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BWW Reviews: MARY'S MOSAIC Offers an Eye-Opening Angle on JFK's Assassination

"There are some things the general public does not need to know and shouldn't. I believe democracy flourishes when the government can take legitimate steps to keep its secrets and when the press can decide whether to print what it knows." (Katherine Graham--alleged hero of the free press--in a speech at CIA's Langley headquarters in 1988, quoted in Mary's Mosaic).

Mary's Mosaic. It's an odd name for a Kennedy assassination tome so it bears explanation.

The "mosaic" refers partly to one created by the life of socialite, accomplished artist, Establishment insider and murder victim Mary Pinchot Meyer, but mostly to one created by author Peter Janney with her at or near the center of great historical events.

These events culminated with what Janney contends was her unusual inside knowledge of John Kennedy's assassination and a unique determination (among those so positioned) to relentlessly question the official verdict. The object of Meyer's mosaic was to build a better world. The object of Janney's is to prove beyond reasonable doubt that her special knowledge and determination got her killed on October 12, 1964, while taking a walk in her Georgetown neighborhood and that her murder was ordered by high-ranking officials of the CIA who included her former husband.

That might seem a little far-fetched even for assassination buffs, but Janney certainly presents a consistently intriguing and often compelling case.

For starters, he's in a rather unique position. As a full-fledged member of Mary Meyer's (and Kennedy's) social circle, whose father served in the CIA with Mary's husband, Cord Meyer, Jr., his assessment of the CIA "type" is unusually personal:

"Any discussion would quickly turn into what one friend in the late 1960s once called a kind of unending 'Tet Offensive' with Wistar inevitably asserting at some point that the CIA had the only key to a treasure called 'the truth.' They (he, the CIA) knew; you didn't. End of conversation. How dare you think otherwise."

That's Janney on his dad and, lest we think he might simply be having family issues, he provides plenty of solid evidence that Wistar Janney was by no means the worst of the bunch and his attitude in no way atypical.

Although Janney himself is a trained psychologist and has done plenty of legwork on various parts of his theory (especially the laughably weak case Washington D.C. police brought against a black man who happened to be in the area at the time of Mary Meyer's murder, details of which will be depressingly familiar to anyone reasonably conversant with "southern justice" of the period), the book's real strength is in the picture it provides of the inbred social world in which its main characters lived.

Mary Meyer herself was the daughter of a former Pennsylvania governor. Her sister wound up being married to future Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee at the time of Mary's death. Her husband Cord Meyer, Jr., "was born in Washington D.C. on November 10, 1920. His twin brother Quentin was named for his father's best friend, Quentin Roosevelt, son of President Theodore Roosevelt."

Or, as the satirist Calvin Trillin once put it: "Just folks."

It was from this rarified social strata that the post-war CIA emerged. Janney's book would be substantial if had no other value than to remind us of just how cloistered and determinedly self-interested that world truly was (and doubtless still is, even if the names and faces have changed).

The attitude expressed by super-spy James Jesus Angleton, for instance, could certainly explain a lot more than the paranoid cock-ups of decades past:

"You know how I got to be in charge of counterintelligence?" Angleton blurted out to (investigative journalist Joseph) Trento. "I agreed not to polygraph or require detailed background checks on Allen Dulles and 60 of his closest friends....Fundamentally, the founding fathers of U.S. intelligence were liars. The better you lied and the more you betrayed, the more likely you would be promoted."

Hmmm. Maybe something to think about as we forge onward in "the War on Terror."

And, of course, it was also this same socio-political web in which Jack Kennedy and Mary Pinchot, who Janney represents as not simply lovers but fellow mavericks who began sketching out the framework for a world in which the CIA would be sidelined or even eliminated, were marinated from birth. One of the intriguing elements which Janney draws out rather skillfully is the degree to which Kennedy's particular place within this world, along with his powerful personal charisma and subsequent success, made him an all but inevitable target for bitter rivals, including, most specifically, sexual rivals.

It's not a point Janney makes explicitly, but I have to admit that reading his book was my first inclination that cuckolding a high-ranking member of the CIA, who had essentially been a life-long rival (Cord Meyer, Jr. and John Kennedy were generally looked to as the "most likely to succeed" among their peer group and were even named as such in a prominent magazine article shortly after WWII), was a notion fraught with more than a little peril.

But the essence of Janney's argument is that Mary Pinchot, before, during and after her marriage and divorce to Meyer, was the sort of woman who might make powerful men set reason aside. With the caveat that the author, having been best friends with Pinchot Meyer's son (who was tragically killed in a car accident while still a young boy), isn't the most objective observer, Janney still makes a convincing case. If any woman could have held sway in John Kennedy's famously masculine world, it was the one Janney presents here.

Beyond having the right social background to separate her from the endless stream of Kennedy mistresses, Pinchot Meyer was, by any measure, beautiful, sensitive, accomplished and highly intelligent.

She was also an intimate of future LSD guru Timothy Leary and it's here that Janney has to take the largest of his several leaps of faith. His fundamental argument for Pinchot Meyer's influence over JFK was that she was leading him on a spiritual (and perhaps drug-aided) journey towards enlightenment, that it was this particular "journey" that made Kennedy especially dangerous to an establishment that killed him and that her deep suspicions of men she knew extremely well (and her persistence in finding out the truth about their involvement in the assassination) got her killed as well.

That's a lot to swallow, especially coming from an author who professes to have a deeply personal emotional attachment to his subject. In other words there are bound to be conclusions in such a book that need to be taken with a grain of salt even if you can get past Janney's occasional descents into purplish prose. I mean, to swallow Janney's argument whole you might have to have more truck with a passage like, "With Mary, the spark of redemption was likely ignited in the wounded darkness of his shadow" than I do.

And that's before you get to a discussion of, say, the "orgonotic charge," or Pinchot Meyer asking Timothy Leary, "Don't you think that if a powerful person were to turn on with his wife or girlfriend it would be good for the world?"

Frankly, that sounds more like a question posed by a hippie chick who had already consumed a little too much of Leary's favored product than by the sharp intelligence Janney attributes to Pinchot Meyer elsewhere. (Not to mention that this worked better in the movie Dick, where the liberating drug of choice was marijuana and the president was Nixon).

So, yes, this approach certainly requires some of those aforementioned leaps of faith.

And yet....

There's still a compelling thread running through Janney's narrative. His family background in CIA-land allows him to draw the best picture I've ever encountered of the spook mind-set. Certainly Janney leaves the reader with no illusions about the central question of whether members of our "national security" state might have been involved in the darkest deeds of the 1960's and beyond, which is simply this:

Were they morally capable of such deeds, up to and including the assassination of a sitting U.S. president?

Seeing the CIA's top men through Janney's eyes leaves little doubt that they were perfectly capable of such.

While no one who follows assassination-lit as even a semi-serious hobby (which is about where I land on the spectrum) will encounter much that's new in the way of either hard or circumstantial evidence here it's still reasonably satisfying on a purely investigative level. There is some good work on the Zapruder film (which didn't exactly go straight to Life magazine and may have been tampered with) and especially on Pinchot Meyer's own murder (Janney actually tracked down her likely assassin).

And, damning as Janney's picture of general CIA-bastardy is, the web he spins hardly stops there.

If you simply want to engage (or re-engage) with a lot of interesting, detailed and well-organized speculation about the roles played by figures as disparate as Leary, Angleton, Lyndon Johnson, Allen Dulles, Ben Bradlee and Katherine Graham (both of whom, like Graham's husband Phil, from whom she took over the Washington Post after his highly questionable "suicide," were almost certainly CIA assets), in the on-going saga of the twentieth century's most famous murder, then this book will serve as well as any.

Better yet, if you want to take a deep look into the soul of the American security state at the moment of birth--into the men who "lived in a world where they answered to no authority; [and] knew exactly what they were doing and how it had to be done,"--then you should definitely acquaint yourself with Mary's Mosaic and the life of a fascinating woman who was not protected from such men by being "one of their own."

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From This Author John Walker Ross

John Walker Ross is a graduate of Florida State and lives somewhere in the Florida Panhandle where he has variously toiled in advertising and legal (read more...)