Six decades ago today (Nov. 22), President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. The murder put an end to “Camelot” and the hope and energy that the young president and his administration brought to the nation. It also opened an era – ours – of profound distrust, so that a significant segment of Americans believe in a hidden hand in a Deep State, secret networks creating a fake reality only the sheeple fall for.
We have never gotten over it.
JFK died just a few years after the CIA evolved from being an entirely secret agency whose budget was black, off the books. The agency was formed by former World War II spies who initially operated out of an unmarked quonset hut in post-war Washington. By the early 1960s, they had grander digs at Langley, where they are lodged today. Some of the agency’s top officers still told their families they worked at the post office, but CIA was becoming an octopus of global clandestine activity whose employees were plotting and sometimes carrying out coups and assassinations around the world, operating secret labs that tested mind control drugs on unwitting people, all in the name of containing communism and making the world safe for capitalist endeavors. Some of their deeds would only come to light in the mid-1970s, after Watergate, when the Senate’s Church Committee forced the agency to reveal what were colloquially called “the family jewels.”
Sixty years on, the truth about JFK’s assassination is still debated. The official story is contained in the Warren Report, a government document released about a year after the assassination, which declared that a single bullet, fired by a single shooter, ex-Marine Lee Harvey Oswald, killed the President as he rode in an open car through Dallas. Subsequent investigations, including journalism as recent as the just-released three-part documentary “JFK: What The Doctors Saw” by Canadian director (and my friend and sometime colleague) Barbara Shearer, continue to cast doubt on the single bullet theory. Also recently, a Secret Service agent who was on the motorcade wrote a book that upends the single bullet theory.
The Biden White House, like previous administrations, has still not released all the materials related to the government’s investigation, despite statutes that required the material to be released by now. Why? The authorities claim information in the files could somehow affect people still living. (For everything you want to know on that I recommend Jeff Morley’s JFK Facts substack.)
JFK was president at a time when Washington, DC, and specifically, the tony enclave of Georgetown, was a world of secrets, sex and paranoia. The nuclear age was still young, the Soviets and Americans were engaged in a terrifying race to build more horrifying weapons of mass destruction. And the men of the CIA, almost all blue-bloods who had served in World War II, were hard smoking, martini-sipping basket cases of PTSD. 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. And they lived in a Washington unknown to us today: where spies, journalists and government officials drank and dined together and kept each other’s secrets.
Mary Pinchot Meyer, a soigné member of the American aristocracy, ex-wife to the number three man in the CIA, was a prominent member of this club. Her ex, Cord Meyer, was a war hero and scion of a wealthy Long Island family who had lost an eye in the Pacific theater. His agency job was to run operations to infiltrate labor and intellectual networks around the world. He was an important cog in what his boss – Frank Wisner, a CIA founder who would go mad from the stress and kill himself – called “the mighty Wurlitzer” of global anti-communist propaganda and influence that the agency was trying to control.
Mary was a type of Washington woman once classified as “rogue wife.” Like Martha Mitchell a decade on, Mary knew a lot, perhaps too much. And she wasn’t docile. She was in fact, a kind of female Zelig. Besides her access to high level state and spy secrets via pillow talk and the Georgetown social scene, she dropped acid with Timothy Leary, made abstract art with some of the mid-20th Century New York School painters. She had a special effect on men. One man once said she reminded him of a cat walking on a rooftop in moonlight. And she was not only one of sex-addict JFK’s many mistresses, she was also his confidante, lounging with him in the Oval Office and by his side at crucial moments, including the terrifying Cuban Missile Crisis.
Ten days after the Warren Commission report was released, Mary was shot to death in broad daylight, execution-style, a bullet to the head. Police picked up an alcoholic Black day laborer in the vicinity and charged him, although the gun was never found. Also never found was a diary Mary kept. It was last seen in the hands of the CIA’s chief counterintelligence man, a superspoook about whom books have been written named James Jesus Angleton. 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.”
We know he took the diary because journalist and editor Ben Bradlee found him picking the lock to Mary’s studio the night of her murder – and helped him locate it. The network of spies and journalists in DC was so tight that Bradlee did not report this fact until decades later, in his own memoir. That revelation by the father of Watergate so mystified me as a young journalist that I was moved to investigate and write a book about the story.