17 November 2013 - 02:02 By Thurston Clarke
subscribe Just R20 for the first month. Support independent journalism by subscribing to our digital news package.
Subscribe now

On Friday November 22, it will be 50 years since John F Kennedy was assassinated. One of the enigmas about the man was why somebody with his ambition and intellect behaved like a randy schoolboy around women.

BOBBY Baker, secretary to the Senate majority leader, had often introduced women like Elle Rometsch - whom he described as "eager young ladies who'd let it be known they were out for a good time" - to congressmen, Capitol Hill staffers, lobbyists and government officials. She had come to the attention of the FBI after boasting to a former bureau informant about her activities at the Quorum Club, a warren of rooms that Baker had leased at a Capitol Hill hotel, and her frequent visits to the White House. Her FBI file described her having a "rough complexion" and being fond of heavy makeup; photographs showed a voluptuous woman with a towering beehive hairdo.

On July 3 1963, J Edgar Hoover sent special agent Courtney Evans to inform Robert Kennedy that Rometsch was claiming to have had "illicit relations with highly placed government officials", including the president. Evans also told Bobby that she had been raised in East Germany, where she had belonged to several communist youth groups before fleeing to the West in 1955 at the age of 19.

According to Evans's memorandum of their meeting, the attorney-general "was appreciative of the director's sending this information to him on a confidential basis" and "made particular note of Rometsch's name". When they parted, he "again expressed his appreciation for the discreet manner in which this information was handled". Bobby had long been concerned about his brother's failure to ascertain even the most rudimentary information about some of his sexual partners, once warning him: "You've got to be careful about these girls. A couple of them might be spies."

Britain's recent Profumo scandal had made Kennedy's behaviour seem even more reckless. The British press had revealed in March that the secretary of state for war, John Profumo, had been patronising the prostitute Christine Keeler at the same time as she was seeing a Soviet military attaché.

The FBI agents who interviewed and investigated Ro-metsch could not substantiate the allegations that she had enjoyed "high-level sex contacts" or that she was a communist agent. Because she was married to a West German airman stationed at the embassy, the FBI report recommended informing the State Department of the investigation, while cautioning: "Of course, no mention will be made of the president and the AG [attorney-general]."

Kennedy had been ignorant of Rometsch's background, but his inordinate interest in the Profumo case indicated that he appreciated the danger of becoming ensnared in a similar scandal. He had badgered the London embassy for updates on Profumo and, knowing of his interest in the case, his friends offered him frequent reports.

Bobby decided it was too dangerous for Rometsch to stay in Washington, where she might talk to someone who would tip off the press and could be subpoenaed to appear before Congress or a grand jury. He ordered her deported, instructed the State Department to deny her a visa if she attempted to return and asked a US official to chaperone her on the flight back to West Germany.

Kennedy's affair with Rometsch was one of the most egregious instances of a womanising so compulsive and careless that even those who believed they knew him well would struggle for decades to fathom it, falling back on words such as "inexplicable" and "incomprehensible". How could a man who cared so much about the judgment of history engage in behaviour that, as a student of history, he must have known would surely come to light? How could a man who had shown such integrity in his public life show so little in private, risking his reputation for hurried and, according to several of his partners, unsatisfying couplings with call girls, strippers, interns and secretaries?

One of his mistresses suggested that his need for a secret life was a greater motivation than the sex. His friends have speculated that his wartime brush with death had left him addicted to risk and that, aside from driving like a madman, this was the riskiest thing he could do. It has been said he did it because he could not tolerate being bored, and illicit sex was a pleasant antidote to boredom because the steroids he took to control his Addison's had supercharged his libido (although he had been sexually promiscuous before taking the medicine). And because he believed he would die young, sex was at the top of his bucket list.

He told Senator George Smathers, who sometimes supplied him with women: "You've got to live every day like it's your last on earth." It is also possible that abstinence really did give him, as he claimed, insomnia and migraines. He confided in Clare Boothe Luce that he "went all to pieces" unless he had sex every day, and told Harold Macmillan that he suffered punishing headaches if he went without sex for a day.

According to the more questionable theories, he was promiscuous because being circumcised at the age of 21 for tight foreskin problems had left him desperate to prove his manhood, or because he had been traumatised as a boy by finding his father in flagrante with the film star Gloria Swanson, although there are doubts whether this occurred.

The most widely accepted theory blames his father, a notorious philanderer who, according to Kennedy, encouraged him and his brothers "to get laid as often as possible". The fact that Kennedy's sexuality remained so unchanged over the years suggests that it was fixed during his adolescence and youth and that his father was responsible. One member of his staff called him "an adolescent in terms of his sexual relationships", adding: "All this stuff was casual - as if he were in high school - hijinks."

Lem Billings, who was a closet homosexual, believed that he had "an immature relationship with girls - that is, while he was terribly interested in going out and having fun with them at night, I don't think he was really terribly excited about girls as friends". Baker observed that he "seemed to relish sharing the details of his conquests" and "came off as something of the boyish braggart"; the White House intern Mimi Beardsley thought that "part of him still seemed to be an adolescent teenager at Choate [private school]"; and the stripper Tempest Storm described him as "a little boy who wouldn't grow up", although in other respects, she found him "one of the most mature men" she had ever known.

His affair with Storm showed how widely he cast his sexual net. His partners included Jackie's press secretary, Pamela Turnure, the White House secretaries Priscilla Wear and Jill Cowan - two spunky twentysomethings nicknamed "Fiddle" and "Faddle" - and Ben Bradlee's sister-in-law, Mary Meyer. Prior to Rometsch, his most risky relationship had been with Judith Campbell, a two-year affair beginning in 1960 when Frank Sinatra introduced them in Las Vegas and ending with Campbell having a relationship with the Mafia boss Sam Giancana at the same time.

Whatever demons lay behind his voracious womanising, he seemed incapable of taming them. Betty Spalding described it as "a real compulsion ... something so deep in that man". Charlie Bartlett, who had introduced him to Jackie, believed he never should have married because "he had this thing about him which was not under control".

During a Washington dinner party in the late 1950s, he told Priscilla McMillan, who had formerly worked in his Senate office, that he had married Jackie "because I was 37 years old and people would think I was queer if I wasn't married". Encouraged by his candour, she asked: "Jack, when you're straining every gasket to be president, why do you endanger yourself by going out with women?" After a long pause, he shrugged and a sad expression crossed his face that reminded McMillan of a little boy preparing to cry. "I guess it's because I just can't help it," he said.

Jackie's sister, Lee Radziwill, believed that Kennedy had "absolutely no guilty conscience". He sometimes justified his womanising as the mark of a great man. When his friend Marie Ridder asked during the 1960 campaign if he planned to continue having affairs while living in the White House, he replied breezily: "Oh, it'll be much easier because the Secret Service will protect me. Anyway, all great men have this failing. Wilson stopped the conference at Versailles to have his 'nooner' and Alexander the Great had so many sexual appetites he never knew next what gender would appeal to him."

The most perceptive take on his sexual pathology can be found in the letters, diary and testimony of Margaret Coit, a Pulitzer prize-winning biographer who was perhaps the smartest and most sensitive woman he ever attempted to seduce. After she won a Pulitzer in 1951 at the age of 31 for her biography of Senator John C Calhoun, the eminent financier and presidential adviser Bernard Baruch asked her to write his biography. Before travelling to Washington in 1953 to conduct research at the Library of Congress and speak with senators who had known Baruch, she manufactured a pretext to interview Kennedy.

"I had designs on John F Kennedy," she admitted. "He was the golden boy, the most eligible bachelor in New England." Despite her literary fame, Coit was a country girl and a virgin who admitted knowing "very, very, very little" about the outside world. She dressed for their interview in a grey silk suit, pink lace gloves and a grey bonnet with a pink lace veil, an outfit more suited to a date. ("He got the idea right away," she said.) His Senate office was spartan. There was a small sofa, some straight-backed chairs and bookcases crammed with works on history, economics and politics. She was encouraged that none of his secretaries were "very young, chic or pretty", but shocked by his appearance. His eyes, hair and lips looked grey, and under his tan even his skin had a greyish tinge. After several minutes of desultory conversation he admitted knowing little about Baruch. Then he gave her a long, searching look and said: "You're the smartest thing to come into this office since the election." He invited her to a party at his house, but she was disappointed that he spent most of the evening in a corner with Senator Symington.

As she was leaving, he suddenly threw an arm around her waist and announced: "Isn't she the darlingest thing to come into this house for a long time?" He tracked her down at the Library of Congress manuscript room several days later and asked her out. "I just glowed," she told her diary. "And as I bathed and dressed for the big date, I felt - this is the biggest day of my life. Dreamed of him as the fairy prince ... grey and ethereal."

She arrived at his office to find him in shirtsleeves, signing photographs for his constituents while chewing a wad of Juicy Fruit gum, snapping it so forcefully that his head shook. "My brother told me that you won the Pulitzer prize," he said, adding that he was impressed that she had not mentioned it. He noticed her examining his history books and said: "Try me on them. I've read them all."

He took a call from Jackie and spoke to her in a cold and offhanded manner, even though he would propose to her a month later. After hanging up, he plopped down on the sofa, threw back his head and closed his eyes, and the remaining colour drained from his face. Coit said he seemed too exhausted to take her out and suggested postponing their date. He agreed, but insisted on driving her back to her rooming house. He hobbled down the office building corridor on crutches, but the fresh air revived him and he bit a stick of Juicy Fruit in half and popped some into her mouth. Once they were seated in his battered blue sedan, he leaned across her to shut the passenger-side door tightly, grinning as he pressed his arm against her breasts. Thinking he might want to rest before driving home, she invited him to her rooms. He immediately threw himself on her couch and tried dragging her down.

"Wait a minute," she said, struggling to escape. "I made up my mind that I was not going to kiss you on the first date." "We've been making eyes at one another three times now," he said, lunging again. She asked if he would want his sisters to give in on the first date. "I don't care what they do," he said. She struggled up from the sofa and he grabbed her shoulders and exclaimed: "I'm sad; I'm gay; I'm melancholy; I'm gloomy- I'm all mixed up, and I don't know how I am!" As they began grappling again, she said: "Don't be so grabby. This is only our first date. We've got plenty of time." He stared deeply into her eyes and said: "But I can't wait, you see. I'm going to grab everything I want. You see, I haven't any time." She finally kissed him. After he murmured "Darling", she said: "That's the first gentle word you have ever said to me." "How would you like a husband who was harsh to you first and gentle to you afterwards?" he asked. "How would you like a husband who beat you every morning?"

After she accused him of being "a spoiled Irish Mick on the make" and he called her "a spoiled Irish bastard", they both broke down laughing and he promised not to bother her any more. She agreed to ride back with him to his house in Georgetown on condition that he send her home in a taxi. As they were driving, she asked if he was disappointed. "Of course I'm disappointed," he admitted. He had wanted to sleep with her and learn how Bernard Baruch made his money. "I want to make millions," he said. "I am going to outdo my father."

A few minutes later, he told her: "I would rather win a Pulitzer prize than be president of the United States." And he asked: "Why don't you write a book about me? What I am interested in is me." As they passed the White House he announced in a hard voice: "I am going to go there." She asked if he had the drive to be president. He conceded that he was unsure, adding: "I often wonder - do I have the brains to be president?" He put her in a cab and promised to call her. "You won't see me again," she promised. He was the most driven person she had ever met and he frightened her. What scared her most was the effortless, machine-like way that he had shifted between the intellectual and the carnal. "We had been talking about books and ideas and ... he had seen me as one kind of person. He had seen me as a mind, and now he saw me as just something female," she recalled.

"He couldn't fit the two together, and it was as if he were two parts. He was like a 14-year-old high school football player on the make, and he was like an elder statesman of 60 in his intellectual process."

subscribe Just R20 for the first month. Support independent journalism by subscribing to our digital news package.
Subscribe now