Ben Bradlee and Mary Pinchot Meyer

R.I.P. Ben Bradlee:

Benjamin C. Bradlee, who presided over The Washington Post newsroom for 26 years and guided The Post’s transformation into one of the world’s leading newspapers, died Oct. 21 at his home in Washington of natural causes. He was 93.

From the moment he took over The Post newsroom in 1965, Mr. Bradlee sought to create an important newspaper that would go far beyond the traditional model of a metropolitan daily. He achieved that goal by combining compelling news stories based on aggressive reporting with engaging feature pieces of a kind previously associated with the best magazines. His charm and gift for leadership helped him hire and inspire a talented staff and eventually made him the most celebrated newspaper editor of his era.

The most compelling story of Mr. Bradlee’s tenure, almost certainly the one of greatest consequence, was Watergate, a political scandal touched off by The Post’s reporting that ended in the only resignation of a president in U.S. history. …

Two deaths in 1963 altered Mr. Bradlee’s life. The first was Philip Graham’s suicide that August, after a struggle with bipolar disorder. Then in November, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. A fortnight before his death, the Bradlees had spent a glamorous weekend with the Kennedys at their new retreat in Middleburg, Va. On Nov. 22, 1963, “life changed, forever, in the middle of a nice day, at the end of a good week, in a wonderful year of what looked like an extraordinary decade of promise,” Mr. Bradlee wrote.

There was a third Bradlee was connected to from around that time that remains fascinating:

On a perfect October day in 1964, Mary Pinchot Meyer—mistress of John Kennedy, friend of Jackie Kennedy and ex-wife of a top CIA man, Cord Meyer—was murdered in the rarefied Washington precinct of Georgetown. …

That October day rests in a corner of my mind, a vivid and mysterious curio. I pick it up from time to time and examine it in different lights. I have not figured it out, though I have theories. I thought of Mary Meyer’s murder again during the presidential campaign, when the drama of a black man, Barack Obama, and two women, Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, in a race for the top places in American government took me back over a distance of time to a city that was then, for black people and for women, a different universe.

When Mary Meyer died, no one knew about her affair with John Kennedy, or about her ex-husband’s job managing the CIA’s clandestine services. In newspapers, Cord Meyer—wounded World War II hero and young idealist who helped found the United World Federalists—was identified as an author, with a vague government job. The papers noted that Mary, 43, was a Georgetown artist, born to a wealthy Pennsylvania family, daughter of Amos Pinchot, the Progressive lawyer, and niece of Gifford Pinchot, the conservationist and Teddy Roosevelt’s chief forester. Her younger sister, Tony, was married to Ben Bradlee, then of Newsweek, later of the Washington Post. It was Bradlee who identified the body at the morgue.

It really is a strange story:

Bradlee was married to Mary’s sister Toni, and played a role in the search and subsequent disappearance of her diary. Shortly after Mary was murdered, Bradlee reported (years later, in his memoir) that he and Toni received a frantic call from one of Mary’s friends, the artist Anne Truitt, (whose alcoholic husband James Truitt also lost the plot, moved to Mexico, and later sold the story of Mary smoking dope with JFK to the National Enquirer) telling them to rescue Mary’s diary.

Superspook Angleton and Ben Bradlee ran into each other while breaking into Mary’s house to search for the diary that night or the following day, but no one ever told a straight story about exactly when they learned she was murdered, why they were at her house, and precisely when they arrived. Janney finds all this further proof of conspiracy. The fact is, it’s astonishing these people could remember who they had ordered assassinated, given the amount of alcohol they consumed at lunch.

Bradlee was plausibly involved in the diary search as a family member, but the fact that he waited more than 30 years to reveal his role in handing off a piece of possible evidence to the CIA in one of his town’s “enduring mysteries” says everything about his reputation as a great American journalist. Janney confirms what I and others who have studied the era have found, that Bradlee was mobbed up with the CIA, as were many of the most prominent Cold War journalists.

Angleton was the godfather of Mary’s sons, and so perhaps had some nonofficial reason for sneaking around her house. But Angleton had made a practice of stealing away with the papers of dead CIA agents around the world, including the CIA’s Mexico City station chief who had interacted with Oswald.

The diary is the MacGuffin in this incredible tale. Bradlee claims it was just an artist’s notebook, filled with color swatches and a few notes that referred to an affair with the President, and that he handed it off to Angleton for safekeeping. Toni later told reporters that she burned it.

Janney thinks the document contained a whole lot more than paint swatches, maybe even a treasure map leading to who killed Kennedy. He contends, without much evidence, that in the year after JFK’s assassination Mary “made it her business to learn what had really taken place in Dallas that late November day.”

Timothy Leary claims Mary Pinchot Meyer was working on turning the “most powerful men in Washington” to LSD:

“It was all going so well.” She said. “We had eight intelligent women turning on the most powerful men in Washington. And then we got found out. I was such a fool. I made a mistake in recruitment. A wife snitched on us. I’m scared.” She burst into tears.

“You must be very careful now.” She said. “Don’t make any waves. No publicity. I’m afraid for you. I’m afraid for all of us.”

“Mary.” I said soothingly. “Let’s go back to the Big House and relax and have some wine and maybe a hot bath and figure out what you should do.”

“I know what you’re thinking. But this is not paranoia. I’ve gotten mixed up in some dangerous matters. It’s real. You’ve got to believe me.” She glared at me. “Do you?”

“Yes I do.” Her alarm was convincing me.

“Look. If I ever showed up here suddenly, could you hide me out for a while?”

“Good.” Now drive me back to my car. I’ll stay in touch. If I can.”

As I watched her drive away, I wondered. She wasn’t breaking any laws. What trouble could she be in?

The next call from Mary came the day after the assassination of Jack Kennedy.

Joe Trento’s version of events is interesting too:

On the evening of October 12, 1964, Angleton and his wife, Cicely, were invited to a poetry reading at the house of an old friend, the artist Mary Meyer. Meyer’s dreams had died in Dallas, too.

Twenty years earlier, just out of Vassar, Mary Pinchot as she was then, had married a promising young man, Cord Meyer, who later became one of Allen Dulles’s top clandestine executives at the CIA. Mary Meyer came to hate her husband’s job, and in 1956, she divorced him and moved to Georgetown to start a new life. That new life included a love affair with John Kennedy, which ended only with his murder. While Kennedy had many affairs while in the White House, Angleton insisted that the president and Mary Meyer “were in love. They had something very important.”

The day of the poetry reading, Cicely Angleton called her husband at work to ask him to check on a radio report she had heard that a woman had been shot to death along the old Chesapeake and Ohio towpath in Georgetown. Walking along that towpath, which ran near her home, was Mary Meyer’s favorite exercise, and Cicely, knowing her routine, was worried. James Angleton dismissed his wife’s worry, pointing out that there was no reason to suppose the dead woman was Mary-many people walked along the towpath.

When the Angletons arrived at Mary Meyer’s house that evening, she was not home. A phone call to her answering service proved that Cicely’s anxiety had not been misplaced: Their friend had been murdered that afternoon. The Angletons went to the nearby home of Mary’s sister, Antoinette, then married to Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief, Benjamin C. Bradlee. They comforted the family and helped them make funeral arrangements.

The next weekend, the Angletons, along with others of Mary’s friends, began searching through her townhouse. They were frantically looking for a diary she had kept – really a sketchbook – which included details of her love affair with John Kennedy. Despite an exhaustive effort, they failed to find it.

A few days later, Antoinette Bradlee found the diary and many personal letters in a metal box in her sister’s studio. It was hard to see how the earlier searchers could have missed it. Had it been removed and then replaced? James Angleton, who was close to Meyer’s sons, was given the diary and letters for safekeeping. He allowed some people to reclaim letters they had written to Meyer, but he told everyone that he had burned the diary. He had not. In July 1978, he said, “I kept it for her children…. You must understand that it was a personal, not a professional, responsibility.”

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2 comments

  1. Oh dear, I think you’ve opened up the whole vat of worms with this one. One could add another hundred connections, or a million, but for now let’s just note that young Lt. Robert Woodward (Yale, Book and Snake, ONI) left the Navy in 1970 and was stashed at the Montgomery County Sentinel for just a year or so before being hired by the Post and, through his synchronistic connection to a high FBI official gaining access to troves of inside information that helped bring down a President.

    The Fourth Rome is a very small town, sometimes. These things just happen.

    Like

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