- New book by WaPo reporter David Maraniss reveals identity of Obama’s old girlfriends
- He exchanged several letters with one, Alex McNear, during a long-distance relationship — some of which Maraniss includes
- Other girlfriend, Genevieve Cook, was the mysterious woman Obama mentions in his “Dreams From My Father” Memoir
- Obama, however, says that in his memoir she was a “compression” of several girlfriends
- She reveals in her diaries a very distant, reserved, and sometimes confused young Obama
- “He felt like an imposter. Because he was so white. There was hardly a black bone in his body.”
A new book due out next month, “Barack Obama: The Story,” by Washington Post reporter David Maraniss finally reveals the identity of two of Obama’s long-lost girlfriends. As if that wasn’t fascinating enough, it also includes excerpts of the love letters he sent to one of them and diary entries from the other.
“The six page excerpt [published in Vanity Fair] focuses on two of Obama’s early girlfriends. One, named Alex McNear, Obama met at Occidental College before he transferred to Columbia,” the Post writes in a teaser. “She came to New York for a summer, the start of a long-distance, letter-based relationship in 1982.” The other, Genevieve Cook, was a diplomat’s daughter he met at a party.
Maraniss got a hold of many of the letters Obama sent to McNear. And those letters, Maraniss writes in an excerpt for Vanity Fair, reveal “the loneliness of Obama’s New York existence.”
One letter featured Obama’s reaction to McNear writing a paper on T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”
“His reply wove its way through literature, politics, and personal philosophy,” Maraniss writes. Here’s what he’s talking about:
I haven’t read “The Waste Land” for a year, and I never did bother to check all the footnotes. But I will hazard these statements—Eliot contains the same ecstatic vision which runs from Münzer to Yeats. However, he retains a grounding in the social reality/order of his time. Facing what he perceives as a choice between ecstatic chaos and lifeless mechanistic order, he accedes to maintaining a separation of asexual purity and brutal sexual reality. And he wears a stoical face before this. Read his essay on Tradition and the Individual Talent, as well as Four Quartets, when he’s less concerned with depicting moribund Europe, to catch a sense of what I speak. Remember how I said there’s a certain kind of conservatism which I respect more than bourgeois liberalism—Eliot is of this type. Of course, the dichotomy he maintains is reactionary, but it’s due to a deep fatalism, not ignorance. (Counter him with Yeats or Pound, who, arising from the same milieu, opted to support Hitler and Mussolini.) And this fatalism is born out of the relation between fertility and death, which I touched on in my last letter—life feeds on itself. A fatalism I share with the western tradition at times. You seem surprised at Eliot’s irreconcilable ambivalence; don’t you share this ambivalence yourself, Alex? [Emphasis added]
“He was trying to find his place in the whirl of humanity, while at the same time refining the literary riffs that filled up page after page of his journals,” Maraniss adds, then delivers another passage from the same letter:
Moments trip gently along over here. Snow caps the bushes in unexpected ways, birds shoot and spin like balls of sound. My feet hum over the dry walks. A storm smoothes the sky, impounding the city lights, returning to us a dull yellow glow. I run every other day at the small indoor track [at Columbia] which slants slightly upward like a plate; I stretch long and slow, twist and shake, the fatigue, the inertia finding home in different parts of the body. I check the time and growl—aargh!—and tumble onto the wheel. And bodies crowd and give off heat, some people are in front and you can hear the patter or plod of the steps behind. You look down to watch your feet, neat unified steps, and you throw back your arms and run after people, and run from them and with them, and sometimes someone will shadow your pace, step for step, and you can hear the person puffing, a different puff than yours, and on a good day they’ll come up alongside and thank you for a good run, for keeping a good pace, and you nod and keep going on your way, but you’re pretty pleased, and your stride gets lighter, the slumber slipping off behind you, into the wake of the past.
Mysterious “New York girlfriend” revealed
As for the other girlfriend, Genevieve, Obama told Maraniss she’s the mysterious “New York girlfriend” Obama talks about in his “Dreams of my Father” memoir. “She was white,” Obama writes in his book. “She had dark hair, and specks of green in her eyes. Her voice sounded like a wind chime.”
That girlfriend’s identity has long been a mystery, which has added to theories that Obama’s book was not his work alone. Maraniss addresses this to a degree, and recognizes Obama has said his “New York girlfriend” was a “compression” of several relationships:
Obama did not name this old girlfriend even with a pseudonym—she was just “a woman” or “my friend.” That she remained publicly unidentified throughout his rise to national prominence became part of the intrigue of his New York period’s “dark years” narrative. His physical description was imprecise but close. Genevieve is five-seven, lithe and graceful, with auburn-tinged brown hair and flecks of brown, not green, in her hazel eyes. Her voice was confident and soothing. Like many characters in the memoir, he introduced her to advance a theme, another thread of thought in his musings about race. To that end, he distorted her attitudes and some of their experiences, emphasizing his sense that they came from different worlds. Decades later, during an interview in the Oval Office, Obama acknowledged that, while Genevieve was his New York girlfriend, the description in his memoir was a “compression” of girlfriends, including one who followed Genevieve when he lived in Chicago. [Emphasis added]
Later in the excerpt, Maraniss explains more:
In Dreams from My Father, Obama chose to emphasize a racial chasm that unavoidably separated him from the woman he described as his New York girlfriend.
One night I took her to see a new play by a black playwright. It was a very angry play, but very funny. Typical black American humor. The audience was mostly black, and everybody was laughing and clapping and hollering like they were in church. After the play was over, my friend started talking about why black people were so angry all the time. I said it was a matter of remembering—nobody asks why Jews remember the Holocaust, I think I said—and she said that’s different, and I said it wasn’t, and she said that anger was just a dead end. We had a big fight, right in front of the theater. When we got back to the car she started crying. She couldn’t be black, she said. She would if she could, but she couldn’t. She could only be herself, and wasn’t that enough.None of this happened with Genevieve. She remembered going to the theater only once with Barack, and it was not to see a work by a black playwright.
“It is an incident that happened,” Maraniss quotes Obama as saying in a decades-later interview, but it wasn’t with her.
“That was not her,” he said. “That was an example of compression I was very sensitive in my book not to write about my girlfriends, partly out of respect for them. So that was a consideration. I thought that [the anecdote involving the reaction of a white girlfriend to the angry black play] was a useful theme to make about sort of the interactions that I had in the relationships with white girlfriends. And so, that occupies, what, two paragraphs in the book? My attitude was it would be dishonest for me not to touch on that at all … so that was an example of sort of editorially how do I figure that out?”
Genevieve, however, takes an important role in the book beyond her identity. Maraniss also includes entries from her diary, which include plenty of fascinating observations about a young Obama and offer a glimpse into his psyche.
“In Barack Obama she had found a kindred soul, dislocated, caught in between,” Maraniss explains. “But she could see that this also led to distance and caution, a sensibility in Barack that she described with a particular metaphor: the veil.”
Her diary gives details:
Friday, March 9, 1984
It’s not a question of my wanting to probe ancient pools of emotional trauma … but more a sense of you [Barack] biding your time and drawing others’ cards out of their hands for careful inspection—without giving too much of your own away—played with a good poker face. And as you say, it’s not a question of intent on your part—or deliberate withholding—you feel accessible, and you are, in disarming ways. But I feel that you carefully filter everything in your mind and heart—legitimate, admirable, really—a strength, a necessity in terms of some kind of integrity. But there’s something also there of smoothed veneer, of guardedness … but I’m still left with this feeling of … a bit of a wall—the veil.
Thursday, March 22
Barack—still intrigues me, but so much going on beneath the surface, out of reach. Guarded, controlled.
Tuesday, April 3
He talked quite a lot about discontent in a quiet sort of way—balancing the tendency to be always the observer, how to effect change, wanting to get past his antipathy to working at B.I.
Later that year she wrote about some of the difficulties the pair had living together:
Monday, December 10
After a week of Barack and I adjusting to each others constant presence and his displacement, I expect that this week will make it hard to be alone again when he has gone [to Hawaii for Christmas]. We got very irritated w/ each other Fri. night and Saturday, talked about it.
Thursday, December 13
Induced a flare-up yesterday between Barack and me over a suddenly felt irritation at doing the breakfast dishes. Then I was less than honest when I broached my irritation w/ Barack in the vein of, I’m going to tell you I’m irritated, but only because I don’t want to be, and expected him to just let it roll off his back … living w/ someone, you inevitably turn your private frustrations out on that person, because that kind of projection is such a basic and pervasively influencing ego defense mechanism. And too, as one is so unaware of the other person’s living reality, I had not taken into account Barack’s feeling of being displaced and in the way. In the end he said I know it’s irritating to have me here, and I wanted to say and mean, no of course it isn’t, but I couldn’t. That has been the biggest surprise, that rather than enjoying his extended presence like a very long weekend, as I think I thought I would, and reveling in the comfort of reliably having someone to eat dinner with, and talk to and go to sleep with, I’ve been …resentful I suppose—no—as he said, impatient and domineering How beneath the surface things are after all.
Genevieve also told Maraniss more about that time in both her and Obama’s lives in an interview. According to her, Obama struggled heavily with finding his identity, so much so that “he felt like an imposter. Because he was so white. There was hardly a black bone in his body”:
Genevieve and Barack talked about race quite often, as part of his inner need to find a sense of belonging. She sympathized and encouraged his search for identity. If she felt like an outsider, he was a double outsider, racial and cross-cultural. He looked black, but was he? He confessed to her that at times “he felt like an imposter. Because he was so white. There was hardly a black bone in his body.” At some point that summer she realized that, “in his own quest to resolve his ambivalence about black and white, it became very, very clear to me that he needed to go black.
“Memoir and biography are two very different things,” Maraniss concludes in an interview with Vanity Fair. “In the introduction to ‘Barack Obama: The Story,’ I say that his memoir is a remarkably insightful exploration of his internal struggle but should not be read as rigorous factual history.”
And that alone could sell books. For both men.
You can read the entire fascinating article from Vanity Fair here.
This story has been updated.