Nina Burleigh

Nina Burleigh

Nina Burleigh has a Master's degree in English Literature from the University of Chicago, a Master’s in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois at Springfield, and a B.A. in English from MacMurray College.

After graduating from university she became a journalist. Over the years she has written about politics, law, crime and women’s issues. Her articles have been published in Time, Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and the New York Magazine.

In 1998 Nina Burleigh published A Very Private Woman: The Life and Unsolved Murder of Presidential Mistress Mary Meyer, a book about the murder of Mary Pinchot Meyer.

Other books by Nina Burleigh include The Stranger and the Statesman (2003), about the mysterious life of 18th Century scientist James Smithson and Mirage: Napoleon's Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt (2007), Savants in Egypt (2008), The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox (2012), TheTrump Women (2018) and Virus: Vaccinations, the CDC, and the Hijacking of America's Response to the Pandemic (2021).

Primary Sources

(1) Nina Burleigh, A Very Private Woman: The Life and Unsolved Murder of Presidential Mistress Mary Meyer (1998)

Jane Barnes, the daughter of CIA officer Tracy Barnes, a man who was deeply involved in the Bay of Pigs invasion and plots to assassinate Castro, believed that her mother was silenced by the sheer enormity of what was happening during the cold war. "Practically the hardest thing for my mother to do was hold a strong opinion. She knew there was this dire world horror going on, and it scared her." Wives and children regarded the men as unassailable authorities. "We thought of Daddy as James Bond," Barnes said. Like many CIA men, Barnes loved the works of Ian Fleming and John le Carre. A neighbor once said to Barnes, "These books must be nonsense," and he replied, "On the contrary, they're understated."

Mary Meyer did hold opinions and she was not afraid to express herself. Wives like Mary picked up tidbits here and there, through dinner conversation or listening to their husbands talk on the telephone. They were only half in the dark, whereas the rest of the country during the fifties was completely unaware of the agency and its work. Mary knew generally that her husband was fighting Communism within organizations such as the American Veterans Committee and labor unions. As the years passed she learned enough about the methods and aims of her husband and his colleagues to become openly critical of the CIA in a way that upset some of the other wives. Peter Janney recalled his mother becoming upset about Mary's anti-CIA remarks. But she was never a politically strident woman and, like the other wives, probably never knew the full extent of the CIA's activities or the details of highly classified matters such as assassination plots and coups.

(2) Nina Burleigh, A Very Private Woman: The Life and Unsolved Murder of Presidential Mistress Mary Meyer (1998)

All of Washington was dying to be part of the new in crowd, and she was there. She was more inside than most men, including her ex-husband, who would never find his name on a White House guest list even though he was at the very pinnacle of the intelligence community. When Kennedy was elected, Cord Meyer had hoped that his long wait in bureaucratic obscurity during the Eisenhower years would end with the advent of a Democratic administration. But that was not to be. The bad blood between him and Kennedy precluded that, as did the president's apparent fascination with his ex-wife.

First Cord tried for a diplomatic post. Jim Angleton asked Ben Bradlee to recommend Cord to Kennedy as ambassador to Guatemala. But Bradlee, who disliked Cord Meyer and for whom the feeling was returned (probably as a result of Bradlee's role in the European husband-dumping trip), never passed on the recommendation to Kennedy. Bradlee later wrote that he knew Kennedy did not like Cord and neither did he, owing to Cord Meyer's "derisive scorn for the people's right to know." In the book where he mentions his and Kennedy's dislike for Cord, he fails to mention the anecdote, widely discussed in Georgetown, about the night a drunken Cord Meyer lunged for Bradlee's neck across a dinner table.

As chief of the CIA's International Organizations Division, Cord Meyer sometimes met personally with Kennedy and his staff. Cord might have been involved in the anti-Castro plots, although his direct involvement was not revealed in public documents available as of 1997. He was certainly aware of them. In his private journal he described a 1960 meeting with a man named Pepe Figueres (probably Jose Figueres, president of Costa Rica, whose nickname was "Don Pepe") at which they "talked about what to do about Castro/Trujillo." He met often with Robert Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs. In October 1961 President Kennedy called Cord into the Oval Office to privately ask how to gain agency support for replacing CIA director Dulles with John McCone. Cord came away from that meeting feeling Kennedy was "much more serious and less arrogant than I'd known him before."

Cord was aware as early as October 1961 of Kennedy's interest in his ex-wife. Jim Angleton was paying keen attention to the young president's personal life and he had obliquely warned his old friend, although it doesn't appear he told Cord all he knew at the time. He later told Joan Bross, whose husband, John, was a high-ranking CIA official, that his bugging revealed that when Kennedy first called Mary, she went to the White House and found herself alone, and she asked to be taken home again. In his journal, Cord wrote that Angleton had told him Mary "baffles" Kennedy and that even with money and power, Kennedy "still yearns for a respect that eludes him from such as myself."

Cord eventually became troubled by the situation, although he never grasped the real nature of the relationship between his ex-wife and the President. In a long and melancholy journal entry in 1963 in which he listed his problems one by one, he wrote of "the peculiar relationship that exists between me and the President." Charles Bartlett, a mutual friend of Cord and the president, had spoken to Kennedy about a political appointment for Cord but "was told by JFK that due to some incident that occurred at the UN. conference in San Francisco in 1945 there was no possibility."