Wednesdays at Michael’s by Diane Clehane: Lunch with Author Jesse Kornbluth

Diane Clehane & Jesse Kornbluth

Having been away from Michael’s since late last year, I was looking forward to going back to 55th and Fifth this week to catch up with the usual suspects who continue to flock to what has become New York’s last great power lunch spot. (The old Four Seasons always felt like a mausoleum to me and the reboot bombed.) While I have been chronicling the goings-on at Michael’s since 2006, I am struck by the fact that for all the head-spinning number of things that have changed in media and publishing since my first ‘Lunch,’ there is a comforting sameness to the place – something highly valued by me (and obviously many others) in this incredibly disconcerting era of upsetting weirdness that permeates our daily lives.

The joint was indeed jumping when I arrived today. Donna Hanover was presiding over her annual birthday lunch with a full table of gal pals on One. (Check out the guest list in the rundown in ‘Seen & Heard’), Hollywood types Matt Blank, Jean Doumanian and James Toback were dining and dishing at separate tables. There was plenty of table hopping and air-kissing. As I said, the more things change …

I was joined today by Jesse Kornbluth, a true renaissance man who just happens to be a great lunch date. This is a man who has written for, with and about plenty of boldface names. Jesse has penned screenplays for Robert De Niro and Paul Newman, collaborated with towering talents like Twyla Tharp and Frank Bennack and tooled around Tinseltown with Tina Brown at a time when glossy magazines mattered.

I knew of Jesse long before I got to know the incredibly smart, charming, funny and prolific novelist, playwright, screenwriter and “collector of copyrights.” Whenever I saw his byline in Vanity Fair, The New York Times Magazine or New York, I knew I was in for a fascinating look into the psyche of some famous or infamous person. He’s written 11 (!) books, co-written a dozen screenplays all while churning out “a boatload of journalism.” Let’s just say he has a way with words.

I met Jesse some years ago – where else? – at Michael’s and had lunch with him for the first time in 2015 when his novel, Married Sex, was published. I loved the book (which was optioned by Griffin Dunne and Nick Wechsler) for his spare yet descriptive prose that painted an unstinting picture of the unexpected consequences of a three-way tryst on a modern marriage. I read it in one night.

In addition to his work as a novelist, Jesse may be one of the few marquee name journalists who was able to continue to make a buck when the Internet big-footed magazines. “It wasn’t that I couldn’t [continue to write solely for print],” he told me. “I didn’t want to.” So, he dove into the deep end and became AOL’s editorial director in1997 until 2003. Not a bad move: “The company’s stock split five times.” He’s still got a distinctive online presence – Jesse launched headbutler.com in 2004 as a “cultural concierge” for “people with more taste than time” that’s a must-read for the literati and still pens the occasional piece for Buzzfeed, salon.com and Elle Décor.

I was intrigued when I heard about the plot of his new novel, JFK and Mary Meyer: A Love Story, in which Jesse recreates the diary of the president’s doomed lover whose murder in 1964 remains a mystery to this day. Mary’s diary is written based on the timeline of Kennedy’s presidency and every one of their documented encounters. The book’s many footnotes (which are just as riveting as the novel) answer the inevitable readers’ question — Could this have really happened? – by providing historical facts about the real people and circumstances (and Jesse’s take on them) that populate the book.

Jesse told me he decided to write the novel because, “I like stories hidden in plain sight.” He explained, “Mary was a footnote in other books.” But her true story is one that was full of dramatic possibilities. “She would sit in the Oval Office [with JFK] during business hours,” said Jesse. “She was rebellious and promiscuous and as close to a feminist as a woman could be at the time.” Mary was also “naïve and optimistic – a classic Kennedy era heroine.”

Mary Pinchot Meyer met JFK in 1935 when he was eighteen and she was sixteen. Twenty years later, while married to CIA official Cord Meyer, she and her husband became Jack and Jackie’s neighbors. By 1962, she was a woman in search of herself – a divorced, somewhat insecure artist whose friendship with JFK (she was his sole female advisor) inevitably led to their tragic affair.

In the book, Jesse recreates conversations between Mary and Jack that reveal an intimacy that JFK didn’t have with the many other women he bedded. When he tells her, “I never felt young,” Mary writes, “that line chilled me,” explaining, “We all pay a price for becoming ourselves, but [JFK] paid a high price to pay someone else: a Harvard version of Cary Grant.”

Later, after the assassination, the depths of Mary’s despair are revealed in her diary through her recollections of the man few people really knew. “What Jack believed … is that you’re never really bonded with anyone,” she writes. And, “Now I feel it: I am alone … I’m all I’ve got.”

What most people don’t know about Mary is that she didn’t believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone – a view she shared often and loudly around Washington. The recreated conversations between Mary and her CIA operative ex-husband strike a forbidding tone. The last diary entry in the book is dated October 11, 1964 – three days before Mary’s 44th birthday. The next day, Mary Meyer went for her usual noon walk along a towpath of a canal in Georgetown. She was grabbed from behind and shot in the head. A second bullet shot through her heart, killed her.

In reality, Mary did keep a diary which was filled with her sketches, notes on art – and ten pages about an unnamed lover. After her death, her sister found it and burned it. But Jesse has brilliantly recreated the lost relic linked to one of the most sensational whodunits in American history. In the end, Mary and JFK are forever linked in death – both mysteriously shot. As Jesse writes in the book’s epilogue: “Two murders, eternally unsolved.” And asks: “Was his assassination a coup? If so, was her murder just a bit of housekeeping?”

Mary’s sad and largely untold story (until now, that is) of her relationship with JFK is in stark contrast to the mythic idealization of his marriage to Jackie who Jesse describes as “a depressive, chain-smoking elitist who he never liked to sleep with.” Yikes. “The measure of contempt Jack had for Jackie,” he told me between bites of his burrata and beet salad, can be found in this unsettling anecdote: “He took the virginity of a 19-year-old intern on her fourth day [at the White House] in [Jackie’s] bed.”

Not exactly Camelot. “Jackie sold Camelot. The audience wants to believe the myth,” said Jesse. “They were actors,” he said of JFK and Jackie. “When the lights went on and the camera rolled, they were the most glamorous couple in the world, and when they stopped, they were the loneliest couple in the world.” And this: “Jackie missed her ‘sell-by’ date. She was 26 when she married Jack and he needed to get married. Their marriage was a deal.”

JFK’s relationship with Mary Meyer was something else entirely. According to Jesse, “He didn’t quite love her, but it was his last chance to have a romantic relationship.” And if he had not been assassinated? “He wouldn’t have been able to get past his sex addiction. J. Edgar Hoover had [files on] everything. In 1964, Jack would have been unmasked.” Possibly, explained Jesse, as the result of the Profumo scandal in Great Britain involving John Profumo, the Secretary of State for War in Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government, and Christine Keeler, a 19-year-old party girl with ties to another woman who Kennedy once entertained. But in fact, JFK dreamt of a very different future. He reportedly fantasized that after the 1964 election he would divorce Jackie and marry Mary. But, said Jesse, “There’s no way he could have done it.”

Jesse, an inveterate multi-tasker, told me he was “happy to have written the character of Mary, but thrilled to be getting JFK out of my head. He was a sad, sick, doomed guy.” Now it’s on to the next several projects in the pipeline. He’s written a play about Matisse which garnered rave reviews in Westchester and San Diego, “but hasn’t gotten to New York yet” and is developing “Bringing Home the Birkin” for the stage based on a comedic memoir he optioned by Michael Tonello about his quest to acquire his own arsenal of the insanely expensive handbags that took him around the world and became a multi-million dollar business as he tracked down the treasured totems for “rich lonely women who fill their lives with stuff.” Oh, and he’s also working on a new novel he can’t talk about.

I’m always fascinated by writers’ processes and when I asked Jesse how many hours a day he works, he told me, “Fourteen hours – but it’s not about writing. It’s about eight minutes of writing at a time. You don’t create at a desk, that’s for amateurs.” After all these years what still drives him? “It’s what I tell my 18-year-old [daughter], ‘Run through the tape. The finish line is not the finish line.’ My dream is a home run rising as it clears the fence. It’s not enough to be good, you have to be the best.”

The Room

Seen & Heard Around the Room

Donna Hanover celebrating her birthday on Table One – cheers! — with long time pals PR maven Joannie Danielides, Maria Cuomo Cole, Gayle King (who I wanted to chat with about the latest travails of Meghan and Harry, but she left before I got over to the table), Ann Moore, Time Inc’s former chairman and CEO (Talk about the good old days of media!), Sue Leibman and Blair BreardAndrew Stein and screenwriter James Toback on Three … Producer and former CEO of Showtime Matt Blank on Four … Casting director Jean Doumanian on Five … Author and cultural commentator extraordinaire Lisa Birnbach and producer Marsha Garces Williams on Seven … Joan Jakobson with her son and daughter on Eight.

Moving On …

USA Network founder Kay Koplovitz on Eleven … Producer Joan Gelman with her sons Josh and Gregg Gelman on Twelve … Cristyne Nicholas, Adrienne Arsht and my former boss at People, Larry Hackett, who is now managing partner at 10Ten Media, on Sixteen. I happened to catch Larry weighing in on our former employer’s favorite subject – the British royals — for the recent ABC special, “Royal Divide: Harry, Meghan, and the Crown.” Those royals are the gift that keeps on giving! I did a fair share of television myself when the Megxit news broke and we both agree that if Harry thinks he’s going to escape the media microscope by ankling England, he’s very much mistaken …Alexandra Lebenthal on Seventeen … Another media macher, Gerry Byrne, Penske Media’s Vice Chairman, on Eighteen.

I’ll see you back at Michael’s next month!

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Diane Clehane

Diane Clehane is a leading authority on celebrity and royalty who has written for Vanity Fair, People, and many other national outlets. She is a New York Times best-selling author of five books, including Diana: The Secrets of Her Style and Imagining Diana.

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