Second Best Thing: Marilyn, JFK and A Night to Remember

by James L. Swanson

Amazon Publishing, 2020, 45 pages

It’s hard to know what the story is when you don’t know the full story. Despite how much has been written about Marilyn Monroe and President John F. Kennedy, there are still many hidden details. In James L. Swanson’s new book, Second Best Thing: Marilyn, JFK, and a Night to Remember, he explores the work of Cecil W. Stoughton, White House photographer during Kennedy’s presidency. Swanson focuses on Kennedy’s 45th birthday party in Madison Square Garden and an exclusive gathering at Arthur and Mathilde Krim’s town house after the party.

Attended by thousands of people, VIPs and special guest Marilyn Monroe, the Madison Square Garden event was intended to be a fundraiser to pay off campaign debt from Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign. The event is most famous for Marilyn Monroe’s breathless rendition of Happy Birthday, while wearing crystals and rhinestones on her near-sheer dress. Her desire for the young president was displayed for the world to see. As Swanson notes, it is a good thing the president’s wife Jackie was not in attendance.

Rumors of an affair had plagued Kennedy and Monroe during this era, but no one had a photograph of the two together. While leafing through Stoughton’s collection, up for auction at Bonham’s Madison Avenue Gallery, Swanson discovers an extraordinary picture from the town house party. There is a picture of Bobby Kennedy with Monroe. Monroe appears to be speaking. President Kennedy is turned away from the camera. His ear is closest to Monroe, as if listening to what she is saying.

It is a rare photo, and one that begs for more questions. The author notes that many people whispered that Monroe joined Kennedy back at his hotel after the party, but there is no evidence that it occurred. Instead, other photos suggest an epic event at the town house that included luminaries such as Shirley MacLaine, Jimmy Durante, Harry Belafonte, and Diahann Carroll. Vice President Lyndon Johnson, Maria Callas, Elaine May, and Mike Nichols were also in attendance.

The structure of the story leads readers to wonder what else they don’t know about the relationship between President Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe. Bobby Kennedy’s presence in the photo also lends an air of mystery. After all, many people also believe that the younger Kennedy had an affair with Monroe. The movie star had only three months more to live after this photo was taken. President Kennedy would be assassinated a year later. The photo becomes a poignant moment in the passage of time.

Part of the fun in studying history is putting puzzle pieces together. Swanson is looking for anyone who might have more information about the town house party, the guest list and other details from that evening. Second Best Thing is a delightful meditation about time, people, and the importance of historians.

Updated: Jan 18

The Accomplice 
by Matthew Head
 Dell Publishing, 1947, 240 pages

Hank Bewley has a crush on Corrie Walters, who in turn is in love with Lex Abbott, who accidentally married the uber-odd Mimi Decors.

Hank serves as the narrator. His voice submerges itself in the story. Despite the long sentences, it never overstays its welcome.

“I was at a bar, in Paris. Not a fancy bar, and not a student bar, just a nice commonplace comfortable little bar, and we were drinking chocolate. This was in the middle nineteen-thirties, 1934 to be exact, and I was with a very nice girl from Kansas City, named Corrie Walters.

…She didn’t have the kind of ravishing good looks that take you off your feet at first glance, or even the impertinent prettiness that can hit just as hard, but the longer you looked at her, the more nice things you began to discover.”

Mimi is the one on the cover and readers can correctly assume she’s the one who dies. The murder takes place late in the story. It becomes incidental to the intertwining lives of the characters.

This would all be mundane treachery, but Mimi believes she is the reincarnation of Ninon de Lenclos. She also runs a cult called Kwanah, where people find their famous personalities through history. Mimi manipulatively uses her wily powers to bind herself to Lex.

Of course, Lex is a rich, pretty boy with a violent streak. Hank has his eye on Corrie, who can’t seem to let go of her crush on Lex. Try as he might, Hank can’t get Corrie to forget Lex. Both she and Mimi are possessed by him.

The death itself adds a surprising element to the book. I would’ve thought that having sex with a corpse would be unmentionable in 1947.

There’s a list of characters in the beginning of the book, along with a map of Mimi Décors’ house on the back cover. The uncredited cover art is fabulous, and was recently duplicated. (Or do we call that an homage?)

A solid psychological thriller which definitely stands the test of time.