It’s no secret that JFK had lovers, but Mary Pinchot Meyer stands apart from the legendary parade of women. Paul Wolfe became intrigued with her after reading a small article, and then the intrigue became an obsession, which in turn became a novel: The Lost Diary of M, publishing February 2020 from Harper. In it, Wolfe imagines Meyer’s diary, a document rumored to have been destroyed after her murder in 1964.
“She’s mysterious,” Wolfe says. “She hung out with famous people, but she wasn’t famous. There’s very little information about her, very few pictures; she was never interviewed. And her life anticipated everything that was to come: women’s liberation, feminism, the drug culture [she sampled LSD and, according to her biographer, Nina Burleigh, was involved with Timothy Leary during his tenure at Harvard].”
Meyer was well born and educated, a painter and reporter who, with her CIA-recruited husband, Cord Meyer, was part of Georgetown society in the 1950s and early ’60s. Her affair with Kennedy, confirmed in the autobiography of the Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee (who was also her brother-in-law), began in 1961. She was shot to death three years later on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath in Georgetown when she was 43 years old. The murder remains unsolved.
Wolfe emphasizes that this is not a bio, nor is it journalism, but rather “a work of art inspired by facts.” He says he felt like “he was hearing her voice.” And his rendering of Meyer’s voice is lively, compelling, and authentic. He walked along the path where she was killed; he went to see the house where she lived.
In the book’s August 6 diary entry, Meyer reminisces about her second presidential tryst:
I spent some girlie time fussing over presidential appointment number two, rubbing L’Air du Temps into strategic places.... I wondered if he smelled the perfume and considered me some sort of floozy, as I’m usually boringly natural and prefer painting canvases to faces.
Jack asked about my boys, and I was surprised.
Usually he’s either fucking or running the world.
When Wolfe finished the book, a friend introduced him to Gail Hochman at Brandt & Hochman literary agency. “He was a guy with a novel,” Hochman tells me. “I met him for a drink and he gave me some pages. It was this book, but not what you’re reading now. It was impressionistic, not like a novel. But there were dazzling set pieces.”
Wolfe says he was interested in language more than story, whereas Hochman wanted more of a narrative arc. “I was happy to listen,” Wolfe says. “I’m an advertising guy [with the WPP group]—I’m used to people not half as smart as Gail telling me about my writing!”
Wolfe started as a songwriter in his teens; he also worked in carpentry, which got him interested in buildings, and became an architect. Around 1984, he went into advertising. “I’d rather write lines than draw them,” he says. “It’s natural for me. I talk in headlines.”
Hochman says the manuscript for Lost Diary captured her because when she read it she became fascinated by someone she knew nothing about. She told Wolfe she wanted to keep the dazzle but with a conventional flow. “We worked on a number of drafts, and each time he made gigantic strides, but I wanted to be careful,” Hochman says. “I didn’t want to overwork it. There were such great scenes, the movers and shakers of the time, sitting and talking in living rooms: Ben Bradlee, Katharine Graham, Annie Truitt; Mary taking LSD with Marilyn Monroe. ”
When Hochman sent out the manuscript in February 2018, she thought of HarperCollins executive editor Sara Nelson. “We had these two gorgeous projects together, so she was in the first lineup,” Hochman says. “What I didn’t know was that she had her own obsession with Mary! I didn’t even know who Mary was.”
Nelson was immediately interested. “I was always irresistibly drawn to that period—the milieu of the ’60s, the Cold War, the CIA, and what I knew about Mary,” she says. “Here was this outrageous woman who did as she pleased. It’s the story of a firebrand with a mystery at the center.”
Interestingly, Nelson says it never occurred to her that the book was by a man when she first read it. “I was surprised, because the voice was so good,” she tells me, adding that she did still want some work done.
“Sara had a vision,” Wolfe says. “She wanted Mary’s voice leavened with other voices—the women of Georgetown society. It added another dimension to the book, and it was fun to create the dialogue.”
Nelson also wanted the book to appear as a real diary with dated entries. Wolfe says he resisted at first but saw how it gave the book structure.
It’s a structure that works, since a key element of the mystery is the rumored diary. There are several different accounts of the diary, with Bradlee and CIA chief James Angleton as major players in the puzzle of its existence, discovery, and destruction. Meyer had told friends that she was keeping a diary and to find it if something happened to her. Wolfe opens the book with the sentence: “If you are reading this, I am dead.”
Nelson saw a revision in summer 2018 and signed a contract for world rights that September. Marketing plans include radio, print, and online campaigns; social media; galley giveaways; and outreach to Kennedy-related blogs and sites. As Nelson notes, “It’s a piece of history but also an intriguing story on its own.”
And ultimately, for Wolfe, who says he feels like he channeled Mary’s voice, it’s “a work of obsession and passion.”