes, but they were loath to mention those days to each other, even though they all knew when to wear white gloves and when to take them off. One of them was surprised to learn years later that Mary had been a debutante. “We really didn’t care about that stuff,” she said.15 They felt themselves to be educated, which they were, and engaged in dynamic, interesting lives. A few were working in professions. One of them, Katharine Graham, had just become publisher of the Washington Post.
Anne Chamberlin was one of Mary’s closest friends, a gamine journalist who worked for Time magazine. Chamberlin had covered Jacqueline Kennedy while Mrs. Kennedy waited, pregnant, in Hyannisport for her husband to win the Democratic nomination in 1960. Chamberlin, born Anne Nevin, was divorced and adventurous, much like Mary. She had spent part of her Vassar years driving across the Andes in Peru and living in Paris.
Mary Draper Janney, a dark-eyed historian who taught at a private suburban Washington day school, had attended Vassar with Mary. She retained her 1940s style into the 1960s, even though she was married and the mother of two children, and her students thought of her as a capital-city version of Lauren Bacall, with her rumpled, mannish suits, whiskey voice, and habit of lighting up cigarettes in class. She was married to CIA man Wistar Janney. Mary Janney sat in a pew near another Vassar classmate, the bouncy blond Scottie Fitzgerald Lanahan—F. Scott Fitzgerald’s daughter—and her husband, Washington attorney Jack Lanahan. Also representing the Vassar contingent was Cicely d’Autremont Angleton, an heiress with high cheekbones, raised in Arizona, who had graduated two years behind Mary. A suburban mother of three herself, Cicely sat between her husband, Jim, and Cord Meyer.
At the funeral in spirit but not in person were James and Anne Truitt, two of Mary’s closest friends. James Truitt had recently moved to Tokyo as the Japan bureau chief for Newsweek. His wife, Anne, was, like Mary, an artist and a mother. Anne’s meticulous self-consciousness was the polar opposite of her late friend’s buoyancy. Mary trusted the Truitts so much she had confided in them about her relationship with President Kennedy. Crew-cut James Truitt came from a prominent Maryland family and was known equally for his intelligence, eccentricity, and social grace. He was a heavy drinker and personally close to both Angleton and Cord Meyer. Anne Truitt had been raised on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in a genteel southern family and graduated from Bryn Mawr. As her husband’s erratic behavior increased, Anne Truitt channeled more of her emotional struggle into art.
The night after Mary Meyer was murdered, a single telephone call from Japan to Washington had sparked a chain of events that would shroud Mary’s life and death in mystery for decades. As they sat at home in stunned silence, Ben and Tony Bradlee had received a phone call from Anne Truitt in Japan. It was a matter of some urgency, she told Tony Bradlee, that they find Mary’s diary before the police got to it and her private life became a matter of public record. Anne Truitt repeated the warning to counterintelligence chief James Angleton. Although the Angletons and the Bradlees did not have all the details about Mary’s relationship with the late president, they knew enough about her lifestyle to agree with Anne Truitt. The papers of the dead woman must not wind up in the wrong hands. No one knew what Mary, in her wild late years, had written down, what letters she had kept, or whose private thoughts and actions she had committed to paper. A frantic search began.
Mary Meyer’s murder in the heart of Georgetown and the national security community took on the aura of the unknowable that pervaded her life as the wife of Cord Meyer. When she died, the CIA was locked in a covert intelligence war conducted as intensely inside Washington as in the alleys of Saigon. Paranoia and a thrilling sense of global power surged through the nation’s capital, especially among her male peers. “There was an enormous issue about secrecy then,” recalled Myer Feldman, who served as deputy special counsel to the president in the Kennedy administration, and who attended Mary’s funeral. “There were spies everywhere in the town, spies for Israel, spies for France, spies for the Russians.”16 Many of these men thoroughly enjoyed themselves, often conducting business in Washington over three-martini lunches in plain view of anyone who cared to watch the cat-and-mouse game. Women who dined at Jackie Kennedy’s favorite restaurant, La Salle du Bois on M Street, might, if they paid attention to their fellow lunchers, watch the occasional envelope passed under the table between an Iron Curtain diplomat and an American intelligence agent or State Department official. Under one of those tables, CIA official Robert Amory Jr. had received the text of Khrushchev’s speech to the Warsaw Pact nations in which Khrushchev criticized Stalin.17 The FBI had planted microphones under the restaurant’s tables to try to catch traitors and foreign spies. Some of the waiters were federal agents. In cold war Washington, real life was stranger than fiction.
All that intrigue was very sexy. Sexual adventurousness was part of the Georgetown style. Its denizens viewed themselves as morally sophisticated and European, in contrast to the Eisenhower Republicans. “These people felt they were just a couple years away from Hemingway,” said C. Wyatt Dickerson, the husband of socially prominent television broadcaster Nancy Dickerson. “A lot of them had experience with Paris in the 1950s. They came back to Washington and thought that wife swapping separated them from the country folks.”18
Washington has always attracted ambitious men absorbed in competition with each other. The cold warriors, possessed of atomic-era “ballsiness” and wearing their machismo like World War II officers’ epaulets, were consumed with power. They styled themselves after James Bond or the Rat Pack, men adorned with numbers of women. If their women did not find this attractive, they were very unhappy women. “The husbands just overshadowed us completely,” said June Dutton, long divorced from Kennedy administration official Fred Dutton. “Most of the men felt too important to involve their wives in what they were doing. There was no room for partners in it. We were just decorations and isolated. The men all gathered and talked, and women were left to talk about children and schools. The wives were just wives.”19
Mary Meyer was an enigmatic woman in life, and in death her real personality lurks just out of view. Her life was domestic and private, as were the lives of her female friends. As independent as she seemed to her female friends, it is unlikely any of the men in Mary’s life ever thought of her as an equal. She and her friends were surely affected by the condescension of their men, an attitude that has survived the decades since her death. “Who wants to read about a bunch of unhappy women?” one of their ex-husbands, a prominent Washington attorney, said when told that any book about Mary Pinchot Meyer would also involve the lives of her friends.20
During the Kennedy years, women remained in the background. The prevailing notion was that they were “tomatoes,” “the females,” present for male amusement. Women in Mary’s group accepted the way things were. They were refined women, willing mothers of the baby boom (Mary’s sister, Tony, had six children). Although they lived in Washington and were often well educated, they never asked to share power with their husbands in any public way. Asked whether her opinions mattered to their dinner guests, one leader of the Georgetown social scene, Susan Mary Alsop, took a puff from an ever-present Merit cigarette, laughed dryly, and without hesitation replied: “Not in the least. I was modest in nature, and I thought I was with people who knew a lot more than I did.”21 After her dinners, in a time-honored tradition, Mrs. Alsop always retreated with the women into a room separate from the men.
In their female-centered world, the women had their own code of behavior. They were skillful flirts, practitioners of a lost art. They had to be. Men were the only route to economic and social power. Without a powerful man, a woman would almost certainly fall out of the circle. Certain women became leaders, and their whims and behavior were copied the way girls do in a high-school clique. Journalist Barbara Howar has described this scene as it revolved around the perpetually pregnant Ethel Kennedy, wife of the attorney general. Ethel attracted a coterie of female friends, wives of other powerful Washington men, who wanted nothing more than to be just like Ethel. “They emulated each gesture and expression, dressed alike, thought alike, accepted or rejected each new face or fashion in the manner of their idol, and as if by some secret signal from above, would gobble you up or ignore you, fold you to their bosoms or cut you dead.”22
Here and there a nonconforming individual appeared. One of them was Mary Pinchot Meyer. She was born in 1920, the year women got the right to vote. She wore manners and charm like a second skin, but there was a reserve to her as well. Few people got beyond her outer self to see the inner Mary. She was complicated. She wanted freedom and personal authority, but she lived in a time when society distrusted those qualities in women. Men gave her entree to smoke-filled parties where conversation was vivid and the presence of power quickened her blood. Often these men were incapable of emotional openness, and this gave her an aura of loneliness. Like many of the men and women in her group, she might have been depressed at a time when that illness was not much discussed or diagnosed. She fought against melancholy with psychoanalysis and sheer will. She was attracted to glamour and the dramatic, yet she herself radiated simplicity and warmth. She had a special effect on men. One man once said she reminded him of a cat walking on a rooftop in moonlight.23 She was cool and poised, and she paid attention to men and made them feel interesting. She flirted and “went all the way,” in the parlance of the times. And she became a White House insider at a time when belonging to the Kennedy clique was the apex of a Washington woman’s social achievement.
Her death was all the more tragic because of its timing. Born into luxury, attractive and well educated, she appeared on the surface to have led a charmed life. But she had endured a family suicide, marriage to a difficult wounded World War II veteran, unforgettable personal losses, and then a divorce. Through it all she had retained the vitality and energy her friends loved and admired. And in her last years she had begun to carve out a niche for herself as an independent woman, an unusual creature for her time. She was killed in the prime of her life.
It was not her personality but her access to Kennedy and to other prominent men that ultimately made her a figure of mystery and power after her death. A journalist suggested years after her murder that Mary Meyer had been “the secret Lady Ottoline of Camelot,” referring to the British pacifist. Mary might actually have been a force for peace during some of the most frightening years of the cold war, but only in death did Mary Meyer really leave the confines of the private world she shared with her female friends and become part of a legend.
Keep an anchor to windward in case of revolution.
AMOS PINCHOT, 1933
Floating candles in the shape of white lilies sent small ripples of reflected fire around the surface of the Finger Bowl. Crickets chirped accompaniment to the soft conversation of the Pinchot brothers and their families and guests, seated around the water table in the arched brick pavilion that served as a summer dining room at Grey Towers in the 1920s and 1930s. The water table was three feet deep and the pool within was framed by an oval stone wall with a wide shelf where the plates, cutlery, linen, and glasses were arranged on woven mats. A large piece of coral on the bottom of the pool recalled a sailing trip to the South Seas. Uniformed servants delivered the food on balsa wood rafts decorated with gold and indigo peacock plumes, and the dishes floated from diner to diner with a gentle push. Often the Sunday night fare was baby peacock, raised in cages on the grounds of the northeastern Pennsylvania estate so that the birds never walked and thus did not become tough. Cornelia Bryce Pinchot, the wife of Pennsylvania governor Gilford Pinchot, liked to tell her guests that a platter of peacock tongues, as served to kings in classical literature, really did make a fine dish. More plebeian fare was also served, fresh from the garden—tomatoes, potatoes, lima beans, asparagus, peas and carrots.1
The children at this table could never resist the urge to play with the rafts of food. The Pinchot brothers, Amos and Gifford, and their wives chided Mary and Tony and their first cousin Gifford for pushing the floating platters too hard in the water, making waves and marring the serene effect. As the dinner dragged on, the children grew restless. They heard their ponies whinnying in the meadow near the tennis courts and the dogs barking at some wild creature near the edge of the pine forest filled with deer and black bear, bald eagles, osprey, and bobcat. The little girls could hear the waterfall and think about swimming lessons with their elder half-sister, Rosamund.2 At Grey Towers the women were practicing nudists, and they often wandered the grounds near the pool and waterfall naked, to the great delight of the servants.3 When Mary was a girl, Rosamund sometimes rode horseback in the buff as well, a sylph galloping about in moonlight. In years to come, men and women who visited the estate with Mary were always slightly shocked or charmed, depending upon their degree of conventionality, when she casually stripped and dove into the pool above the waterfall.
As they sat around the Finger Bowl in the gathering dark, the little girls could also imagine the rattlesnakes they’d been warned of and the boots they must wear and the snakebite kits they had to strap on if they went into the woods, though they had yet to encounter a snake. And they thought of the tennis games their father was so keen on playing with them. The way to the grass tennis courts was through the long walled garden, where tart raspberries and rhubarb grew. The fruit trees there had been first cultivated by their grandfather, and the little girls loved to reach up to pluck Seckel pears and eat them as the juice ran through their fingers. They were sometimes put to work, too, plucking the Queen Anne’s lace from the meadow behind the garden so the horses would not eat it and become sick.
Finally dessert was served, and the Pinchot girls tried to stifle their giggles and avoid their father’s eye, for he might be laughing too. Their aunt Cornelia had ordered the servants yet again to create a baked Alaska, a piece of sheet cake piled with ice cream molded around a bottle, coated with meringue, and baked. Just before the dessert was sent floating out on its balsa raft, the butler dropped a little water and dry ice into the bottle, so the confection smoked like a tiny volcano as it circled the pool.4
Around the Finger Bowl the Pinchot family tried to entertain in style and served guests a glass or two of luxurious—since illegal—liquor or wine. The governor and his wife were, of necessity, politically “dry” during Prohibition, but they didn’t let the amendment stop them and their guests from enjoying a nip here and there. The adults engaged in an ongoing and sometimes tense discussion about the storage of bottles of gin, whiskey, and wine in Amos’s little house on the estate grounds, in order that the Gifford Pinchots’ residence not be tainted. Acquiring, storing, and sharing liquor were Pinchot family obsessions during Prohibition. “If it’s not too much trouble can you keep my whiskey and dole it out when my guests are thirsty?” Cornelia wrote Amos in 1921. A year later Cornelia formally apologized for giving some of the Pinchot whiskey to her friends instead of back to him. Amos often worried that the gardener would find the stock and report it back to the townfolk.5
As night fell around the Finger Bowl, the terra-cotta urns in the pavilion with their showers of flowers and ferns disappeared into the gloom. Purple wisteria dripped petals onto the Finger Bowl. In the gardens around the estate, where white lilies and blue delphinium and various roses bloomed in tended profusion, and grapevines flourished in the “graperie,” an occasional bird rustled in the towering butternut and white pine trees. When the guests retired, they would notice that the flame shapes of the stone finials on the low walls around the gardens and pool and tennis court were repeated indoors, carved on the dark maple newel posts on the wide stairway.
Mary was a healthy, athletic, and outgoing child who learned horseback riding and was spoken to in French almost as soon as she could walk and speak; her mother was “Maman,” and her nanny was “Mademoiselle.”6 When she was a toddler, her short curly hair was white-blond, and wherever she went a uniformed nurse trailed her with her baby sister, Tony, in a carriage. The two sisters’ special pet was a scruffy fox terrier named Benjy.7 At Grey Towers, Mary had a personal garden within the larger garden, and she started a butterfly collection. She and her father put out sugar water to trap butterflies, then killed them with ether and pinned them to a board. By the time she was twelve years old she had dozens of beautiful insects on display.
Mary was the first daughter in Amos Pinchot’s second family, and if she grew up to become a strong-willed woman, some of her fire certainly came from her father. Amos Pinchot was a major figure in the history of progressive politics in the twentieth century. A wealthy gadfly with great passion and idealism, he burned with the spirit of free inquiry and the rights of the individual. A New York lawyer who rarely practiced law, Amos was known as a champion of the underdog, a man who preferred lost causes to compromised ideals. His motto was a comment made by one of his friends, the Progressive senator Robert La Follette, who said of his own reforming efforts, “Defeat was a matter of no consequence.”8 Like Mary’s future husband, Cord, Amos could be described, with either admiration or disgust depending on one’s political views, as dogmatic. The youngest of three Pinchot children, educated at Yale in the family tradition, in his youthful days Amos Pinchot had been considered a New York society swell, a man who “always did love elegance and the formalities of social life.”9 With his pince-nez, tailored suits, and mustache twirled slightly at the ends, he cut a stylish figure throughout his life. He belonged to a variety of social clubs, from Yale’s Skull and Bones to Teddy Roosevelt’s New York hunt club, the Boone and Crockett. He was a talented tennis player and remained aggressive on the court even after a hip injury incurred during the Spanish-American War, when his horse fell off a cliff in Puerto Rico. He had signed up for service as a private because he believed Spain was exploiting Cuba.10
He had his political awakening when he supported his older brother Gifford, who in 1910 was chief of the U.S. Forest Service and opposed the granting of Alaskan coal reserves to a wealthy member of the Taft cabinet. Amos saw the contest in epic terms, not as one between men but between the forces of private power and the public interest. Thus began his lifelong crusade against “the privileged,” a group of which he himself, living on inherited wealth, was a member in good standing.
Amos Pinchot lived his life tilting at windmills, or as his friend Max Eastman once put it, trying to stem Niagara with placards.11 He took on the nation’s big-money powers, supporting the notion of public utilities and the breakup of large segments of land. He believed private monopolies ought to be abolished by law, not merely regulated. But there his idea of the role of government ended.
Amos Pinchot was an individualist, never a socialist. He wrote that government ought to be limited to “the furthering of the interests of the individual.” He was known as a publicist, not of the fluffier sort, but a serious man who wrote about serious ideas for educated people. In the New York Times his confrontational style provoked readers to write letters accusing him of everything from lunacy to anarchism. Pinchot delighted in provocation, but he always rejected the revolutionary label. He considered himself firmly in the liberal reformer camp.12
Around the Finger Bowl at Grey Towers during the Depression, the national economic crisis was present in minds but not circumstances. Sunday evenings at Grey Towers, however, were very unlike the hardscrabble Sunday night suppers in most of 1930s America, where average people were having trouble maintaining the necessities of life. The leafy grounds, just an hour and a half by train from the Amos Pinchot family’s Park Avenue apartment and the breadlines of New York, were an enclave of gracious living. Located on the Delaware River, the estate offered grass tennis courts, a swimming pool, fishing, horses, and music lessons on 3,600 acres that included a privately owned waterfall, Pinchot Falls, trickling over dark rocks for a third of a mile through an old forest of pines and black cherry trees. Black locust trees lined the mile-long drive up to the house from the edge of the town of Milford.
Devoted as they were to public ownership of land and utilities, the Pinchots could guard their own property rights fiercely. The family controlled the fishing rights in the Sawkill, which they stocked with trout, and the use of the waterfall. The Milford locals were allowed to swim at the falls, which was where Tony and Mary met “different people,” as Tony put it.13 But the locals had to follow strict rules. They could not use live bait or bring guests up from the village. At one point in the 1930s, the family considered leasing the brook so they wouldn’t have to keep paying a night watchman, without whom “you know what will happen,” Gifford wrote to Amos, but that idea was never carried through.14
The Pinchot family had done well financially in America without doing much harm to people or the environment and without drawing great attention to its wealth, remarkable achievements in the era of the industrial robber barons and conspicuous consumption. Growing up at Grey Towers, Mary Pinchot was exposed to upper-class manners and mores as well as radical American politics. The silver spoon always contained a dose of skepticism. While the family paid respect to social conventions, it was never slavishly social. From these vaguely Bohemian beginnings, on an idyllic estate frequented by some of the country’s most important men, Mary’s place in society was so secure that decades later she became a member of the Kennedy in crowd without the straining that marked most Washington climbers.
The family roots were three generations deep by the time Mary was born. The Pinchots were descended from a French immigrant, Cyrille Désiré Constantin Pinchot, born into the middle class of France in 1797. As a nineteen-year-old captain in the French army, the Pinchot family patriarch was involved in a plot to spring Napoleon from St. Helena. When that attempt failed, he escaped on a fishing boat to England, then moved to America. He bought four hundred acres in Milford, which already had a significant French population, and became the tax collector.15
Cyrille’s son James Pinchot increased the family fortune with a wallpaper business and by marrying well. James wed the former Mary Jane Eno of Simsbury, Connecticut. Her father, Amos Eno, owned large tracts of New York City real estate and built the first Fifth Avenue Hotel, nicknamed at the time “Eno’s Folly.” Mary Jane Eno’s brother Richard wrote the first traffic laws, preparing the city of New York and by extension the entire country for the automobile age. Richard Eno had inherited a million dollars from his father and traveled widely in Europe, noting the traffic situation in London, where common courtesy seemed to govern the public thoroughfares, unlike New York City. In 1903 he published “Rules for Driving,” the first comprehensive traffic regulation system in the world. New York City adopted it.
After making millions in the wallpaper business, James Pinchot retired at age forty-four and turned to philanthropy, travel, and conservation. He and Mary Jane had three children: Gifford, Antoinette, and finally Amos, born in Paris in 1873. In New York they lived in Gramercy Park, where their wealthy neighbors included the Hewitts, Coopers, and Minturns. Theirs was the New York of Edith Wharton: squalid, run by corrupt political bosses, pestilent along the waterfront, and yet at the upper reaches a very formal society of afternoon visits in carriages with footmen in red-topped boots and side-whiskers.
In summers the family left the heat and smell of New York and went to Milford, where James Pinchot had built Grey Towers, a French château-style, L-shaped castle with three towers and a servants’ wing. The house, with nineteen bedrooms and twenty-three fireplaces, was built in 1885 of local fieldstone for $40,000 by the American architect Richard Morris Hunt. It became the aristocratic manor above the peasant town of Milford. The Pinchots’ various acquaintances in American art, literature, and politics often visited the country mansion. A horse was kept in the stables for their close friend General William Tecumseh Sherman.
James Pinchot was generous to Milford. He endowed a building in the center of town on the site of his old dry goods store and dedicated it to the Yale School of Forestry. Eventually he established a field study area and a forestry camp on the grounds of the Grey Towers estate.
Of the two sons, Amos and Gifford, Gifford took the more political course in life. He inherited his father’s interest in forestry, took botany courses at Yale, and studied forestry at France’s national forestry school in Nancy. Back home, he designed the forest at Biltmore, George Vanderbilt’s North Carolina estate. He spent years traveling around the United States studying forests and publishing books: The White Pine, Adirondack Spruce, and Timber Trees and Forests of North Carolina.
The tall, intense Gifford became a close friend and advisor to Teddy Roosevelt, who appointed him the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service. The issues he faced there involved larger political debates about the role of government and private versus public control of natural resources. During his service the number of national forests in the United States increased six times, to 193 million acres in 1910. While he helped acquire land for the federal government, Gifford Pinchot did not always side with the conservationists; he angered pioneering naturalist John Muir by supporting San Francisco’s efforts to acquire a piece of Yosemite National Park as a reservoir.
Gifford’s career with the federal government ended in 1910 when he accused one of President Taft’s political appointees, Interior Secretary Richard Ballinger, of involvement in fraudulent claims to Alaskan coal reserves. Taft sided with his cabinet member and fired Pinchot. A few years later, Gifford and Amos led the fight to unseat Taft. When the Republicans renominated Taft, the Pinchot brothers helped form the “Bull Moose” or Progressive Party, which nominated Roosevelt for the presidency in 1912.
Gifford eventually ran for governor of Pennsylvania and won on the Republican ticket in 1922. During his first term he established himself as an ardent supporter of Prohibition and a foe of the big-utility interests. He was reelected governor in 1930, and his road-building program eased the state’s Depression-period unemployment by giving jobs to thousands. His motto became “Get the farmer out of the mud.” He harbored presidential ambitions for several decades but never achieved national office.
Amos Pinchot, named after his mother’s father, was not as politic as his older brother and also more intrinsically progressive. He twice backed the presidential candidacy of Wisconsin populist Robert La Follette. La Follette’s ticket called for establishing government ownership of railroads and allowing Congress to override the Supreme Court. Journalist Walter Lippmann would brand La Follette’s platform “violently nationalistic and centralizing.”16 In Amos’s adult years, there was a great deal of political ferment even within the Progressive Party about the rights and limitations of large corporate entities, partly due to a lack of clarity in the 1890 Sherman Act. Amos was aligned with a radical group within the party that wanted monopolies abolished outright and supported public ownership of forests, water-generated power, utilities, and railroads. But the party refused to attach those trust reforms to its platform, as some influential members believed monopolies were inevitable and ought to be permitted but regulated.
In 1912 Amos ran for Congress himself in the Eighteenth District of New York, fully aware that his chances were close to nil in the overwhelmingly Democratic area. He used the opportunity to proselytize for the Progressive cause, pulling out a chair on a sidewalk and talking to crowds about the evils of big business. Of his foray into campaign politics, he later wrote that he was surprised at how many people wanted to listen to him. But he was a notoriously poor public speaker who swallowed his words and got bogged down by the reams of statistics he always carried up to the podium.17
Eventually, in 1914, Amos’s fight with the protrust forces within his party burst into the open. Amos himself publicized the rift, believing that true Progressives would follow his lead and force the money interests out of the party. Instead the reverse occurred, and no one followed his lead. Teddy Roosevelt publicly repudiated him. Progressive Party officials asked him to resign.
Amos went on to fight American involvement in the First World War. His view was that the war (and later the Second World War as well) was being waged at the behest of the big-money powers and had no higher purpose than serving the economic interests of the privileged at the expense of the common man. In 1916 he became chairman of the Committee on Real Preparedness and served on the executive committee of the American Union Against Militarism in 1917. He also became treasurer of the defense committee for the magazine Masses, which had been banned from the mails for its antiwar positions. Through his involvement with Masses he became outraged at the attacks on the civil liberties of war protesters. That outrage led him in 1917 to help found the National Civil Liberties Bureau, which eventually became the American Civil Liberties Union.
Masses was a literary and artistic magazine founded by the writer and critic Max Eastman. Nicely designed, it was devoted to the premise that social revolution could be joined with artistic endeavor. Eastman and three staff members, including the journalist John Reed, were tried twice for sedition in connection with the magazine, but both trials ended in hung juries. Amos called the magazine one afternoon as it teetered on the edge of financial ruin and supposedly told Eastman he put out “a swell magazine.” Eastman and Reed immediately went to Amos’s law offices, where he gave them several thousand dollars to stay afloat. He later paid to spring Eastman from jail, where he was being held on libel charges.
Through his association with Eastman and Masses, Amos the Park Avenue lawyer entered a new world—a young, downtown New York community of writers and artists that included Sinclair Lewis, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and many, many lesser lights. “Masses reflected … the gay and innocent flavor of pre-war cultural radicalism: bearded Wobblies attending tango teas in Greenwich Village. Anybody who was anybody wrote for Masses” according to The New Republic. Many of Eastman’s writers and associates were openly Communist. “The Russian revolution then seemed to them the fulfillment of their humanitarian dreams. Their world had a gaiety and a speciousness about it. Its inhabitants were a cohesive group—Bohemian, enchanted by art, tireless in talk, intoxicated by everything,” wrote David Boroff in the National Observer.
Eastman was later a fixture in Mary Pinchot’s life, providing an example of left-wing activism throughout. He eventually visited Soviet Russia and became disillusioned with the Communist system as he witnessed Stalin’s brutal rise. He remained close to Leon Trotsky and even served as Trotsky’s literary agent in New York until Trotsky was assassinated in Mexico. As a literary critic, Eastman disparaged T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein for what he termed their excessive obscurity. His influence as a critic waned after he published his attack on the moderns in an article in Harper’s in 1929 called “The Cult of Unintelligibility.”
Among Eastman’s Bohemian crowd, Amos met his future wife. In 1919 Amos divorced his first wife of nineteen years, Gertrude Minturn, a daughter of a prominent New York family with whom he had had two children, Rosamund and Gifford, to marry Ruth Pickering, thirteen years his junior. Ruth was a Greenwich Village writer and the daughter of a middle-class businessman. Their first daughter was born a little more than a year later, in New York City on October 14, 1920, and was named Mary Eno Pinchot after her paternal grandmother.
Divorce at the time was still taboo, and Amos, prickly and sensitive to public opinion, was subject to social reproach for the rest of his life. Even years later, Amos’s divorce was a source of amusement for the New York tabloids, apparently eager to humiliate a man of his wealth and stature. In 1927, when his oldest daughter, Rosamund, returned from a European trip, the celebrity press arrived to photograph her coming down the gangplank. Both Amos and his ex-wife showed up at the dock to greet their daughter. A photographer for the New York Daily News snapped a picture of the awkward threesome, and the paper ran the picture with a snide story about the embarrassing surprise meeting of Rosamund Pinchot’s divorced parents. Amos fired off a letter to the papers owner, Joseph Medill Patterson, noting that he had known Patterson’s mother but that the family blood had obviously begun to run thin, as clearly her son had “no respect for the decencies and dignities of life.”18
Descriptions of young Ruth were similar to those that would be applied by another generation of men to her daughter Mary. When Amos met Mary’s mother, Ruth Pickering was still the “lithe, strong, beautifully proportioned, ash blonde with a petulant mouth, [and] most lovingly tender and far-seeing blue eyes” who had captivated Max Eastman as a young man.19 She was also “a poet—a girl who concealed under a great deal of silence a rare and individual gift of speech,” wrote Eastman, who never acted on his feelings toward her.
Ruth had grown up near Eastman in Elmira, New York, in a Quaker home with her parents, two sisters, and two grandmothers. Her father had inherited his father-in-law’s paint business as it stood on the verge of bankruptcy, and throughout Ruth’s childhood the Pickering family was economically straitened trying to pay off old debts. Her mother worked as the company bookkeeper. In an article titled “A Deflated Rebel” for The Nations 1926 series called “These Modern Women,” Ruth described her childhood self as a “continually rebellious” tomboy who grew up to become more a pragmatist than a feminist. As a girl she befriended her poor and uneducated neighbors against the advice of her powerful Grandma Haynes, whose approval was doled out stintingly. Ruth rebelled against the matriarch in spirit and letter. “I sought out the toughest companions of the neighborhood. I played with boys summer and winter, whose bravado, being normal, seemed of a far less glorious nature than my own.”20
After studying at Vassar and Columbia University, Ruth Pickering worked at a variety of jobs, including brief stints in secretarial and factory work, always in it for “the experience,” as she put it, more than the work itself. She eventually discovered she liked writing and editing. She was an editor and staff writer for The Nation when she met Amos Pinchot. Thirty-three years old, she had remained single and lived the life of a modern career woman. Just before her marriage and move to Park Avenue she lived in a room in a rented red brick Greenwich Village townhouse with Max Eastman, his sister Crystal Eastman and her husband, and Eugen Boissevain, the future husband of Edna St. Vincent Millay.
With two strong individualists for parents, Mary was destined to respect people with strongly held views who marched to the sound of their own private drummers. Ruth Pickering’s preoccupation with individualism eventually led her to renounce even the group cause of women’s rights. After marriage she decided that her youthful feminism had been merely an extension of her own ego, with no higher purpose. “In the early days of my marriage the formulas of feminism pestered me because I allowed my husband to support me,” she wrote in The Nation in 1926. Ruth justified herself by concluding that exchanging rebellion for financial security had matured her by allowing her the leisure to write what she wanted to write. “I have traded my sense of exhilarating defiance (shall we call it feminism?) for an assurance of free and unimpeded self-expression (or shall we call that feminism?). In other words I have grown up.”21
Although she wrote about the labor movement before her marriage, after her marriage and Mary’s birth Ruth turned to more traditionally feminine topics and became a dance and art critic. Her articles convey a serious appreciation of modern dance and art and a wry sense of humor. In a tongue-in-cheek 1921 New Republic article headlined “The Economic Interpretation of Jazz,” she wrote about the effect of high rents in New York on modern dancing and music. “Music and dance have become more restricted, the intensity increasing in direct ratio to the rise in rents…. And men and women are obliged to cling closely together in order to move at all… And what then is to be done with the allotted space for one pair already congested? Nothing save to lay her cheek against his cheek for further crowding. And so it goes on—the heat engendered in these overpacked rooms with no air leading inevitably again to the lower-necked gown. One moral question after the other becomes a question merely of rents.”22
In the Roaring Twenties, modern dance represented a symbolic physical escape from the Victorian corset of the previous generation. Reviewing two books about Isadora Duncan in the February 1929 issue of The Nation, after the dancer’s death, Ruth, by then raising her own two daughters, praised Duncan for her freedom of expression and her goal of teaching children to, in Duncan’s words, “through dance, music, poetry and song express the feelings of the people with grace and beauty.” Ruth was especially impressed by the dancer’s devotion to individuality. Wrote Ruth: “She was teaching her children to be free and to be fine and to be natural… Freedom was her religion and most specifically freedom for the unique woman that was Isadora.”23
Amos and Ruth’s devotion to individualism and personal freedom became a distinguishing characteristic of their oldest daughter. Mary Pinchot was born into a world of modern adults who were leaving Queen Victoria behind and entering the age of Freud. Ruth and Amos tried to encourage formality, manifested in good manners, along with freedom and creativity in children. Ruth was a gentle but distant mother who concentrated on her own work with a self-absorption that did not involve her children. From her, Mary learned first about women’s independence.
But Ruth also deferred to her husband, Amos, who was older and the source of her economic freedom. Throughout Mary’s childhood, men of great worldly power organized her life and the lives of all the women around her. Although politically progressive, Amos could never abandon the social conventions of the age in which he was educated. The two poles represented by her parents pulled Mary in two directions all her life. Little Mary adored her powerful father and would spend the rest of her life trying to replace him with other powerful men. When she grew up, she was always attracted to men who wanted to direct her or dismissed her relevance altogether. As with many women of her generation, any authority or artistic aesthetic she developed would come only later in life, if at all. This did not mean, however, that she lacked self-confidence or her mother’s desire for independence. The example of her parents’ strong beliefs and the cushion of Pinchot family money, especially in her early years, conferred on her a fearlessness and assurance that she retained throughout her life.
Pieces of Mary Pinchot’s childhood history during the 1920s and 1930s are recorded in the letters of Amos and Ruth and the Gifford Pinchot family. The letters chronicle the daily life of a well-to-do family. Like other wealthy Americans, the Pinchots traveled frequently and had several different places of residence; they communicated with each other almost daily via engraved stationery about many matters: family illnesses, the repair or replacement of household items, the baby’s latest word. Ruth wrote frequent letters to Amos during the early part of their marriage, when she was at one family dwelling and he at another, keeping him up to date on their baby girl’s progress. From the Hamptons, the summer Mary was two, Ruth wrote: “Mary is the baby wonder of the beach. She has been on the beach morning and afternoon each day. She sits on the floor putting pebbles into a pail and yelling furiously ‘I like Daddy.’ She is so pretty with her curly hair and fresh red cheeks ” 24 The next summer, writing from a vacation at the Eastmans’ in upstate New York, she wrote, “Mary is a perfect little bully. She knows she can make Elizabeth cry easily and she teases her all the time. She’s the aggressor and a devil.”25
Ruth moved comfortably into the upper-class Pinchot world. The family money relieved her for the first time in her life of the necessity of work, and the effect was liberating. “Since I no longer have to work, I am no longer lazy,” she wrote in an essay published in The Nation.26 But she never grew entirely at ease with servants and the messy details of their hiring and firing. Coming from a family where every penny earned was counted, Mary’s Quaker mother could be irritated by the lavishness at Grey Towers.
At Milford, the château was occupied by Gifford and his family. It had a dozen workers. The little house on the grounds occupied by Amos and his family had a cook, a cleaner, and a nurse. Both brothers had butlers. The little Pinchot girls grew up accustomed to the presence of servants. Tony never learned to cook and years later, when she and her second husband, Ben Bradlee, had President Kennedy over, she begged her aunt Cornelia, who was living in Washington then, to lend her a cook. But Mary grew up to learn and enjoy cooking.
There was apparently some tension between Ruth and her more aristocratic sister-in-law. Writing from the Hamptons while Amos was in Milford arranging for the little house to be electrified, Ruth talked about obtaining some furniture from the château for the little house at Grey Towers (designed at the turn of the century by Mead, McKim & White, designers of New York’s original Penn Station), which was occupied by Amos’s family: “Leila might be able to sacrifice a couple of lamps when she’s got a governor for a husband don’t you think?”27 Ruth was also aware of rivalry between the two brothers. The younger brother was keenly interested in politics but lacked the politician’s personality. Of his brother Gifford, Ruth assured her husband: “Everyone who knows you both is quick to see the superiority of your intellect.”28
In 1924 Ruth gave birth to her second daughter, Antoinette, called Tony. From childhood, little Tony was the more reserved and shy of the two sisters. She had more childhood illnesses, and many of Ruth and Amos’s worries in the 1920s concerned Tony’s latest bout with mumps, scarlet fever, and even appendicitis. One summer the family trooped to Fire Island, because Tony was underweight and peaky and seemed to need the sea air.29 Physically, Mary had the strong chin and bone structure of the Pinchot family, and Tony, with her heart-shaped face, took after her mother.
Ruth loved her children but relished her solitude and her writing time, and so Amos was more of a presence in their lives than their mother. Amos’s attitude toward his daughters was attentive and loving, but also austere and strict. He often planned their days for them. The girls regarded their mother as gentle and their father as the disciplinarian. Neither parent was particularly warm. Amos left the hands-on details of their upbringing to a succession of nannies when he could. When Mary was seven, Amos wrote happily that “the new governess, very calm but firm, impresses the children with the advisability of doing necessary things like eating and going to bed.”30
Throughout Mary’s childhood Amos continued to donate his legal services to various cases involving civil liberties, and he threw his political support behind one cause or another. His last third-party attempt, the Committee of 48, collapsed in 1920, but he never tired of organizing for the causes he believed in, no matter how unpopular. He was involved in the defense of the Italian anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian immigrants arrested while distributing anarchist literature and charged with robbery and murdering a shoe factory payroll clerk in Braintree, Massachusetts, in 1920. The men, a shoe factory worker and a fish peddler who could barely speak English, went to the electric chair in August 1927, but not until after their case had polarized right and left. Their trial before the Massachusetts Superior Court had been conducted in an atmosphere of Red-scare hysteria. The judge had vowed to “get those anarchist bastards” and the jury convicted them of murder. They had lingered in prison for years while supporters tried to free them. In 1925 a man under sentence for murder confessed that he had participated in the crime as part of a gang, and academics and lawyers from across the country became involved in appealing for a retrial. Jurist Felix Frankfurter, in a magazine article that inflamed conservatives, charged that the case had been based on circumstantial evidence. Sacco and Vanzetti became martyrs for the left, and before they were executed, mass demonstrations were held and bombs exploded in New York and Philadelphia. The executions became an international issue and led many on the left to lose faith in the American system of justice. After the men were put to death Amos wrote editorials attacking politicians and journalists who had condoned the executions, including Walter Lippmann.
Amos also spent the better part of Mary’s childhood years working on a two-part book about his anticorporate philosophy. The first part, which he planned to title Big Business in America, was to be filled with his own personal accounts of sinister experiences with the money bosses. He worked on it throughout the latter half of the 1920s and into the thirties. The result was a jumble of outlines, notes, anecdotes, and quotations that were never gathered into a cohesive text. In 1933 he started in on a companion work, which he called The History of the Progressive Party, 1912-1916. The notes and text for that work were eventually compiled and edited by a family friend, Helene Maxwell Hooker, and published after his death.
Mary was closer to her father than Tony was. Amos wanted his daughters athletic, and of the two younger ones, Mary was more inclined toward sports. Amos taught her to play an aggressive game. Decades later, her tennis-playing friends in Washington were amazed when the soft-spoken, gentle woman suddenly turned ferocious on the tennis courts, wielding a vicious serve and mean backhand. Amos’s war injury prevented him from moving very fast on the courts, but he would hit the ball back to his daughter with great force and speed. He was such a tennis fan that he often took the girls and their friends to watch championship tennis at Forest Hills. His hip injury prevented driving as well, so the family had a chauffeur until gas rationing during World War II made the cost of a car prohibitive.
Another woman at Grey Towers who taught Mary by example about female power in a world of men was her aunt. Cornelia Elizabeth Bryce Pinchot, known in the family as Leila, was a thirty-three-year-old American aristocrat when she married Gifford. Her father, Lloyd Bryce, was a congressman, a writer, and Teddy Roosevelt’s ambassador to the Netherlands. Her mother was the granddaughter of iron magnate Peter Cooper, who founded the Cooper Institute (now Cooper Union). Cornelia was raised in Newport society but grew up to spurn the traditional role of well-bred wife. She marched in suffrage parades and helped her husband get elected in 1922 by getting women voters in Pennsylvania organized for the first time since they had won the right to vote. In 1928 she ran for Congress herself on a platform similar to her husband’s: support for Prohibition and opposition to utility monopolies. She was defeated but went on to work in support of women and organized labor, and in the 1940s she became the United States representative to the International Women’s Conference. She spent her last years active in Washington, D.C., social life, and chaired the Washington chapter of Americans United for World Organization, a group that called for atomic disarmament.
Cornelia was a 1920s superwoman, a supremely self-confident feminist who seemed able to do and have it all. She gloried in the kind of adventure available to rich young women. In her twenties she left Newport society and traveled with a friend across the continent, visiting American cities and towns and collecting, as she put it, “big-game hunters, reactionary Senators, Socialists, stodgy captains of industries, single taxers, a whole-hog Tolstoian, college professors and editors galore.” In an essay for The Nation, she described her exuberant form of feminism: “My feminism tells me that woman can bear children, charm her lovers, boss a business, swim the Channel, stand at Armageddon and battle for the Lord—all in a day’s work!”31
Cornelia was responsible for the Italianate and baroque touches added to Grey Towers in the 1920s. She saw a painting of a water table in Italy and decided to copy one, hence dinners around the Finger Bowl. She imprinted her own style on the château, adding trompe l’oeil decoration, paintings, and theme rooms. Her visiting room on the first floor was done in blue paint and wallpaper with a nautical theme. At The Hague she purchased a sixteen-by-ten-foot painting of ships at sea, a depiction of a Dutch naval battle, and had the canvas embedded into wet plaster in the wall of the room. Near the ceiling she hung some of the mounted game fish caught by the governor and his family and friends in the Florida Keys. A tiled path out the door picked up the oceanic theme and led from the visiting room through bowers of wisteria to the outdoor dining area and the Finger Bowl. She put in a moat around the house, stocked with goldfish the family fed with bread.
Life at Grey Towers was both leisurely and formal. A silent campaign film called Governor Pinchot and Family Enjoy Their Daily Exercise shows, in grainy, speeded-up film time, what the estate was like in the 1920s. The camera scans the swimming pool, where Ruth and Rosamund, Amos’s eldest daughter, in white bathing costumes and caps, teach two little girls, Tony and Mary, how to swim. Then they all climb out of the pool and pose, tableau-style, the women lounging with their legs stretched toward each other and the men standing on each side like pillars in their summer whites and straw boaters. The nannies and cooks wear crisp white uniforms.
With her deep-set blue eyes and strong chin, Amos’s adored Rosamund, a curvaceous five-foot-nine blonde, had the Pinchot features Mary also inherited. Rosamund was a teenager when Mary was a child, and throughout Mary’s childhood her half-sister provided a model of sophistication and glamour. Rosamund taught Mary how to ride at Milford. Her long, muscular legs and full figure were in contrast to prepubescent Mary’s childish body. School chums of Mary’s recall that she was in awe of her adventurous and beautiful half-sister and somewhat overshadowed by her.
At seventeen, Rosamund was “discovered” by Viennese producer Max Reinhardt, who spotted her on the deck of a luxury transatlantic ocean liner, the Aquitania, as he was heading to the United States to stage a New York production of The Miracle. Rosamund was returning home from a trip to Europe. Reinhardt chose her to play the part of the nun, and she was an overnight sensation, the socialite-turned-actress. Her photograph appeared frequently in stylish magazines, and for a few years she was a budding starlet.
Gifford and Cornelia Pinchot’s only son, Giff (brothers Amos and Gifford both named their sons Gifford, so at times there were three Giffords on the estate), was a few years older than his youngest girl cousins. He and his friends rode horses, and he had his own forge where he practiced the blacksmithing he had learned from one of the village hands. Mary and Tony were strictly admonished to stay away from his playhouse, the Bait Box, where Gifford was conducting a long experiment examining the tiny pond and moat creatures with his microscope. Young Gifford grew up to become a doctor, left Pennsylvania, and eventually donated the large house and some of the grounds to the U.S. Forest Service.
Bookshelves in the Pinchot homes were lined with classic and modern prose and poetry, including all of Henry James’s novels, ancient and modern history, studies in anthropology, works about mystical and conventional religion, psychology tomes, and dramatic works from Sophocles to Shakespeare to Ibsen and O’Neill. The books of A. A. Milne sat next to the complete poetical works of John Milton. Some of the volumes had notes in the margins written by either Ruth or Amos. Amos was especially fond of Shakespeare’s sonnets and the works of the Greek tragedian Euripides, and he reread them throughout his life.
Writers, artists, and men of law and politics often visited the family at Milford and in New York. The Pinchot girls grew up around family friends who included Max and Crystal Eastman; Louis Brandéis; Roosevelt’s secretary of the interior, Harold Ickes; and the flamboyant heiress Mabel Dodge. Mary’s domestic world was cozy but vicariously cosmopolitan. She got letters and presents from her aunt Antoinette, married to a British nobleman and always on the move between London and some exotic destination. Her uncle Gifford took a South Seas sailing trip in 1929 on the family yacht and brought back all manner of treasure, including a sea turtle and the balsa wood rafts and coral for the Finger Bowl. Amos took frequent trips to the Florida Keys to fish, and sometimes the girls went along. Her half-sister, Rosamund, was always steaming off to Europe or California.
In New York during the winters of her childhood, Mary Pinchot lived on Park Avenue. Park Avenue became fashionable after World War I, when the trend toward apartment living among society people began. Most of the buildings were quite new. They were all stolid and square, a dozen or more floors rising into the sky. Park Avenue itself was divided by medians of fenced, well-tended grass, flowerbeds, and shrubbery. Only noncommercial traffic was allowed, no buses or trucks. The WPA Guide to New York City, written by Depression-era writers, claimed city planners described Park Avenue as “a superslum” because of the unappealing sameness of the design going into the new buildings. “Its architecture is noteworthy for its lack of imagination, one building resembling another like peas in a pod. Although the apartments have all the modern conveniences, adequate provision for light and air and view was generally neglected,” the WPA guide said. Still, it was all rather swish. “Uniformed doormen tend top-hatted men and